Tag Archives: genetic determinism

The Downside of the Downside of Resilience: A New York Times Oped Ventures Into Dangerous Territory

Although we take seriously the threat of genetic discrimination, there aren’t a lot of examples you can offer. In my ethics class, I discuss the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad case — everyone discusses the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad case, not because it is such an interesting precedent but because it is all we’ve got. BNSF secretly tested their employees for genetic liability to carpal tunnel syndrome. The fact that it was genetic testing was almost beside the point. Can ever you secretly test your employees? No, you cannot. But the genetic testing angle made it extra creepy. Why? Because we are primed to worry about genetics. It is too new and too powerful not to carry with it the seeds of some unspecified disaster. We just don’t know what it is yet. We are heading out into the wilderness here, the wilderness within. How can we set about to tinker with the machinery of life without wondering if we run the risk of turning our tears acid and drowning our good intentions in our own rising tide?

Sometimes I wonder if genetic discrimination is a Yeti, a word we whisper around the campfire to give shape to our fears of the great unknown. After all, formlessness does not diminish fear, it makes it worse. If you don’t know what you are looking for it could be anything. It leads us into a state of vigilance that is both laudable and incredibly annoying, since every step forward is met by cheers and then, at the back of the crowd, a sideways glance and a muttered, “what could possibly go wrong?”

This is why I was so struck by Jay Belsky’s article, the Downside of Resilience, published in the New York Times Sunday Review this past week. Belsky points to work, his own included, that suggests some genes that may predispose children to do badly under stressful conditions – abuse, trauma, etc – are not so much “bad” genes as “responsive” genes – and that the same genetic inheritance makes them equally responsive to good parenting or helpful interventions. It is called the orchid and the dandelion theory, with the idea being that some kids do fine in all circumstances – the dandelions, growing like proverbial weeds – while others are hothouse flowers, dying in adverse conditions and blooming in the right hands. If this interests you, read more in this article from the Atlantic by the inimitable David Dobbs (and really just read anything the man writes; you can’t go wrong).

Belsky goes on to propose that we identify children with this genetic predisposition to responsiveness and target them – a good use for our “scarce intervention and service dollars.” We’re not ready to do that, he concedes. But, he asks, “if we get to the point where we can identify those more and less likely to benefit from a costly intervention with reasonable confidence, why shouldn’t we do this?”

Well, okay. A few reasons. First of all, the proposal implies a level of genetic determinism that is unsupported by the facts and fundamentally misleading when it shows up in a place like the NY Times. These are population-based observations, very interesting as to the nature of the genes and how they work, but not valid predictors of individual performance. There are too many confounding variables in the lives and the genetic makeup of individuals. As genetic counselors could tell him, even when you have the same variant in the same gene in the same family, outcomes may vary wildly.

However*, as I said in a response to the Belsky editorial, arguing the science suggests that if we could get that right it would be a good idea. History, on the other hand, suggests that creating classes of people based on what genes they carry is a dangerous proposition and not something to which scientists should lend credibility. The Belsky proposal is obviously well intended. He talks about benefitting the children who have the genes to respond, not disadvantaging the others. But, as he says himself, intervention dollars are scarce. Scarce resource are a zero-sum game. To give to one, you take away from others. You designate certain people as more worthy based on their genes. You incorporate genetics into social policy in a way that is ripe for abuse and prejudice masquerading as scientific facts. We have been down this road before. We know where it leads. It’s not a pretty place.

What does genetic discrimination look like? It looks like this.

*This is what I wrote but not what they published, because the NY Times doesn’t like sentences that start with ‘however’ and changed it to ‘but’. Whatever, NY Times.

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There’s a Gene for Everything, Right?

Ten years after the completion of the Human Genome Project, our field is still debating genotype-phenotype correlations in single gene diseases, while the media is still searching for – and finding! – Gattacca.

This week, the Washington Post ran an article that asked “Is There a Gene For Liberals?”  Actually, only the headline and the first sentence asked that question.  The article itself dismissed the idea in line two: “Is there a gene for liberals?  Well, not quite, but scientists say they have found the first evidence that a gene can play a role in shaping an individual’s political leanings.” The piece goes on to detail a joint UC San Diego and Harvard longitudinal study showing that a single gene variant in combination with an active social life in high school (not junior high, not college, only high school) is associated with a modest increase in liberal political beliefs.  No relationship is seen except when the two are taken in tandem.

As Cher says in Clueless, the wounds of adolescence can take years to heal.

The writer calls this finding provocative, which I assume is a reference to the idea that this could be seen as genes dictating behavior, which hints at the scary thought shadowing all suggestions of biological determinism – the idea that we don’t have free will.  Perhaps liberal university professors and right wing radio Svengalis only channel us into the deeper ideological slavery into which we all are born.  Or not.

The rest of the article reports faithfully on the authors insistence that this “doesn’t mean a gene was found for anything,” and the relationship between the gene and the behavior cannot be seen as causal, but merely a window into how genes and experience interact to influence behavior.  This is explained in four careful paragraphs, at the end of which the writer says, of the authors’ call for further research, “Who knows, that could eventually lead to the discovery of a gene that plays a role in creating conservatives.”  So, lesson learned.

Here are two things the article does not define or question:

  1. What constitutes being “liberal.”
  2. What constitutes having “an active social life.”

In fact, going to the article Friendships Moderate an Association between a Dopamine Gene Variant and Political  Ideology in the Journal of Politics, the answers are as follows:

  • A person is liberal if they describe themselves as liberal, having been given a choice of liberal, moderate or conservative.  (This seems straightforward enough, although almost all my friends would, given this choice, describe themselves as liberal but there is enough difference of opinion between them to set a barn on fire.)
  • Having an active social life is defined by the number of people the respondents describe as friends, when allowed to pick any number between none and ten.  (I always thought that in high school the phrase “active social life” was code for who did and who did not get drunk on weekends.  I am discouraged to discover this new standard, which seems to suggest that I did not have as much fun in high school as I thought I did.)

Based on this irrefutable data (by which I mean bullsh*t), the results are calculated using a nifty looking formula of which I will reproduce only the first line:

gij = b0 + bbbi + bwwij + bEEij + bwEEijwij

I haven’t defined the parameters for you or completed the equation but perhaps this gives you the idea that while the data may be soft, the math is very very hard, especially for those of us who spent most of high school calculus sleeping off an active social life.

And of course, as always, the real educational effect of the article is to be found in the comments section, the essence of which is summarized in these two pithy remarks:

So now we can truthfully say that liberals are mutants? I suspected as much.


I think we already know the gene that makes conservatives…the poop gene.

Sigh.  I grow weary.  Everything we have learned in the past ten years suggests that genetics are far less deterministic than we had anticipated, and that both physiologically and psychologically we reflect a wondrously complex mix of genetics, epigenetics, environment, dumb luck and who knows whatever other factors – I myself am waiting to find out that astrology has a grain of truth after all, and that all these years I should have been reading my horoscope regularly, and not just when I got stuck on the tarmac with a two hour delay and nothing to read but an abandoned copy of Star magazine.

In the meantime, I beg you, journalists of the world, stop writing headlines that say, “Did Scientists Discover a Gene For X?” if the answer is NO.  You don’t write headlines that say, “Did Police Discover a Plot to Put Rat Poison in School Lunches?” if the answer is NO, just to get more people to read your article on improving the quality of meat.  I know you are busy and underpaid and everyone keeps threatening to take your job away and replace you with a blogger, but try to remember this: people only read the headline.  And this: genetics is complicated.


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