In response to:

Unnatural Science from the February 3, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

P.B. Medawar’s review of the books on the IQ controversy by Kamin and by Block and Dworkin represents a thoroughgoing and informed analysis of the texts and related materials. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his brief description of the XYY controversy. First, the only apparent source of information used for this section of his review is an article by Dr. John Hamerton, whom he accurately describes as president of the American Society of Human Genetics. However, he fails to point out that Hamerton has been deeply involved in XYY research himself, including screening of newborn XYY males. To our reading, Hamerton’s article rather than being a “wise and temperate address,” represents a biased and distorted view not only of the facts of XYY research, but also of the criticisms of its opponents. Dr. Medawar has apparently relied on this article to describe the position of critics of XYY research.

The facts of XYY research are as follows. Contrary to Dr. Medawar’s implication that “grave personality disorders” are “associated with the human sex chromosome make-up symbolized as 47 XYY,” the most recent and thoroughgoing review of the literature concludes “…the frequency of antisocial behavior of the XYY male is probably not very different from non-XYY persons of similar background and social class.” (D. Borgaonkar and S. Shah, Progress in Medical Genetics 10, 135 [1974].) Furthermore, an editorial in the Lancet in 1974 concludes that the original suggestions that XYY males were at high risk of being committed to institutions for the criminally insane are invalid, and that the “risk of an XYY male being admitted to one of these hospitals during his lifetime is of the order of 1 percent.” (Editorial in the Lancet, November 30, 1974.) In our opinion, there are very few scientists either in or outside the field of XYY research who any longer claim serious personality defects for XYY males. The vast majority of XYY males are leading normal socially productive lives. The history of XYY research is the history of a field marred by extravagant claims based on scanty and uncontrolled data.

Our criticisms, however, go beyond the faulty methodology and interpretation which characterizes most XYY research. We seek to extend Medawar’s point: scientific research, like any other social activity, is influenced by the social context in which it occurs. This influence is most obvious in funding patterns in this era of organized research. Much XYY research, for example, was funded by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of the Justice Department and the Center for the Study of Crime and Delinquency of the National Institute of Mental Health. The social influences on XYY research were explicitly recognized by one group of investigators. Writing after the period of social disruption of the late 1960s, they noted that “current and well-founded public concern over violence…has stimulated the search for a means not only of understanding aggression, but of controlling it as well.” In promoting “applied research aimed at curbing unnecessary and excessive violence,” they suggest that “Hopefully, the XYY genotype can contribute to such an understanding” (L.F. Jarvik, V. Klodin, and S.S. Matsuyama, American Psychologist, August 1973, p. 674). This passage illustrates a more subtle, but equally important social influence on scientific research: that of the assumptions and categories used by investigators. In tailoring (consciously or subconsciously) their experiments toward the problems of crime and violence, researchers introduced indelible bias into their work; and in using such categories as “crime” or “anti-social behavior,” further elements of bias were incorporated into the very basis of the research. Yet such bias is never made explicit, and researchers attempt to present their findings as “objective” science.

In addition, the publicity which accompanied early statements of scientists investigating XYY has had important social effects. These included abortion of XYY fetuses after their detection by prenatal screening; attempts by law enforcement officials to obtain information on the chromosome makeup of juveniles for their files; and screening of newborn males for the extra Y chromosome. In the latter case, parents of XYY males were often told of their son’s “affliction,” resulting in the likelihood of serious parental anxiety and the attendant effects on the family and child. Further, many biology, psychology, and psychiatry texts present as fact that XYY males are doomed to lives of criminality or superaggressiveness.

Not only has Medawar misunderstood the nature of XYY research, he has grossly misstated our position with sensationalist references to “genetic McCarthyism,” “gas chambers,” or XYY as a “marker” for a deprived environment. Our position is explained in detail elsewhere (R. Pyeritz, C. Madansky, H. Schreier, L. Miller, and J. Beckwith, in Biology as a Social Weapon, edited by Ann Arbor Science for the People, Burgess [1977]). For the present, it suffices to point out our view on genetics and behavior. There may be genetic contributions to many, perhaps all behavioral traits; but, when dealing with such complex behavioral categories as “intelligence,” “criminality,” or “aggression,” there are insuperable difficulties in separating environmental and genetic factors. These difficulties have been extensively documented by R. Lewontin and others in the last few years (see the Block and Dworkin book).

Medawar, while penetrating the myths surrounding IQ research, has fallen prey to similar myths and misinterpretations in the field of XYY research. The IQ and XYY issues have unfortunate parallels; in both cases, responsible and eminent scientists with little knowledge of the field have made sweeping public pronouncements, which in turn have helped perpetuate a scientific myth. We believe that a crucial part of a science “for the people” will involve critical attention to scientific research on the part of both scientists and the public. Scientists must take the lead in encouraging such criticism and informed discussion, rather than using the banner “freedom of inquiry” to stifle discussion.

Larry Miller

Jon Beckwith

Genetics and Social Policy Group

of Science for the People

and Harvard Medical School

Boston, Massachusetts

P.B Medawar replies:

I hope Miller and his colleagues are right about 47 XYY, but Swedish evidence makes me fear they are not. If they are, I of course go along with them. On the other hand I most emphatically do not go along with the simple-minded historicism of their arguments relating to science and society. I had also hoped that the shabby story of Lysenko and his sponsors would have warned the authors against believing that there is a special kind of “science for the people” which is different from science as understood by scientists.

This Issue

March 31, 1977