Garland Allen– Feb 5, 1989
Most people think we have come a long way from the sordid days of blatant eugenics, when everything from thalassophilia (love of the sea, or nomadism) to prostitution, rebelliousness, criminality, mental illness, and personality traits were thought to be inherited. That was all supposed to have ended when the Nazis revealed the true nightmare of eugenic ideas with their “final solution.” But like the endless number of movie sequels that have overrun our theaters, eugenics is back with a new cast of characters and a slightly different script, but the same tired and dangerous old plot.
No one will admit it, of course, and no honorable scientist will say that current research on the inheritance of social or behavioral traits perpetuates the old notions of eugenics. Yet in the last several years, book after scientific book and paper after paper have reported genetic links to everything from alcoholism and criminality to homosexuality, shyness, “risk taking,” and psychiatric conditions such as manic depression and schizophrenia.
What is even more startling is that these ideas are being popularized at a great rate. Since 1987, Time, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal have all run major stories describing how “new” genetic research has shown that many human social and behavioral traits are to a large extent genetically controlled. The popular accounts have all stressed that the new research is much more “clear-cut” than the eugenics of 50 years ago. They have also stressed that understanding the genetic basis of “antisocial behavior” (meaning such social problems as crime, prostitution, mental retardation, or alcoholism) would be helpful in counseling “at risk” patients and possibly preventing them from carrying out their biological destiny.
There are several reasons for concern about this new rash of “research” and the popular accounts of it. First and foremost, the new results are in most cases no more conclusive than the results of eugenicists 50 years ago. In order to study the inheritance of any trait, it is first necessary to define the trait precisely and unambiguously. Yet human social or behavioral traits are not unambiguous because, by their very definition, they arise in, and take their meaning from, a social context. Whereas blue eyes or physical height are largely independent of the social contexts in which they are defined, crime is not. What is criminal in one context–for example, killing in time of peace–becomes noncriminal, even heroic in another context–wartime. Similarly, what is defined as alcoholism is dependent on social definition and setting.
Thus, the very traits that scientists are trying to show to be genetic are defined in quite varied and subjective ways. If you cannot define a trait unambiguously, you certainly cannot study its inheritance.
Another reason why current claims about genetically determined traits are flawed is that behaviors like criminality or alcoholism are not simple entities like height, hair color, or diabetes. Alcoholism includes not only dependency on a chemical substance, but also the inability to control behavior and to anticipate the consequences of an action. Alcoholics may vary in the degree to which their problem results from one or several of these factors. To dissect out the specific behavioral component behind each individual’s chemical dependency may be impossible. Yet to treat the behavior (even if definable) as arising from the same causes in every person is a gross oversimplification. It would be like trying to determine why people are “bad drivers”.
An additional problem is that human beings, unlike fruit flies or laboratory mice (a few of the common animals used for genetic studies) have social as well as biological inheritance. We transmit to our offspring not only physical characteristics like eye color and skin color but also social characteristics through what we teach. Developmental psychologists have been emphasizing for years the importance of early learning experiences in the growth of personality and social behavior in children. It is thus virtually impossible to disentangle the learned from the biologically determined aspects of human behavior.
While no modern geneticist would deny that there is a genetic basis for general aspects of our behavior (for example, our ability as humans to learn language, or to think abstractly) it is extremely difficult to show genetic influences on such specific traits as ability to learn math, or the risk of becoming dependent on alcohol and other drugs. The only way a modern geneticist can separate genetic from environmental influences is to breed organisms and raise the offspring under highly controlled environmental conditions. Since our ethical standards (thank goodness!) forbid carrying out such experiments with human beings, there is never likely to be any rigorous way to separate such subtle influences as heredity and learning in the development of human personality. What is empirically clear is that human beings have an enormous capability to learn–with far greater flexibility than any other known animal. Thus, if there are genetic tendencies toward one or another specific behavioral trait, they are minuscule by comparison to our overall ability to adopt new behaviors, that is, to learn. After investigating a number of such claims, past and present, I simply have not found any clear-cut or meaningful data to support the claims.
Now what makes all of this so troublesome? Is it not just another academic argument? The answer is an emphatic “no.” As an historian of science, I have noted that genetic explanations for human social problems always seem to recur at times of economic and social crisis. Eugenics rose to prominence in the early 1900s, in association with the economic cutbacks related to World War I and then the Great Depression. They arose again in the early 1970s during the economic crises surrounding the scaling back of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.” Finally, with Reaganomics, we see the theories gaining prominence again. And, of course, the most extreme example was the enormous economic austerity of Nazi Germany and that nation’s virulent eugenic policy.
At all of these times, the hereditarian argument has served to turn attention away from the environmental causes of social behavior–such as cuts in wages and benefits, inflation, stress in the workplace–by focusing on internal, genetic causes. Thus the victim is blamed for having the problem in the first place. There is a perfectly good social explanation for why crime and rates of alcohol abuse increase during these times, but to those in government and private enterprise such conclusions are less than savory. Discontent is easier to control if it can be focused on innate faults (biological, in these cases) rather than faults in our society.
In Germany, belief in the biological inferiority of Jews allowed many citizens to look the other way when racist campaigns were mounted against those of Jewish descent. Fascism feeds on blaming the individual. Thus a climate that promotes the idea that alcohol abuse or criminality is biologically based is a climate in which other Fascist ideologies can take root.
If the genetic studies were clear, there would be no ideological reason to reject claims that certain human behaviors are hereditary. But the science is at best equivocal, and at worst flagrantly wrong–as in the now-famous case of British psychologist Sir Cyril Burt who, earlier in the century, faked much of his data on the inheritance of IQ. The recent Minnesota twin studies, for example, have been widely quoted in the popular press, but only one brief account has ever appeared in a refereed scientific journal. Thus, based on past and present history, there is every reason to oppose the widespread popular dissemination of studies purporting to show genetically based behavioral traits on scientific grounds alone.
But what is most worrisome is how those scientifically questionable views might be used. History shows us that hereditarian arguments have almost always been associated with the idea that biologically “defective” individuals should either not be born at all, or, as in the Nazi case, should be exterminated so as not to be a burden on society. They have provided ammunition for discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and economic status. Scientists now have a responsibility to prevent these dangerous ideas from creeping back into science–and into our society.
Garland E. Allen is professor of biology and history of science at Washington University in St. Louis.
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