Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Return of Eugenics

I'm only writing this post because my genes are configured in a particular way. At least that's the view of the social world that we get from crude, pseudo-scientific bullshit like the views pedaled in this article on marriage.

What is scientific about the suggestions and innuendo in this article? I'm not sure. Science proceeds by putting forward hypotheses, while attempting to show that the available evidence is explained well by these hypotheses. What reasons have we to think that immutable facts of our genetic makeup explain social phenomena? Very few. It's rather obvious to anyone doing serious work in social science or psychology that the pseudo-scientific speculation pedaled in books like The Selfish Gene is false. It is also worth pointing out that even the connection between behavior and "breed" in dogs is not well-understood by scientists. If pressed, any of the charlatans penning "pop-science" books on the tight connection between genes and social phenomena will concede that what they're saying is wild speculation.

But there are more important questions to ask here. In particular, what is it about our society that makes eugenic views so convenient and apparently plausible? We must keep in mind here that the current vogue of eugenics and genetic-determinist ideas about social/political phenomena has nothing to do with evidence or facts.

Genetic-determinist "theories" are simple and easy to state. They are free of the complications that, sorry to say, are in fact parts of social phenomena. But most importantly, these ideas fit neatly and cleanly into existing configurations of power. There is no friction between them and the status quo.

Thus we find these "theories" in popular outlets like the NYTimes because they are ways of making sense of the social world that suggest that things are as they should be. The message is clear: if we're hardwired to be racists... why struggle against such things? If certain "races" are genetically predisposed to behave in certain ways... why aim for political equality? If women are genetically hardwired such that they are deferential and conventionally "feminine", then why criticize existing gender norms and hierarchies? This could go on and on.

I don't think that therapists and psychoanalysts have been wrong to focus on family history and other contingent features of a life when interpreting drives, desires and neuroses. Nor have social theorists been wrong to focus on big structural features of societies when they think about institutions like marriage and how they change over time.

It is far from obvious to me that considerations of this sort should be alien to an examination of "marriage stability". Are we to think that, for example, severe economic hardship has no real implications for the stability of a marriage?

Moreover, political theorists and historians have not been wrong to examine the ways in which changes in societies, political configurations and so on often track political struggles directed towards changing them. The Womens' Movement of the 60s and 70s, for example, radically changed the way that Americans think about heterosexual marriage relations. Moreover, the black liberation struggles of the 1950s and 60s shattered a certain configuration of power in the South that was basically a form of apartheid. Of course, racism and sexual oppression still persist in potent forms, but it is undeniable that things have changed quite a bit since the suffocating conformism and patriarchy of the 1950s. And, most importantly, the reason they changed had to do with active political struggles on the part of the oppressed, NOT genetic configurations causing people to act in certain ways rather than others.

But if you accept the genetic-determinist story... why struggle? Why think that social relations could change? If the genetic-determinist account tries to say that can also explain why people struggle against certain configurations of power, then it just looks entirely ad hoc and incapable of being falsified. This brings out, I think, just how speculative and underspecified these approaches are and, thus, why they are so dangerous. They can give a "scientific" veneer of credibility to whatever you like: racism, sexism, you name it.

I'm not suggesting that there aren't any facts about human psychology or behavior that derive from natural features of our constitution. On the contrary- we have certain naturally given capacities in virtue of which we are human. But our faculties and capacities include the ability to reflect on reasons for which we act, and to choose whether or not to endorse such reasons.

Having a set of capacities and faculties that are natural in no way entails that our behavior must be regular and predictable, or worse, determined (without our knowing it) by our genetic makeup. On the contrary- human behaviors are malleable: we adapt to different environments and change as a result of those environments. That is, after all, what the content of evolutionary theory actually is: random mutations render certain organisms more fit in a particular environment, and if that environment changes, they may no longer be as fit, and hence, as favorably placed to reproduce. It is not as though the environment is "determined" by the genes themselves.

But again, I must stress the non-scientific character of the "sociobiology" or "genetic-determinist" phenomenon in recent years. It is not a full-fledged scientific research program: it is window-dressing for the status quo. It is a set of ideas that purport to show that all is well in the world and that it couldn't be otherwise. Ideology is at its strongest when it convinces people that contingent, malleable features of social life are inevitable and natural. Why think of resisting what could not be changed?

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