Piers Benn

Conundrums and Controversies

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Some misunderstandings about ‘genetic determinism’

Many people who oppose unjust discrimination against particular groups in society – who want to oppose sexism, for example – are angered when they hear that unequal treatment of different groups is justified by genetics or neuroscience. For example, many feminists react scornfully to claims that there are genetic underpinnings to psychological differences between the sexes. Science that tells us this, they say, must be bad or biased science, because it leads to conclusions that they regard as sexist.

Similar outrage is provoked by the idea that sexual orientation has genetic roots – by which is meant: not that there is a ‘gene’ for being straight, gay or bisexual, but that one’s sexual orientation is partly shaped ‘from the beginning’, apart from culture or individual choice. For example, many people think that if being gay is significantly shaped by a genetic predisposition, then there is no choice about whether or not to behave accordingly. Some gay people, of course, welcome such claims, saying they show that being gay is just as ‘natural’ as being straight, and that no one can be blamed for it – or, indeed, for acting on it. Many moral conservatives, on the other hand, hate these claims, because they think it would entail exactly that, and would go against their view that that being gay is an immoral choice.

When it comes to neuroscience, many people are concerned about the implications that this rapidly developing field might have for human freedom and responsibility. Such worry is understandable, for we do indeed find enthusiastic attempts to debunk our pretensions to free will, on the basis of neuroscience. It is claimed, for example, that choice is an illusion, because the subjective experience of choice is preceded, by a split second, by events in the brain that are supposed to be the real determinants of action. Many people are deeply worried about this seeming threat to freedom and responsibility, and conclude that  any neuroscience research that purports to prove such things must be flawed. They may even say that neuroscience is sinister per se, rather like ‘race science’.

The problem with all these reactions is that people whose hearts are in the right place – who oppose some kinds of discrimination, and who believe in moral responsibility – are pretty confused about both ‘genetic determinism’, and the proper scope of neuroscience. With ‘genetic determinism’ (there is a reason for the scare quotes) there is, first, a misunderstanding of what it is, and second, a mistaken view of what it implies.

At its most plausible, ‘genetic determinism’ is not strictly determinism at all, but rather the claim that we have various dispositions whose causes have a significantly genetic component. Some of these dispositions are emotional – such as fear of attack, or affection for one’s children – and have clear survival advantages for us or our descendants. They also incline us towards certain sorts of behaviour. For example, if men are (on average) more promiscuous than women, there is a partly genetic cause of this. One familiar story tells us that for maximum reproductive success, a male needs as many female partners as possible, whereas a female needs no more than one or a few male partners. We can therefore expect that millions of years of Darwinian evolution would have selected in favour of relative male promiscuity. It has given males a greater average disposition towards promiscuity.

However, if this genetic story is correct, it does not imply that males are literally compelled to be promiscuous. We can see the disadvantages as well as the advantages of this genetic disposition, and are able to act to curtail it. Nor do genetics or biology exclude culture and socialisation as causes of behavioural dispositions, for genetic causes are one kind of cause among many others. Nor, finally, does it morally justify greater male promiscuity, or a moral double standard for judging men and women’s behaviour. You can’t appeal to genetically explained biological factors to justify such moral claims – or at least, not in any straightforward way.

Furthermore, when it comes to appealing to genetic or biological factors to justify certain practices like sex discrimination, any such story can only be a statistical one. Statements like ‘men are more competitive than women’, even if true, are only statistically true. They are like saying that ‘men are taller than women’. This is an everyday way of stating a statistical truth, and only a pedant would object to it by pointing out that some women are taller than some men. We all know what is meant by saying ‘men are taller than women’; there is no need to qualify it by adding ‘on average, men are taller than  women’. The same should go for competitiveness, promiscuity, aggressiveness, or any other characteristic that men are said to possess more of than women.

A likely reason why debates about ‘nature versus nurture’ tend to become so heated is that adherents of a more ‘social scientific’ model tend to see in genetic explanations a sinister agenda, which seeks to justify all kinds of false and harmful claims. And there can be no doubt that some such claims have been justified by appeal to genetics. But once we see why the truth of some genetic explanations for human behaviour does not have these implications, we are in a position to evaluate them in a more objective way. This is a good thing, for the ability to reach conclusions according to where the evidence leads, rather than according to where we would like it to lead, is an important mark of intellectual integrity.

Author: piersbenn

Welcome to my blog. I am a philosopher and author and have held a number of academic posts. Since 2013 I have been a Visiting Lecturer at Heythrop College, University of London and an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University New York (based at its London Centre). My latest book is 'Commitment' (Acumen Press 2011). My research and teaching expertise is mostly in Ethics, and especially Medical Ethics. I am also interested in Philosophy of Religion and aspects of Political Philosophy. I have blogged for the Times and the Independent and have done many talks and media interviews.

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