Biological Incoherence: Or what people don’t mean when they talk about genetics


It seems to me that people are really weird on the way they view genetics-sometimes illicitly, and sometimes explicitly.   Across the ideological playing board,  you find all kinds of seeming impossibilities. You have people who seem to think morphology is the most obvious expression of genetic difference and thus considers like “race” (including such biologically heteroneous groups as “white,” “black,” and “hispanic” as if those were obviously natural categories beyond sets of morphological characteristics which happen to overlap, but gene variance remains wider within those particular groups than between of them because the traits tied to morphology are actually a specific but somewhat narrow range of traits) are somehow telling of all the most important things you need to know. You have people who seem to think that there is no genetic component to human behavior despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, asserting that everything essential about the human animal is socially or culturally constructed.  You have those so afraid of “racism” that they refuse to see that isolated populations would different genetic marker frequency.  (Yet, there is no reason to fear this because race itself seems to be a concept that breaks down almost immediately even from a genetic pov.) You have those who argue that culture is an effective check on pure natural selection and focuses solely on sexual selection, but then assert that culture itself essentially psychological. Then you have people who ignore that genes have environmental and even epigenetic triggers and thus even knowing the genetic variance exactly will not give you the exact genetic outcome.

Beyond the way people deal (or more specifically don’t deal) with this in the human, you have all kinds of all kinds of inconsistencies on this with the politics of the non-human:you have people who have no problems with say dog-breeding or even hybridization but freak out at GMOs for reasons of “tampering” with the natural. These too have implications for the human beyond mrely reacting to animal or food concerns.  For example, I actually do think there are valid reasons to worry about GMOs when you are dealing with patent law and trans-national business, but the idea that “natural” cannot be tampered with is a categorical misunderstanding of what natural is. Every time you pick a partner to have children with you are in effect asserting agency into the “natural.” You have an internal criterion for doing this. I think all this makes us uncomfortable because if its is entirely genetic, we have no responsibility for who we are, and if entirely socially constructed we have complete control, but if we have to deal with a complex feedback loop between the two we both have agency and limits–both having responsibility as individuals and as a social network and yet lacking the total ability to determine all our possible outcomes. 

You may say that heredeterians agree with me on the feedback loops, even race-realists.  Well, the error in “race-realism” is a little more tricky than it seems initially.  For example, despite many anthropologists who seem cagey on this point when battling “race realism,” they know that there are population genetics relevant to a lot of social traits.   What these critics that say that is correct is simple: gene variance and “race” do not map perfectly.  The definitions of race, even within the same culture, are often horribly inconsistent:  European-descended Mexicans are “Hispanic” but European-descended people from states are “white.” A race realist may say that this has to do with culture, this is made clear to quote in  a link sent to me to make sense of what race realists are actually claiming. J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen:

“The culture-only (0% genetic–100% environmental) and the hereditarian (50% genetic–50% environmental) models of the causes of mean Black–White differences in cognitive ability are compared and contrasted across 10 categories of evidence: the worldwide distribution of test scores, g factor of mental ability, heritability, brain size and cognitive ability, transracial adoption, racial admixture, regression, related life-history traits, human origins research, and hypothesized environmental variables. The new evidence reviewed here points to some genetic component in Black–White differences in mean IQ. The implication for public policy is that the discrimination model (i.e., Black–White differences in socially valued outcomes will be equal barring discrimination) must be tempered by a distributional model (i.e., Black–White outcomes reflect underlying group characteristics)

Aside from the easy naturalization of two categories, black and white, which are diverse in themselves, there is another problem here.   The view of culture is essentially biological.  Let’s look at one of the statements made by Rushton elsewhere, like “Islam is not just a cultural, but a genetic problem” what is he saying about the distinction?  He is saying that Islam is a product of the cultural mileau of West Asia and also contains within the values of West Asian biology.  Another example, Kevin MacDonald and others think that 10,000 explosion, as described by genetic anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, assert the excution of most of the English peasantry and the fact that most modern “English” are descended from a chunk of the English lower gentry and pascified peasantry actually explains Anglo-respect for rule of law, which then ITSELF maintains cultural limits of genetic drift.  So the distinction between culture and biology breaks down in a feedback loop, but with biology actually dominating the entire mechanism.

So a view that appears to separate out culture as a force, perhaps even a material force, lays that materiality strictly in the realm of the biological.  Now, when people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris call these assertions false, but then not only have a Darwinian theory of ideas–memes–and natural ethics (ignoring the is/ought distinction) emerging from biology, how are they being much different.   Yes, they realize the race realist mistake of over-emphasizing broad morphologial differences between humans as a larger illustrator of genetic difference then they are, but they are actually places all culture and all materiality into an abstracted formal mechanism that is either biology or analogous to biology, in the case of memes.

It sort of makes blanket claims of science denialism interesting because I know few people even in the public who actually seem to even bother trying to have a coherent view on genetics, biology, and materiality. Furthermore, imposition of bullshit like “memes” by the analogy is an attempt at a unified field theory that actually undoes itself by moving outside of material limits.   So the denial of “free will” becomes a denial of human agency and yet humans can spread symbolic viruses called “memes” and “memeplexes” without any explanation for the physical mechanism for this?  How is this coherent with the monist materialist metaphysics Dawkins and Harris assume.  Is this not the same kind of collapse on sees in Rushton.

Memes may also be used to explain symbolic distinction, or that is symbolic kinship (Marshall Sahlin) and symbolic violence (Peirre Bordieu), which I don’t see as effective since the analogy is vague and the mechanism is assumed to work on the individual level.   (Some implicit formal liberalism built into Dawkin’s and company social theory).   This is assumed to either universal, but then why does such symoblic competition increasebetween homogenous groups in some social situations and decreases in others. (For example, open expression of status competition between two countries that are both ethnically and biologically somewhat homogenous and have low rates of inequality, why is status competition really high amongst Koreans and low amongst the Swedish is social forms don’t matter.) What does this do to epigenetic material in the DNA or to environmental triggers?  Is the materiality and structure of culture limiting the biology or emerging from it?  In other words, can we even have a strong separation culture from genetics here?  Does that bring us back to the race realist position?  

No.  Symbolic kinship may work off an analogy to kinship, but it explains ethnicity, illusions of national similarity, and race as a (poor) proxy for genetic relations better than the race realist view.  (Which falls into all sorts of problems when trying to define race in purely biological categories while also trying to maintain the layman definition of “race.”  This is not unique to race realists either. All sorts of pure biological categories have such problems: species itself is hard to pin down. As there are species that can interbreed and yet that defies part of the definition of the category).

And yet, if everything is genetically determined or everything is socially determined, then don’t we lack a real explanatory mechanism for theses differences in the first place? Sahlins says in his book What Kinship is and Isn’t, “The specific quality of kinship, I argue, is ‘mutuality of being’: kinfolk are persons who participate intrinsically in each others’ existence; they are members of one another.”  Which explains then that ideological predisposition being a sorting mechanism, it is another way of view symbolic kinship. Yet it too has some kind of emergant material origins, “Kinship may be a universal possibility in nature, but by the same symbolic token as codified in language and custom, it is always a cultural particularity.” Yet symbolic violence and class still is contained within symbolic kinship, so this too has to be dealt with.

Even discussing such categories is often difficult.  To say that GMO complaints are all based in science denial is untrue, but to say that most of the complaints are do not contain strong elements of misunderstanding is also untrue. It is also true that this is not a matter of “both are wrong” as if all sides were equally wrong.  This gets even more complicated scaling up.  I has been said to me that even granting validity to these categories at all makes me dangerously close to a “race realist.”  Yet, it seems clear to me that we cannot reduce this to a simple matter of  reduced mechanisms.  The race realist has one of two problems, either reducing all materiality to biology or confusing morphology with phenotype.   Yet as I am trying to illustrate they are hardly alone in this incoherence, which is not a defense of them so much as a condemnation of incoherence in dealing with genetics in specific, biology more broadly, and materiality in general.  The tendency to want this take this down to a binary is itself the problematic.  The conceptions we have of this are perhaps part of the incoherence.


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