Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Muddying the waters

Nick Miller interviewed a pink-haired Jesse Prinz in a Manhattan cafe about a new book which the City University of New York philosopher has written challenging the supposed orthodoxy of genetic determinism. But the current consensus on the old nature versus nurture question is not genetic determinism: it is a view which recognizes the complex interactions between human genes and the environment. Prinz is also arguing against the idea that our brains are, as it were, primed for language. And he tries to undermine the credibility of the studies of identical twins which underlie current mainstream views.

There is something going on here. Such overweening intellectual ambition and contrarianism can't be driven solely by a dispassionate reassessment of the evidence. Fortunately, Professor Prinz is very upfront about the ideological motivations of his ideas. Like his CUNY colleague, Massimo Pigliucci, his intellectual work is inextricably bound up with his passionate commitment to progressive causes. The trouble is, mixing ideology and science is at best a distraction, a muddying of the waters, and at worst positively dangerous.

For his article, Miller also interviewed Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico who effectively undermined the line which Prinz was taking by confirming what anyone with even a passing interest in these matters already knows: that studies of identical twins over the past two decades have demonstrated conclusively that virtually every aspect of personality is heritable (to a significant extent).

Steven Pinker, who has written on what he calls our language instinct as well as on broader issues of evolutionary psychology, is the most prominent public spokesman for the mainstream position which Prinz is setting out to attack. The following passage is from Pinker's book, The Blank Slate:

Identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike in just about any trait one can measure - verbal, mathematical and general intelligence, in their degree of life satisfaction, personality traits such as introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness to experience. They have similar attitudes towards controversial issues such as the death penalty, religion and modern music. They resemble each other in gambling, divorce, committing crimes, getting into accidents and watching television. They even boast dozens of shared idiosyncrasies such as giggling incessantly, giving interminable answers to simple questions, dipping buttered toast in coffee and writing indistinguishable syndicated advice columns.

If we want to improve our lives, the first step surely is to understand as best we can the situation we are in and this involves a recognition of the truly surprising power and influence of our genes.


  1. I heard recently that individual human genome can now be decoded in an hour for under $1000. Incredible. They will become as cheap as blood tests.

    On the other hand, the human genome project showed that we have far fewer genes than was assumed -- only about 25,000. So there is rather little one-to-one correspondence between gene and phenotype. Which suggests we are further away than we thought from knowing how genes work.

    1. Yes, my understanding is that sometimes a single gene is responsible for a disease, say, but mostly predispositions to specific diseases involve multiple genes. And multiple genes would always be involved in such complex things as personality traits.

      I know it's not evidence in a scientific sense but I'm noticing more and more traits in common between myself and my parents. (Actually it's easier and less discomforting to identify them in siblings than in oneself!)

  2. I'm noticing more and more traits in common between myself and my parents. (Actually it's easier and less discomforting to identify them in siblings than in oneself!)
    I'm glad you're not my brother. LOL.

    Scientists have been exploring the human genome for signs (or stamps) of personality coded into DNA. Some people even claim that "DNA is destiny." But if this were strictly true, the correlations of personality (or behavior) between identical twins would be exact and would break down only in extraordinary and unique cases (brain injury in one twin, for instance). In fact, the correlations are strong but they are not absolute. It should be safe to assume, then, that both external conditioning and internal mental states -- the experiences of the individual -- modify predispositions significantly, and I predict that "DNA is destiny" will not hold up as a theory.

    Some scientists would love to maintain that the old notion of "plasticity" is quaint; that we are not as programmable by our culture, society or family as the "nurturists" believe. But the leading edge in molecular biology indicates that individual organisms sometimes re-configure their own genetic makeup in response to the environment (turning genes on and off according to conditions). This raises the possibility that mental states -- experiences -- may create a feedback loop to modify physical (and by implication, psychological) characteristics according to need. I wouldn't be surprised to see, within a decade, we are talking about powers of (self) transformation more than we are about predetermination.

    It has been my view for years, ever since I read those breakthrough brain books of the 80s and 90s, that the marvelous genius of the human being consists in having evolved plasticity per se as its primary adaptation -- emphatically a brain/mind adaptation -- to the environment. I think this is the direction science actually will take us, once the brain is fully understood. The brain is not a machine. It is not built to execute preconfigured commands. It is built to respond in fluid fashion to constantly changing conditions.

    An observation I've made countless times: people who hold out most for "DNA is destiny" are also people who believe there is no "free will."

    And beyond that, their disbelief in free will comes with an agenda: reducing the human mind to a machine. If we are essentially reducible to machine-like input/output cycles and our "functions" are the most important features of being human, then there is nothing wrong with, ultimately, melding machines with ourselves or even literally becoming machines.

    "Will our children be robots?" someone asked Minksy. And he said yes, but they will love it.

    Forgetting, of course, that we are moral animals and music is to be enjoyed, not analyzed.

    1. GC, you seem here to be contrasting two extremes, neither of which I would endorse. I accept that there is a lot of input from the environment and our reponses to experiences are often active and dynamic, but our genetic inheritance remains very important.

      The word 'machine' can mean different things. Certainly we are not simply following 'pre-configured commands'. But maybe one could stretch the word to cover creatively interacting organisms. Or maybe not. That's okay.

      And free will. This is a term from our religious traditions is it not? Freedom is a term with less theological baggage.

      Minsky had a tendency to say provocative things but he is a very interesting character, don't you think? They don't make them like that any more.

  3. I agree that genetic heritage is important; it's a causal factor in our responses to situations. But I think it is not completely deterministic (strong determinism). Unlike other animals, humans deliberate. Our emotional predispositions are strong but a thinking being is capable of overriding them through reason.

    MOST of the classic roots of "free will" come from religious traditions but the idea has become secularized and psychologized in discussions of volition and choice, which are issues in any case, religious in nature or not. Anyway I should point out that I do not believe there is a "will" that needs to be proven free. The whole notion of a "will" in the first place is a metaphysical idea no science can demonstrate, so discussions of its freedom are plain moot. So you're right, what we need to discuss is freedom, straight out. Since nature doesn't give a damn (!) what we think or do, it's up to us. Our saving grace (!) is that we are not slaves to our passions and predispositions. We think.

    The discussion (muddying the waters) concerns determinism. I agree the pink-haired person has a pink agenda, but I also don't believe in strong determinism. "Compatibilism isn't necessary if determinism is false."

    Yes Minsky was interesting, even fascinating, but mostly I'm provoked. LOL. He's famous for some provocative visions that ought not to become reality.

    The term I wanted to use in my comment but could not recall at the moment, concerning the present state of genetic science, was "epigenetics." It's turning out there is a mechanism for in situ genetic adaptation to the environment by individuals, which may then be heritable by one's progeny.

    1. I'm not sure if our differences are ultimately just matters of emphasis or whether there is a deeper disagreement. I don't have a firm view on determinism, though I always felt that the standard compatibilist line somehow failed to bite the bullet.

      Do I detect an element of dualism (like Popper's?) in what you say?

    2. People ask me that last question all the time. Apparently what I say on these issues matches some people's profile of dualism, so I find myself denying it again and again. The idea that the mind and body are two different things is a mistake (again metaphysical). Thinking is a physical act performed by the brain. Consciousness is physical, again a process of the brain. No dualism there.

      Perhaps the "element of dualism" people detect in my statements traces to my emphasis on thoughts, ideas, thinking, reason. What we think -- our exercise of reason in particular -- is within our control. Our minds do not need to be independent of the body (brain) to exercise reason. Illustration: the rules of logic apply in analysis, no matter what you feel about them. You can analyze a situation or fact with completely valid logic using reason regardless of any preferences you may hold about the outcome. (Yes or no? I say yes. There's no hope of reason for anyone who says no. LOL.) There is no reason (!) to think this capability to think and analyze dispassionately depends in any way on a disembodied mind. My position is, the brain is built to think. Yes, thinking is physical. Yes, your emotions (which are brain processes too) can cloud your thinking. But your arguments and conclusions can be completely logical and correct, if you reason dispassionately. My claim is that you can reason dispassionately.

      Reason, having ideas, thinking, choosing, having intentions -- these are not metaphysical events. They are brain events which are under our control. No dualism there. It isn't necessary.

      Anyone who sees dualism in that, is still thinking that consciousness is independent of the brain AND that the brain is a hard-wired device that dictates what we think. Both fallacious.

      People who see dualism in that are just trodding the old paths and categorizing

    3. accordingly.
      Missing a word there. LOL.

      Boiling it down, Prinz is arguing against determinism, and I do too. That can be taken too far, and Prinz seems to do that. I do not. The difference is whether DNA has any influence on personality (which may affect decisions) or not. I say it does, but it is not the only factor and need not be decisive, especially where logical thinking occurs.

    4. I can go along with that.

      But some of your statements (like "... brain events which are under our control...") do seem to me to suggest some kind of dualism.

      You might identify with property dualism (as distinct from substance dualism) or anomalous monism (which gives a causal role to thoughts as I understand it.)

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  5. Another angle on this is to ask what is the basis for determinism? If it is grounded in universal law-like causation (the traditional view), then it runs into problems with quantum theory. If it is grounded in stuff like genetics, then it runs into the reply (as GC is arguing and as Mark is conceding, reluctantly perhaps?) that we don't have much reason to think that genetics governs all of human behaviour.

    If both main forms of determinism are only weakly grounded, then we don't have much reason to deny that we can make free choices and that we can apply reason to those choices. GC's view may itself be weakly grounded but it is as good as the rival view. So we can take whatever view seems best.

    1. As I said, I don't have a firm position on the free will/determinism question, but I see the whole debate as being rooted in medieval preoccupations. (I know the Greeks also talked about freedom and fate and so on.)

      You say we make free choices - and in a sense we do because we can see that there are degrees of freedom in choice-making with the hypnotized or the compulsive person at one extreme and the philosopher at the other!

      You say we can apply reason to these choices. But are you not begging the question? Who or what is this agent which is doing the applying?

      I see reason and logic and abstract thought not as a product of the brain but rather as a product of interacting bodies/brains in a broader physical and cultural context. Reasons etc. partake of this wider world.

  6. Omigosh! They've invented more isms! LOL.

    Seriously, since this seems to come up so much, I'd really like to know: dualism between what and what, and how does that quote you gave as an example fit the description? I don't see it. I don't consider myself a dualist at all, but I get the comment a lot. [email address deleted]

    [Reposted to take out email address]
    MARK: Please resend your email.
    You forwarded the "error message" email and the actual message didn't get through. Anyone else: comment at The Moxie Files post on this subject. http://hypermoxie.blogspot.com/2010/07/freedom-is-radical.html