Why you should be skeptical of “genes”

July 16, 2009

Newsweek’s Sharon Begley is a one-woman wrecking crew. Maybe you read her crushing attack on bad evolutionary psychology?

Now she’s telling us about a new finding that high school kids get better grades if they are physically attractive (girls), well groomed (boys especially) or have an “attractive” personality (girls). Note to my lefties: sex and class bias are almost certainly in play here.

Here’s the paper, which I need to dip into at some point.

Begley says the beauty bonus is well known. The other findings are new. One explanation might be that “attractive” kids get more positive feedback from a young age, which makes them better learners. Keep that point firmly in mind.

In Begley’s uppercut, she notes that some researchers (this guy) are still hoping to link individual genes to IQ.

When scientists link a gene to a trait, they seldom know exactly what the heck the gene actually does. So let’s say they link gene X to IQ. Based on what’s known about the beauty premium, and now on how personality can boost kids’ GPA through mechanisms unrelated to actual brainpower, what if gene X is in fact producing a shapelier nose, or prettier eyes, or a sunny personality, and not, for instance, making synapses denser or brain neurons more efficient or causing some other effect that increases intelligence? How much do you want to bet that it will be hailed as a true IQ gene with all that entails (discrimination against those who have the wrong form being the most obvious), when in fact all it does is give people traits that society chooses to reward with (unmerited) higher grades and the resulting greater success in the work force?

In behavioral psychology, researchers like to compare traits of twins raised in the same home versus twins raised in separate homes to try to assess the “heritability” of traits such as IQ. In other words, if you hold the environment constant (as much as possible) and still see variation in a trait, you can attribute more of that variation to genetic factors, as expressed in the shared environment. Or that’s my understanding, anyway.

Begley’s point is that maybe the genes underlying the heritability of IQ are ones that give you, say, pretty eyes that make teachers pay more attention to you.

I think Malcolm Gladwell just wrote a book about this kind of thing.

See also: Newsweek | The Gene Puzzle


2 Responses to “Why you should be skeptical of “genes””

  1. the girl up north Says:

    Luv my sharon begley. Thanks.

    And here’s that lovely love David Brooks, who happens to be the funniest journalist in person who you wouldn’t think was funny.

    sums it up extremely well in accessible language:

    “Moreover, we’ve evolved to adapt to diverse environments. Different circumstances can selectively activate different genetic potentials. Individual behavior can vary wildly from one context to another. An arrogant bully on the playground may be meek in math class. People have kaleidoscopic thinking styles and use different cognitive strategies to solve the same sorts of problems.

    Evolutionary psychology leaves the impression that human nature was carved a hundred thousand years ago, and then history sort of stopped. But human nature adapts to the continual flow of information—adjusting to the ancient information contained in genes and the current information contained in today’s news in a continuous, idiosyncratic blend.

    The second problem is one evolutionary psychology shares with economics. It’s too individualistic: individuals are born with certain traits, which they seek to maximize in the struggle for survival.

    But individuals aren’t formed before they enter society. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn’t merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it’s also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.

    The allure of evolutionary psychology is that it organizes all behavior into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of time and place. But there’s no escaping context. That’s worth remembering next time somebody tells you we are hardwired to do this or that.”


  2. james Says:

    ya ok so i love anyone who point to the abyss that constitutes the shadows of doubt we should have in genetic psychology or any other conclusions we make on genetics. but jesus, who peer reviews this kind of crap science? why is when ever people start researching genes all credible scientific method goes out the window using countless vague social constructs as variables and constants.

    “beauty” ??!? really? really? that was your variable? beautiful to who? Do they really get teachers to admit that they thought those kids were beautiful? by what criteria do they define what constitutes a “shapely nose”

    and IQ? how do they test this? and do these tests reflect school performance? which schools? where? who?

    ill say this a thousand more times in my life (this month). If there is no conclusive evidence that genes directly define our psychology (im including “intelligence” here – whatever the hell that means) AND we do have credible, conclusive evidence that social environment and personal experiences have massive effect on who we are — why are we still defining social phenomenon in terms of genes. aka why are we still having the nature vs. nurture debate?

    the short answer is it reaffirms alot of things people want to hear. Poor people are poor because of their own fault, dumb people are born dumb, and I was just born smart. Women are emotional and men are strong, its in our genes. Nothing to reexamine and nothing to be changed. – it also better business then the alternative.

    im not saying theres no need for scientific research into genetics, but if theres no conclusive evidence (NONE) why are we writing articles in the times about it and why do half the people in the country think their alcoholic relative just got that bad gene? keep researching – let us know if you actually figure anything out. until then come on people…

    [slight edit here for tone — JR]

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