05 September 2008

Infidelity in the Genes?

In recent years there has been something of a mini-movement among political scientists (of which sect I am, to the best of my knowledge, a member in reasonably good standing) to explain political behavior and ideological stances in genetic terms. There have now been a couple of prominent (critics would say notorious) papers in very well-regarded journals that pursue this line of inquiry. One of these, in the American Political Science Review, advanced a genetic explanation for ideological predispositions, and was featured in this story from The New York Times a couple of years ago. More recently a second paper, this time in The Journal of Politics, proposed a genetic account of political participation, and caught the eye of the editorialists at The Times. You can find their interpretation of it here.

I have to say that I am pretty skeptical about this line of research. I think it likely is a brand, at least , of premature, and quite possibly an instance of crude reductionism.* Premature reductionism amounts to trying to move from one level of explanation to another (say psychological to biological) even though we lack the concepts, techniques and theories required to make the move convincingly. Crude reductionism involves offering accounts that are too fine grained, for example offering a genetic account of specific ideological predispositions instead of an account of our capacity to entertain such dispositions consistently over time.

That said, I came across this story** in Science of a report purportedly offering a genetic explanation for the propensity of some men to be unfaithful. At first I thought, well, that explains how I screwed up my last marriage. I'll bet I have an extra copy of that gene! That would be convenient because, if I have the relevant genetic predisposition, I simply couldn't have helped myself. And so I would not be responsible for the demise of the relationship after all. Of course, I pretty quickly realized that having already recognized my responsibility, the genetic account would mean throwing all that hard work out the window. And I realized too, that it would let my solipsistic ex-wife off the hook too, since it would imply that I had chosen to do such naughty things not even in part by her maddening preoccupations and behavior (less politely, one might say obsessions and antics) but because of my genetic inheritance. Sad to say, she needs no encouragement when it comes to trying to avoid responsibility.

Now, obviously, my claim that a genetic account of some behavior or propensity or capacity diminishes and perhaps even eliminates responsibility is way too quick. (This is a blog post, not an academic paper!) But it is important to recognize that reductionism does raise questions of this ethical sort. And reductionism of either of the untoward varieties I just mentioned entail the risk that individuals will invoke it to rationalize rather than take responsibility for their foibles.
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* I owe this terminology to Jon Elster Understanding Social Behavior (Cambridge UP, 2007).
** Thanks to 3QD!

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