Genetic Creationism

By Razib Khan | November 29, 2011 2:50 pm

Carl Zimmer points me to a piece in a publication called GeneWatch, The Crumbling Pillars of Behavior Genetics. I won’t quote from it because it’s kind of a tired rehash of the confusions and misrepresentations found in The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage?, thoroughly refuted by Luke Jostins and Dan MacArthur (and others at Genomes Unzipped). As I have stated before this sort of attack on genetics is basically similar to Creationism. It’s overloaded with technical and scientific terminology bound to impress the public, but which is just used in a confusing manner, to the point where there’s a big overhead in trying to unpack the logic (as opposed to rhetoric) of the argument. I am broadly convinced that we should be very cautious about results which point to specific genes implicated in a complex trait. But, this is not the “bread & butter” of behavior genetics, which has always been about smoking out the relationship between genetic and phenotypic correlations, and therefore heritabilities. Additionally, as I’ve pointed out there are areas of genomics which are going to be a very important helpmate to quantitative genetic analyses. As noted in the piece behavior geneticists did turn out to be too optimistic about genomics as being relevant to their field. But, the main objections aren’t that novel, and the argument is a repetition of very old conflicts.

Addendum: I also feel that in many ways “genetic determinist” is rather like the Left-wing Blank Slate equivalent of Right-wing Creationist’s usage of terms like “Darwinian materialist” or “secular humanist.” It fills the same aspersion-shaped-hole in the heads of the polemicists. The difference though is often, though not always, the terms “Darwinian materialist” or “secular humanist” have some germ of truth (in that many evolutionary biologists are secular materialists who operate with a Darwinian framework in the background). In contrast, though there are scientists who are genetic determinists when it comes to the number of fingers you are expected to have, there are very few scholars who think that behavioral traits are determined purely by genes.

COMMENTS NOTE: Any comment which misrepresents the material in this post will result in banning without warning. So you should probably stick to direct quotes in lieu of reformulations of what you perceive to be my intent in your own words. For example, if you start a sentence with “so what you’re trying to say….”, you’re probably going to get banned. I said what I tried or wanted to say in the post. Period.

  • Neil

    One interesting quote from the article:

    Behavioral genetics and the related fields have recently adopted the “missing heritability” position to explain the ongoing failure to uncover genes.[8] Proponents of this position argue that genes (“heritability”) are “missing” because researchers must find better ways to uncover them, as opposed to some critics’ contention that the failure to discover genes indicates that these genes do not exist.[9]

    Reference 9 is:

    9. Joseph, 2010; Latham & Wilson, 2010.

    i.e. something by the author himself, and the “The Great DNA Deficit” article already mentioned!

    So, is this just a “teach the controversy” moment?

  • JamesG

    The Gene Watch people include alcoholism as among those disorders for which no genes have been found.

    As a non-scientist who has studied alcoholism I’m always impressed by the ability of opponents of the genetic basis to ignore facts that conflict with their ideas. Although since alcoholism is poorly studied they may not be aware of the following facts that strongly suggest a genetic basis.

    From the beginning alcoholics exhibit very high tolerance for alcohol, they simply do not get drunk on quantities that would have the rest of us reeling. They also display extraordinary tolerance for other CNS suppressants. Anesthetists know that alcoholics require “off the charts” volumes to reach a state suitable for surgery. I even know of a case where a member of the US armed forces was handed orders to report to alcoholism rehab following a routine surgical procedure; his docs connected the dots.

    My point is high tolerance cannot possibly be explained by psychological factors; unpleasant experiences have no way of altering the CNS. There must be a genetic basis and if it hasn’t been found it’s because they’re looking in the wrong place.

    They also ignore animal studies. When a population of rats have access to alcohol, most of them take a taste or two and decide to limit their input to water and food. A minority cannot get enough of the alcohol. I suppose the anti-geneticists might argue that those rats must have had unpleasant juvenile experiences.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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