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Gene Obsession

Gene Obsession
Genetic Controls Everything NOT

Recent discoveries have shown the importance of genetic variations (mostly “alleles”) for (say) physical performance. Many, if not most top sportspersons have a genetic advantage. That’s the dirty secret of sports.

However some have tried to explain everything with genes, or “instinct”, or “innate behavior”. That’s what I call the genes’ obsession. A curious thing, as it’s well known to be erroneous.

Please refer to the picture and you’ll see three patterns observed when studying the influence of genes and environment on traits in individuals. Trait A shows a high sibling correlation, but little heritability. Trait B shows a high heritability since correlation of trait rises sharply with degree of genetic similarity. Trait C shows low heritability, and also low correlations generally. Notice that even identical twins raised in a common family do not show 100% trait correlation.

The curious thing is that the nature versus nurture debate has degenerated. A century ago the autodictat biologist Favre was famous for his studies of insects’ behavior. Skinner and behaviorism tried to displace him, with learning, and then Lorentz and Tinbergen received the Nobel for exhibiting unexpected behaviors in animals, with subtle entanglements of nature and nurture.

What’s the genes’ obsession? It consists into believing that one could code for zillions of behaviors with a few thousand genes. My answer: you don’t, because you can’t. The mind is the answer to nature (as I will show in the next essay).

A particularly silly example of the genes problem is Chomsky’s ‘Universal Grammar’ according to which ‘grammar,’ or linguistic ability, is hard-wired, and comes without being taught.

Even more silly, Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, pushed for the gene-centered view of evolution. Said he: “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.”

Then he contradicted himself: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.”

And how are we going to do that, Mr. Dawkins? If our “biological nature” is to be “born selfish”, how come we can “teach” the opposite? With the help of God? And what of your mother? Was she selfish too?

Dawkins sounds hopelessly confused and dissembling in his “Selfish Gene’ Chapter One. Here is another extract:

“Among animals, man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down. Some would say that culture is so important that genes, whether selfish or not, are virtually irrelevant to the understanding of human nature. Others would disagree. It all depends where you stand in the debate over ‘nature versus nurture’ as determinants of human attributes. This brings me to the second thing this book is not: it is not an advocacy of one position or another in the nature/nurture controversy. Naturally I have an opinion on this, but I am not going to express it, except insofar as it is implicit in the view of culture that I shall present in the final chapter. If genes really turn out to be totally irrelevant to the determination of modern human behavior, if we really are unique among animals in this respect, it is, at the very least, still interesting to inquire about the rule to which we have so recently become the exception.”

In truth the genetic approach to everything, a la Dawkins, helps nought (as Dawkins more or less recognizes, when lucid enough). Besides, it is completely implausible.

It’s not just that there are other inheritable geometric structures than genes (say: proteins, prions, organelles, etc.).

The result of a few thousand genes may be a million proteins. Impressive. However, that’s it. But it’s simply impossible to imagine how proteins would be transformed into complex behaviors. A pile of construction materials does not a castle make.

That’s why I am anti-Chomsky (although I approve of his hypocritical anti-imperialistic whining). and anti-Dawkins (although I approve of this anti-theism).

In a way Dawkins, Chomsky and their followers make the mistake theists did before Lamarck’s theory of evolution (erroneously known as Darwin’s theory of evolution).

They believed a deus ex-machina out there, coded for everything, that there is something as “innate behavior”. They understand learning naught. In a way their superstitious attitude is a variant of the “Grace of God” problem of the Seventeenth Century: if God is omnipotent, what have humans to do with it? If genes are omnipotent, what has humanism to do with humanity? How can Dawkins learn anything, if he is just a selfish gene?

As the graph above showed, genes are never omnipotent.

Even suckling is not really “innate”. Any mother finds out that it takes a bit of training on both sides. As I will show next, much, if not most, “instincts” are just, most probably, fast learning.

Patrice Ayme


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