Cognition & Reality

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Not In Our Genes: Why It Failed

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Human Evolution,Propaganda,Science — drtone @ 9:40 am

Not In Our Genes, a famous book, notorious in some circles, is a well-written argument against, as the title suggests, the concept that human behavior can be explained as a function of genetics. The authors are all distinguished academics with credentials galore. Despite all that it had going for it, and despite having remained in circulation (if not in print), the book clearly has not had the kind of impact one would have hoped: Since its publication in 1985, the hegemony of the biological reductionists has grown much stronger. There are probably many reasons Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin failed to persuade the world that behavioral genetics is bunk. A chief factor is the steep rhetorical gradient presented by the multifaceted attractiveness of genetic explanations of behavior, a topic I have discussed numerous times. Nevertheless, one reason for the book’s failure to persuade is, as the Beatles announced, “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”

Although the authors’ Marxist account of biological reductionism is interesting and, in some respects, cogent, it came at the wrong time and is addressed to the wrong audience. Neither Brits, nor especially Americans are or were prepared to accept arguments based on Marx about anything whatsoever. That would go double or triple in the period immediately before and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not In Our Genes is sprinkled with references to “bourgeois” society and values; it returns again and again to the tired language of class struggle. Rather than basing their argument simply on the manifest incoherence of behavioral genetics, they based it on an admittedly interesting Marxist historical analysis of behavioral genetics as a reflection of capitalism. As if to demonstrate that they adhere to Lenin and therefore reject John Lennon’s injunction, the authors actually refer positively to Mao as a social “theorist.” So blinded were Lewontin, et al., by their ideology that they could not see how such a remark regarding one of the great mass murderers of all time would land like a clunker with their intended readers, the educated English-speaking public. In addition, they opened themselves up to dismissal as confused commies by those, such as Richard Dawkins, who would rather not respond to the substance of their argument. It’s a shame.

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