Tag Archives: genetic determinism

Bernard Davis

In The Mismeasure of Man Gould fails to live up to the trust engendered by his credentials. His historical account is highly selective; he asserts the non-objectivity of science so that he can test for scientific truth, flagrantly, by the standards of his own social and political convictions; and by linking his critique to the quest for fairness and justice, he exploits the generous instincts of his readers. Moreover, while he is admired as a clear writer, in the sense of effective communication, he is not clear in the deeper sense of analyzing ideas sharply and with logical rigor, as we have a right to expect of a disciplined scientist.

It has been uncomfortable to dissect a colleague’s book and his background so critically. But I have felt obliged to do so because Gould’s public influence, well-earned for his popular writing on less political questions, is being put to mischievous political use in this book. Moreover, its success undermines the ideal of objectivity in scientific expositions, and also reflects a chronic problem of literary publications. My task has been all the more unpleasant because I do not doubt Gould’s sincerity in seeking a more just and generous world, and I thoroughly share his conviction that racism remains one of the greatest obstacles.

Unfortunately, the approach that Gould has used to combat racism has serious defects. Instead of recognizing the value of eliminating bias, his answer is to press for equal and opposite bias, in a virtuous direction—not recognizing the irony and the danger of thus subordinating science to fashions of the day. Moreover, as a student of evolution he might have been expected to build on a profound insight of modern genetics and evolutionary biology: that the human species, and each race within it, possesses a wide range of genetic diversity. But instead of emphasizing the importance of recognizing that diversity, Gould remains locked in combat with a prescientific, typological view of heredity, and this position leads him to oppose studies of behavioral genetics altogether. As the reviewer for Nature stated, The Mismeasure of Man is “a book which exemplifies its own thesis. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, researched in the service of a point of view rather than written from a fund of knowledge.”

In effect, we see here Lysenkoism risen again: an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma. To be sure, the new version is more limited in scope, and it does not use the punitive powers of a totalitarian state, as Trofim Lysenko did in the Soviet Union to suppress all of genetics between 1935 and 1964. But that is not necessary in our system: A chilling atmosphere is quite sufficient to prevent funding agencies, investigators, and graduate students from exploring a taboo area. And such Neo-Lysenkoist politicization of science, from both the left and the right, is likely to grow, as biology increasingly affects our lives—probing the secrets of our genes and our brain, reshaping our image of our origins and our nature, and adding new dimensions to our understanding of social behavior. When ideologically committed scientists try to suppress this knowledge they jeopardize a great deal, for without the ideal of objectivity science loses its strength.

Bernard Davis, ‘Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the Press’, The Public Interest, vol. 74 (Fall 1983), pp. 57-59

Peter Gray

[T]he deterministic fallacy is the assumption that genetic influences on our behavior take the form of genetic control of our behavior, which we can do nothing about (short of modifying our genes). The mistake here is assuming or implying that genes influence behavior directly, rather than through the indirect means of working with the environment to build or modify biological structures than then, in interplay with the environment, produce behavior. Some popular books on human evolution have exhibited the deterministic fallacy by implying that one or another form of behavior—such as fighting for territories—is unavoidable because it is controlled by our genes. That implication is unreasonable even when applied to nonhuman animals. Territorial birds, for example, defend territories only when the environmental conditions are ripe for them to do so. We humans can control our environment and thereby control ourselves. We can either enhance or reduce the environmental ingredients needed for a particular behavioral tendency to develop and manifest itself.

Peter Gray, Psychology, 5th edition, New York, 2007, pp. 87-88

James Watson

[N]o one has the guts to say it, [but] if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we? […] Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say that we’ve got a perfect genome and there’s some sanctity [to it]? I’d like to know where that idea comes from, because it’s utter silliness.

James Watson, ‘The Road Ahead’, in Gregory Stock and John Campbell (eds.), Engineering the Human Germline: An Exploration of the Science and Ethics of Altering the Genes We Pass to Our Children, Oxford, 2000, pp. 77, 85