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Palmistry for the genome: genetic fundamentalism fights on

by Charles Foster
A recent paper in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has the self-explanatory title Investigating the genetic basis of altruism: the role of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism. 1. The German authors aren’t as cautious in their claims as they should have been. They should have noted, nervously, the reception given to the infamous ‘God gene’ hypothesis,2 and entitled the paper something along the lines of ‘Some not very statistically significant correlations (from which we can’t begin to infer a causative relationship) between the COMT Val 158 Met polymorphism and some behaviour that might be markers of, amongst other things, being nice, whatever that means, ignoring other non-correlations with other more plausible markers of being nice.’

Here is the redoubtable P.Z. Myers, in full cry after the God-geners: ‘It’s nothing but modern molecular preformationism’, he thundered. ‘….palmistry for the genome. We’ve been fighting against this simplistic notion of the whole of the organism prefigured in a plan or in toto in the embryo since Socrates, and it keeps coming back. We’ve moved from imagining a little homunculus lurking in the sperm to one hiding in the genome. It’s just not there. You can’t point to a spot on a chromosome and say ‘there’s the little guy’s finger!’, nor can you point to a spot and say ‘there’s his fondness for football’.’3
Quite right. Who will rid us of these turbulent reductionists?4 They are very difficult to cull. The one gene = one protein idea is dead. But some of its offspring, which include the notion that there is a gene for immensely complex, plainly multifactorial traits, limp on. The war’s over. They’ve lost. But they keep on fighting. Haven’t their champions heard of epigenetics? Don’t they know how plastic even adult brains are? Well, I expect they have heard, and they do know.  So why write this stuff? Why aren’t they scientific about their science?
The best explanation  is a sort of cognitive dissonance. The old, comfortably simple canons of biology have been shown quite conclusively to be untrue, but for many, life without them is unthinkable. The response is to shout the old maxims louder, in the hope that volume and repetition will convince where the evidence has failed to do so.
The shouting has the shrill, panicky tones of the true evangelist. The best way to lay to rest one’s own fears about a rickety thesis is to make new disciples – as anyone who has studied the growth of the Mid-West apocalyptic spaceship cults will know. But one needs to be careful. The faith must be kept free of the contamination from the heretics outside. So by all means bellow the immutable truths from the safety of the ghetto, but don’t invite the unregenerate inside.
There are many modern scientific ghettos: incestuous journals (of which SCAN is not, in fact an example), chauvinistic, self-serving conferences, and sometimes whole university departments filled with mutually congratulatory, mutually appointing members of the discredited Old Faith. They all have in common a fear of complexity –  a disdain for the holistic. Partly this results from an acknowledgment that, if they acknowledge there’s a bigger picture, they will also have to acknowledge that they can’t see the whole picture. They will have to be small cogs in a much bigger machine of explanation, and science isn’t good at breeding humility. But partly, and more importantly, it stems from an  intellectual vertigo: a nervousness at standing on the edge of a new and thrilling world of uncertainty. We now know that at bottom all biological science is the study of nexus. It’s  about relationship – the relationship between cell and cell and gene and organism and environment and everything else you can think of.  And lots of biologists just don’t do relationship.
But ethicists do. And ethicists should realise that this pathological genetic fundamentalism, as well as being dull and wrong, threatens to put them out of business. If  humans do good things or bad things only at the behest of something on their double helix, ethicists have nothing much to say. They should hand their books to the lawyers charged with controlling the nastier outbursts of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism, and get a proper job.  


1.            Reuter et al. Soc. Cog. Affect Neurosci (2010) doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq083

2.            See Charles Foster, Wired for God? The biology of spiritual experience, London,                               Hodder, 2010, pp. 41-47


4.            I’m not talking about the German authors of this paper, for the avoidance of doubt.The                cognitive dissonance is mainly seen in the secondary literature.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. I don’t really see a lot of people supporting the notion that a single gene controls complex traits. However a semantically similar but empirically different notion; that there are genes that influence complex traits, is accepted by everyone and uncontroversial. This study finds what appears to be such a gene – no one (that I’ve seen anyway) claims that this single genetic locus explains ALL of the variation in altruism. But that doesn’t make it incorrect to say, in non-technical language, that this is a gene for altruism. I think you’re to some extent crafting a reductionist strawman here.

    It is becoming increasingly popular in the popular treatment of genetics to praise the great complexity of the human, while dismissing reductionism. But it is one thing to throw around fancy words like “complexity”, “emergence”, “holism”, “epigenetics” [without further info], “interaction”, “plasticity” etc. – and another thing to actually explain how humans work. The reductionist approach actually identifies the parts of the system – you can’t do holistic modeling without knowing what parts to put in the model, and what entities these greatly lauded “interactions” and “relationships” actually are between.

    Saying, as many are presently are, “you see, the Nature vs Nurture distinction is a false dichotomy – it’s actually about genes interacting with the environment in a complex fashion” will bring applause and acclaim, but it doesn’t actually teach you anything about human behavior, and I think it produces a false feeling of understanding. Meanwhile the reductionist is saying “variation at this genetic locus explains 10% of the variation in this trait” – to me that doesn’t appear to be a failure to acknowledge ignorance of the whole picture, it’s rather the opposite – it’s saying that we can’t explain 90% of the variation. The field of human genetics right now is overwhelmed with a sense of not yet knowing how stuff works.

  2. Anders: thank you for your comment. But it seems to me that you are confusing correlation with causation. Sure: if you have a very high coefficient of correlation, you can begin sensibly to wonder about causation. But you don’t begin to have that in this or any comparable studies.
    You say: ‘Saying, as many are presently are, “you see, the Nature vs Nurture distinction is a false dichotomy – it’s actually about genes interacting with the environment in a complex fashion” will bring applause and acclaim, but it doesn’t actually teach you anything about human behavior, and I think it produces a false feeling of understanding.’ Not so. It produces instead an encouraging feeling of bafflement, upon which one can build. No one in the business is intoxicated by words like ‘holism’ or ‘epigenetics’. They are acknowledged by everyone to be placeholders for the presently mysterious substantive content that will be the substrate of the next half century’s biology.
    What can we say about studies like the German one? Nothing more than: ‘So there’s a correlation of sorts between that locus and something pretty fuzzy. Noted, but so what?’ Yes, file it in case it comes to mean something eventually, but don’t get excited, and certainly don’t build anything on it.

  3. Dear Charles Foster,

    While reading your post, I kept wondering whether your exposition was essentially sarcastic (or partly facetious). If so, you seem to share the concerns of Richard Lewontin and like-minded biologists/geneticists. On the other hand, some researchers need to (or at least in principle can and hopefully will) uncover various biological bases for biological and ethical altruism. Scott Atran, for instance, seems to have laid some pretty plausible developmental frameworks (perhaps along with others such as David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober). Am I far off the mark here? If so, please correct me.

    Anyone interested in some relevant evolutionary psychology and work on human nature which, if successful, should compliment or supplement the kind of research discussed in your post is welcome to check out my collected selections on this page of my website:

    If I have misunderstood you and/or your post, please do correct me here if/when you have the time/patience.

  4. David. Many thanks for this. No, I wasn’t being sarcastic. Nor was I being deliberately facetious.
    Is there a genetic contribution to altruistic behaviour? Unquestionably. Is it worth trying to describe that contribution? Of course. Might correlations like the one described in the German paper help in that description? No doubt.
    I was trying to say that claims about the significance of those correlations are often overblown. And then I went on to wonder why that was.

  5. Jerome. I expect so. And not just for science. Don’t we see the same syndrome whenever people contend for their cherished beliefs against the weight of the evidence? For ‘genetic fundamentalists’ one might happily substitute ‘Young Earth creationists’ or ‘believers in the unity of Isaiah’.

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