Gene Obsession

Recent discoveries have shown the importance of genetic variations (mostly “alleles”) for (say) physical performance. Many, if not most top sportspersons have a genetic advantage. That’s the dirty secret of sports.

However some have tried to explain everything with genes, or “instinct”, or “innate behavior”. That’s what I call the genes’ obsession. A curious thing, as it’s well known to be erroneous:

Genetic Controls Everything NOT

Genetic Controls Everything NOT

Three patterns observed when studying the influence of genes and environment on traits in individuals. Trait A shows a high sibling correlation, but little heritability. Trait B shows a high heritability since correlation of trait rises sharply with degree of genetic similarity. Trait C shows low heritability, and also low correlations generally. Notice that even identical twins raised in a common family do not show 100% trait correlation.

The curious thing is that the nature versus nurture debate has degenerated. A century ago the autodictat biologist Favre was famous for his studies of insects’ behavior. Skinner and behaviorism tried to displace him, with learning, and then Lorentz and Tinbergen received the Nobel for exhibiting unexpected behaviors in animals, with subtle entanglements of nature and nurture.

What’s the genes’ obsession? It consists into believing that one could code for zillions of behaviors with a few thousand genes. My answer: you don’t, because you can’t. The mind is the answer to nature (as I will show in the next essay).

A particularly silly example of the genes problem is Chomsky’s ‘Universal Grammar’ according to which ‘grammar,’ or linguistic ability, is hard-wired, and comes without being taught.

Even more silly, Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, pushed for the gene-centered view of evolution. Said he: “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.”

Then he contradicted himself: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to…”

And how are we going to do that, Mr. Dawkins? If our “biological nature” is to be “born selfish”, how come we can “teach” the opposite? With the help of God? And what of your mother? Was she selfish too?

Dawkins sounds hopelessly confused and dissembling in his “Selfish Gene’ Chapter One. Here is another extract:

“Among animals, man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down. Some would say that culture is so important that genes, whether selfish or not, are virtually irrelevant to the understanding of human nature. Others would disagree. It all depends where you stand in the debate over ‘nature versus nurture’ as determinants of human attributes. This brings me to the second thing this book is not: it is not an advocacy of one position or another in the nature/nurture controversy. Naturally I have an opinion on this, but I am not going to express it, except insofar as it is implicit in the view of culture that I shall present in the final chapter. If genes really turn out to be totally irrelevant to the determination of modern human behavior, if we really are unique among animals in this respect, it is, at the very least, still interesting to inquire about the rule to which we have so recently become the exception.”

In truth the genetic approach to everything, a la Dawkins, helps nought (as Dawkins more or less recognizes, when lucid enough). Besides, it is completely implausible.

It’s not just that there are other inheritable geometric structures than genes (say: proteins, prions, organelles, etc.).

The result of a few thousand genes may be a million proteins. Impressive. However, that’s it. But it’s simply impossible to imagine how proteins would be transformed into complex behaviors. A pile of construction materials does not a castle make.

That’s why I am anti-Chomsky (although I approve of his hypocritical anti-imperialistic whining)… and anti-Dawkins (although I approve of this anti-theism).

In a way Dawkins, Chomsky and their followers make the mistake theists did before Lamarck’s theory of evolution (erroneously known as Darwin’s theory of evolution).

They believed a deus ex-machina out there, coded for everything, that there is something as “innate behavior”. They understand learning naught. In a way their superstitious attitude is a variant of the “Grace of God” problem of the Seventeenth Century: if God is omnipotent, what have humans to do with it? If genes are omnipotent, what has humanism to do with humanity? How can Dawkins learn anything, if he is just a selfish gene?

As the graph above showed, genes are never omnipotent.

Even suckling is not really “innate”. Any mother finds out that it takes a bit of training on both sides… As I will show next, much, if not most, “instincts” are just, most probably, fast learning.


Patrice Ayme

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11 Responses to “Gene Obsession”

  1. Ken Says:

    Good post and I agree with your theory on instinct.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks, Ken. Encouraging to be rewarded with agreement! It was part of a larger essay that will be coming soon. In the meantime, an editorial of Maureen Dodd infuriated me in tomorrow’s (Sunday) New York Times… Something about Buffet and Gates and W. being geniuses, a piece of adulation of plutocracy…


  2. EugenR Says:

    Dear Patrice, i am quite sure you heard about the Dutch famine of 1944. Anyway i attached a link describing this interesting phenomena. It appears that when Dutch mothers were in their 3-6 month of pregnancy during the famine, caused by Nazis in purpose, it caused substantial behavioral change in the children who had born later to normal conditions. For example they have tendency for obesity, and what is more interesting also their children, the grandchildren of the war generation partly inherited this tendency. Isn’t it Lamarck? Yet again, it seems there are no black and white answers, to the question what influences more the human behavior, the gen or the environment. Yes, Dawkins is to my taste too one colored. Maybe because his agenda has become political, to oppose the religious dogmas.


    • EugenR Says:

      I found a full scientific report about the phenomena.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Eugen: Yes I know about the Dutch famine of 1944-45. In a way this shows that cowardice and collaboration (the old Dutch policy with Hitler) are not optimal, even for their practitioners (the Germans tasted an even bitter pill that way).

      There are many examples like that, of selective evolution through non breeding mechanisms (i.e. non “Darwinian”), which probably led Lamarck to his suggestion. Now Lamarckism is demonstrated, on top of natural selection (probably as Lamarck intended, see what I say to Dominique). One mechanism is called “Methylation”.

      I do agree with Dawkins on the God delusion, but the Selfish Gene I always found idiotic. People are born of love.


  3. Dominique Deux Says:

    Fairly fascinating, and thought-provoking, as usual.

    As if that debate was not rich enough in itself, it has always been polluted by know-nothings barging in with ideological and religious preconceptions.

    Because Stalin, an ignoramus and a former seminarist, strongly believed that a “new man” could be forged, geneticians Mitchourine and Lyssenko fabricated experiments to demonstrate the inheritability of acquired traits (which was Lamarck’s wrong explanation of his genuine discovery of evolution) – sending honest colleagues to the camps in the process.

    A pharaoh had infants imprisoned in a cell, with mute servants to raise them. He thought they might grow up talking the language of the Gods. Thus formulating AND testing Chomsky’s theory. And in fact disproving it by producing feeble-minded mutes. If Chomsky had read Montaigne (who reported this from some Greek historian) he’d have thought twice (thinking power allowing).

    Even among genuine scientists the debate always raged, shifting from one battleground to another as biology trudged forward.

    Fabre and Darwin completely disagreed on the mechanisms of evolution. Yet they knew each other, wrote extensively to each other, and had genuine liking and respect for each other. Fabre’s complete works are on my HDD and always a pleasure to browse. It’s easy now to smirk and pronounce him wrong. But he described in detail how some parasitic Coleoptera completely changed shapes AND behaviors during their many larval stages – getting at this through learning being impossible, and through evolution, unthinkable for him. He also described how highly “rational” behavior in insects can be completely instinct-driven. Yet we also know (and he acknowledged) that even among insects, some behaviors can be taught, or experience acted upon.

    Genes and learning are two separate ways of transmitting any single desirable behavior, each with its advantages and drawbacks. Only ideologues would think evolution relied only on one. They coexist and compete/complement. Just because the “learning” model now enjoys a huge competitive advantage, with man on a rampage, does not mean it will rign supreme and forever. After all, slow- (not not-) learning Arthropods dont’ crap in their own nest and are not on the brink of self-visited oblivion, as we superior minds have achieved in the course of a dozen generations.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Dominique: Your own commentary is fascinating and thought provoking as usual. It is exceptional to encounter someone who knows and read Fabre!

      I agree with all, with just one caveat about jean Baptiste Lamarck: considering how clever Lamarck was, and how numerous his theories, it’s very unlikely that he believed only in Lamarckian evolution. after all, Xenophon already bred horses. So artificial selection by selected traits was very well known, and it was fairly obvious it happened naturally. Consideration on various human and animal races due to geography (a form of selection) had been in print for generations.

      So I rather believe that Lamarck suggested a new evolution mechanism to supplement the well known one, and that his theist enemies pounced on it to make fun of him (as they did at the time). Lamarck was unpopular in Britain because the proud universities there (Oxbridge) were built around the idea of God. And Lamarck had replaced God by time and evolution…

      Nowadays, Lamarckism is demonstrated from several mechanisms, some not just adaptative in the individual in its lifetime, but also inheritable.
      Let’s notice that the Brit Medawar got the Nobel in biology for conclusively proving in the 1950s that Lamarck was 100% wrong (or so it was considered when he got the prize!)


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