Richard Dawkins on “genetic determinism”

Misleading German cover of The Selfish Gene

Dawkins mentions (p. 17) how this German cover picture for The Selfish Gene is completely missing the point.

Some time ago, a year or so back, evolutionary psychology was established as a separate subject at the University of Turku. This immediately raised controversy, at least from a few people trying to shout loudly. Some were apparently religiously motivated, but never mind them. Others were afraid of a reductionist program enforcing existing power structures by explaining them as biologically determined. That, I know, can be a real thing.

After that hassle, it was sobering to now read what Richard Dawkins had written about the myth of genetic determinism as far back as 1982 in The Extended Phenotype. Because some people still haven’t got the memo — and I’m not sure to what extent these are found among evolutionary psychologists and to what extent their critics, although in this last controversy it seemed like critics were missing the point more — I want to quote some of this to make it easily available. I will add a little commentary of my own.

From Richard Dawkins: The Extended Phenotype. 1982, W. H. Freeman and Company. pp. 10–13. Emphases in the original.

The gene myth is epitomized in Rose’s parenthetic little joke about ladies not blaming their mates for sleeping around. It is the myth of ‘genetic determinism’. Evidently, for Rose, genetic determinism is determinism in the full philosophical sense of irreversible inevitability. He assumes that the existence of a gene ‘for’ X implies that X cannot be escaped. In the words of another critic of ‘genetic determinism’, Gould (1978, p. 238), ‘If we are programmed to be what we are, then these traits are ineluctable . We may, at best, channel them, but we cannot change them either by will, education, or culture.’

The validity of the determinist point of view and, separately, its bearing on an individual’s moral responsibility for his actions, has been debated by philosophers and theologians for centuries past, and no doubt will be for centuries to come. I suspect that both Rose and Gould are determinists in that they believe in a physical, materialistic basis for all our actions. So am I. We would also probably all three agree that human nervous systems are so complex that in practice we can forget about determinism and behave as if we had free will. Neurones may be amplifiers of fundamentally indeterminate physical events. The only point I wish to make is that, whatever view one takes on the question of determinism, the insertion of the word ‘genetic’ is not going to make any difference. If you are a full-blooded determinist you will believe that all your actions are predetermined by physical causes in the past, and you may or may not also believe that you therefore cannot be held responsible for your sexual infidelities. But, be that as it may, what difference can it possibly make whether some of those physical causes are genetic? Why are genetic determinants thought to be any more ineluctable, or blame-absolving, than ‘environmental’ ones?

The belief that genes are somehow super-deterministic, in comparison with environmental causes, is a myth of extraordinary tenacity, and it can give rise to real emotional distress. I was only dimly aware of this until it was movingly brought home to me in a question session at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978. A young woman asked the lecturer, a prominent ‘sociobiologist’, whether there was any evidence for genetic sex differences in human psychology. I hardly heard the lecturer’s answer, so astonished was I by the emotion with which the question was put. The woman seemed to set great store by the answer and was almost in tears. After a moment of genuine and innocent bafflement the explanation hit me. Something or somebody, certainly not the eminent sociobiologist himself, had misled her into thinking that genetic determination is for keeps; she seriously believed that a ‘yes’ answer to her question would, if correct, condemn her as a female individual to a life of feminine pursuits, chained to the nursery and the kitchen sink. But if, unlike most of us, she is a determinist in that strong Calvinistic sense, she should be equally upset whether the causal factors concerned are genetic or ‘environmental’.

What does it ever mean to say that something determines something? Philosophers, possibly with justification, make heavy weather of the concept of causation, but to a working biologist causation is a rather simple statistical concept. Operationally we can never demonstrate that a particular observed event C caused a particular result R, although it will often be judged highly likely. What biologists in practice usually do is to establish statistically that events of class R reliably follow events of class C. They need a number of paired instances of the two classes of events in order to do so: one anecdote is not enough.

Even the observation that R events reliably tend to follow C events after a relatively fixed time interval provides only a working hypothesis that C events cause R events. The hypothesis is confirmed, within the limits of the statistical method, only if the C events are delivered by an experimenter rather than simply noted by an observer, and are still reliably followed by R events. It is not necessary that every C should be followed by an R, nor that every R should be preceded by a C (who has not had to contend with arguments such as ‘smoking cannot cause lung cancer, because I knew a non-smoker who died of it, and a heavy smoker who is still going strong at ninety’?). Statistical methods are designed to help us assess, to any specified level of probabilistic confidence, whether the results we obtain really indicate a causal relationship.

If, then, it were true that the possession of a Y chromosome had a causal influence on, say, musical ability or fondness for knitting, what would this mean? It would mean that, in some specified population and in some specified environment, an observer in possession of information about an individual’s sex would be able to make a statistically more accurate prediction as to the person’s musical ability than an observer ignorant of the person’s sex. The emphasis is on the word ‘statistically’, and let us throw in an ‘other things being equal’ for good measure. The observer might be provided with some additional information, say on the person’s education or upbringing, which would lead him to revise, or even reverse, his prediction based on sex. If females are statistically more likely than males to enjoy knitting, this does not mean that all females enjoy knitting, nor even that a majority do.

It is also fully compatible with the view that the reason females enjoy knitting is that society brings them up to enjoy knitting. If society systematically trains children without penises to knit and play with dolls, and trains children with penises to play with guns and toy soldiers, any resulting differences in male and female preferences are strictly speaking genetically determined differences! They are determined, through the medium of societal custom, by the fact of possession or non-possession of a penis, and that is determined (in a normal environment and in the absence of ingenious plastic surgery or hormone therapy) by sex chromosomes.

This point is somewhat subtle, and I feel I should stop to explain it, because I’m afraid it may sound to a suspicious reader like nonsense or like a way of denying all social constructionism. How can socially programmed gender differences also be determined by genes? Only because “determined by genes” is such a very weak, sometimes almost meaningless concept. Dawkins is not making the point that genes somehow rule over social factors, but that social factors can rule over so-called genetic influences.

If there is a “gene for X”, that only means that in the given certain environment, that gene correlates with X. By itself, the gene is just a small bit of a complicated molecule. It’s not some essence that makes you what you are in some deep metaphysical way, nor is it hugely pertinent overriding practical information. Natural selection has built a structure in which genes have been selected for their effects in a particular environment. In Dawkins’s example above, that environment had nothing (at least directly) to do with the fact that a Y chromosome is correlated with knitting. After all, as he postulates it, the influence is because society treats children differently based on their genitals, and the genitals did not evolve to make children be taught knitting or not.

So what he’s saying above is this: Genes only “cause” anything in conjunction with their environment. You can totally change what a gene correlates with by changing the environment, although, as the next paragraph in the quote below will demonstrate, some effects can be resistant to some particular changes. But no gene in itself causes anything. And remember that even when the correlation does exist in a given environment, even then it’s only a statistical tendency.

Continuing with the quote:

Obviously, on this view, if we experimentally brought up a sample of boys to play with dolls and a sample of girls to play with guns, we would expect easily to reverse the normal preferences. This might be an interesting experiment to do, for the result just might turn out to be that girls still prefer dolls and boys still prefer guns. If so, this might tell us something about the tenacity, in the face of a particular environmental manipulation, of a genetic difference. But all genetic causes have to work in the context of an environment of some kind. If a genetic sex difference makes itself felt through the medium of a sex-biased education system, it is still a genetic difference. If it makes itself felt through some other medium, such that manipulations of the education system do not perturb it, it is, in principle, no more and no less a genetic difference than in the former, education-sensitive case: no doubt some other environmental manipulation could be found which did perturb it.

Human psychological attributes vary along almost as many dimensions as psychologists can measure. It is difficult in practice (Kempthorne 1978), but in principle we could partition this variation among such putative causal factors as age, height, years of education, type of education classified in many different ways, number of siblings, birth order, colour of mother’s eyes, father’s skill in shoeing horses, and, of course, sex chromosomes. We could also examine two-way and multi-way interactions between such factors. For present purposes the important point is that the variance we seek to explain will have many causes, which interact in complex ways. Undoubtedly genetic variance is a significant cause of much phenotypic variance in observed populations, but its effects may be overridden, modified, enhanced or reversed by other causes. Genes may modify the effects of other genes, and may modify the effects of the environment. Environmental events, both internal and external, may modify the effects of genes, and may modify the effects of other environmental events.

People seem to have little difficulty in accepting the modifiability of ‘environmental’ effects on human development. If a child has had bad teaching in mathematics, it is accepted that the resulting deficiency can be remedied by extra good teaching the following year. But any suggestion that the child’s mathematical deficiency might have a genetic origin is likely to be greeted with something approaching despair: if it is in the genes ‘it is written’, it is ‘determined’ and nothing can be done about it; you might as well give up attempting to teach the child mathematics. This is pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale. Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some influences of both types may be hard to reverse; others may be easy to reverse. Some may be usually hard to reverse but easy if the right agent is applied. The important point is that there is no general reason for expecting genetic influences to be any more irreversible than environmental ones.

So. This is what Richard Dawkins of all people thinks about the common idea of genetic determinism. Dawkins, the hero of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis and the general bogeyman of many others. Dawkins who, I’ve heard, nowadays has a justified reputation of being unreasonable and dismissive about social questions such as feminism. Regardless, this thing was obvious to him because he really understands evolution.

Dawkins made the point ages ago, but the message hasn’t got through. It’s probably due to selfish memes that spread for reasons having nothing to do with their truth or desirability.

This is also one of the rare cases where I’ll say I’ve seen a problem come up repeatedly in feminism. While I’m sure bad versions of feminism exist, because bad versions of any view/label exist, the general idea of feminism is very valuable — and contrary to the stereotypes, I personally have encountered almost exclusively intelligent, well-considered, insightful feminist sources and persons. (And my experience here is a biased sample but definitely not a small one.) But this is one bad thing I’ve seen more than once, not that I’ve cause to make any sweeping generalisation: that some have seemingly been overly motivated to prove things are not genetically “determined” because if they are, we somehow lose. Behind all this seems to be an assumption about genetic determinism like the one Dawkins totally debunks here.

Now, it’s true genetic determinism can be used as an excuse, for sexism and more, and it unfortunately seems like it’s one that works. But I think the best answer to that is to say point to the grand old man of Neo-Darwinism himself and say that even if there is a gene for it, there’s no such determinism.


One thought on “Richard Dawkins on “genetic determinism”

  1. […] though it’s important to separate this from many things that are called determinism (like the myth of genetic determinism). But that’s not the point I’m making here. The point is simply that there are only two […]

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