Determinism and Its Enemies Are Still Waging War over the Soul of Science

Opponents of genetic determinism argue that it ignores the effects of colonialism.

At either extreme of the nature vs. nurture debate, each proposes there are things in life we cannot control, particularly the circumstances of our birth. We don't choose our parents and their respective family trees. Neither do we choose our birth-country, or the culture (or sub-culture) in which we're born and raised. 

Sometimes a study or some broader body of research emerges that points to this uncontrollable side of life, arguing that something about the way we were born has a bearing on who we are. When doctors find that certain genes or family histories may predispose us to heart disease, it's called medicine. But when scientists argue that the circumstances of our birth—be they genetic, environmental or otherwise—determine our behavior and attitudes, our successes and failures, even our intelligence, that's called determinism. And wherever it appears, controversy attends, raising specters of days when colonialists, eugenicists, public health officials, and political idealists believed they could cure the human condition through manipulation and force.      

Galor, via Brown

Understanding those fears helps shed light on the controversy surrounding a recent paper published in the American Economic Review, entitled, “The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development.” In it, economists Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor argue that the economic development of broad human populations correlate with their levels of genetic diversity—which is, in turn, pinned to the distance its inhabitants migrated from Africa thousands of years ago. Reaction in some circles has been swift and vehement.

An article signed by 18 academics in Current Anthropology accuses the researchers of “bad science”—“something false and undesirable” based on “weak data and methods” that “can become a justification for reactionary policy.” The paper attacks everything from its sources of population data to its methods for measuring genetic diversity, but the economists are standing by their methods.  

The quality of Ashraf and Galor's research notwithstanding, the debate illustrates just how tricky it's become to assert anything which says something about human development was in any way inevitable. Ashraf and Galor aren’t the only ones coming under fire lately. Geographer and author Jared Diamond, for example, who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel, has been branded an environmental determinist who cuts culture and colonialism too much slack with regard to the rise and fall of civilizations—criticism that has been renewed recently with the publication of his new book, The World Until Yesterday.

Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has come under similarly scathing attack by big name thinkers from Robert Trivers to Richard Dawkins for suggesting that highly social animals from ants to bees (and perhaps humans) may be driven to driven to divide labor and act altruistically—what’s known as eusociality—because of a eusocial gene or set of genes.

The debate over whether our genes can determine our future is fierce. But why? Why does the contemporary scientific community posses such a basic discomfort with the idea of determinism wherever they smell it? 

At a fundamental level, determinism provides tidy, clear answers for why things are the way they are. But the very notion of an "answer" is fundamentally antithetical to good science, which is as it should be. Scientists develop theories and theories evolve as new data emerges. And when they think they have answers—particularly about something like genetics—humans have a long history of getting things really, really wrong. 

'Prediction Is Not Explanation'

Scientists generally have a different idea of what an “answer” is than we lay people do. Correlation is not causality, no matter how strong. As French mathematician René Thom put it, “prediction is not explanation.” Explicitly or implicitly, determinism of any kind asserts an absolute explanation, a syllogistic certainty: If X is found, Y will happen. 

Ashraf and Galor suggest there that genetic diversity in human populations lessens as one traces the path of human migration “out of Africa”—being the most genetically diverse in Africa and the least in the Americas. Economic prosperity, they argue, has a "hump-shaped relationship" to genetic diversity after controlling for numerous environmental factors: too much diversity means less economic development (Africa) but so does too little (pre-Columbian America).

On one hand, “heterogeneity,” they write, “raises the likelihood of disarray and mistrust, reducing cooperation and disrupting the socioeconomic order.” On the other hand, “a wider spectrum of traits is more likely to contain those that are complementary to the advancement and successful implementation of superior technological paradigms.”

In other words, they argue, there’s a sweet spot—what they call the “optimal level of diversity for economic development” somewhere in the middle. A tick in either direction, they suggest—toward more foundational genetic diversity or less—and economic development starts to drop.  

The study's critics attack the fundamental notion that genetics can serve as a proxy for traits both observable and unobservable in the process of natural selection. It is one thing, they say, to suppose that observable differences in skin color of physiognomy may have influenced the way people cooperate. But it’s quite another to suppose that the genetic allele for, say, tongue-rolling or sweaty armpits and ear wax consistency would play a role in human mate selection, let alone willingness to cooperate and innovate economically.


"Heterozygosity" is a fancy word for "genetic diversity." The trend plotted by Ashraf and Galor is, like the most of their study, hotly disputed. Ashraf and Galor stand by it. 

Ashraf and Galor have insisted publicly that their science is sound and controls for all possible confounding factors. Any implicit determinism is only indirect, they insist. In an email to me, Ashraf cited an earlier study of theirs, which argued that “the amount of (phenotypic or behavioral) diversity in given location in prehistory (as proxied by the amount of genetic diversity) may have served as a domain over which group selection took place.” As such, he added, “there is a biological basis of contemporary cultural diversity due to events that occurred in the distant past, but cultural diversity as we observed it today is NOT due to a ‘culture gene.’”

But authors of the Current Anthropology paper aren’t buying it. For something like disease resistance, admitted Jade D'Alpoim Guedes, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and the paper’s lead author, genetic optimization makes sense. “However, in cases of disease resistance… there is a very clear way in which these genes are advantageous to survival,” she wrote to me in an email. “Ashraf and Galor suggest that there is an optimal level of genetic diversity for economic development but they have not explained how this operates.” Their theory that genetic diversity works as a “proxy” because of subtle historical processes is, she says, “weak and based on poor analogies.”

In their takedown of Ashraf and Galor's methods, Guedes et al. make persuasive points. But the broader point underpinning their argument is that there’s something fundamentally pre-modern about the assumption that we can isolate causes and that such causes are irreducible.

The ‘E Word’

Ashraf and Galor have taken pains to emphasize that they in no way advocate policies that would involve genetic or ethnic manipulation. “The fact that ethnically (and genetically) more diverse societies exhibit lower levels of trust and cooperation does NOT mean that policy makers should start engineering the ethnic and genetic makeup of national populations in order to encourage cooperation, improve economic productivity, and thereby alleviate poverty,” Ashraf wrote in his email. “Rather, promoting education and institutions of pluralism are the natural candidates for policy.”

Ashraf is drawing a clear line: Galor and his study doesn't call for any action; it should be taken at face value, whether you agree with the study itself or not. Still, the policy implications of such research are exactly what their critics fear. As Guedes put it in an email, "Our point is that ALL science and social science has real normative effects on society, and it is irresponsible to think one's research exists in a vacuum of real world consequences."

Historically, they have good reason to worry. In the wrong hands, even the subtlest, least direct arguments for genetic determinism will probably always be viewed through the dark lens of eugenics—which posits that the human race can be “improved” through conscious, concerted efforts at manipulating natural selection.

Eugenics has been bunk science in most quarters for 80 years. But that wasn’t always the case. Eugenics used to be institutional in highly-developed countries. In some of places, it still is. And in other, often less-developed countries, ethnic difference still serves as a basis or proxy for conflict that verges on or constitutes genocide.

Attempts to control or “perfect” human populations by controlling their reproductive rights have probably existed as long as civilization has. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest extant written story, King Gilgamesh freely exercises his droit du seigneur, whereby he has sex with every new bride before the husband does. “This is the order the gods have decreed,” the text explains. “From the moment the king’s birth-cord was cut, every girl’s hymen has belonged to him.”

Other instances of the practice, most lacking credibility, appear in quasi-historical literature throughout history, from Herodotus to Voltaire to Braveheart. A myth it might be, but such myths tend to have basis in some kind of informal truth.

Whether official policies of state-sanctioned rape were ever truly institutionalized, rape as a tool of psychological warfare and oppression is rife throughout history, with the adjunct effect of reconstituting gene pools wherever it rears its ugly head. Some geneticists believe that Genghis Kahn did such a thorough job of raping his way across Eurasia that one out of every 200 men today is related to him. And one need look no further than places like the Congo, the so-called “rape capital of the world,” to find modern examples of the same thing happening in places around the world right now.

Of course, the most industrialized, most horrifying example of eugenics was Nazi Germany. The horrors of the Holocaust hardly need recounting here. But the racism and jingoism that fueled scientific orthodoxy in some prominent circles before the 1930s does.

Drawing from Darwin’s revolutionary theories of natural selection and selective breeding, Sir Francis Galton first coined the term “eugenics” in the 1880s—a term that simply means “well-born.” His original goal, as described in a brief history of eugenics by the University of Virginia, was to encourage “healthy, capable people of above-average intelligence to bear more children, with the idea of building an ‘improved’ human race.”

That played right into colonial-era, Jim Crow bigotry that sought justification for its fears and oppressive, exploitive policies. Led by biologist Charles Davenport, a national movement in the United States was born. Theodore Roosevelt was an early proponent, warning of “race suicide” by whites who didn’t produce big families. Some humans, eugenics proponents argued, were better than others—more evolved, more human than others. Eugenics said that all the terrible things white people did were OK.

Early eugenics propaganda, found through Google Images on a white power website that doesn’t deserve a link.

In the U.S., the movement led to the institution of laws like Virginia's Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924, which provided for the sterilization of mental patients. Though controversial at the time, it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927, based on child immunization jurisprudence.

With the Supreme Court’s endorsement, a young, institutionalized woman from a troubled family named Carrie Buck became the first person sterilized by that Virginia law. Of his decision, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote famously, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

That Old Chestnut

Many countries instituted similar policies around that time, but eugenics lost favor in the 1930s because of its associations with Nazi Germany. There have been exceptions, however. And so the human desire to simplify complex problems according to stereotype marches on.

Sweden has clung notoriously long to its government-enforced eugenics policies—policies which persist in some measure today. As fellow Motherboarder Kelly Bourdet noted in an article last year, transgendered Swedes who wanted to legally change sexes had to first undergo sterilization—a law implemented in 1972, nearly 30 years after the end of World War II, and which was only overturned last December. For as extreme as that seems in an otherwise highly-developed and socially-liberal country, it is tame compared to Sweden’s policies just a few decades ago:

The Swedish government has always been fiercely protective of its own culture and genetically “Swedish” population. There was an aggressive sterilization program in place from the 1940s to the 1970s, mostly aimed at immigrant populations and other genetic “undesirables.” The eugenics legislation justifying Sweden’s sterilization policies was formally abolished in 1976, but only after as many as 31,000 people had been sterilized.

As for the 1972 law against transgendered persons, Bourdet continues,

[the] legislation further stipulates that any transgender person must also prove that they have not stored any of their gametes (eggs or sperms) in sperm banks for future use. The Swedish government effectively robs trans individuals of their right to produce biological offspring in any way.

The prejudice that underpins these kinds of policies persists in democratic societies, even if they aren’t often so blatant. The 1994 book, The Bell Curve, has been held by its critics as a good example of scientific racism. Written by psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray, the book was blasted for asserting, among other things, that “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” Barack Obama, then a civil-rights lawyer in Chicago, quipped to NPR at the time that the authors seemed to have agreed that “white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism as long as it’s artfully packaged.”

These days, Murray seems cowed with regard to making race-based assertions. That’s as it should be. About Murray’s newest book,Coming Apart: The State of White America, Brookings Institution scholar, Jonathan Rauch astutely notes: “By coloring so resolutely inside the lines, he has found, at last, a compelling, attention-getting way to tell a story about class in America.”

“You could read [Murray’s] subtitle as a quiet acknowledgment,” Rauch adds, “that he has learned from the Bell Curve donnybrook.”

Scientists Aren't Philosophers

Today’s postmodern scientists are generally opposed to the idea of determinism's certainties because “science is a process of constant refinement,” said Ryan Haupt, a paleontologist at the University of Wyoming who, as he described it in an email, “studies the lives of modern mammals to better understand what their extinct relatives were doing in the past.” There’s a reason why scientific literature (and good scientific mainstream writing) uses verbs like “suggest” and “indicate” rather than “proves.”

Whenever one proposes concrete theories about what has happened, one also predicts by extension what will happen whenever specific conditions are met, Haupt argued. Prediction is fortune-telling, and in the wrong hands it’s only a half-step away from proposing what should happen. “When the things being predicted involve the lives and livelihoods of fellow human beings, scientists tend to balk,” Haupt said.

From an ecological perspective, Haupt agrees that Ashraf and Galor's notion of genetic optimization isn’t theoretically far-fetched. “Most any population geneticist could tell you that there is a happy middle ground of diversity to secure optimal fitness within a population,” he said. But as he and others have argued, translating those kinds of broad, natural patterns into theories about how human economies may have developed— which requires much more than a good immune system—is fraught with peril.

Humans have big brains, which means we collaborate, innovate, or don’t for all kinds of reasons. We have medicine and nuclear weapons. And that’s where Ashraf and Galor get into hot water, regardless of their methods or intentions.

“I think the problem scientists have with determinism is that it approaches and, depending on one's interpretation, steps outside the realm of scientific inquiry,” Haupt also noted earlier. “This actually makes it more of an issue of scientific philosophy than of science itself, which I think is the ultimate… cause of discomfort amongst scientists. We are trained to investigate topics scientifically, not philosophically.”

Topics: science, determinism, economic development, race

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