Once again the invigorating webzine Scientia Salon posted an article that triggered my emotional responses, http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/the-extreme-warrior-gene-a-reality-check/. I actually posted two comments; but the first was more a simple polemic against the eugenicist implications of the biosocial criminology referenced in Dr. Oubre’s article. Then I rethought the matter and decided to further discuss the semiotics implications of mixing social issues and science.
I should note that the discussion of genetics and epigenetics in the article, and research I had to do to reply adequately, was actually enlightening. But the social/science confusion remains, and the genetics should be re-framed before promising more than it can deliver. Here is my more reasonably thought-through comment:
I’m sorry for the lengthy reply, but I do feel strongly about the dangers of confusing social issues and scientific issues, in any form of research.
To better understand why I went off as I did in arguing against the eugenics undertones of biosocial criminology, let’s consider the following two sentence pairs from Dr. Oubré’s article:
“MAOA — an enzyme that degrades neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine in the brain — is coded for by the MAOA gene [8, 9, 10]. Neurotransmitters play a pivotal role in mood, arousal, and emotions, even affecting impulse control.”
“According to Lea, the 3R version was associated with a lineup of undesirable personality traits: risk-taking, violence, aggression, gambling, addiction and criminal behavior. Suddenly, it seemed genetics could possibly explain the Maori/white ethnic divide in achievement and social outcomes .”
The problem is that these two remarks belong to completely different language regimes. The first sentence of the first remark includes language from neurobiology and genetics; the second sentence comes out of psychiatry. So far, we have value-neutral language that has been validated through clinical research. This is standard scientific language describing a phenomenon of interest.
The first sentence of the second remark comes out of the a collective of sociological and legal definitions, developed over years by psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, and politicians – Wait, politicians? How did they get in there? Well, because they’re the ones who, as elected legislators, enact laws determining what constitutes ‘criminal behavior,’ as well as the laws that fund mental health support organizations, and agencies for psychiatric (or related) monitoring of convicted transgressors of various laws. Because politicians are part of the process of developing this language, of course it cannot possibly be value-neutral! Their entire careers depend upon their ability to persuade their constituency that they represent that constituency’s values in determining the law. Of course they are going to want psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists to provide behavioral definitions compatible with the values they claim to represent. And they get that from psychiatrists, et. al., not simply because the psychiatrists, et. al., have their own careers to worry about, but because they honestly think they can effect the law in a humane and progressive way by doing so. And let’s not be cynical about the politician either – he/ she may also sincerely share the values of the constituency she/he represents.
The word in this sentence announcing the involvement of politics is “undesirable.” This cannot indicate anything other than a value judgement within a particular community. Gambling is considered a socially normative behavior in many cultures. While it may lead to obsessive behavior, this is hardly equatable with acts of violence. But it is sternly frowned upon in cultures with strong histories of conservative religious values.
The second sentence of the second remark just gets us into more problems. It is recognizably the language of journalism, as it is used to report science to the public. As such it promises way too much, while eliding an enormous amount of knowledge concerning the history, economics, and politics of New Zealand. Genetics will “explain” a “divide in achievement and social outcomes”? History is irrelevant? Economics irrelevant? I don’t think so.
Finally this sentence – and much of the article, curiously – makes the mistake of delineating one ethnic group that is presumed genetically homogenous, the Maori, apart from another ethnic group “white.” Are we to presume that the “white” ethnic group is also and equally homogenous? Are we to make no genetic distinctions between Italians and Swedes? Because we know such distinctions exist. People of eastern European descent are routinely classified “white” although they share many traits with west Asians, thanks to a long history of conquest and trade, resulting in intermarriage and tribal resettlement.
Oh, Dr. Oubré does remark history, just before the sentences I’ve criticized: “Historically, warfare was a central part of traditional Maori culture because, after all, these South Pacific islanders had to compete vigorously for limited natural resources.” This sentence has questionable relevance; it seems to imply that the Maori have been violent long before the coming of “white” settlers. Unfortunately, warfare has been a central part of ALL traditional cultures, including those of Europe. This cannot implicate particularly violent tendencies embedded in the genetic development of any ethnic group, except to suggest that something in the genetic make up of ALL human beings tends toward responses leading to organized violence. That question has been raised, and is still (as far as I know) awaiting adequate answer; but it is a much more interesting question than the ones being asked by some of the researchers referenced in this article.