• The other genetic fallacy

    Many are familiar with the genetic fallacy, a type of fallacy of irrelevance in which original or past context is presumed to be relevant whether or not it is. This is not what I will speak to here, but if you’re interested read more at the wiki.  Recently this image was posted to the /r/atheism subreddit. It illustrates what I would call a different sort of genetic fallacy.. one that pertains to actual genetics:

    The quoted top comment reads It’s a shame that he’s gay… Not at all because being gay is wrong or immoral or any of that garbage. It’s just a shame because while the Duggars are polluting the earth every 9 months, we don’t have James Randi out there impregnating women with sensibility.

    This idea is all sorts of wrong, and I will debunk it here. To start with, James Randi really does impregnate women (and men) with sensibility. Ideas have turned out to be more powerful than any particular smattering of genes, even Randi’s (don’t tell the other evolutionary psychologists I said so!).
    EDIT: I was joking about the above parethetical. I meant to poke fun at the notion that EP’s are strict genetic determinists. 

    Skepticism is hard

    I’ve seen forms of this “stupid people are reproducing faster than smart ones!” idea dozens of times over the last two decades. Almost always from rationalists, secular folks. This dismays me, because you don’t need to be a genetics expert to see serious flaws in the reasoning. First, if the so-called less-smart people can outbreed the rest, and smartness is heritable, then “smartness” of the Randian sort (or whatever exemplar you wish to use: Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, NDT etc..,) would have been eliminated from the gene pool eons ago. This obviously hasn’t happened. Why not?

    Genetics: also hard

    For many traits a person has, and all complex ones, many genes are involved. For example, tallness. The height of offspring is only partly heritable, even if we temporarily omit nutrition from consideration. Different sets of genes are involved in regulating the growth of all of the parts that can make a person taller or shorter. This is also evident in the observation of variation in body proportions between individuals. Also other genes that may not regulate growth could impact your ultimate height by affecting the building blocks for bones, or the efficiency of your metabolism which takes in calcium and potassium, for example. Another problem for trying to “breed” for something like height is that some genes are only effective when they are all present. It’s possible three particular genes working in concert could affect your femur length. It could be that you only inherited two of those alleles from your parents, which without the third don’t have the major effect. Genes are not like conductors, but players of individual instruments in a great symphony which can never know in advance precisely what other players are present, or what they are playing.

    For these reasons, some traits simply can’t be reliably built from genes. If there were such a thing as a gene (or even a few genes) for “attractiveness”, those would have come to dominate long ago. Much the same is true for what we refer to as “smartness” (though we sometimes actually mean competence or effectiveness). There’s one other big problem, too. These traits are not merely genetic, but evidence of a successful developmental trajectory. We value them precisely because they don’t come free with the chromosomes, because they are proof of a winning constellation of factors in a person over time.

    The light is not merely in the stars, but in ourselves

    Steven Pinker wrote about the decline of violence in human societies in his wonderful book The Better Angels of Our Nature. As he describes, there are many reasons why rates of violence have plummeted over time, but none of them are genetic. Stated simply, we built better societies. We created social machinery to disrupt and displace what used to be the benefits that the use of violence afforded any given individual- we made peace and communion more profitable to individuals than discord and violence. This all happened so quickly that there is no chance that biology or selective pressures for a more modern mind could possibly have been a significant factor. In the evolutionary blink of an eye, humans went from typically brutal lives in which murder was as likely a terminus for any one person as cancer or senescence, to amazingly (if imperfectly) good lives in which our diet is a more sinister threat than any of our neighbors.

    In much the same way, I would argue that human societies have gotten “smarter” at least in the sense of increasing markets for specialized and sophisticated skills and knowledge: professional skeptics, NASA engineers, internet application innovators and so on. Modernity permits the existence of lengthy childhoods, schools and universities, and economies that free people from having to produce their own food and other survival necessities such that they can develop their intellectual and creative potentials. So it is that we have our sophisticated technologies and industries, and all without ever having to have had some strange eugenics programs for smartiness. The truth is that any randomly picked group of humans will have about the same potential as any other- whether you pay attention to who the parents are or not. This is partly true because human genetic diversity is so low. We’re just not all that different from each other, in that way. We should care about something far more powerful in human societies than particular genes and breeding.

    Ideas > genes

    Everyone knows that Mormons typically have large families. This has been true for at least several generations. If we assume that the children are all new Mormons, then Mormons should have over-run at least the western US by now. In fact, the Mormon church today shows very little growth (many suspect it inflates its numbers, and that the church is actually contracting). The Catholic church, also known for promoting large families is contracting slowly. How can this be true? People defect. The reasons people defect are complicated, but basically they’re persuaded by competitor ideas. Ideas travel and replicate at the speed of light. Genes can only replicate at the rate of reproduction, and even then guarantee little about specific beliefs.

    We’re getting the causalities backwards, that breeding lead us to skepticism and atheism instead of good ideas and the social freedom to explore them. So stop worrying. Want to make more skeptics, more atheists? Don’t try to do it by having more kids, which not only doesn’t necessarily work, but pales in effectiveness. Ideas can convert billions, how many kids can you make? Have some faith, humanity is pretty damned good. If we just give the next generation our best ideas and the freedom to explore the world, they’ll be just fine. It makes no difference who their parents were.

    Category: Critical ThinkingFeatured Incphilosophy

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.