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.