Tuesday, June 21, 2005
I think with this piece, the forces of genetic-determinism have officially jumped the shark.
Two things are peculiar about this, but not so peculiar once you think about it:
1. It's the NY Times that is taking genetic-determinism to silly lengths. This is surprising on its face, because only last week it seemed genetic-determinism was outright heresy, racist, sexist, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. But in fact it's not that surprising, because today's right is far more invested in the notion that there are no hard-wired differences than is the left. Why do I say that? It's the left that is wedded to the notion that sexual orientation is hard-wired, the right that yearns to believe it's a matter of choice. It's the left that has been preaching diversity, diversity, diversity for over a decade now, and while they usually meant something akin to "we should all look different but think alike" I think it's nonetheless true that saying the word over and over has made them a bit more receptive to the notion that differences are more than skin deep. And, relatedly, the left is comfortable with race-conscious policies, where the right is intermittently committed to the notion that opportunity and determination is the answer to all questions. Finally, the increasing Christianization of the American right has made for a very strong commitment to anti-racism, while the left, convinced of its rightness but doing a lousy job of convincing others of same, is increasingly open to the notion that some people are just born too thick to see the truth.
2. It happened so quickly! Again, it was only the day before yesterday that Larry Summers was raked over the coals for daring to suggest that biological sex differences have some bearing on the paucity of female physics Nobelists. Then yesterday we got the Cochran-Harpending paper on Ashkenazi intelligence, and today the Red State/Blue State divide is genetic. But, again, that silliness should follow so swiftly upon the first opening of the mind should not surprise upon reflection. Settled ideas are the ones less likely to wander off in silly directions. By contrast, someone first entertaining a new thought, or even more so a new way of thinking, is apt to see analogies and applications everywhere. When Einstein's General Relativity and Bohr's quantum mechanics first impinged upon the public consciousness, artists and other unacknowledged legislators of the world rushed to find applications to moral and cultural life, applications that were at best pointless and at worst mad, and in all cases merely indicative of an utter lack of comprehension of science generally, much less the meaning of these particular theories. So as the culture opens up to discussions of deep difference, expect to see lots of really dumb ideas mixed in with genuine research.
I only hope the dumb ideas don't produce a backlash, different in kind but comparable to the early-90s backlash from political correctness.
As to the article itself: our personalities, our characters, are far more complicated than this kind of scheme suggests. There is lots and lots of evidence that the deep structure of our personality is largely hard-wired. There's also lots of evidence that notable talent - musical ability, mathematical ability, athletic ability, etc. - is to a considerable extent hard-wired. There's also lots of evidence that a variety of abilities and traits are distributed unevenly among different population groups, as well as between the sexes and between straights and gays.
But it's also manifest to anyone who has done serious introspection that we build personas that lie on top of our deep personality, that can compensate for that deep personality's deficiencies and even produce what appears to be the opposite of what the deep personality would suggest. We can write software to produce a front-end that looks like it's running on a different O/S than it really is. And we can do this in very complex ways, not only in the obvious ones (such as: a shy person who overcompensates by being extra-gregarious). I know I do. For many people, that deep personality is a bit frightening, the source of most of our creativity on the one hand, but of our most anti-social impulses on the other, as well as of our most disabling fears. Which is why we write software to work around it.
This software is going to work differently for different people. What works around the pitfalls of my deep personality would do very little, or even be destructive, for working around yours. But it's the product of the interaction of my conscious mind, the conscious minds of my parents, teachers and peers, and my deep personality. And, as the product of these different forces, it can't possibly be determined by me genes. Your body shape will certainly determine what size and cut will suit you, but you still need a tailor if you don't want to go naked to the dance.
I guess what I'm saying is: while our talents and our personalities likely have a large genetic component, our characters are something else. We would do well to remember that distinction.