Stumbled across two articles today on the impact of genes on behavior, the first on passing bad behavior to kids, the second on beauty. I have never liked these studies, in part because they rest - usually - on flawed premises and leaps of logic. After all, the mere idea of a gene is largely undefined or vague. How does it differ from, say, triplet codons or DNA? How does the genome differ from all of an individual's chromosomes? What does it add to our knowledge. Not much, except in so far as it is a holdover from Mendelian studies on heredity. It is, in a sense, a mask for old science working under the guise of the new.
And this has consequences for the studies that people conduct now. In those two pieces, sweeping claims are made about the inherited nature of certain characteristics. The first one on bad behavior, for instance, compares identical and fraternal twins and the kids they have. An interesting experiment, no doubt. But it's fundamentally flawed. It assumes that variations in behavior are largely the result of "genetic" influence, even though the experiment cannot say what actual pieces of DNA lead to what specific behaviors. There is no line of causality. And this comes out in a critical section buried at the bottom of the piece:
"According to Harden, it's possible that genes involved in risk-taking, sensation-seeking and other aspects of antisocial behavior may make parents more likely to clash, and, when passed on to their kids, make conduct problems more likely."
But once you start allowing for what is possible, once your experimentation is shoddy enough that cannot determine cause and effect, you open the door to all kinds of methodological questions. For example, from the experiment, how is it possible to tease out the effect of learning, teaching, and development as opposed to DNA, genes, and chromosomes? You simply don't know, and it's therefore the researcher taking his or her best guess as to the cause. That's not science. That's belief.
The same can be said for the second article. Our standards of beauty as evolutionarily derived. Again, a key passage:
"Our brains did not evolve with media, and many people see more media images of women than actual women."
The problem here is that humans never stop evolving, and it's odd to think that scientists with a background in evolution would consider that suddenly most or even all change mechanisms stopped once people left the African savanna. And there is the fact that the standards of beauty have altered dramatically and differ widely. Light skin versus dark, proportions of hips to chest, the list could go on and on, but sociobiologists often take samples from particular cultures or societies, which misses the variation that's out there.
We have ample examples from the past where people have assumed the "innate" nature of certain individuals. Women are biologically unsuited for certain public positions, blacks are perenially a subclass of humans who couldn't perform higher orders of thinking, etc. In modern times, all of these ideas were based on pseudo-science that did not maintain the necessary level of methodological rigor that would have culled out the influence of popular perception on verifiable theories. The new wave of biology in human behavior doesn't do much better. The methods are more compelling, but the crippling, flawed assumptions are still there.