Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bob Rants On: Genetic Determinists

Bob's Rants are likely to be a recurring feature. Be warned...

Among the various people who really get my goat are genetic determinists. They lean exclusively toward the Nature side of the Nature-versus-Nurture debate, and believe that a person's genetic code determines practically everything about that person.

They hold a position different from mine, and good for them! Science thrives on debate, and nothing enlivens a controversy like good old-fashioned polarization.

But in one sense the genes-versus-environment controversy has more at stake than, say, disagreement over the mechanism of enzymatic reactions. The premise that genes determine complex human characteristics, like morality and intelligence, has been used aggressively to promote social engineering. To Social Darwinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "survival of the fittest" wasn't just a mechanism that drove evolution, it was a moral imperative to cull "undesirables" from the human populations. What started out as a collection of drawing room intellectuals patting each other on the back for being "genetically fit" soon turned into public policy. The conflation of social privilege with genetic superiority allowed people to accept their socio-economic advantages without guilt, and gave them the additional pretext to deny the underprivileged a fair chance to succeed. "Pauperism" was declared a genetic predisposition to poverty, and many proposed it be "cured" via sterilization. Native Americans were actually sterilized. American immigration policies were severely biased against non-Anglo-Saxons, to prevent "dilution" of the national blood by less worthy ethnicities.

Many contemporary genetic determinists continue to attribute the low success rates of underprivileged groups to genetic causes. They are careful to avoid outright claims that "Caucasians and Asians are more intelligent than Africans". They speak of more averages and standard deviations and outliers than you can throw a bell curve at. But their underlying premise is that IQ tests and the SAT are accurate predictors of "intelligence" rather than of, well, test taking ability. If the average scores for whites and asians are higher than those of blacks and hispanics, it is because the evolutionary pressures on their ancestors selected for sentence completion and analogy recognition.

Come again?

It is interesting to note that genetic determinists have never doubted their own fitness. Why should they? It is obvious to them that they are the creme de la creme of the human race. If they are anything less than the fittest, they would clearly not be at the top of the game. Their status at the top confirms their belief in their genetic superiority. It also affords them the unique privilege to decide what "fitness" is, and to judge others for their difference.

More importantly, it allows them to strengthen their position in the social heirarchy. They are successful, therefore they are fit. They are fit and so are entitled to more. The have-nots are unfit because they have not, and therefore deserve not. It's the perfect excuse to eliminate social welfare, abandon affirmative action, and place power firmly in the privileged hands that have held it so far. And what of the women, the poor, the ethnic and racial minorities? Let them fend for themselves. After all, it's a jungle out there.

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