Genetic determinism has made a comeback in the last two or three decades, much of it riding on the coattails of the Human Genome project, who was responsible for a lot of hyperbole around this issue.
Dissenting voices — and I would name one particular example, Richard Lewontin — haven’t had as much space or spotlights, despite the brilliance of their criticism. In addition to Lewontin’s body of work, I’d also suggest one particular book as a masterpiece on this subject: Kay, Lily E. Who wrote the book of life?: A history of the genetic code. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
So it was a great pleasure to read a recent PZ Myers’ post (Deconstructing metaphors), in which he not only reinforces this kind of criticism but stresses the value of the philosophy of science, for instance when he says that:
“I’ve lived through the era in which everyone started thinking of the genome as an elaborate computer program — we still have lots of people thinking that way, and in some ways it’s gotten worse as bioinformatics has brought in a synergy with computer science. But it’s not! It’s nothing like a series of instructions! This model has become a serious impediment to getting the new generation of advanced students to understand the biology, and worse, they try to shoehorn the biology into how they think a sophisticated computer program ought to work.
We’ve also got the problem of naive idiots thinking the metaphor is the thing and drawing false conclusions. The genome is a recipe, and every recipe needs a cook, therefore God, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam“.
And this excellent post was an introduction to the work of yet another blogger on those themes: Genes – the language of God 1: Genes as Language. (as the number indicates, it is the first of a series). This is a real keeper. As Wilkins (the author) puts it, “Because we are most familiar with language, describing and explaining things in terms of language and language-like features has real power to convey ideas about science. However, since these things science describes are not actually language, there is a risk that it will cause confusion, and it does“.
UPDATE: A last-minute addition to this discussion is Greg Laden’stake-down of yet another racist screed recently published: A Troubling Tome. This is very goodreading, but I will leave you with just a small sample:
“Early reviews of Wade’s book show a familiar division: Anthropologists mostly take a critical view, whereas psychologists and economists generally like the book. Agustín Fuentes, a zoologist and anthropologist, and Jonathan Marks, a geneticist trained in anthropology, are among the more negative; Bell Curve coauthor Murray and famed geneticist James Watson, a supporter of the biological race concept, land on the positive side. The favorable reviews almost invariably echo one of Wade’s key themes: Disbelief in the existence of race results from biased science driven by a left-leaning political agenda. Wade suggests that ‘any researcher who even discusses issues politically offensive to the left runs the risk of antagonizing the professional colleagues who must approve his requests for government funds and review his articles. . . The result is that researchers at present routinely ignore the biology of race.’ So is Wade right? Are there human races? Is the variation seen between different cultures and locations best explained by genetic differences between human populations? And have anthropologists been turning a blind eye to the evidence in front of them? There is no shortage of scientific information, and it gives a clear answer: no.”
On a similar note, there is a list of common misconceptions about science that should be in everyone’s mind: 10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing. The title is self-explanatory, and I would call attention in particular to #3, a pet peeve of mine, the misuse and abuse of quantum theory as if it were something magical or mystical (spoiler: it isn’t). As it says in the list, “But just because the universe isn’t deterministic doesn’t mean that you are the one controlling it. It is remarkable (and frankly, alarming) the degree to which quantum uncertainty and quantum weirdness get inextricably bound up in certain circles with the idea of a soul, or humans controlling the universe, or some other pseudoscience“.
Along the same lines, and from the same site, another useful list: 10 Pseudo-Science Theories We’d Like to See Retired Forever. Quantum mysticism is there again, in the same position, but the list brings two additional pet peeves I have, “astronaut gods” (#9) and anti-vaccine BS (#8). But my favourite has to be #1, “Toxins”, one of the keywords to identify woo on the internet, as the definition proposed in the post: “Here is a definition for a ‘toxin’: It’s a mysterious bad thing that’s in all the stuff I don’t like. I don’t know what it actually looks like, or its chemical composition. I don’t know exactly how it’s produced. I don’t know the precise process it sets off in the body. I only know that it definitely, definitely causes the awful thing that I always thought would, and indeed should, happen to people doing stuff I don’t like.”
I got to this last post from another one: When pseudoscience becomes both annoying and boring. In it, Maggie Koerth-Baker adds two other items of her own, “‘single dietary changes that are supposed to fix every ailment ever’ and ‘one technology that can solve the energy crisis instantly’“, with which I totally agree.