Saturday, March 9, 2013

Genetics as political ideology

I just finished writing a brief essay  for the journal Sociology, for a retrospective on an important book, Dot Nelkin and Susan Lindee’s (1995) The DNA Mystique: The Gene as Cultural Icon.  It actually had a major intellectual impact on me, when I reviewed it for the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1995.

Susan  Lindee in 1999 with me and my Caipirinha 
Nelkin and Lindee’s book was a wonderful cultural analysis that showed how embedded scientific discourses about heredity are in cultural or folk discourses about heredity.  And those cultural discourses are invariably political.  After all, ancestry only came to be important in the first place because of the need to divide great-grandpa’s stuff among his heirs.  They show that these are political discourses about hierarchy, worth, and inequality, and scientific claims are easily framed to be hung in the gallery of pseudo-scientific justifications for hereditary aristocracies.

By implication, then, the only way to understand claims about human genetics is to understand that they are never value-neutral, and are invariably politically valent.  This means that scientists ought to be just as accountable to justify the deducible political implications of their work as they are to justify the data collection and statistics.  Nelkin and Lindee stop short of saying this, but I think it as the only way to make sense of the situation. 

It has seemed to me for a longtime that the most horrible question that geneticists can ask themselves is not ”Did I do the right statistical test?” but a far darker question, the question that goes “Gee, what is it about me that the Nazis like so much?”

In other words, at some point, since this science is so politicized, the scientist can’t afford to be naive about its bio-political nature.  You see science, and especially human biology, is particularly suitable to be used by people with, for the sake of argument, evil intentions – by which I mean increasing the amount of misery in the world, reinforcing social, political, and economic  inequalities, causing harm without benefit.  That science should not be done.  It violates the basic charter that we, the civilized people of the world, made with Francis Bacon in the earth 17th century.  “Your project sounds good, for it promises to improve our lives.”  But science that makes people’s lives worse?  "Let’s pass on that."

For all intents and purposes, that charter was reinforced with the development of bioethics in the late 20th century.  That is to say, we are all for the progress of science, but when science butts up against human rights, human rights wins, hands down.  We needed to codify that point, because for most of the 20th century, the scientific question of “What can I do?” was often difficult to differentiate from the moral and practical question “What can I get away with?”

I think what often gets lost, and perhaps even deliberately obscured, is the political stakes involved in naturalizing human cultural history.  People have been asking about the sources of large scale social inequality for around 10,000 years; that is to say, since the beginning of large-scale social inequality.  The Bible isn’t very helpful here.  Is says God favors some kings, and curses other kings, but doesn’t actually say why there are kings at all.  Most of the time, it just takes kings for granted, except for one passage in First Samuel, Chapter 8,  in which the Tribe asks the judge for a king, and the judge tries to talk them out of it, by explaining why kings suck.  But otherwise, hereditary monarchies are taken to be part of the natural way of things.

By the 19th century, as the long-standing hereditary aristocracies were being threatened by democracy and new wealth, there were two opposing theories  for the origin of those hereditary aristocracies.  Why aren’t you king?  Well, accident of birth; you’d be a good king, you just unluckily came from ancestors who had been historically victims of economic and political injustices.  Here you explain the observation of social inequality by the inference of historical injustice.  The solution is to work for social justice.  Science has no role; we haven’t even mentioned science.

Second theory: Civilization depends on the aristocratic classes.  They have founded every civilization everywhere, which eventually collapsed when their blood was diluted.  They are thus constitutionally better than the lower and upwardly-mobile classes, and to get rid of them would foretell the doom of civilization.  Here the same observation (social inequality) is not caused by injustice, but by the facts of natural difference.  All we need to do is to identify the nature of those gifts.  Here social justice is not desirable, for the very need for it is denied; and science may have a role, in convincing us that the secret to aristocratic success is in the shape of their head, or the number of answers they can get right on a standardized test, or their DNA sequence.

That’s the back story.  That’s why Nelkin and Lindee saw the gene as a bio-political element, a “cultural icon” back in 1995.   The point is that we now know about “genetic essentialism” – also Nelkin and Lindee’s phrase – as an outmoded ideology, and with a history of bad political baggage, to boot.  Can we not reject it on that basis, as one rejects creationism in science?

I think scientists ought to be expected to articulate and explain the politics in their research, and not be permitted to pretend that their work is value neutral, and that ethics, morals, values, and politics is somebody else’s problem.

Here are my guidelines for reviewers of papers in human behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology:

Does the paper adequately assess its possible political implications?

What stand does the paper take on those political implications?

After all, in any inter-disciplinary research, you can't pay attention to only one of the relevant intellectual domains.  All you’d have to do is broaden the “Conflicts of Interest” statement to include political conflicts of interests, which, if you’re submitting a paper that has political implications, might be a reasonable expectation.  I can imagine that had they answered the questions, there would be far less uncritical derivative citations of Derek Freeman’s attack on Margaret Mead, Richard Jantz’s attack on Franz Boas, and Ralph Holloway’s scurrilous attack on Stephen Jay Gould.  Sure, the lunatics would still cite them, but they’d be self-identified, and uncredible in the community of scholars.

This is political and has always been.  The people who are the most political tend to be the ones claiming self-consciously to be the most scientific, and tend to be the ones whose science stands up the worst.  That's another reason to study history.  It’s time to stop allowing people to pretend that this science isn’t political, and claiming the higher scientific ground for their thinly cloaked politicized science; they are entitled only to the lower scholarly ground and the lower moral ground.  That’s is not where science belongs.


  1. "After all, ancestry only came to be important in the first place because of the need to divide great-grandpa’s stuff among his heirs."

    We of course know this due to the extensive field research that we have carried out in the late Ice Age.

  2. I can't say I entirely agree with your premise here.

    Primarily, because very nearly all of science and it's products can be misapplied, even if it were intended first and foremost to genuinely better the lot of humanity. Often, the ways in which findings and discoveries are applied are simply not visible to those making/discovering them. This may be somewhat more clear cut in some fields than others, of course.

    The second problem is that it relies on the good intentions and "good politics" of the scientist in question. You may perceive a political conflict of interest, but perhaps they do not, or possibly what they view as good for humanity and what you view as good for humanity have significant divergence. It's true that (as you say) attempting to take account sociopolitical ramifications of a work in the associated publication would make many of these differences of interest more clear, but I am not at all convinced that it would do much to dampen the effect you are lamenting.

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  6. Hi Prof.

    When I saw this, I immediately thought of you. It's an "evolutionary psychologist" arguing that scientific experiments don't have to be replicable.

    Hope you're well,
    Daniel Glennon

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