Damned if you do…

In an earlier post I looked at an article* about the search for “genetic” roots of human behaviors and conditions. While such reports suggest that certain behaviors like homosexuality or depression are “natural” and therefore shouldn’t have any stigma attached to them (what the authors call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’), the truth is that genes just don’t work that way. Most conditions are not linked to single genes, nor is the presence of a genetic marker a guarantee that the condition will manifest itself. Environmental and behavioral factors matter.

As psychologists, the authors’ main interest is in how these reports of the genetic basis of various conditions influence attitudes toward those conditions and the people who experience them. They look specifically at attitudes toward sexual orientation, obesity, criminality and mental illness.† The results are thought-provoking.

In the case of sexual orientation, exposure to the idea that sexual orientation has a genetic basis reduced prejudice toward homosexuals. Similarly, people showed an increased sympathy toward those manifesting mental illness and obesity when given a genetic explanation for the condition. Claims of the genetic basis of criminal behavior reduced people’s assessment of the criminal’s culpability. In general, they show that believing that a condition has a genetic basis makes people more sympathetic to those experiencing those conditions.

While increased sympathy is good, the results were not entirely “positive.” The authors summarize their findings: “[A]rguments for underlying genetic contributions elicit more fatalistic reactions than arguments for underlying experiential factors” (809). That is, people believe that the presence of the genes leave sufferers with no choice in the matter. Criminals will commit crimes. The obese will be obese.

In the case of mental illness, the increased sympathy was offset by other, less favorable responses. When they believed that mental illness was genetic in origin, people were more likely to regard the mentally ill as dangerous and unpredictable. Further, for some respondents, the presence of a genetic marker for mental illness set the sufferers apart as a separate “diseased” group, distinct from the unafflicted.

These results concern the authors. They worry that this poor grasp of genetics could lead to abuse, such as the sterilization programs applied during the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, or the way genetic screening has resulted in the abortion of almost all babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

While that concern is real, I was struck by the dismal view of the human condition on display here. The Christian doctrine of original sin has been mocked as a low view of humanity. But this view of the genetic inevitability of disease, mental illness, and criminal behavior is far worse. While we do affirm that sin touches every part of who we are as humans, we also hold out the hope of salvation in this life and the glory of resurrection to the next one. Genetic determinism offers neither.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

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Self-understanding: It’s a messy business

Early in his The Last Days of the Renaissance & The March to Modernity, Theodore K. Rabb discusses the dramatic impact of the decimation caused by the plague on social and economic structures in the centuries following. Further he suggests that the rise of the use of gunpowder caused significant shifts as well by eroding the socio-cultural codes of knightly valor while concentrating military power with those with sufficient financial means to make and maintain the artillery associated with gunpowder. It goes without saying that these changes impacted not only social structures but also the contexts in which people conceived of themselves as persons. That is to say, that these social and cultural events forced changes in self-perception, changes that unfolded over the ensuing centuries.

But Rabb’s indication of the devastation of the plague and the technology of war prompted thinking about how often our sense of ourselves and the world is changed by dramatic events rather that pure philosophical abstraction. Much is made of the anthropological impact of Rene Descartes’ reasoning to the foundation of the thinking self–“I think, therefore I am.” But many philosophical shifts have been born out of more traumatic events. A few examples came to mind:

  • In Evil and Modern Thought, Susan Nieman re-reads the history of philosophy as a coming to grips with the problem of evil out of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
  • Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club addresses the impact of the American Civil war on the deeply influential philosophies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce.
  • Many have observed the impact of The Great War and to a lesser extent WWII on subsequent human thought and self-understanding.
  • Nieman and others have discussed the impact of the Holocaust on all philosophical thinking thereafter.
  • And we are understandably still exploring the impact on our self-understanding of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Other examples could likely be adduced. But these suffice to warn us against attempting to write the history of philosophy and especially the narrative of shifting notions of the human person as merely a progression of philosophical developments from Descartes to Locke to Rousseau or whatever. Rather than a peaceful, logical narrative, our shifting collective self-understanding is often moved forward by paroxysms of terror or violence.