Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some thoughts on genetic determinism

This is something I wrote a few weeks ago about genetic determinism, for a Peak Oil list. Haven't had a chance to pursue it much, but I thought I'd throw it up here just in case anyone is interested.

What I mean by 'genetic determinism' is the belief that an analysis of our genetic inheritance, coupled with the evolutionary history by which that inheritance has come down to us, is a sufficient explanation for human behaviour. Specifically, what I think is missed out by accepting genetic determinism is the role played by beliefs, ie the cognitive structure of the mind, both in terms of social and cultural forms and practices, and individual judgement. Put differently, what I understand genetic determinism to deny is a substantial causal role for the individual consciousness, ie genetic determinism claims that our sense of making decisions is an epiphenomenal illusion.

What I have in mind is this sort of language (examples taken from Jay Hanson's paper "ON HUMAN NATURE"): "In order to understand our collective future, one must understand individual human nature. Our individual behavior derives entirely from genes and environment (lifetime environment, but mostly present environment)."

Here human behaviour is described as derived “entirely” from genes and environment. Later on in the paper Jay writes: “When our subconscious feels our fitness is best served by lying, cheating, stealing, raping, or killing, then we will do so. It's human nature.” Hence the example of Jekyll and Hyde, whereby the conscious mind is merely the puppet of the subconscious: “About 1/2 second after Mr. Hyde makes a decision, he invents a socially acceptable excuse for Dr. Jekyll, and then Jekyll tells the neighbors. Unfortunately, Dr. Jekyll has no way of knowing whether Hyde is telling the truth or lying. This makes it literally impossible for anyone to know for certain what Mr. Hyde is up to.”

I think there are a number of problems with this approach. To begin with, it falls foul of the need to be falsifiable. If any decision is open to the description of ‘bad faith’ (ie that the stated reasons are not the real reasons – in fact, the language of ‘reasons’ no longer has purchase, and we can only talk of cause), then there are no decisions that might qualify as a counter-example. This reveals the axiomatic nature of such genetic determinism – it’s not open to falsification, so it’s not something driven by an empirical investigation but rather by a philosophical (ideological) presupposition.

More to the point, this form of genetic determinism renders indistinct the (perceived) difference between virtuous and non-virtuous actions – each type of action is equally illusory, as both are wholly explained by the genetic and environmental inheritance. Thus the investigation of human behaviour runs into the ground from the start – for the differences in human behaviour can no longer be distinguished. That which is claimed to explain everything in the end explains nothing of interest, for it is precisely the differences in human behaviour which are important.

An analogy may make my point of view clearer. The laws of physics are universal and binding; such laws include the law of gravity, whereby all matter is attracted together. Yet when a bird flies through the sky it is not being constrained by the the law of gravity. In order to give a full account of the flight of the bird, we need not only to incorporate the other laws of physics but also refer to the evolution of wings etc. Reference to the law of gravity is not an adequate or sufficient explanation for the behaviour of a flying bird.

In the same way, reference to the genetic and environmental inheritance is – in my view – an insufficient explanation for human behaviour, and a full account of human behaviour requires an analysis of the cognitive processes which we experience as guiding our decision making.

A little while back Antonio Damasio was referenced. I have a great deal of sympathy for his approach (the ‘somatic marker hypothesis’) which seems to provide precisely the link needed between our human decision making and our genetic and environmental inheritance, through the emotional reactions presented by our minds to our bodies. Yet it is precisely this ‘imagination’ that needs to be explored, it seems to me. In other words, what are the factors and understandings which lead decisions in one way rather than another.

I was prompted to write this by reading this article: The writer, Robert Sapolsky argues that to see genes as 'determining' behaviour is a mistake, a misunderstanding of the nature of genetic properties. He writes "Sure, some behaviors are overwhelmingly under genetic control. Just consider all those mutant flies hopping into the sack with insects their parents disapprove of. And some mammalian behaviors, even human ones, are probably pretty heavily under genetic regulation as well. These are likely to code for behaviors that must be performed by everyone in much the same way for genes to be passed on. For example, all male primates have to go about the genetically based behavior of pelvic thrusting in fairly similar ways if they plan to
reproduce successfully. But by the time you get to courtship, or emotions, or creativity, or mental illness, or any complex aspect of our lives, the intertwining of biological and environmental components utterly defeats any attempt to place them into separate categories, let alone to then decide that one of them has got to go."

Given this, it seems that what we should be concerned with is how to structure environments in such a way that the fitness-maximising of alpha males - and all the other males and females - tends towards sustainability, and minimising destruction. To argue that this is impossible seems to be a) giving genes (or, more broadly, the evolutionary heritage) more authority than it deserves, and b) a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To my mind the existence of the condom is the overwhelming proof that genetic determinism is false, and that wider factors in the environment, and most importantly in the cognitive structures of an individual human mind, are much more important to the behavioural choices made by any one individual. A response to Peak Oil, therefore, needs to engage with those cognitive structures. We need, to use a Wittgensteinian expression, to change the language games that people play.

So, if it is true that “The human mind is optimized for "politics"” – and, with a slight caveat about what counts as ‘politics’ I think it is – then the issue is about what sort of political structure and value system needs to be established that gives the rewards that benefit the wider society as a whole.

The assumption that I’m questioning is that, in the context of the severe stress that Peak Oil will place upon human communities, human life will rapidly become nasty, brutal and short. I can accept that this is quite plausible – indeed likely – what I am questioning is whether it is an inevitability; and therefore whether it is worth putting any effort into trying to change the political setup.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.