Here’s a question. When we describe people using the adjectives in the title of this post, are we describing the way they are, or they way they behave? We have deeply ambivalent views in this area, which on close examination are probably incoherent. Much of our social interaction is based on shared myths, which shrivel under the bright light of scientific scrutiny. Even the language we use is subtly inconsistent with the scientific method. For instance, consider one of society’s monsters, say a Hitler, Mao, or Osama. Suppose someone says “I know how he felt when he committed his crimes.” Most people would take that as condoning the crimes, even though from a scientific perspective there’s no logical connection between knowing why a person acted a certain way, and condoning their behavior.
I was reading a book about genetic engineering called “Babies by Design,” and was struck when Ronald Green claimed:
Research shows that obesity is consistently attributed to laziness and a lack of self-discipline.
In reality, the truth may be just the opposite. Studies of identical twins reared together or apart indicate that much obesity may be caused by hereditary factors. In technical terms, the heritability of obesity, the percentage of observed variation among people that is attributed to genes, is very high, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent.
[Before continuing, a disclaimer so that I am not misunderstood. I have good genes for being thin. If I didn’t I assume I’d be fat, as I don’t have much self-control. So the following should not be viewed as criticism of fat people.]
Do you see the problem with Green’s assertion? He asks us to believe that just because obesity is 80% genetic, it can’t also be 80% due to laziness. But why? What are those two hypotheses viewed as mutually exclusive? Is it because genetic characteristics are viewed as “not one’s fault,” whereas laziness is viewed as a character flaw? But why shouldn’t character flaws be genetic?
A new study has found a “kindness gene.” It seems that some people are born kind and some are born “bad to the bone.”
People with a certain gene trait are known to be more kind and caring than people without it, and strangers can quickly tell the difference, according to US research published on Monday.
The variation is linked to the body’s receptor gene of oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” because it often manifests during sex and promotes bonding, empathy and other social behaviors.
Scientists at Oregon State University devised an experiment in which 23 couples, whose genotypes were known to researchers but not observers, were filmed.
One member of the couple was asked to tell the other about a time of suffering in his or her life. Observers were asked to watch the listener for 20 seconds, with the sound turned off.
In most cases, the observers were able to tell which of the listeners had the “kindness gene” and which ones did not, said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences edition of November 14.
Should we no longer praise people for being kind? No, we should praise them, but if we were to use Green’s logic then meanness would no longer be viewed as the person’s fault, because we’ve discovered that it’s genetic.
And happiness is also genetic, according to an article in The Economist:
Serotonin is involved in mood regulation. Serotonin transporters are crucial to this job. The serotonin-transporter gene comes in two functional variants—long and short. The long one produces more transporter-protein molecules than the short one. People have two versions (known as alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. So some have two short alleles, some have two long ones, and the rest have one of each.
The adolescents in Dr De Neve’s study were asked to grade themselves from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. Dr De Neve found that those with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied; those with two long alleles were 17% more likely.
That’s already pretty disturbing, but then consider the following:
Which is interesting. Where the story could become controversial is when the ethnic origins of the volunteers are taken into account. All were Americans, but they were asked to classify themselves by race as well. On average, the Asian Americans in the sample had 0.69 long genes, the black Americans had 1.47 and the white Americans had 1.12.
That result sits comfortably with other studies showing that, on average, Asian countries report lower levels of happiness than their GDP per head would suggest. African countries, however, are all over the place, happinesswise. But that is not surprising, either. Africa is the most genetically diverse continent, because that is where humanity evolved (Asians, Europeans, Aboriginal Australians and Amerindians are all descended from a few adventurers who left Africa about 60,000 years ago). Black Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves carried away from a few places in west Africa, cannot possibly be representative of the whole continent.
Note how the alleged racial gaps in happiness are inversely correlated with average income in America. Proof God is a utilitarian?
Seriously, if society insists on continuing to probe ever more deeply into human genetics, I think we need a whole new language for discussing ethical issues. My suggestion is that scientists give up on all the comforting notions of “just deserts.” Yes, proof that X% of behavior in genetic still allows for 100-x% to be environment. But environment is also not the villain’s fault.
In my view the right way to handle all this is to ignore the question of whether anything is really a person’s fault, and consider the related question of whether certain behavior is changed by external incentives (including telling them that it is their fault.) I don’t have any problem with obese or unhappy people, but I don’t like mean people. So as long as there is evidence that mean people can be deterred from meanness by sanctions, I’ll continue to give them a hard time. And no amount of genetic research will change my behavior in that regard.
However I do think all this research supports utilitarian ethics. We utilitarians are sometimes criticized for caring equally about the happiness of the deserving and the undeserving. This genetic research suggests that much of the variation in personality is genetic, and hence “not the person’s fault.” The optimal policy (and I’m not proposing this) would be for an omniscient government to tax mean people $X dollars for each unit of mean behavior, and then rebate the entire amount of revenue in lump sums to everyone with a mean gene in their body.
Or in Christian terms we could say “love thine enemy, but also punch them in the nose every time they misbehave.” Does that seem contradictory? Then you are confusing behavior with character.
Because of genetic research our view of humanity and ethics in the year 2111 will be totally different from today, just as our current views are totally different from 100 years ago (when “progressives” often favored eugenics.)
What do I fear most? Busybodies like this:
People who have two copies of the G allele are generally judged as more empathetic, trusting and loving.
Those with AG or AA genotypes tend to say they feel less positive overall, and feel less parental sensitivity. Previous research has shown they also may have a higher risk of autism.
. . .
However, no gene trait can entirely predict a person’s behavior, and more research is needed to find out how the variant affects the underlying biology of behavior.
“These are people who just may need to be coaxed out of their shells a little,” said senior author Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University whose previous research established the genetic link to empathetic behavior.
“It may not be that we need to fix people who exhibit less social traits, but that we recognize they are overcoming a genetically influenced trait and that they may need more understanding and encouragement.”
Keep your %&#@$*& hands off my anti-social traits. Remember what Greta Garbo said.
And then there is mental illness. Here’s Reason magazine explaining that crazy is as crazy does:
Metzl is not interested in such distinctions. “Schizophrenia is shaped by social, political, and, ultimately institutional factors in addition to chemical or biological ones,” he writes. “Too often, we assume that medical and cultural explanations of illness are distinct entities, or engage in frustratingly pointless debates about whether certain mental illnesses are either socially constructed or real.” He says “this polarizing dichotomy serves no one, and makes it harder to see how mental illness is always already both.”
It is hard to imagine someone making a similar speech about cancer or diabetes. “Unlike the conditions treated in most other branches of medicine,” observes Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, in a June New York Review of Books essay, “there are no objective signs or tests for mental illness—no lab data or MRI findings—and the boundaries between normal and abnormal are often unclear. That makes it possible to expand diagnostic boundaries or even create new diagnoses, in ways that would be impossible, say, in a field like cardiology.” In other words, mental illnesses are whatever psychiatrists say they are. If someone is diagnosed with depression or schizophrenia based on the currently accepted behavioral markers, assuming the criteria are correctly applied, it does not make sense to say he does not really have depression or schizophrenia, since there is no test to disconfirm the diagnosis. And if the criteria change so that they no longer apply to him, his disease disappears or becomes something else; it has no independent existence.
Music to my post-modern ears.
When I read “A Beautiful Mind” there was one aspect of John Nash’s behavior that I found strange. Every so often he was involuntarily committed to an insane asylum. Because he hated it there, he soon began to “act sane” so that they’d have to let him out. And they did. I don’t recall any of the book reviews noticing this, but doesn’t it seem a bit odd that someone who is mentally ill can act sane, given that acting crazy seems to be the only way to diagnose most mental illnesses?
I’m not saying Nash wasn’t “actually crazy.” I’m saying that like all our other behavioral traits mental illness probably isn’t what we think it is. I look forward to the day when all human vices are relabeled “mental illness.” Then we can clear the decks and start over with the real question: Which behaviors can be changed through incentives and which cannot? It’s all about economics.
PS. In comments Woupiestek provided the following:
You post reminds me of “drapetomania”:
Learn this from the British quiz QI. It comes up after 3 minutes in this fragment:
And around 7 minutes they start replicating this post. Truth is stranger than fiction. And why can’t America have TV shows like that?
Update: ChrisA points out that Bryan Caplan did discuss the John Nash case.