Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Nurture is a Part of Nature

In the May 2, 2009 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times, James Wilson wrote the article “How Genes Shape our Political Choices.” He offer little solid irrefutable evidence in his tirade which claims that our political consciousness is essentially genetically predetermined.

Wilson discusses tests that geneticists use to determine whether a personality trait is passed on through genes. One such test involves comparing adopted children to their foster parents and their biological parents. Another entails comparing identical twins to fraternal twins and non-twin siblings. The idea is that the more people with similar genes share similar traits, the more likely it is that such traits are passed down through genes.

Wilson cites a study by John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John Hibbling, which uses the twin test, in order to determine whether political choices are genetic. While the study concludes that party affiliation is not genetic, the study claims that political attitudes on issues such as civic duty, the death penalty, and pacifism, are passed through genes.

Here is the thing though, the Alford, Funk and Hibbling study was published in 2005. Wilson writes this article in 2009. He doesn't mention it, but he is trying to counter a new study which refutes the evidence in the 2005 report. Elizabeth Suhay, Nathan Kalmoe, and Christa McDermott recently published a study which fundamentally throws the 2005 study into question, by pointing out that the twin studies led to inaccurate results because twins often share an environment so much, that studies like Alford, Funk and Hibbling's, inflate the results of shared traits among twins. The 2009 study places more emphasis on environmental factors playing a role in the development of political opinions.

Wilson doesn't even intellectually engage with the new study, but simply smears people who believe that social conditioning plays a part in developing a persons attitudes. Wilson calls them 'activists in denial', and then goes on to make essentially the same arguments of the social conditionists. Wilson claims, “When campus protests and attacks on university administrators began in the late 1960's, it was not because a biological upheaval had increased the number of radicals; it was because such people encountered events (the war in Vietnam, the struggle over civil rights) and group pressures that induced them to take strong actions.”

What is at stake in this debate is how we understand free will, the ability to change attitudes and routines, and whether we are able to create our own destiny, or are locked in a genetic predestination.

In essence, Wilson, the Ronald Reagan professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine Univeristy, is promoting a favorite myth of white supremacists. In fact, the study he cites, has been featured on racist websites like American Renaissance.

Wilson states that “the anti-gene claim is ultimately an ill-starred effort to preserve the myth that, because the environment can explain everything, political causes that attempt to alter the environment can bring about whatever their leaders desire.” Wilson sounds like so many bourgeois apologists who state that human nature is violent and creates leaders and slaves. How many times have you heard that “socialism is a nice idea, but it would never work because it is against human nature.” The argument Wilson makes encourages people to give up on attempts to change the world for the better.

I want to clarify a few things about Wilson's misrepresentations of the social conditionists arguments though. Except for Christian fundamentalists who don't believe in evolution, no one is claiming that genetics don't play a large part in determining human behavior.

I think there is a meta-structure is in our genes for certain human traits, but not for the specific choices people make. For example, genes for sexual desire, not for sexual preference; genes that allow one to grow legs and have the ability to run, but not a gene to be a world class Olympic runner, genes to be able to understand and speak a language, but not a specific language. In the case of political views, we are born with the ability to be rational, but we are not born with predetermined positions on issues. If we were, then I would like to know where the pacifist gene is, and how we could breed the entire human race with it.

Certainly our genetics provide for us to be impact by social circumstances in different ways, thus leading to the development of political perspectives in individuals. An African-American is going to be raised to understand the history of African-American's, and to have a different perspective on politics than someone raised in a white family in America.

We are like Pavlov's dog or Skinner's rodents. We have a genetic need to eat to survive, however our salivating at the sound of a bell is taught to us. Our political views are conditioned into us by our role in society.

However, human society is something that has its roots in evolution. The overwhelming majority of evidence supports Darwin's theory of natural selection. However, a question not answered by many conservative corporate social Darwinists is “who is fittest to survive- the individual, or the group that works together and supports each other?” Russian Anarchist Petter Kropotkin had an answer to that question, and in his book “Mutual Aid: a Factor in Evolution,” he showed how the society that supports it's members will be “the strongest to survive” over the powerful individual.

What Kropotkin showed through science is something which Rousseau showed through philosophy, that mankind is not naturally vindictive. That we are born free and equal, and that contrary to Wilson's claims, socialism is a part of human nature.

Every time you share a meal with a friends, every time you fix a friends car or bike, every time you take care of a sick child, every time you pay taxes towards a local school, that is mutual aid, a part of human nature. It is in our own interest to help others. That is why we have hospitals, and seek cures for diseases, and help those who are sick. That is why we educate our young and socialize with others, telling them our thoughts and ideas and sharing our experiences. Because on one hand we can get sick and will need help, and on the other we might need that person who is sick for some other task in society. Essentially, our nurturing aspects, are a fundamental part of our nature. They are an evolutionary tool for survival.

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