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Between You and Your Genes

Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature

by R.C. Lewontin, by Steven Rose, by Leon J. Kamin
Pantheon, 322 pp., $21.95

Cat Island in the Bahamas maintains a declining population of one thousand or so by slash-and-burn agriculture. Few of the one-room houses have electricity; none has plumbing. The local teacher, a British expatriate, told me that in seven years only one child had managed to win entrance into the two-year program at the College of the Bahamas in Nassau—and that she had flunked out. When I asked why, he gave a perfectly obvious and reasonable answer: how can Cat Island children maintain any interest or time for studies? They come home late in the afternoon; they have to haul water, care for the goats, help to prepare food. After dinner, they have no place (or light) for doing homework. I nodded in evident agreement, but his next statement startled me (this, I should add, was a casual barroom conversation; he knew me only as a peculiar snail collector, not as author of The Mismeasure of Man). We now know, he said, that only 20 percent of mental ability is environmental; 80 percent is inherited, so these immediate factors can explain, at most, one-fifth of the under-achievement. The rest must be genetic, probably caused (he opined) by inbreeding among the few families that inhabit Cat Island.

Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore, has raised a furor in that distant land by suggesting that the genetic stock of his nation is about to plummet. He studied his census figures and noted a trend common to all developed nations: highly educated women are having fewer children than women with little schooling. Although this fact usually (and correctly) inspires no action beyond a call for more education (both for its intrinsic merits and for its salutary impact upon population), Lee gave the argument a discredited eugenic twist that has not been heard for the past half century or so: uneducated women are genetically inferior in intelligence and their likeminded offspring will swamp the smaller pool of intrinsically bright children born of educated parents. Lee acknowledged that environment and upbringing can influence both access and success in education, but we now know, he continued, that 80 percent of intelligence is fixed by inheritance, and only 20 percent malleable by circumstance. “A person’s performance,” Lee stated, “depends on nature and nurture. There is increasing evidence that nature, or what is inherited, is the greater determinant of a person’s performance than nurture (or education and environment)…. The conclusion the researchers draw is that 80 percent is nature, or inherited, and 20 percent the differences from different environment and upbringing.”

The fallacies of this and other hereditarian arguments about complex human social behaviors have been so thoroughly rehearsed that scholars might be tempted to treat any new discussion with undisguised boredom. In the case of IQ, estimates of heritability are a confusing mess, ranging from the notorious 80 percent, long cited by Jensen and based originally upon the faked research data of Sir Cyril Burt, to Leon Kamin’s argument that existing evidence does not preclude an actual value of zero. In any case, and much more importantly, heritability, as a technical term, simply doesn’t bear its vernacular meaning of “inevitability”—the essential component of the argument’s public use, as my two initial examples indicate. Heritability is not a measure of flexibility, but a statement about how much variation for traits within populations can be attributed to genetic differences among individuals. Some visual impairments are nearly 100 percent heritable, but easily corrected with a pair of eyeglasses.

Whatever its status on our campuses (where confusion and obfuscation are, as usual, by no means absent), the crudest, discredited hereditarian argument about IQ still influences and restricts the lives of millions. So long as teachers on tiny islands and prime ministers of major nations act upon their belief that 80 percent of intelligence is fixed in the genes, human potential will be sacrificed on an altar of misunderstanding. Biological determinism is, fundamentally, a theory of limits.

For these reasons, Not in Our Genes is an important and timely book, for it not only exposes the fallacies of biological determinism (a field perhaps well enough plowed)1 but also presents a positive view of human behavior that could propel us past the stupefying sterility of nature-nurture arguments. A proper understanding of biology and culture both affirms the great importance of biology in human behavior and also explains why biology makes us free. The old equation of biology with restriction, with the given (as opposed to the malleable) side of the false dichotomy between nature and nurture, rests upon errors of thinking as old as Western culture itself. The critics of biological determinism do not uphold the equally fallacious (and equally cruel and restrictive) view that human culture cancels biology. Biological determinism has limited the lives of millions by misidentifying their socioeconomic disadvantages as inborn deficiencies, but cultural determinism can be just as cruel in attributing severe congenital diseases, autism for example, to psychobabble about too much parental love, or too little.

As a contribution to the ever troubling and important issue of biological determinism, Not in Our Genes possesses two special strengths and one unfortunate weakness. Its first strength is an unusually honest self-analysis by its authors of the reasons for their concern. This frankness can lead us beyond the conventional set of self-serving myths to a better understanding of how good scientists work. Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin bring a comprehensive range of expertise to their subject. Lewontin is a population geneticist and author of a recent book on the causes and meaning of human diversity; Rose works in the neurosciences and has written many fine analyses of the relationship between brain structure and human behavior; Kamin, a psychologist, first exposed the fakery of Sir Cyril Burt and wrote an important account of the history and meaning of IQ tests.2

Amid this diversity, the authors share (with this reviewer, I must add in good conscience) a definite and frankly stated perspective on biological determinism in particular and on the social function of science in general. They write in their preface:

Each of us has been engaged for much of this time in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself. We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just—a socialist—society. And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.

The traditional and unthinking response to such frankness by scientists is outright dismissal of any subsequent statement on grounds of prima facie bias. After all, isn’t science supposed to be a cool, passionless, absolutely objective exploration of an external reality? As T.H. Huxley said in his famous letter to Charles Kingsley, so often taken out of context and misinterpreted in just this naive light,

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.3

But we scientists are no different from anyone else. We are passionate human beings, enmeshed in a web of personal and social circumstances. Our field does recognize canons of procedure designed to give nature the long shot of asserting itself in the face of such biases, but unless scientists understand their hopes and engage in vigorous self-scrutiny, they will not be able to sort unacknowledged preference from nature’s weak and imperfect message. As Herbert Butterfield wrote in his great essay, The Whig Interpretation of History:

The historian may be cynical with Gibbon or sentimental with Carlyle; he may have religious ardor or he may be a humanist…. It is not a sin in a historian to introduce a personal bias that can be recognized and discounted. The sin in historical composition is the organization of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognized.

An overtly expressed political commitment does not debar a scientist from viewing nature accurately—if only because no honest scientist or effective political activist would be foolish enough to advance a program in evident discord with the world as we find it. Many facts of nature are decidedly unpleasant—the certainty of our bodily death prominently among them—but no social system fails to incorporate these data (despite a plethora of palliations, from reincarnation to resurrection, advocated by many cultures).

The proper relationship between nature and the personal and social lives of those who study it lies in a venerable distinction long advocated by logical positivism—the difference between “context of discovery” and “context of justification.” If you wish to know why Lewontin and not geneticist X reached a certain conclusion or why he did so in 1984 and not in 1944—all questions about context of discovery—then examine psychohistory and socioeconomic circumstances. But “truth value”—or context of justification—is a different matter. People reach conclusions for the damnedest of peculiar reasons: pure guesses inspired by poetry dimly remembered during a dream have sometimes turned out to be true, while conclusions meticulously reached by conscious and repeated experiment may be wrong.

Leftist scientists are more likely to combat biological determinism just as rightists tend to favor this quintessential justification of the status quo as intractable biology; the correlations are not accidental. But let us not be so disrespectful of thought that we dismiss the logic of arguments as nothing but an inevitable reflection of biases—a confusion of context of discovery with context of justification. If we thought that biological determinism was pernicious but correct, we would live with it as we cope with the fact of our impending death. We have campaigned vigorously against it because we regard determinist arguments primarily as bad biology—and only then as devices used to support dubious politics.

Not in Our Genes is an analysis of determinist argument from a definite point of view; it is not a political diatribe. It begins with several chapters on the historical origin and social utility of claims that inequalities among races, classes, and sexes reflect the differential genetic worthiness of individuals so sorted. Subsequent chapters analyze the details of major contemporary arguments in the determinist mode: IQ, patriarchy, the attribution of social pathology among the poor and dispossessed to diseased brains, schizophrenia (where Kamin tries to apply the same kind of detailed reanalysis of case studies that he used in his successful debunking of IQ, and finds much superficial shoddiness and inconsistency, but not, I think, fatal and debilitating flaws), and sociobiology. The last chapter, “New Biology versus Old Ideology,” presents a positive view of a proper and inextricable relationship between biology and culture.

The second major strength of Not in Our Genes lies in its attempt to progress beyond debunking by providing a useful model of how biology creates and interacts with culture (which then creates and interacts with biology). Lewontin, who ought to know since he serves as a volunteer fireman in southern Vermont, laments that fighting biological determinism is like putting out fires. Every time you extinguish one, another starts somewhere else. No sooner have you discredited Carleton Coon’s theory of the parallel and separate origins of human races from different stocks of Homo erectus (with blacks making the last transition and therefore still lagging behind) than Robert Ardrey writes a colorful book about the origin of human violence in the territoriality of carnivorous Australopithecus, the killer ape. So you show that Australopithecus was predominantly a herbivore. Then William Shockley argues that IQ declines among American blacks in direct proportion to the percent of their African heritage (and also proposes that we pay a voluntary sterilization bonus scaled to the extent of this measured deficit). By now you’re exhausted; you never want to slide down that damned fire pole again. But the authors of Not in Our Genes breathe deeply, and attempt a positive formulation.

The straw man set up in response to biological determinism is the caricature of cultural determinism, the tabula rasa in its pure form. Although biological determinists often like to intimate, for rhetorical effect, that their opponents hold such a view, no serious student of human behavior denies the potent influence of evolved biology upon our cultural lives. Our struggle is to figure out how biology affects us, not whether it does.

The first level of sophisticated argument that goes beyond crude nature-nurture dichotomies is “interactionism”—the idea that everything we do is influenced by both biology and culture, and that our task is to divide the totality into a measured percentage due to each. In fact, this kind of interactionism is the position of most biological determinists, who love to argue that they are not crude 100 percenters of pure naturism (of course they are not: just as no one is quite so stupid as to nullify biology completely, so too does no one deny some flexibility in the translation of genes into complex behaviors). Biological determinists hide behind the screen of interactionism, complain bitterly that they have been maligned, and that they do, after all, acknowledge the importance and independence of culture. They then allot the percentages so that genes control what really matters—80 percent determinism, after all, is usually good enough for the cause. On this model, antideterminists are the folks who do the parceling out differently and grant only a few percent to the genes.

But, as Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin emphasize in the main theme of their book, interactionism is also based on deep fallacies and cultural biases that play into the hands of biological determinism. This mechanical brand of interactionism still separates biology and culture; it still views genes as primary, deep, and real, and culture as superficial and superimposed. Genes are our inherited essence, culture the epiphenomenal tinkering.

The chief fallacy, they argue (I think correctly), is reductionism—that style of thinking associated with Descartes and the bourgeois revolution, with its emphasis on individuality and the analysis of wholes in terms of the underlying properties of their parts.

We must, they argue, go beyond reductionism to a holistic recognition that biology and culture interpenetrate in an inextricable manner. One is not given, and the other built upon it. Although stomping dinosaurs cannot make continents drift, organisms do create and shape their environment; they are not billiard balls passively buffeted about by the pool cues of natural selection. Individuals are not real and primary, with collectivities (including societies and cultures) merely constructed from their accumulated properties. Cultures make individuals too; neither comes first, neither is more basic. You can’t add up the attributes of individuals and derive a culture from them.

Thus, we cannot factor a complex social situation into so much biology on one side, and so much culture on the other. We must seek to understand the emergent and irreducible properties arising from an inextricable interpenetration of genes and environments. In short, we must use what so many great thinkers call, but American fashion dismisses as political rhetoric from the other side, a dialectical approach.

Dialectical thinking should be taken more seriously by Western scholars, not discarded because some nations of the second world have constructed a cardboard version as an official political doctrine. The issues that it raises are, in another form, the crucial questions of reductionism versus holism, now so much under discussion throughout biology (where reductionist accounts have reached their limits and further progress demands new approaches to process existing data, not only an accumulation of more information).

When presented as guidelines for a philosophy of change, not as dogmatic precepts true by fiat, the three classical laws of dialectics—as reflected in the analyses of this book—embody a holistic vision that views change as interaction among components of complete systems, and sees the components themselves not as a priori entities, but as both products of and inputs to the system. Thus the law of “interpenetrating opposites” is about inextricable interdependence of components: that of “transformation of quantity to quality” about a systems-based view of change that translates incremental inputs into alterations of state; and that of “negation of negation” about the direction given to history because complex systems cannot revert exactly to previous states.

With so much good to say about the substance of this book, I regret to report that it suffers greatly from deficiencies in style. The old cliché about camels being horses built by committees has a ring of truth (although camels are really quite competent creatures in their own right, our aesthetic sensibilities notwithstanding)—and the King James Bible remains the only decent work of literature ever assembled by a group. Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin create an admirable unity in belief, but their prose styles couldn’t be more different—and does it ever show. The book is a hodge-podge, a maddening collection of unintegrated insights. Lewontin writes beautiful, sometimes sweeping prose, but often with an almost magisterial inattention to detail. Kamin, on the other hand, is a master of the microscope—and a formidable hatchet man against determinist illogic. I just couldn’t depress my intellectual clutch fast enough to accept the juxtaposition of his minute statistical analyses of IQ and schizophrenia with Lewontin’s generalizations about the history of biological determinism from Domesday to Descartes to David Barash. As for Rose, well, as my grandma would have said: the ideas, they’re fine, but oy, those big words. At one point, I felt that if I read the word “legitimate” (used as a verb) just one more time, I would simply dissolve in tears. In this case, a good editor would have made a great book.

Still, the subject is too important, and the arguments too incisive, to let a matter of style deter a reading of this book. Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin are calling for no less than a revolution in philosophy. They are also not unmindful of that oldest chestnut in the Marxist pantheon, the last thesis on Feuerbach: philosophers thus far have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

  1. 1

    For example, A. Chase, The Legacy of Malthus (Knopf, 1977); S. Chorover, From Genesis to Genocide (MIT Press, 1979); Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981); Leon J. Kamin, The Science and Politics of IQ (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1974); K. Ludmerer, Genetics and American Society (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    R.C. Lewontin, Human Diversity (W.H. Freeman, 1984); Steven Rose, The Conscious Brain (Knopf, 1973); Leon J. Kamin, The Science and Politics of IQ (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1974).

  3. 3

    As analyzed in my essay, “Moon, Mann and Otto,” reprinted in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (Norton, 1983).

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