July 4, 2022

“Gene-whiz” science faces criticism

The latest gene of the week: liberalism

The notion that our behaviour is largely
due to our genes is immensely popular with the media, and intensely unpopular
with many scientists. The Biopolitical Times
blog has taken to nominating a “gene of the week” – from debt to DIY to
propensity to answering telephone surveys.

The latest gene to surface accounts for
liberal political views. Researchers at the University of San Diego and Harvard
have found
that that people with a specific variant of the DRD4 gene are more likely to be
liberal as adults (if they had an active social life in adolescence).

This drew the scorn of John Horgan in Scientific
American
. He scoffed at “gene-whiz science”.

“Researchers, or gene-whizzers, typically
make a surprising announcement: There’s a gene that makes you gay! That makes
you supersmart! That makes you believe in God! That makes you vote for Barney
Frank! The media and the public collectively exclaim, ‘Gee whiz!’ Follow-up
studies that fail to corroborate the initial claim receive much less or no attention,
leaving the public with the mistaken impression that the initial report was
accurate—and, more broadly, that genes determine who we are.”

On a similar note, Charles Foster, writing
in Practical
Ethics
, criticises “genetic fundamentalism”.

“Who will rid us of these turbulent
reductionists? They are very difficult to cull. The one gene = one protein idea
is dead. But some of its offspring, which include the notion that there is a
gene for immensely complex, plainly multifactorial traits, limp on. The war’s
over. They’ve lost. But they keep on fighting. Haven’t their champions heard of
epigenetics? Don’t they know how plastic even adult brains are?”

All this may be true, but if so, it would be bad news for the personal
genomics industry which sells genetic profiles by associating traits with
genes. Genetic fundamentalism has life in it yet.

Michael Cook