Monday, January 12, 2004

Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, DeterminismHaving just read a discussion of homosexuality on David Heddle’s blog, I thought that I might post some comments on the subject of genetic explanations for homosexuality. I recently read Steven Rose’s book Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism. Steven Rose is an atheist and holds to a materialistic worldview. However, he does have some interesting criticisms to raise against those who claim that our behaviour is determined by our genes. Rose argues that adequate explanations of our lives should not be explained in terms of nature or nurture; ‘the phenomena of life are always and inexorably simultaneously about nature and nurture.’ Rose takes issue with approaches to explaining behaviour that imply that ‘the world is divided into mutually incommensurable realms of causation.’ We need to learn to be suspicious of the ‘seductive dichotomies’ that we are all too often presented with. Rose argues that neurogenetic determinism is based on a ‘faulty reductive sequence whose steps include reification, arbitrary agglomeration, improper quantification, belief in statistical ‘normality’, spurious localization, misplaced causality, dichotomous partitioning between genetic and environmental causes, and the confounding of metaphor with homology.’ Reification Reification changes a dynamic process into a static phenomenon. For instance, reification converts violence into aggression. Violence refers to particular forms of interaction between individuals. Reification gives us aggression as something which can be abstracted and studied in isolation from the ‘interactive system’ in which violence occurs. The dynamic process has become something static that can be studied in the test-tube. If violence, sexuality, love and other such things can only occur in the context of real relationships then it is dangerous to believe that we can abstract them and study them in isolation from these contexts without confusing ourselves. Arbitrary Agglomeration Arbitrary agglomeration is closely related to reification. It takes many widely different forms of behaviour and categorizes them all as a ‘reified’ manifestation of ‘some unitary underlying property’. Under ‘aggression’ or ‘antisocial behaviour’ we might find rape, angry outbursts, hooliganism, arson and other such things. It should be clear that an act cannot be abstracted from its context in which it occurs, nor can it be ‘reified’. Taking one’s own life might in a particular context be courageous (e.g. Captain Oates); in another context it is the terrible sin of suicide. The meaning of an action cannot truly be understood apart from the circumstances in which it takes place. We should be very wary of how we classify a range of different actions, in different circumstances, under such a category as ‘aggression’. Improper Quantification TechnopolyImproper quantification argues that reified and agglomerated characters can be given numerical values.’ We like to believe that by measuring everything we can control them. Neil Postman has some very helpful observations on this issue in Technopoly. Improper quantification turns intelligent behaviour into some kind of static ‘intelligence stuff’ in our heads that can be quantified. IQ tests take a whole range of different human mental abilities and reduce them to one number. IQ tests often run on the ‘what this net doesn’t catch isn’t fish’ principle. They begin by presuming a particular understanding of intelligence to which a specific quantification can be given. Statistics and the Norm All too often people presume that the distribution of scores (e.g. from an IQ test) in any given population must approximate to a ‘normal’ distribution (a bell-shaped curve). If the test results do not form such a curve, then the test must be reformulated to produce such a distribution. Furthermore, many other assumptions determine the form of the test. For example, if girls outperform boys, the IQ test must be reformulated on the assumption that sex should not be a factor in IQ scores (this may not happen, however, when comparing results between blacks and whites). Prior ideological commitments can produce self-supporting data. A further problem is that a statistical pattern can be understood to imply biological necessity. The word ‘normal’ in statistics tell us something about the way things are; however, it does not tell us about the way things ought to be. The ‘normal’ distribution can never be normative. Spurious Localization Spurious localization has given us such things as the ‘gay gene’. Rose writes:—
Having reified processes into objects and arbitrarily quantified them, the reified object ceases to be a property even of the individual, but instead becomes a property of part of the individual.
Such things as homosexuality and aggression are ‘located’ in certain parts of our physical make-up. This is the sort of reasoning that explains such complex actions such as murder by referring to a part of a man’s anatomy or chemical balance.
The expression of same-sex preference is scarcely a stable category, either within an individual’s lifetime or historically — indeed, that ‘homosexual’ might be used as a term to describe an individual, rather than part of a continuum of sexual activities and preferences available to all, seems to have been a relatively modern development. What the reductionist argument does is to remove the description of sexual activity or preference from being part of a relationship between two individuals, reify it and turn it into the phenotypic ‘character’ resulting from one or more abnormal, gay genes. As always, it deprives the term of personal, social or historical meaning, as if to engage in same-sex erotic activity or even to express a same-sex preferred orientation meant the same in Plato’s Greece, Victorian England and San Francisco in the 1960s.
Misplaced Causation By reification and spurious localization we associate certain behavioural patterns with particular causative agents. We forget that a particular chemical imbalance may not be the cause of ‘alcoholism’, but a consequence or correlation. We should not confuse the chain of cause and effect. ‘After all, when one has toothache one can alleviate the pain by taking aspirin, but it does not follow that the cause of the toothache is too little aspirin in the brain.’ Dichotomous Partitioning Once we have argued that various behavioural patterns are caused by hormonal imbalances, or other such things, we are left with the question of what causes these things. More often than not, our genes are seen to provide the answers. The fact that most human attributes and beliefs show very high heritability statistics does not mean that the attribute or belief can be attributed wholly to the genes. The general result of such an approach is ‘to transfer the burden of explanation, and if appropriate of intervention, from the social or even the personal level to that of pharmacological or genetic control.’ Confounding Metaphor with Homology If first causes are genetic, to study such behaviour we need to find a model in which the behaviour can be more readily controlled, manipulated and quantified. If first causes are genetic then it is all too easy to argue on the basis of physiological and biochemical mechanisms associated with the aggression observed in an animal model (e.g. mice in a cage) to equivalent factors in human aggression. ‘Aggression’ in mice might be analogous to ‘aggression’ in humans. Indeed, the ‘aggression’ of a mouse might well be utterly incomparable with ‘aggression’ in humans. Rose argues that the methodology of reductionism can be very misleading when we try to deal with the complexities of the real world. Furthermore, reductionist methodology can result in reductionist philosophy, where all of science is physics, for instance. Rose claims that we require ‘epistemological diversity in order to understand the ontological unity of our world.’ Violent behaviour should not be explained by a particular gene in an individual, rather than by a variety of different social, personal and other factors. Sins like homosexuality can be blamed upon a person’s genetic make-up, rather than upon their sinful nature (we should not confuse the sinful nature with genetic make-up). Often the most important thing that we can do is to accurately define our problems. The reductionist approach, by trying to explain everything in terms of genetics, causes us to address our problems in the wrong way. Homosexuals may have a certain genetic tendency that contributes something to their homosexual desire. However, to fail to offer multiple forms of explanation is to fall into the reductionist trap. Many of the errors that Rose identifies can be found in some areas of modern medicine that fail to recognize the wholeness of man. They also can provide something of an antidote to those who would excuse such sins as homosexuality by appealing to genetic determinism.

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