Posts Tagged ‘genetics’

Ethnocentrism and Violence

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Humans are naturally ethnocentric. From an early age, we are programmed to establish ourselves as part of a tribal in-group, in order to identify and categorize potential allies and potential threats. This is an important part of the pre-existing psychological landscape upon which we gradually build up our identities and beliefs as we mature. It’s a part of “human nature”, you could say, if you wanted to phrase it more misleadingly. But at the same time, there is no greater significance to this fact, either – it’s simply one of the strategies that helped our ancestors survive, which is why it has persisted to the present day. It’s like a wing, or an eye: shaped by the natural selection of varying traits, with no foresight or intelligent interference.*

This is the kind of discovery that a lot of people, even those who are generally enthusiastic about science, sometimes appear to be afraid of. These fears usually stem from the idea that if we discover a genetic basis for certain behaviours, then suddenly these behaviours will be rendered an immutable aspect of human nature, and any political or social arguments against them will be instantly voided. It’s a fear of genetic determinism, in other words. Richard Dawkins gives an example of this in one of his books (I think it was The Extended Phenotype but don’t quote me), recalling a science lecture he attended where afterwards, a woman asked the lecturer how much scientific evidence there was for genetically-based gender differences (other than traits relating directly to biological sex, obviously) – the trembling emotion in her voice suggesting that all her feminist beliefs were riding on the answer. A similar fear of (or appeals to) all-powerful genes overruling our better judgment can be found pretty much across the spectrum of political and social ideologies.

Let’s assume the existence of a single gene with a single allele that controls for the aforementioned tendency towards ethnocentrism, or perhaps just a more generalized tendecy towards tribalism. This is by no means certain to be true; it could be a trait controlled by the combined effects of multiple genes, or a gene with a complex subset of alleles, or some other weird biological curve ball that nature delights in throwing our way. And it could also be possible for this gene to have additional pleiotropic effects which make it extremely difficult to mess about with. But since this is a hypothetical scenario, we’ll keep it simple. What would be the consequence of discovering such a gene, learning how it works, and perhaps even figuring out a way to remove it entirely?

At first glance it seems like this might be a useful course of action, given the problems associated with our tribalist heritage. You could easily imagine media reports proclaiming that scientists had uncovered the “racism gene”, with the suggestion that either removing the gene or blocking its expression could be seen as a “cure for racism”. Strictly speaking this doesn’t add up, but only because the logic is incomplete. Race might be a social construct, but as long as we use this construct to denote tribal divisions, you can effectively argue that we are evolutionarily predisposed to racial prejudice and that genetic engineering could therefore offer a solution to the problem.

This view is much too simplistic, of course. There are many other ways in which tribalism manifests in human behaviour, and a wholesale genetic slash and burn job would eliminate these, too. We can take “predisposition to tribalism” as a basic psychological building block and say that this is the thing that cultural evolution has transformed into religion, nationalism, organised sports, and all the other things that involve large groups of people pooling resources to achieve things beyond the simple pursuit of individual survival that we normally see in more “classical” Darwinian settings. Secular humanism is perhaps the most important product of this branch of cultural evolution, but it, too, is reliant on our hypothetical “racism gene”. To an alien observer who did not possess this trait, these behaviours could well seem bizarre and difficult to relate to – but to us, they are quite meaningful, for better or worse (and don’t worry; through observation and a little game theory, our alien friend would eventually come to understand this too, at least intellectually).

This is the main point I want to make with this little hypothetical scenario: that our increasing knowledge of the human genome and the various behaviours that have filtered down through our evolutionary history don’t automatically equate to a justification for these same behaviours. In this example, we see that there are many different ways in which a basic instinctual impulse can manifest, especially once cultural evolution takes hold of it. This is a key fact we need to keep in mind when new scientific discoveries come to light, to ensure that they expand our knowledge without being used to reinforce old prejudices and outdated worldviews. And the reason I chose to use the increasing knowledge of our tribal heritage as an example is because of our inspiring reaction to this information: we didn’t justify racism, we (re)invented humanism. We turned a potentially divisive weakness into the greatest of strengths.

Now we can turn to the subject that I am normally going on about. There is no sound reason why we can’t use this same principle to argue against violent behaviour as well. The more we learn about how violent behaviour works, the better equipped we are to develop strategies and philosophies to circumvent these psychological shortcomings – and the dumber it is that people keep trying to use this knowledge to justify violence instead. As I have discussed before, to a large extent cultural evolution is steadily chipping away at this problem even as we speak (and not out of any sort of benign interest either, but simply because it works). Humans today are much less violent than they were during pretty much any other period of history, and the gradual trend towards nonviolence shows no signs of slowing down. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help the process along, as there is still work to be done.

I don’t really want to get bogged down in another long blog post here, so I’m just going to write about a couple of discomforting truths which I feel are usually neglected during discussions on this topic. The obvious one to start with is the fact that you don’t have to be crazy to think that violence is a useful solution to your problems. Violence is a sound evolutionary strategy, and probably one of the oldest, too, because evolution is a process that occurs without foresight, so the long-term consequences of violence are irrelevant. Moreover, the wastefulness of natural selection – wiping out the vast majority to filter out a select few survivors – also mitigates the consequences of violence, from that perspective at least. Indeed, in many instances, violence is precisely what propels natural selection onwards. (And it’s worth noting here that natural selection ultimately doesn’t favour organisms, it favours genes, so unpleasant outcomes are hardly of any concern to it in that resepect also.)

The key predictors of violent behaviour in humans remain the most dangerously banal ones: young, male, low socioeconomic status, substance abuse. Mental illness is rarely a factor, and when it is, usually the other factors will also be in play to a larger degree anyway. In fact, mental illness is actually much more likely to make a person suicidal rather than homicidal, and this is an important factor in a special kind of statistically-rare but highly publicized kind of violent behaviour: mass shootings and suicide bombings. In these cases, the pathological desire to die will naturally change the brain’s internal risk-vs-reward analysis and make violence seem like a more attractive option, but even so, regular suicides are far more common than murder-suicides. Even in these rare outlier cases, the triggers for violent behaviour are usually just the same as the ones that influence the behaviour of mentally healthy people; the difference in outcome is due to the way these triggers interact with the person’s suicidal desires. Considering that the vast majority of violent acts are committed by mentally healthy people, that is where our focus really ought to lie.** The problem is that the kinds of violence that are most common – domestic violence, rape, street violence, etc – are also the kinds that people don’t want to talk about, whereas the rare outlier cases get widespread media attention and therefore alter people’s perception about the reality of violent behaviour. If we are constantly told that “the man with the gun was crazy” then inevitably it will sink in, regardless of the level of truth in that statement. But in reality, automatically attributing all instances of real-life violence to “craziness” is like dismissing all car accidents as being caused by ice on the road – you’ll be right occasionally, but you’re ignoring all the most common causes of the problem, and your calls to combat car accidents by increasing the public’s awareness of icy road conditions will just look silly and ill-informed.

As usual, an evolutionary perspective can shed some light on why this is the case. Prior to the advent of civilisation, the “typical” social arrangement for hunter-gatherer tribes was a dominance hierarchy headed by a small number of polygamous males who monopolized all the mating opportunities. From my feminist perspective, I see this as a sort of “proto-patriarchy”; the thing that cultural evolution would later shape into the familiar patriarchal societies of today (not with any foresight, of course, but we can apply these labels in hindsight, for convenience). For the present discussion, however, the key point to note is that this proto-patriarchal social order did not benefit all males; only those at the top of hierarchy. An inevitable by-product of polygamous, “harem-style” mating strategies is that there will always be groups of males, often adolescents who have not yet challenged the alphas, who are left on the outer, and are frustrated by a lack of mating opportunities and, usually, harrassed and shunned by the rest of the group. Under these circumstances, any risk-vs-reward calculations will now swing towards the violent end of the scale, and aggressive behaviour will become a potentially winning strategy. (This is true not just amongst our ancestors but of pretty much all species which have adopted this kind of social structure.) So now, we see that violence is a conditional strategy, triggered by environmental circumstances.

At this point I was considering trying to stretch the feminist analogy and suggesting that we should be thinking in terms of alpha-male privilege versus regular male privilege, as a way of linking our current cultural conditions with the behavioural patterns of our ancestors – but of course, the more obvious approach would be to suggest we are looking at the beginnings of class-based privilege instead. There is already a wealth of analysis on the intersectionality between these two concepts, so I won’t dwell here. Again, the key points are that aggressive behaviour, as an evolutionary strategy, is triggered by certain social conditions which, in a modern context, look a whole lot like the predictors of violent behaviour I listed above. The only outlier is substance abuse, which, in common cases such as alcohol-related violence, acts as a remover of inhibition and thereby enhances the role played by other factors which, on their own, may not have been powerful enough to influence the person’s behaviour. It’s worth remembering that one of the primary functions of the neocortex is simply to act as an inhibitor of lower brain functions, so disabling it through artificially altered brain chemistry provides an important shortcut for those who have not developed violent behaviours habitually, and therefore have greater difficulty overcoming these barriers through more natural means.

So, as the causes and origins of our built-in behavioural repertoire come to light, we are faced with much the same choice as in the previously-examined example of ethnocentrism: we can either use these facts to try and justify violence, or we can use them to develop strategies to prevent violence. On the surface, this might seem like a no-brainer, but the real problem with most anti-violence philosophies is that people will readily agree to them in principle, but they will then often reserve a few exceptions to this rule in order to preserve instances where they either benefit from violence or are too afraid of letting go of violence as a coping mechanism, even if it is not the optimal choice. We need to keep in mind that violence is a selfish strategy with short-term benefits which serve to blind people to its long-term consequences. We therefore cannot expect people to willingly change their behaviour unless some solid alternatives are provided, and the consequences of a failure to act are highlighted to the point of being impossible to ignore.

I’m not going to drive myself crazy (again) by trying to come up with all the solutions here. But the most obvious starting point, at least, would be to focus on the hierarchical nature of our society and examine the ways in which it turns violence into a statistical inevitability by recreating conditions that favoured violence in our evolutionary past. Deconstructing hierarchies is already a necessary task faced by feminists and atheists anyway (which I’m guessing is the direction your views already skew if you’re reading this), so we have plenty of pre-existing ideas to call upon. It’s just a question of synthesizing all these different perspectives into a coherent whole, and perhaps also, convincing ourselves that such wide-reaching change is indeed a goal we can realistically work towards. I certainly think it is within the realms of possibility, even if it will take a long time. Societies can’t remain in stasis; new ideas are constantly being generated, and the best of these will rise to the top and oust the old ideas. It’s just a question of whether “best” means “best for everyone”, or “best for those at the top of the hierarchies” (or even “best for the ideas themselves”, selfish meme style, but that’s a whole other thing). But whichever way it goes, change is inevitable, so we might as well try and make it a change for the better.

I began with a reminder that behavioural patterns are naturally-selected artifacts, no different from an eye or a wing. This is important because humans are the only animals that actively modify and rework their bodies instead of just having to settle for whatever evolution provided them with. Eyes and wings can be augmented and improved upon, and the same will hold true for just about anything else we care to turn our attention to. We are humans; that is what we do.

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*This is something of a digression, but I point it out because it’s easy to get caught up in the complexity and subjective strikingness of some evolutionary products and start thinking to yourself, wow, this must mean something; it must be important. But would you say the same thing about some of the more humble yet, by most measures, far more successful Darwinian progeny, such as cyanobacteria? The significance we apply to a thing needs to stem from more than just its ability to survive in relation to other things. Evolution is the closest thing we have to a science of teleology, so it can therefore powerfully inform our moral and ethical judgments, but that is all it can do; it cannot dictate morality, which is key. As primates we have a built-in desire for morality to be dictated from an authoritarian source (originally the alpha male of the social group, which eventually evolved into increasingly-powerful tribal leaders and up to spirits and gods and so forth), which is why we need to approach claims of such authority with an additional level of skepticism, to compensate for our innate biases.

**Of course, mental healthcare is worth advocating for regardless of the role it plays here, so obviously I don’t wish to downplay its importance. We just need to recognize that pursuing that path won’t lead to the decrease in violence that many people seem to think will naturally follow from it.

In Which The Complaint Is Longer Than The Original Piece

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Something that caught my eye in the news the other day: an article about scientists discovering a potential genetic link to depression. Whilst the subject itself is interesting, and we will get to that in a moment, this article also provides us an illustrative example of the problem with overly-simplistic science reporting. In this case, it is playing up to a popular misconception about the nature of genetics, by stating that the genes in question actively cause depression. This is almost certainly wrong, for reasons which experts would have a much easier time explaining, but I will give it a shot.

All human behaviour, to varying extents, is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment (additionally, you could also say that genes construct phenotypes – some of which, such as the psychological makeup of the human brain, become a kind of third player in this interaction, transcending their genetic origins but also acting independently of any environmental influences). The idea of genes playing a predominant role in this process is kind of like suggesting that all you need is the recipe to know how a meal is going to taste. If you don’t go to the trouble of gathering the necessary ingredients, cooking them, and actually eating the final product, you’re going to miss out on a lot of important information. And even then, you can’t speak authoritatively about the recipe, because variations in ingredients and the cooking process will produce subtlely – or even substantially – different results each time.

Depression is no different in this regard, and its status as a problem that has both genetic and environmental roots is fairly well accepted by most experts. And yet the idea of a neat genetic cause remains appealing, both here and with many other problems, for a couple of reasons. First is just the basic simplicity of it – but whilst simplicity is of course highly valued in science, this simplicity should never come at the expense of fact. Elegant simplicity, encompassing all the known facts, is the real ideal to strive for. And secondly, there is a strange comfort that people seem to derive from the idea of genetic predeterminism, even when it causes significant problems, because it negates responsibility for any actions that may have otherwise caused said problems. In other words, no one has to modify their behaviour to prevent depression in this scenario, because it’s just genes and there’s not much you can do about it. Naturally, this is especially appealing to people who don’t actually suffer from depression, but whose actions or beliefs may have contributed to other people’s problems with the disease.

In reality, most people with depression can trace it back to an environmental cause, though the actual nature of those causes can vary greatly, from interpersonal problems to physical injuries to any number of odd and unexpected things. But of course, if the causes are so varied and widespread, why do some people suffer from it and not others? This is where the genetic component comes in: theoretically, genes may provide a predisposition towards depression in some people, explaining why they react differently to others when presented with the same stimulus. As a general rule of thumb, this is usually how genes work: they can only create a predisposition towards certain behaviours, which is then fulfilled or altered by environmental conditions. Some predispositions are easily changed, whilst others require a more complex confluence of factors before they will start to shift, but generally speaking, humans have evolved to be highly malleable and to adapt to a wide range of environments – including entirely artificial environments of their own creation. Indeed, one of the largely unique functions of the human brain is its ability to override its own predisposed behavioural patterns, which is why we can adapt so readily to new environments, and is also why we possess some semblance of biologically-constrained free will. Additionally, contrary to what you may at first assume, knowledge of our genetic predispositions doesn’t excuse behaviour (ie. you won’t be able to say, “this person has the dickhead gene, therefore they can’t help being a dickhead”) – in fact, this knowledge is actually more likely to make it easier to change these predisposed tendencies. In much the same way that it’s easier to control your hands when you can see what they’re doing, as opposed to groping about in the dark, self-knowledge often empowers the brain to overcome its own limitations. So, you know, it’s not something we should be particularly afraid of, even though many people seem to be, in my own experience at least.

The real trick here, if you want to understand how human behaviour works, is trying to unravel a tremendously convoluted chain of cause and effect – which is why simplistic explanations like “genes cause depression” usually fall apart fairly quickly. I expect the actual answers will be somewhat harder to pry out.

While we’re on the subject, one interesting point to come out of this discovery is that a genetic predisposition to depression may help strengthen the theory that depression has some adaptive value, under the right circumstances. This will largely depend on whether these genes have been actively selected for, as opposed to just being a harmful mutation or an unfortunate by-product of some other beneficial process. Whilst depression is generally a debilitating problem, especially once it spirals out of control, it is also unusual in the sense that it actively reshapes the brain’s thought processes to make it better at solving problems. Most of the harmful symptoms of depression only occur because the brain is devoting too much of its finite resources to this effort, thereby neglecting other important functions. Which means that if depression occurs in response to a genuine problem, the person may well be in the optimum position to solve this problem, assuming their depression doesn’t go too far and drag them under entirely. If it does give people an edge when it comes to problem-solving, then this benefit may be enough for natural selection to favour it, despite the unpleasant side effects (especially if the side effects of failing to solve problems are significantly worse, which is not hard to imagine). But this idea is still fairly speculative, and the debate is far from over.

To return to the original article, we should probably ask the question: did the reporter actively misunderstand the concept, or were they simply trying to create a quick summary and didn’t realise the implications of their imprecise language? (This is a common problem in science – as I have often discovered in the past, even if you have a basic understanding of a concept, there’s still like a thousand ways you can get the terminology wrong.) Or alternatively: is it perhaps an accurate record of an overzealous announcement by one of the research teams in question? Well, here is one of the papers referenced in the article, so check it out for yourself. You’ll notice they are rather more conservative in their wording, revealing the actual nature of their discovery: they are merely documenting an interesting and potentially significant correlation, not the be-all and end-all causal link suggested by the subsequent article reporting their findings. Unfortunately, as usual, the real science is rather more boring and messy than most people would like.

Ultimately, this is just another reminder to remain skeptical about information that has filtered through the science news cycle.