Tuesday, September 13, 2022


I ran across an observation I made over a decade ago about believing in genetic versus environmental problems that is always in the background for me when discussing the issues, but I have not expressly mentioned for a long time.

People prefer environmental explanations because it feels like we could therefore do something to fix a problem.  We could come up with some technology, perhaps. We could pass some legislation to buy some things or make people stop doing some things.  We could focus on education and self-improvement to make the problem go away, or at least get better.  This is why conservatives can jump on the environmentally-based solutions as well. If we just taught kids more responsibility, got them into scouting, emphasised reading and math, had higher expectations, stopped them from saying "like," made them put their devices away...It's just a different list than what liberals have, but it's the same principle. And some of those traits like determination or cooperativeness or attention to detail or emotional control might also be largely heritable, just as an aside.  There may not be the escape hatches there that folks were counting on.

But believing in genetics feels like just giving up, not doing anything about the problem.  It feels like accepting the status quo and never giving women the vote or outlawing slavery or even trying to improve things. That's not strictly true, of course.  There are things that are environmental, such as what language is spoken or what the expectations are for men versus women that are nonetheless very difficult to change quickly, and counsels to not bash your head against the wall too much are often offered. Really expensive solutions like ging to war just might not be worth it. And, there are things that are genetic that can be worked around rather than just shrugging and saying "Danny's always going to be stupid." But there is some truth in that division of whether we can change a thing or not. Many times, if something is genetic you will only have workarounds, never solutions, and the sooner you understand that the less energy you are going to waste.

But there is a darker reason, and I wonder how much it feeds in to the desire to have one sort of solution rather than another. If something is environmental, then there is someone to blame. They may be long dead or quite remote, but we can usually find a whipping boy to stand in for them if we must have a villain. If our blameable persons are nearby, so much the better. If things are genetic then who do we blame, God? I think that's a healthy start, actually, though not a good stopping point. But it pretty obviously gets ridiculous blaming your parents, who could only pass on what they received themselves.  We could start blaming natural selection as a process, or even Nature itself, but that seems unsatisfying. We can scoot over to the environmental side and blame people or societies for not accommodating genetic differences, I suppose.  We have some of that, and it's not unfair. 

But if something about a societal problem is genetic, then what are we supposed to do about that, dammit? Are we supposed to just let things be unequal? 

It's why we pretend that "we just don't know, it's not proven" when we do know and it is proven. It's so we can feel useful, feel like we're doing something, can demonstrate that we are doing something, have someone to blame, and can bind our anxieties about life's tragedies.


Christopher B said...

Blank Slateism has broad utility because if anybody can do anything with sufficient effort then if I don't get what I want after expending some effort it must be because something was unfairly holding me back. And it isn't just sour grapes if I think the principle applies to everybody. It may be relatively hard to make that work for a short middle-age guy who isn't very athletic not being an NBA star but it's lot harder to dispute if you're asking why somebody didn't get a promotion or a job.

Thomas Doubting said...

Philosophically, the appeal to genetics is inherently conservative, or strongly seems so, and thus liberals are suspicious of it for the exact same reason that many conservatives are suspicious of climate science. People suspect the science itself has been politicized when it goes against their political commitments.

G. Poulin said...

I am increasingly coming around to the view that most things are better left alone. Every problem that we solve brings in its train a host of new problems that we didn't anticipate. We can make things different; we can't really make the world a better place in any absolute sense. There are no great leaps forward, only great leaps sideways.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: People prefer environmental explanations because it feels like we could therefore do something to fix a problem.

Some aspects of human nature are persistent, even over thousands of years. A jealous Cain killing Abel is a story that everyone can understand.


Yet, the changes in human behavior since then have been vast. People learned to store food for time of want. Cities have grown. Code of laws were instituted. And while human genetics continued to evolve, that can't explain the changes in behavior in response to more recent social developments; the rise of monotheism, the development of capitalism, and the institutions of representative democracy.

Much of human nature remains: greed, love, community. But other aspects have changed considerably. History shows that changes in institutions can fundamentally alter the way people interact with one another.

szopeno said...

There was this blogger, cant remeber his name, who said that actually people should be happy when finding out that some social ill has roots outside environment, because environmental causes are extremely hard to be identified and then corrected, while thing caused by genes at least have root issue identified and might be sometimes alleviated, at least in theory, by designing a medical drug.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good point. I am currently trying to identify what food is causing my gastric distress. The most efficient course is to simplify enormously and then reintroduce slowly. But with gut biomes sometimes taking a month to recover I have avoided that level of extremity. Thus I have many theories and have been depriving myself of various foods in succession, sometimes in combination. I have identified a few that are definitely bad, but don't have a solution yet.

As for causes of medical conditions, we saw much the same in mental health. Environment used to explain everything, and we didn't fix very much.

Thomas said...

If indeed a negative trait is genetic the long term solution would seem to be improving the number of less negative variations of that trait and allow natural selection (or God) work out the details. This implies having more children and genetic mixing are generally positive for the human race.

Zachriel said...

Thomas: allow natural selection (or God) work out the details.

Sexual selection may sometimes be a stronger force in human evolution.

Thomas: This implies having more children and genetic mixing are generally positive for the human race.

Humans have little genetic variation compared to many other species. Mixing often tends to result in heterosis or hybrid vigor.

dhill said...

It's called eugenics and we (myself included) are not brave enough.

HMS Defiant said...

Embrace the power of "and" and you might embrace too the fact that for many things we would like to see "corrected" there is no power on earth that will ever make it so. Environment and genetics play equally powerful roles in the development of whatever innate abilities any person has. To some point money plays a part but it's mostly genetics and environment. As I see it, the West has totally polluted and poisoned the environment by trying to deny it and work viciously to make you think it can be shaped, both at the same time. One can even say that about the "man made" global warming fanatics who are both unwilling and incapable of understanding something that complex without attributing blame to some old white guys.
Thanks the mal-education they've been lumbered with, half of them cannot read above 5th grade level after leaving high school and of those who can, most take off to college for degrees in Gender Science, Business, the Arts, etc and about what fraction of them opt to dive into STEM and get a real understanding of little twisty things like thermodynamics, engineering, math, chemistry, astrophysics, etc? What is it in America? About 3%.
Yeah, the so-called Education Establishment has destroyed understanding and they did it across the board from the elite schools down to the ghetto schools.
"If they don't know anything after all that schooling, how in the Hell do you argue them out of the positions that propagandists have forced them into for over a decade and done it now for decades.

Ever notice how all the fast food places have long since done away with trying to find cashiers that can actually do any kind of basic math? Society accepted that these kids can't handle something as simple as making change and automated all that bit out by putting it all in the machine. They're now discovering that they don't need the person behind the machine either since the customer can punch the buttons on the screen as well as they can scan their own groceries at the supermarket and they can cut costs but slashing another entry level job that has suddenly become explosively over expensive.
What are we supposed to do with all those 'excess to needs' people?

I don't honestly know. The worlds imagined by Jerry Pournelle are becoming more real every single day.