Exploring genetic causation in biology

fruitflyby John McLaughlin

In both popular culture and the technical literature in biology, the word “genetic” is ubiquitous. Despite its common usage and universal recognition, discussions centered around this concept usually leave its meaning taken for granted. We have the vague sense that it relates to DNA, genes, heredity, and inheritance, but what does it mean precisely to describe a process, trait, disease, or property as “genetic?” Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, a latent hope seems to linger among the general public that genetic causes will be uncovered for the vast majority of human ailments. This hope has been fueled by the often confusing use of biological terminology in the popular media, especially when reporting (often in a sensational manner) on a new study or development in the biomedical sciences [1].

Playing such a central role in modern biology, I believe the concept deserves a thorough and nuanced discussion of its theoretical and methodological underpinnings [2]. My aim here is to briefly explore the idea of genetic causation from a biologist’s point of view, as well as the occurrence of misleading metaphors, such as genetic “determination” or “programming,” in the biology literature.

Let’s begin with some orienting information. In a broad sense, heredity is the study of how traits are passed from parents to offspring. Well before biologists understood the material basis of heredity to be DNA, several of its central concepts, such as genotype and phenotype, were solidly in place [3]. I will define these terms with broad strokes. The sum total of an organism’s observable traits is referred to as its phenotype [4]. In the laboratory, phenotype can refer to simple physical characteristics such as size, eye color, weight, and life span, but may also encompass more complex attributes such as behavior. An organism’s genotype is the composite total of all its gene variants [5], each of which is referred to as an “allele.”

The original Mendelian conception of the gene as an indivisible (and in its initial formulation, abstract) unit of heredity has been heavily revised and supplemented by the molecular biology revolution of the last half of the 20th century. The working definition of the gene has grown fuzzier over the decades, especially in light of new empirical findings such as the existence of a huge amount of non-coding and regulatory DNA (i.e., DNA that does not encode RNA and/or protein, but controls the expression of nearby genes). The “Central Dogma” of molecular biology [6] — a gene encodes a messenger RNA, which encodes a polypeptide — is now known to be a vast oversimplification that misses many important details. In addition, we are now aware of how enormously complex the process of development is, even for relatively simple animals. Thus, the classical atomistic notion of a gene, which directly “encodes” a phenotypic trait in a straightforward manner, has certainly been demolished. However, Mendelian concepts such as allele, dominance, and recessivity are still central pillars of developmental genetics, and are deployed in conjunction with biologists’ modern molecular knowledge of gene function.

This brings us to the concept of heritability. What is it and how is it related to genetics and heredity? In contemporary ecology and evolutionary biology, “heritability” is formally defined as the proportion of variance in a given phenotypic trait (e.g. height or tail length) that is attributable to genotypic variance [7]. An important fact to note about this definition is that it describes a population level phenomenon. Therefore, heritability is a property of a trait in a specific population, in a specific environment. For this reason, heritability equations [8] are not equipped to infer genetic causation that may be operating in individual organisms, let alone say anything about specific genetic mechanisms at play during development. The concept of heritability is often employed in genome-wide association studies, which attempt to link phenotypic variation to variation in genotypes on a population level [9].

Now, to approach the central questions. In my biased position as a developmental biologist in training, I understand genetic causation as mainly a question of how genes, other cellular materials, and the organism’s environment dynamically interact as co-causes of development. One guiding interest of developmental biologists is to determine how particular genotypes reliably produce a specific phenotype. I may have already erred by saying that a genotype “produces” a phenotype. Does this imply that genotype X will always produce phenotype X, regardless of the organism’s environment? And/or does it imply that genotype X is sufficient to produce phenotype X?

This question involves distinct conceptual and empirical issues: namely, what does it mean for a trait to be genetically caused, and assuming that this is a coherent concept, how can one experimentally demonstrate genetic causation? Naturally for biologists, the empirical problems occupy most of their attention.

Model organism research is ideal for uncovering genetic causation, because both organismal genotype and environment can be (fairly) easily manipulated. This manipulability is key because it allows scientists to experiment with counterfactual scenarios [10], which are considered by biologists to be vital for establishing causal relationships. For example, if two fruit flies, one “normal” (also known as wild-type) and one bearing mutation X [11], are raised in identical environments, a biologist might conclude that any phenotypic differences between the two are caused (directly or indirectly) by the presence of mutation X.

Can the conclusion be made this readily? A more nuanced and interesting set of experiments might place each of these flies in a range of ecologically/developmentally relevant environments. Flies in nature must tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions during their life cycle, in contrast to the optimized, static conditions usually employed in research with model systems. Part of the challenge should be in understanding how these conditions dynamically interact with the genotype and other developmental factors in producing the organism. For instance, if mutation X results in its associated mutant phenotype within a range of environmental conditions relevant to the fruit fly, it can more plausibly be judged to be a cause of the phenotype. Because development is the result of a multitude of interacting co-causal processes, the concept of genetic causation is more nuanced than it might appear at first glance.

Although simpler animals, such as flies, are interesting in their own right (at least I think so), a large amount of public and scientific attention is focused on the much more complex question of how our human genetic endowments affect both the development of and variation among individuals. Several human disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, and cystic fibrosis [12], have a well-understood genetic basis, tied to specific mutations in one or a few genes. This knowledge resulted from years of difficult experimental work in studying the causally relevant genes, the functions of their gene products within the cell, their interactions with other cellular components during development, and their familial patterns of inheritance. With respect to genetic causation, these are obvious examples which fall on the extreme end (i.e., strong determinism) of the spectrum.

The problems, as I see them, begin to arise when the concept of genetic causation is applied well beyond the limits of our experimental understanding, and employed as an explanatory thesis in the behavioral or social sciences. An excellent work on this subject is “The Ontogeny of Information” [13] authored by Susan Oyama, a philosopher of science, psychologist, and founder of Developmental Systems Theory. This book was meant as a response to both the excesses of the sociobiology movement of the 1970s, and the reliance on design, blueprint, and programming metaphors in developmental biology and the behavioral sciences. Oyama describes these metaphors as part of the “cognitive-causal” model of the gene, a framework in which causal agency is assigned to the genes during development.

Although these arguments were raised several decades ago, genetic programming and blueprint metaphors are still commonly used by biologists today, both in their capacity as scientists and in communication with the public. Why are these descriptions of the gene so problematic? Within this conceptual framework, genes are implied to be autonomous information carriers, serving as blueprints from which all other cellular functions are derived. In reality, the cell consists of many components which are not “determined” by the genome in a strict sense. One example is cellular organelles, which are vitally important for cell function but are directly inherited by parental cells rather than encoded in DNA. Another biological fact countering these metaphorical descriptions is the exploding field of epigenetics [14], two main interests of which are the effects of environmental factors on the regulation of the genome, independently of DNA sequence, and various mechanisms of extragenetic inheritance (e.g., via RNA molecules or other cellular components besides DNA).

Why are genes uniquely viewed as carriers of information, when other components of the cell or organism often equally serve this function? Oyama makes an excellent point when she comments on how explanations in the behavioral sciences have become the province of biology when genes are thought to govern the outcome: “We have, for whatever reasons, a peculiar relationship between the behavioral and the biological sciences, a relationship in which some portions of the “higher levels” are considered really the province of the lower ones. Some behavior, feelings, or institutions are “genetically determined,” and therefore biological, while the rest are the proper material for the behavioral scientists. It is as though a chemist were to say that some compounds were really physical while others were (merely) chemical, or a physiologist, that some biochemical processes were chemical and others physiological.”

The conceptual problems surrounding genetics will become even more relevant in scientific and public life, as the biomedical sciences continue to emphasize “Big Data” such as human genome sequences, along with their health care implications. Although mostly neglected by academic biologists, I see these as philosophical issues ripe for conceptual clarification, as well as interesting insights into the historical development of the field itself.


John McLaughlin is a PhD student in biology at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is particularly interested in the relationship between science and philosophy, especially with respect to issues in biology. He is also a regular contributor to the science blog Scizzle.

[1] One recent example is this piece in The Telegraph, commenting on a study that examined genetic variants correlated with infidelity in females. The headline reads: “Cheating on your other half can be inherited.”

[2] The issues related to genetics, heredity, and reductionism are a broad topic in the philosophy of biology, but here are just a few books that I have found helpful and illuminating on the subject: Genetics and Reductionism. Sahotra Sarkar. Cambridge University Press, 1998. / Genetics and Philosophy: An Introduction. Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz. Cambridge University Press, 2013. / The Structure of Biological Science. Alexander Rosenberg. Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[3] For example, the terms genotype and phenotype were both introduced in a 1911 paper by the Danish biologist Wilhelm Johannsen: The Genotype Conception of Heredity. The American Naturalist. 1911. Vol. 45, No. 531.

[4] Phenotype, wiki entry.

[5] Genotype, wiki entry.

[6] Central dogma of molecular biology, wiki entry.

[7] Heritability, wiki entry. See also: Heritability: a handy guide to what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and that giant meta-analysis of twin studies, by J. Kaplan Scientia Salon, 1 June 2015.

[8] A good discussion of heritability, including the differences between narrow and broad sense heritability and their domains of application, is found in Genetics and Reductionism. Sahotra Sarkar, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[9] This paper gives a basic summary of the concept and its modern uses: Heritability in the genomics era — concepts and misconceptions. Visscher et al. 2008. Nature Reviews Genetics.

[10] By counterfactual scenario, I mean a statement of the form “If A had not occurred, C would not have occurred.” This quotation is from the SEP article on “Counterfactual Theories of Causation.”

[11] Let’s assume the presence of this mutation is the only genetic difference between these two flies.

[12] The genetic basis of each of these diseases is briefly summarized in their respective wiki articles: Huntington’s, Cystic fibrosis, and Sickle cell anemia.

[13] The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution, by S. Oyama, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[14] Epigenetics, wiki entry. On the problems with the use of misleading or simplistic metaphors in biology, see: Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education, by M. Pigliucci and M. Boudry, Science and Education 20 (453):471, 2011.


44 thoughts on “Exploring genetic causation in biology

  1. Hi John, this is very clearly written, and I enjoyed reading it. I have a question, though, which probably reflects a gap in my knowledge.

    You wrote, “One example is cellular organelles, which are vitally important for cell function but are directly inherited by parental cells rather than encoded in DNA.” I know that mitochondria, chloroplasts, and some other organelles carry their own DNA, but are you saying other types of organelles are directly inherited? Of course when a cell divides the daughter cells inherit organelles, but ultimately they need to generate new versions, and the proteins used to construct those new versions are specified by the nuclear genome, aren’t they?

    Best regards, Bill


  2. just to note (from a programmer’s perspective) that strictly linking “determination” and “programming” is a mistake, since there are a variety of programming languages and paradigms that include randomness or nondeterminism: quantum programming languages, Actor Model languages (e.g., ActorScript), evolutionary programming, probabilistic programming languages, etc.


  3. Bill:

    Thanks! I’m glad you found it clear. As for your question, yes, over time the cell would replace organelle components and part of this process would be specified by genes encoded in the nuclear genome. In hindsight, I should have been more clear but I specifically had in mind the fact that organelles deposited into the unfertilized egg by the mother will be derived from a maternal genotype that is different from that of its offspring (maternal genotype v. zygotic genotype which consists of maternal plus paternal genes). So our initial “building blocks” will have been assembled in a genetic and environmental background quite different from our own. I hope this makes my intended statement a little more clear.


    That’s a very good point. I’m interested to look into this more..I will have to be more careful with my language in the future.

    I will try to space out my 5 comments as best I can.


  4. In the interest of accuracy: instead of “Central Dogma” you should really have used “Sequence Hypothesis”. The CD is as valid today as it was when penned by Crck back in 1956.


  5. John, you are to be congratulated on excellent prose. As a Professor of Developmental Biology, I have been trying for years to eradicate the concept of genetic programs from an undergraduate’s vocabulary. A simple example I often discuss to highlight the issue is the intricate architecture of the extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM provides the infrastructural support for all body tissues e.g. tendons and ligaments are mostly ECM. There is no program in the chromosomal DNA that provides the instructions to build the ECM. Rather the ECM self assemblies – one can buy the individual components of the ECM (from Sigma Chemical Company) and mix them and they will spontaneously come together and form an elaborate ECM (wouldn’t it be great if Ikea developed this idea for its furniture). The DNA does not instruct the formation of the ECM, but it does direct the physiochemical properties of the constituent proteins. This concept can be extended to all other development events: from building cell membranes and organelles to the assembly of early embryos from simple tissue layers. Students (and many Professors) fail to grasp this idea, so I am pleased that you are espousing the underlying problems of genetic causation.

    Although you touched on the idea of one gene-one disease you might like to further explore the new directions and difficulties facing developmental biologists and geneticists as they attempt to unravel the mechanisms underlying multi-gene diseases/syndromes. Take for example Autism Spectrum Disorder since it may involve hundreds of genes. The complexity of multiple gene-gene interactions and how each are influenced differently by the environment is providing a huge challenge for the field.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I just got done with Richard C. Francis’ great new book, “Domesticated.” I was thinking that a lot of his thought, on things like eco devo, track closely things Massimo has said, and somewhat, some of this.

    And, there he is, mentioning Massimo by name near the end.

    So, I agree; some good stuff, John, and thanks for reminding us that heredity is more complex that some would have it, and though you didn’t delve specifically into this, why we need a “new synthesis.”


  7. Hi John McLaughlin, I thought your essay was well written and useful as an introduction to (those not in the know) why genetic “causation” is a tricky colloquialism.

    As it happens I am also a PhD student, in this case working as a molecular/stem cell neurobiologist at a university medical center. At this moment my stem cell lab is undergoing some sort of merger with the “complex traits genetics” group at the associated university (wow in fact while double-checking their official name on the university’s site I just discovered I am now listed as part of their department).

    Anyway, my task is to investigate the mechanisms underlying the phenotype of a certain brain disorder. Is it “caused” by a genetic mutation? Well, certain genetic mutations in a specific polymerase have been found correlated with the disease among many patients. But wait, there is no single “gene” for the polymerase. It is made of many subunits and different genes are needed to make them. And so different mutations on different subunits, in the right place, may result in the observed disorder. I say “may” because some who have the mutations don’t show the full “classic” phenotype, nor do all of its symptoms have to arise at the same time during development (some into their 30s).

    It gets more complex in that some people do not appear to have the common polymerase mutations, but have the phenotype. Along these lines I just discovered a paper which showed another disorder with some very similar features, and the mutations are on certain subunits of the complex to which the polymerase (in the patients I study) attach.

    This gets to the idea that it is the disruption of a developmental or functional pathway that is better considered the “cause” of a disease phenotype. And so in a sense it is the existence of a developmental or functional pathway that is better considered the “cause” of a healthy phenotype, rather than any particular gene or set of genes having “programmed” its existence. After all pathways can be very flexible to gene mutations, while being quite sensitive to non-genetic environmental conditions.

    Brian Key’s reply discussing formation of the ECM as not being DNA instructed (and its analogy to other developmentally related events) was a perfect example and one that is important in stem cell research. Genes supply (at best) raw materials.

    And still, one of the departments I just became part of specifically investigates multi-genetic contributions to complex traits such as schizophrenia. If causation was tough enough to claim with the physical manifestations I study, how much more so with behaviors?

    My own preference is to use phrases/terms such as “can give rise to”, “may result in”, “a common genetic factor involved/underlying”, a “component” or “contributor” (perhaps modified by “primary” or “crucial”), etc.

    Liked by 6 people

  8. So it would seem that, when we strip away the metaphors, consider certain problems with molecular functioning, and admit the quite evident differences between our descriptions of the details at the molecular level and our descriptions of the ‘big picture’ including the possible behavioral expressions of genetic inheritance, there is no unified theory of genetics. Hmm….

    Say, isn’t it possible that the sciences simply can’t produce unified theories that generate a Big Picture of life, the universe and everything? Perhaps its really just a matter of teasing out bits of information that just don’t come together, because the universe really doesn’t operate as a machine with interlocking gears, but as a collection of happy accidents that continue as long as they don’t get in the way of each other….

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Brian:

    Thanks for your comments. I think the ECM example you cite is a perfect illustration. I agree with your point on multi-gene syndromes such as autism disorders. I think neurobiological disorders greatly illustrate the complexity of genetic/environmental/developmental interplay and it is definitely an area I’m interested in exploring in the future.


    Thanks for the reblog. I’ve noticed a huge amount of effort put into genome-wide association studies attempting to link brain disorders to causative mutations, for example in multiple sclerosis, alzheimers, parkinsons, autism, etc. I don’t keep up with this literature but have you seen anything very interesting or compelling result from these studies? I’d imagine that they might yield a few slightly significant correlations but I would be interested to know.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I like this essay very much, and I’m really sorry I have no time to participate in the discussions lately. 😦

    Just a short reply to Ejwinner:

    Say, isn’t it possible that the sciences simply can’t produce unified theories that generate a Big Picture of life, the universe and everything? Perhaps its really just a matter of teasing out bits of information that just don’t come together, because the universe really doesn’t operate as a machine with interlocking gears, but as a collection of happy accidents that continue as long as they don’t get in the way of each other…

    In short: yes, that’s exactly what is happening. Reductionism is intractable, and science cannot provide us with the “Big Picture” of everything. This essay is another example where this becomes very visible. And in my opinion, this is a good thing — if everything were reducible to fundamental physics, science would be a very boring subject…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi ejwinner,

    Say, isn’t it possible that the sciences simply can’t produce unified theories that generate a Big Picture of life, the universe and everything?

    Yes, that’s correct. At the most fundamental level one can indeed have simple over-arching theories, since at the most fundamental level the universe seems to be pretty simple. (By “simple”, I mean specifiable in a rather limited amount of information.)

    However, at any high-level, such as when dealing with life, things are way too complicated and involve way too much historical contingency, to have simple unified models. Sometimes simplified models can be useful, but they will only be approximations to a hugely more complex reality.

    However, pace Marko, that doesn’t mean that reductionism fails or that there is anything wrong with reductionist accounts, it just means that you need the right concepts about reductionism. (See Marko’s previous article for a refutation of wrong versions of reductionism.)

    Liked by 2 people

  12. “genetic programming and blueprint metaphors are still commonly used by biologists today”

    You have not posted anything contrary to those metaphors. A program or a blueprint does not necessarily recite every relevant physical fact or logical consequence. You mention epigenetics, but those effects are usually small, and not enuf to break the metaphor. So what exactly is the objection to the metaphor?

    “One example is cellular organelles, which are vitally important for cell function but are directly inherited by parental cells rather than encoded in DNA.”

    Are you referring to mitochondria? They have inherited DNA. Yes, that DNA is determined by the genome in the strict sense.

    “Why are genes uniquely viewed as carriers of information”

    Because of the Central Dogma.


  13. Hi John M,

    I think you touch on a very important issue: how should we relate fundamental scientific information to more complex questions in the absence, as always, of an even marginally adequate scientific understanding?

    You write, “The problems, as I see them, begin to arise when the concept of genetic causation is applied well beyond the limits of our experimental understanding, and employed as an explanatory thesis in the behavioral or social sciences.”

    The problem goes much deeper than that. Society struggles with a number of intractable questions to which science can make a contribution. Scientists, as members of society, feel obligated to contribute but sometimes the results have been disastrous because of unrecognized pre-existing biases that lead to premature and wrong conclusions. This has lead to a very poor opinion of science in certain quarters, and has given scientism a very bad name.

    Perhaps the most tragic example of the misuse of scientific theory has been on the questions of race and racism. New work on the genetics of populations promises to finally point to a more balanced view.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. As many of the commentators have touched on, it is an exponentially complex subject and one in which reductionism has a tendency to leave out important aspects, given that reductionism naturally gravitates to the more settled and stable aspects of the picture, i.e. the map that normally emerges from the territory, but with biology, it is many of those soft, nuanced and ephemeral functions that are vitally important. To wit, reductionism tends to emphasize the skeleton.
    One field that might provide some guidance would be Complexity theory and how the ordered and the chaotic interact.
    Now the problem with the classic scientific view is that the chaotic side of the equation is simply that which hasn’t been studied enough to determine the order, but as much examination has shown, there is an inherent uncertainty to our efforts to extract this order and rationality has its own limiting factors, so the process starts to resemble a puppy chasing its tail, in that the more refined and exact the descriptions become, the more separate they tend to grow from the broader context.
    While there are a number of ways to consider this relationship between the known and the unknown, especially with reference to the process of time and how past order relates to future indeterminacy and how the motivating energy tends to exploit the very weaknesses in the more rigid structures, given the constraints of this format, I will close by pointing out that this effort to describe and order nature has been the prime motivating factor of human civilization and goes to the basis of not only science, but art and religion as well.
    While science is what falls to the side of what has been ordered and art points to the outer reaches of human perception, religion is generally the highly politicized consequences that condense out of this interaction with the forces of nature.
    So it would seem that while ordering is the goal, a healthy dose of artistic perspective and intuition is necessary for a successful outcome, without getting to pedantic over the results.


  15. Excellent and timely essay.
    As Liam noted above,
    The problems, as I see them, begin to arise when the concept of genetic causation is applied well beyond the limits of our experimental understanding, and employed as an explanatory thesis in the behavioral or social sciences

    That sentence goes to the heart of the matter.

    The comments to the previous essay illustrated this problem vividly and your essay is a timely corrective. For example the following statements were made and they illustrate how genetic causation has been taken to extremes as an explanatory thesis:

    the issue of whether there is a “human nature” encoded in our genes … The answer… is quite obviously “yes”

    The overwhelming majority of what makes us human is genetic. Indeed, even much of our culture, most of the culture that is common to humans worldwide, is also genetically programmed.

    I’d phrase it that genetic programming is a huge part of the recipe for human culture

    These statements are classic examples of “the concept of genetic causation [being] applied well beyond the limits of our experimental understanding“.

    You continue by saying:
    “The conceptual problems surrounding genetics will become even more relevant in scientific and public life”.

    Yes indeed. The scientistic emphasis on rigid determinism, absence of free will and genetic determinism all combine to reduce our sense of agency and therefore sense of responsibility. Human history has been the story of our discovery of agency and responsibility. By exercising our agency and assuming responsibility we have set in motion the engine of progress(moral, cultural and material) and enlightenment. The scientistic ideology, for that is what it is, threatens to undermine this by reducing the individual to a cipher, a gear wheel predetermined to behave in a certain way.

    It is a pernicious ideology.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Brian Key commented “the ECM self assembles…[t]he DNA does not instruct the formation”. But the evolution that means we see lots of ECM around in the world has been via the genes. One collection of causes are the physicochemical constraints on life – what molecules can do the job. In the prebiotic world, there might have been some kind of selection purely on glycans or short polypeptides or lipids but not now (maybe prions are the closest example today save that genes are still intimately involved). Genes are the cause of the differences between organisms – the basic apparatus in the fertilized egg is a general purpose biological machine. Where the clashes between the interests of paternal and maternal DNA (another arena for selection) are fought out by a mixture of epigenetic and genetic mechanisms.


  17. “GWAS…attempting to link brain disorders to causative mutations”

    I think schizophrenia might be the best example – both in terms of the pathways affected by de novo mutations as well as a few genes. And the genetic overlap between schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders eg MAGI1 locus for neuroticism, bipolar and Scz


  18. Science increasingly creates a dizzying quantity of new information, much of it deeply relevant to the human condition; health, wealth and self-understanding. Perhaps I should try to answer my own question of how relatively ‘simple’ scientific information should be used in the context of the ineffably complex questions facing humankind.

    Firstly, one should disagree with the suggestion of ejwinner, Marko and Coel (how could one be so unwise?) that there is no over-arching theory of everything. There are multiple theories of everything already, most of them religious. There are informal scientistic theories of everything that already have vast amounts of empirical support, and generally go like this: a Big Bang gave rise to our solar system which lead to the development of DNA which lead to evolving life that became increasingly complex. A few neurons evolved into large brains. H. sapiens sapiens is now the most complex structure known, creating culture that is vastly more complex again. In other words, all seems to be inter-connected; a vast system of interlocking gears evolving in time. There is no empirical evidence against such a theory, but there are many variations on the theme. The main problem is that human computational abilities (brains) are limited. The content of culture is non-deterministic and theoretically infinite, like integers, just more so, which further strains the limits of our brains.

    Science provides information on all aspects of our culture: the biological nature of humankind, the nature of reality as it is and as it appears, what the future may bring. Western society aggressively demands answers and many scientists feel obligated to provide information and to interpret it. In order to avoid the terrible mistakes of the past, the following might be helpful:

    scientists are prone to ingrained biases and prejudices
    scientists are highly susceptible to political manipulation
    information should always be viewed as preliminary and incomplete
    science does not usually disclose ‘truth’
    science operates mostly through falsification of reductionist theories
    society is blind to the limitations and uncertainties in a theory
    extrapolation beyond the data is intelligent guesswork

    Scientific societies should establish uniform standards of public communication for scientists. Society must continue doing its best job at guessing, but scientists should not allow themselves to be used as justification.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I very much appreciate this OP ordering, since going from one extreme to the other does help each of them really hit home. Last time we were blessed with a “soft science” discussion, and so were expected to subtlety infer the author’s points. This permitted me to blast these fields for presuming that they aren’t primitive, even while admittedly being clueless about essential dynamics of conscious function itself. (Furthermore I seem to have found a coconspirator in Peter J. Shoot me and email man!: thephilosophereric@gmail.com) This time we are blessed with a “hard science” discussion, and one that’s plain as day. So what sort of mischief might I now get into? Well… I just don’t see any inherent requirement for the philosopher to become wrapped up in the specific details of biology. Sure I do enjoy learning about such things, though in the end they alter nothing regarding my theory itself.

    For example, consider a pane of glass. Its structure might be called its “nature.” Then let’s say that it’s hit by a hammer, so this might be considered the pane’s “nurture.” Obviously the end result of such an event will be a combination of each side (or indeed as we physicalists believe, the end result of all things happens to be based upon the causal nature of reality itself). So yes we might want to assess the nature of the pane through other formulations of glass and such, as well as assess different nurturing varieties of hammer blow — that’s all just fine. The only issue in nature v. nurture seems to be that it gets quite political when we speculate that certain races of people might tend to be unattractive, violent, stupid, or anything else derogatory. I believe it was Fabrizzio’s point from last time that we should just get on with our business and try not to let such issues bother us. I certainly do agree!

    I’d also like to extend a warm hello to Brian Key. My first comment ever here came with your “fish aren’t conscious” article. (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/why-fish-likely-dont-feel-pain/comment-page-2/#comment-11732). As we Americans celebrate independence on this day from our British overlords (and one of them even married me somewhat for the right to live here!), I must say that a bit of salmon would be lovely! Nevertheless I’m still fairly sure that fish are conscious, so I do hope that they’re being treated humanly!


  20. Coming from a mostly Rortian-pragmatist orientation, I am anti scientism. But then (some, unbelievable) commentary critical of scientism turns me pro.


  21. Hi John M, to be perfectly honest I’m a non-statistical kind of guy. I play with tissue, cells, and chemicals (including DNA) and prefer my findings based on directly observable, physical results… so I tend to stay up to date on lit related to that angle. I got my first intense exposure to GWAS lit very recently in a course where the head of the department (which I am now part of) was an instructor. Of course she was giving the most up to date info from such analyses, so I guess I can speak to that.

    The answer to your question is no I did not see anything compelling from my perspective. There was as you said a few slightly significant correlations. But then I am pretty skeptical and prefer to see something with more bite than correlations based on mass number crunching. On the other hand, if not compelling I thought she made the point such results can indicate interesting places to start physical research (so used as hypothesis initiating/building). You can take correlations (particularly if you have several factors) and see if they connect along some pathway.

    As davidlduffy noted, schizophrenia may be one of the best examples. A colleague in my lab recently started her PhD project specifically trying to move from the statistics (in silica from GWAS) to discover mechanisms (in vitro using iPSCs) regarding schizophrenia. It is this combined model of research which underlies the affiliation of our stem cell lab with the department of complex trait genetics. From the department’s university page description…

    The department studies the underlying causes of variation [in] health and disease and contributes to identifying targets for functional follow-up studies.

    In the post-GWAS era the aim of genetic research has expanded to the identification of the actual genes underlying stable genetic contributions to various key traits of behavior, cognition and health… Research in our lab explores the genetic and environmental causes of individual differences in human traits related to behavior, cognition and mental and physical health…

    We use a variety of experimental methods (brain imaging, genotyping, iPSC) as well as statistical and bioinformatics methods, and also develop novel statistical tools for the analysis of genome-wide data.

    So I guess we’ll be one of the groups on the cutting edge of this effort (particularly for schizophrenia). Whether it works or not will be very interesting.

    My suspicion is that within the next few months (especially after next semester begins) I’ll be getting more exposure to GWAS. I know our stem cell group is supposed to begin having some joint meetings with the original complex traits group so we learn from each other. If you are interested in more information as I learn about it, let me know.


  22. Hi Coel, I didn’t get to reply in the last thread, but thankfully it seems appropriate to shift/expand the discussion over here.

    The recipe then plays out with all sorts of environmental and contingent factors — we can never really separate the genetic from the environmental.

    You are apparently shifting the goal posts. I recognize you are not reducing all of human nature to genes alone. You made clear that you include environmental factors (physical and social). The problem, and what I was responding to, is how much contribution you attribute to the gene level. You don’t get to use terms like “programmed” and “encoded” regarding the relation between genes and human nature and then act like you challenged my criticism of such by explicitly joining genes with “environmental and contingent factors” to the point of being inseparable.

    Nowhere did I say that genes are unimportant or uninvolved. The question is how much of a contributing factor they play in “human nature”. Perhaps part of our disagreement comes from different uses of “human nature”?

    If by our “nature” you meant our direct physical makeup then I would say that gene contribution is pretty high, if you mean any instincts or reflexes we share then that would also be pretty high, if you mean our dispositions/urges/feelings then we are still highish though it is slipping more toward (sometimes eclipsed by) environmental factors.

    If by “nature” you mean how our dispositions etc relate to the world around us (what moves us), and more so how we behave (which is what I mean by “human nature”) then that is largely (note that does not mean entirely) decoupled from a priori genetic constraints and heavily laden with environmental experiences (especially personal experience and “culture”).

    (This is part 1 of a 2 part reply)

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Hi Coel, (part 2 of 2 part reply)

    Even the variation in such traits between humans is roughly 50% owing to genes (round numbers), the trait itself, the nature that is common to nearly all of us, will be much more a matter of genetics.

    I’d like to see where you got that number and to what “traits” it refers. Moreover since you state we cannot disentangle genes from environment why are you confident in that percentage?

    You mention twin studies. Do you know the assumptions that go into them? The department I am now a part of just did an exhaustive review of twin studies (it was the subject of a recent essay here) and when the department head was discussing it, I was not the only one debating the assumptions and traits involved. At the very least, twins share nearly identical physical environmental factors during the most crucial stages of development. This we know is important because it can set epigenetic regulators (which can trump base gene coding). So, how does one disentangle that? I’d be cautious making comments stating they “refute” anything.

    Better would be clone studies. Oh wait, that is basically what we have with stem cell research! And I can tell you, from experience, that environment can override base genetic factors. My life would be a lot easier if that was not the case.

    Bill Skaggs might also be able to speak to this from animal model studies. I know a lot of energy is put into removing environmental factors in order to get at genetic contribution to behavior, even when working with same genetic lines.

    Everything is always a matter of entwined genetics and environment. But the idea that genes only do the “basic needs/urges” and that they’re irrelevant to everything beyond that is preposterous…

    Well I agree with the first sentence if you mean genes and physical environment, because that sets the basic functional requirements of being a human.

    Current evidence suggests that genetic changes, allowing for further divisions of neural stem cells during development, gave humans greater information processing capacity than our ancestors. That might be said to be a genetic component of our nature. What we have come to do with that capacity (how we behave), is largely decoupled from prior reflexes/instincts formed by genetic evolution, due to that increased capacity.

    I never argued for a “blank slate”, but we certainly have a malleable one.

    I’ll be curious to hear you explain how religion (all strains), punk music, cosplay, and Star Trek fandom were “encoded” within our genes. And do our genes produce the microbial populations inside and outside our bodies that are crucial for their function, and evidence indicates can influence our dispositions?

    Note: I’m not sure if “reblog” messages count as an official reply. If so this is my last reply for the thread.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Hi Liam,

    one should disagree with the suggestion … that there is no over-arching theory of everything.

    The sort of theories you point to are highly simplified overviews that are hugely incomplete. Yes, over-arching theories of that kind are possible, but the simple theory you outlined would not tell you how to cure cancer, or any number of other things.

    In contrast, low-level theories of particle physics can be complete in the sense of telling you everything about how a particle behaves. The assertion is that there can be no theories of that sort (both complete and simple) about complex and historically contingent high-level phenomena such as life.

    Hi labnut,

    The comments to the previous essay illustrated this problem vividly and your essay is a timely corrective. For example the following statements were made and they illustrate how genetic causation has been taken to extremes as an explanatory thesis.

    Whence your hostility to genes? Let me guess, you want a non-material soul that does all the thinking and feeling, with the genes merely looking after the bones and muscles and stuff? This is a highly ideological position that is totally at odds with the evidence.

    There is nothing “extreme” about the idea that both genes and environment play essential roles in all aspects of human nature, including the human mind, including how we think and feel, including our moral system and our consciences and our consciousness. Rather, the “extreme” position is the attempt to ignore either genes or environment, especially when that denial is based on nothing but ideology.

    The facts from things like twin studies show that, for example, there is a genetic component to people’s political opinions and to how they vote, and many other aspects of how we think and feel. What do you achieve by trying to deny the role of genes in human nature? Note also that, despite your claim, there is nothing at all incompatible between the essay above and my comments following the previous post.


  25. Coel,
    there you go again, attributing things to me that I never said. That is a terrible form of debate. I challenged you last time and you backed down, now I challenge you again. 

    Whence your hostility to genes? 
    False. Please quote my words, showing hostility(fat chance).

    you want a non-material soul that does all the thinking and feeling, with the genes merely looking after the bones and muscles and stuff?
    False again. Please quote my words(fat chance).

    [you want]… a highly ideological position that is totally at odds with the evidence.
    And even more false. Please quote my words(fat chance).

    …when that denial is based on nothing but ideology
    False and false again. Please, please quote my words(fat chance)

    Coel, you never learn. Please stick to what is actually said. If you can’t quote my words I did not say it. Simple and obvious, isn’t it. 

    Turning to what you said(unlike you, I quote your actual words):
    “The overwhelming majority of what makes us human is genetic.
    I’d phrase it that genetic programming is a huge part of the recipe for human culture”

    Now that is what I call an extreme position(overwhelming majority, a huge part!!!).
    As I’ve explained before(and you ignored it), the very small genetic variation in the human species cannot account for:
    1) an extremely diverse culture.
    2) the high rate of change in the culture when genetic changes are so slow.
    3) the highly adaptive nature of our cultures.
    To that I add,
    4) our ability to create new, rich and diverse environments where the rest of the animal kingdom can only respond to environments.
    5) our endlessly creative natures.

    If our behaviour was largely controlled by our genes and we had such a narrow genetic range we could not possibly have created such rich, diverse cultures that changed so rapidly, changed our environments radically, adapted quickly to new environments and were so creative.

    The only reasonable explanation is that our minds have become partially decoupled from the genetic restraints in our brains, allowing us to change at a rate that far exceeded the rate of change in our genes.

    Let’s take my homicides example that I gave earlier. 52 homicides per 100,000 in my province and 1.0/100,000 in the UK. That is a huge difference and yet our genetic makeup is nearly identical. So, how do you explain that? Now I am sure you will reply, given your words above, that the explanation of the difference is environmental. OK, let’s see. Australia has nearly the same environment(it is also a hot, arid country) and its homicide rate is a mere 1.2/100,000. No, you exclaim, wrong kind of environment, you mean the cultural environment.

    And this is where your argument collapses. We humans created the radically different environments that resulted in the exceptional differences in homicide rate. And that should not be possible if genetics explained culture and the genetic variation was very small. After all, this is what you said: “genetic programming is a huge part of the recipe for human culture”“.


  26. Say you decellularise an organ like the heart so that all you are left with is a pale ECM heart-ghost (this has been done, incidentally – looks very cool). Why does the ECM take that shape that it does here? And why not when I purify collagen, proteoglycans and the like and precipitate them out of solution? It’s a truism to say that somehow, somewhere, you need a genetic code to specify that shape. Now is it just the genetic code? Of course not. When I purify bacterial chromosomal DNA in the lab, it doesn’t do much interesting even when resuspended in aqueous solution. So again it seems trivial to say that somehow, extragenic factors must enter into the specification of cells and organisms. Has anyone ever argued to the contrary? I doubt it.

    We need to formulate the issue clearly. In particular, we ought to clarify what is meant by genetic determinism. Is it the thesis that DNA – the chemical molecule – is alone responsible for all that biologists, psychologists and sociologists observe? If it is, surely no one espouses it. Statement of the fact that ECM or cytoskeletal proteins assemble by physicochemical (rather than genetic) principles is a great counter to a view that no rational person ought to hold. Is it the thesis that genetic instructions are required, somewhere along the line, for biological phenomena? Well then this is trivial, and we should all be genetic determinists.

    So welcome to the distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions. While essential, these aren’t always particularly informative in explanation. One way I find useful to clarify what we want to do in explaining a natural biological phenomenon is to consider the natural variation in that phenomenon. In human genetics, this is why the concept of heritability is so useful – it tells us, roughly, to what extent a phenotype varies (at the population level) along genetic lines. Thus, for traits with high heritability in a satisfactorily wide range of conditions, we can hope that explaining matters at the genetic level ought to explain much of the variation we see in the population. For traits with low heritability, our best hopes may lie outside genetics. An example of the latter may be socioeconomic status, where sociology is arguably more useful than genetics. But that doesn’t mean genetics can’t play a major role – consider the SES outcomes of mentally handicapped children born into high SES families (supposing the handicaps are of genetic aetiologies).

    Perhaps genetic determinists hold the view that all natural variation in animal behaviour can be explained by considering genetic variation. This is just empirically false, although not obviously incoherent in the way the conception I previously outlined is. I doubt many people hold this view. In the case of specific traits however, whether this kind of ‘determinism’ (i.e. that modulo incoherent notions) holds is always an open research question. If you feel people apply this perhaps too often/incorrectly, looking at specific cases would have been illuminating.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. ejwinner, Marko, and Coel:

    I am mostly in agreement with your comments. I see reductionism as fruitful in local, limited scenarios in which it is strongly guided by the empirical information available. As an overarching program to be applied to all biological problems, I also agree that it is intractable.


    Ah, I am in the same situation, except I mostly play with flies at the moment. I’d definitely be interested in anything you find out.

    To everyone:

    Thanks for all the comments thus far. If anyone wants to discuss these issues (or anything else) further you can email me any time: jmmclaughlin87@gmail.com


  28. John,

    Enjoyed, and in agreement. Genes are not the ‘main cause’ of an organism’s state or it’s behavior. Information doesn’t only move ‘up’ from genes(?), and an organism’s state or behavior has to be evaluated across environments, if only because that is part of what genes codify for.

    It may not be easy to explain co-causation unequivocally, but I think it’s doable and can be made more accessible (and is).


    John, All,

    Taking another angle and unless I’m mistaken, isn’t it the case that the introduction of DNA codification was a ‘step’ in the evolution of organisms and so it doesn’t make sense biologically (or otherwise) to give DNA precedence.


  29. Labnut tries to give some examples of the limitations of genetic programming, such as arguing that differences in homicide rates cannot be attributed to genetic makeup, and the differences must be environmental. He also argues that small human genetic variation cannot account for an extremely diverse culture.

    But this is all contrary to the genetic evidence. There are twin studies showing that violent tendencies are heritable. There are immigrant groups with homicide rates much better predicted by genetics, than by their new environments. And our diverse culture is well explained by genetics. Genetically similar groups tend to have similar cultures, while the biggest cultural differences are between the groups that also have the biggest genetic differences.


  30. “At the very least, twins share nearly identical physical environmental factors during the most crucial stages of development. This we know is important because it can set epigenetic regulators”.

    But setting the developmental environment is one of the ways genes control phenotypic outcomes, unless you’re thinking about the intrauterine environment DZ twins also share, and whose effects we can then parse out by comparing the correlations for “ordinary” siblings.

    Apropos environment v. genetics and human nature (again!): despite the huge span of time between us and, say the Archaic Greeks, or in evolutionary terms between us and dogs, we intimately recognize the range of personalities and temperaments in those human or canine societies, think of them as relatively stable through a lifetime, and know a little about the biological underpinnings of them. We know that different cultures differ in distribution of such traits in the population, but also think of them as fairly robust to treatment, so a person will be outgoing unless, say, severely maltreated, and think particular personalities tend to find ways to get around constraints on behaviour. Obviously, it is broad properties such as these that behaviour, and at the extreme ends of distributions, psychiatric geneticists tend to study.

    To take the example of depression, the effects of any single gene that I can think of on risk of a major depressive episode are dwarfed by the effect sizes associated with adverse environmental events. Nevertheless, there are genetic effects, with a SNP heritability of 30% or so, and I don’t know of any societies that are free from depression.

    A final observation: the presence of genetic determinism actually bring true randomness, in a big way.


  31. Hi dbholmes,

    You don’t get to use terms like “programmed” and “encoded” regarding the relation between genes and human nature [together with] explicitly joining genes with “environmental and contingent factors” to the point of being inseparable.

    What is “programmed” and “encoded” is a recipe for a human, and that recipe plays out differently depending on environmental and contingent factors such that the end result is an entwinned and inseparable product of both genes and environment.

    What I am denying is that the end result (human behaviour) is largely decoupled from the genetic recipe.

    If by “nature” you mean … how we behave … then that is largely (note that does not mean entirely) decoupled from a priori genetic constraints and heavily laden with environmental experiences (especially personal experience and “culture”).

    I agree with the “heavily laden with environmental experiences” but I do not agree with the “largely decoupled from” the genetic program. I don’t see any evidence that that is so (though humans seem to have a horror of the concept that their attitudes, feeling and behaviour are heavily influenced by their genes!).

    Consider that large brains are hugely expensive in evolutionary terms (they have huge energy requirements, and they force compromises in female anatomy, lead to a high risk of death in childbirth, force babies to be born essentially prematurely, and lead to lengthy childhoods that requires vast amounts of parental care).

    That can only happen if large brains were heavily selected for over our history from Australopithecenes onwards, and that can only happen if the behaviour that large brains produce is strongly coupled to genetic interests and genetic programming.

    On twins studies, yes there are the issues you point to, but they are still sufficient to show genetic influence on the differences between different humans’ behaviour, and that implies a much larger genetic influence on the characteristics that are common to humans (which is my main point here).

    You’re right that things like epigenetic and shared-womb environments can confound twin studies, but note that they are still “biological” and so anathema to some. The “blank slaters” want concepts such as “justice” (to use last thread’s example) to be products of pure disinterested reason, unsullied by biology (whether genetics or womb hormones or whatever).

    I’ll be curious to hear you explain how religion (all strains), punk music, cosplay, and Star Trek fandom were “encoded” within our genes.

    The encoding in the genetic recipe would be for a fondness for music, and for story telling, for what-if scenarios, et cetera. The style of music and the details of the SciFi are then matters of local culture. But, on the subject of punk bands, would you accept that, say, typical “teenager” behaviour and reaction to adult culture is something heavily influenced by genes?


  32. Hi labnut,

    Please quote my words, showing hostility(fat chance).

    Your hostility to the idea that genes have a strong influence on human nature (how we think, feel, behave, and interact with each other) just oozes from your comments on this thread and the previous one.

    I quote your actual words: “The overwhelming majority of what makes us human is genetic.”

    Which it is. Try adopting an infant chimp, a tiger kitten, or a polar bear cub, and bringing it up as a human, immersed in whatever culture you choose. If you succeed in getting it to form a punk band, then I’ll accept your case!

    Quoting me again: “I’d phrase it that genetic programming is a huge part of the recipe for human culture”

    Absolutely, and note the phrase “recipe for” human culture. The human nature that allows us to form social bonds and thence culture is not just accidental, nor is it decoupled from the genetic program. It is indeed genetically controlled evolutionary programming that is essential for us to exploit our highly cooperative ecological niche.

    None of your points about the versatility and diversity of human culture refutes this. The local adaptability is exactly what genes are programming large brains for.

    You are misinterpreting my claim because you are erroneously mistaking it as a “blueprint” claim, in which even the lyrics of the latest hit single from the latest boy band must be encoded in the genes. And of course that’s wrong. The genes encode a recipe for human nature. How that plays out is highly locally contingent.


  33. I’m not sure how having pro-gun vs. anti-gun, pro-death-penalty vs. anti-death-penalty, anti-government vs. pro-government ideologies are explained by genetics, since it seems that genetically similar populations (white people of British descent in the North vs. South US) are split. So there must be something else going on.

    Liked by 2 people

  34. Your hostility to the idea that genes have a strong influence on human nature (how we think, feel, behave, and interact with each other) just oozes from your comments

    Give it up Coel. You have made a string of plainly false assertions that you have no hope of substantiating. Despite repeated challenges you have not substantiated any of them.

    Let me quote myself and you will see no hint of hostility to genes:
    My point was that we are on a trajectory from a past that was controlled by nature towards a future that will be dominated, or more probably, controlled, by nurture. The real issues are 1) how far we are along that trajectory and 2) how rapidly we progress along that trajectory. How far and how rapidly are open to debate but it cannot be doubted we are moving along that trajectory.

    I am afraid your accusation is entirely the product of your imagination(I am trying to be polite).

    It is legitimate to have differing interpretations of the same problem and debating these differences can lead to a rich and rewarding debate. But, when you make false, tendentious attributions to the other person, you inject an unpleasant note of hostility into the debate. That is a great pity. It is unnecessary and it is harmful.

    Care to reply to my homicide argument?

    The genes encode a recipe for human nature

    Obviously we differ about the meaning of “human nature“. It is trivially true that the genes are the recipe for the biology of the human body. But that does not make them the recipe for the products of our mind. All you have done is stated where we differ without motivating your statement. On the other hand I maintain that out mind has become partially decoupled from the biology of our brain, and, as evidence, offered my arguments about diversity greater than the possible diversity resulting from our narrow genetic range. I make substantive arguments that you don’t reply to and instead offer the bald claim that genes are the recipe for culture. Sure, you believe that, but if you want me to accept that you will have to offer more than a bald assertion.

    None of your points about the versatility and diversity of human culture refutes this

    That is just a bald assertion. You have to produce arguments and facts to support your assertion.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. labnut,

    On the question of human nature, you should take a look at what Chomsky has to say.

    When asking “What is human nature?” it seems we’re asking “What makes human beings distinct from other organisms?”. At least to me that’s the way it seems. Now, if the answer is ‘the diversity of human culture’, the parsimonious explanation of human nature will be in what makes the *diversity per se* possible – not in what makes American culture appear in America and British culture appear in Britain. The latter might be in the realm of sociology, but surely to understand what makes the diversity *itself* possible in humans – but not in chipmunks lets say – surely one has to recourse to genetic endowment. Similarly with language – if you want to explain why humans are capable of language but Chimpanzees not, well unless we are allowing for miracles it’s got to be down to the genetic endowment, and comparative studies of human language wont get you far.

    In general, in asking what ‘human nature’ is, we ought to be asking what is it that common between humans but distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. The fact that certain of these commonalities like language or culture have large intra-species variability shouldn’t distract us from the fact that ‘species nature’ refers to unique traits of a *species* and not its distinct subgroups.

    Liked by 2 people

  36. Hi labnut,

    Let’s consider two raindrops falling into two little streams. These little streams have a “nature”, which can be summarised by the simple and rather elegant instruction: “head downhill”. And let’s suppose that the streams are only a mile apart. But, owing to local topology, one heads East and the other West. And they diverge a lot, and one ends up flowing into the Pacific Ocean while the other ends up flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, over a thousand miles away.

    There is no difference at all in the “genes” of the two streams, the simple recipe “head downhill”, and yet owing to local circumstances the outcome can be hugely different. And yet neither stream has de-coupled from that “head downhill” instruction, which still sets the essential nature of both streams.

    Here ends the parable of the two raindrops.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Coel, you have nicely illustrated a truism, we engineer parables to tell the story we want told. It is good story telling craft and it gives us the delightful Harry Potter stories.

    So, we know that is the story you want told, but is that the true story, or, for that matter, is Harry Potter the truth?

    Unsurprisingly, you have told us the scientismist story, of an agent lacking volition, that can only respond to its environment. Regretfully, for you, we are not agents lacking volition. We create and modify our environments and are endlessly inventive about it. Your parable is deliberately framed to picture us as passive, powerless agents wholly and entirely susceptible to our environment. But that is not true at all. You have created a false parable that fails to capture an essential feature of our nature, our intentionality and volition(free will).

    Since your parable fails to capture this essential aspect of our nature it inevitably leads to a false conclusion.

    But I am glad you brought this up because it nicely illustrates what was so wrong about the big heritability study. Our behaviour is not just the sum of our genetic urges and the environment as the study portrays us[1]. That is because we create and modify our own environment. We are not the passive agents merely responding to our environment. We are instead active agents creating and re-modelling our environment and then responding to our re-modelling. This creates a virtuous feedback loop that amplifies the re-engineering of our environment, increasing our control still further and diminishing the genetic restraints even further. In this way we have become self-modifying animals.

    Your extremely simple parable tells the story you want told. That is because you keep one eye shut so that you cannot see the rest of the splendid story that is human history and culture. That really is the problem with scientism, it sees only the science and is blind to human history and culture.

    [1] Eric Turkheimer makes exactly this point in his criticism of genetic essentialism – http://bit.ly/1LOsPIl

    Liked by 1 person

  38. Reblogged this on Liam Uber's Blog and commented:
    In a way it seems that scientists have replaced the priests of old: learned ones appearing out of their mysterious labs explaining findings in a language that only (they and) god can understand fully. Those who do not understand the jargon have a choice: believe or reject. This explains how perfectly reasonable ideas such as evolution are rejected out of hand by many, often religious fundamentalists of various traditions. It actually boils down to a very basic human ‘instinct’ – trust! (There probably is a set of genes for that.) The latest science versus the traditions of our forebears? As a committed scientist, I am very ambivalent toward trust of any kind. Skepticism, on the other hand, does not seem to be a very effective heuristic in the game of survival.

    When it comes to scientific communication with the lay community it is of the utmost importance that the highest standards of transparency be applied. Scientists should always disclose their personal agendas in such a manner that the incompleteness of their assessments is always front and center. This almost never happens. Huge errors have occurred that could have been averted by more scientific honesty.

    At least, the priests of old were very upfront about their main agenda; their religious theory of everything. It is a lot more difficult to know what the ultimate goal of science is today. It has already been agreed, more or less, that a formal (mathematical) theory of everything is not possible. Thank goodness! The idea of a Bible Mathematical is truly frightening!

    Beyond technology, medicine and engineering, science contributes information on every aspect of existence. Psychologically humans have an innate sense of right or wrong that, according to the latest scientific studies, remains essentially the same across all cultures studied. This innate sense must be guided by a unique internal sense of a theory of everything, IMHO. Humans do have opinions on everything, it therefore stands to reason that there are underlying theories of everything.

    Are there academic departments that study everything and try to integrate the various disciplines? I think not, but we are now in a place where the extreme excess of information requires some attempt at an holistic approach. In stead, we have a splintering of innumerable disciplines – the famous ivory tower of academia has become a modern day Tower of Babel.

    Liked by 3 people

  39. Me,

    My interpretations are often significantly de-coupled from what the person I’m responding to intended.


    “And yet neither stream has de-coupled … ”

    If you think human cognitions can be more de-coupled from their biological instructions than let’s say chipmunk’s cognitions can be de-coupled from their biological instructions, then I think you may be in agreement with Labnut.

    Liked by 1 person

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