Science and Democracy

Fatal(ist) Reductionism

I would like to register a quick complaint about this National Post article concerning suicide in aboriginal communities, posing the titular question:  “Does it run in families like a disease?”

To be fair, the sources they quote don’t give an unequivocal ‘yes’ but I want to clarify a little bit why we think the question is itself obnoxious.

To start, everyone probably has a knee-jerk reaction to the title. Aboriginal communities don’t have a lot going for them; there is poverty, drug abuse, and a history of violence – colonial or otherwise. These are obviously environmental determinants which don’t have to do with genes. Nurture, not nature – right?

Yes and no. It’s becoming more commonplace now to realize that ‘nature-vs-nurture’ is a poor way of posing the question since we think that genes and environments are deeply entangled. Some of the more popular examples of this thought are epigenetic. In rats, the absence of a mother’s affection (licking) can methylate parts of the DNA in the offspring, thereby blocking the expression of certain molecular genes and so making it nervous and anxious. The kicker is that this methylation is heritable in the subsequent generation as well, causing the same outcome. So, to pose the defunct question about this grandchild: is its nervous behavior explained by nature or nurture? Dunno, really. There’s no real answer. To be sure, there’s some kind of genetic explanation – the grandrat’s behaviour is a consequence of its genome – but the structure of the genome is itself caused by an historical environmental change.

A similar kind of study, albeit more contentious, considers the Dutch famine of 1944-45. Pregnant mothers at that time had underweight babies and although those children were then fed normal diets, the next generation was also born underweight. Nature or nurture?

However attractive, epigenetics is but one swell in a rising tide of biological work which is tracing out all the incredibly complex interactions among chunks of DNA, their cellular environment, and the organism’s environment, which make the reductionist story that behaviour-is-really-just-DNA increasingly implausible. But this is all old news.

Now for the bombastic part, which I’m ambivalent on and will only sketch: there is no fact of the matter about whether it’s genes or environment.  Nature won’t reveal the truth to us about whether behaviour follows a straight line from DNA or whether it’s environmentally conditioned. More bombastic still, I think a large part of the choice in which story we tell is a political and ideological, not ‘scientific’. Be honest: don’t you feel attracted to the results of epigenetics because it promises to free you from the sense of fatalism that your destiny is already written?

An intuition pump: Helen Longino, a feminist philosopher of science, gave a very strong example that there are – by and large – two kinds of conceptual models with which scientists approach the question of gender differences. One is called ‘linear-hormonal’ and the other is, let’s say, ‘distributed’. In the former, gender differences are explained in a straight line from genes to neuroendocrinology to behaviour. The other is – as the name suggests – much more distributed; genes interact in complicated ways with each other and with their environments which thereby results in behaviours that are quite a bit more plastic and contingent. Now, the important part is that these models don’t behave as hypotheses about the fact of the matter. Rather, they serve as a way of organizing our evidence. To put it loosely, they are two different ‘ways of seeing’ and we could, in large part, construct our body of scientific knowledge around one of them or the other; we can fit our evidence into either one.

It is not, then, entirely an empirical matter which model we choose. This is where the politics enters. If this gender-behaviour research were undertaken only by men who happened to believe in a fixed, essential image of what women were like then it would be totally unsurprising if their research adopted a linear-hormonal model of explanation and so sought to reduce explanations of female behaviour down to the genes. It’s easy to simplify ‘the other’ if they are a mere object of study and look for some simple essential explanation. If we believe this, then reductionist genetic explanations for things can start to look like they fall out of a set of background beliefs – maybe political ones – and so there’s a concomitant risk that our ‘explanations’ are sometimes nothing more than an expression of the beliefs we started out with.

So that’s the first bombastic thing: sometimes it can be the case that the shape of our science can be political fallout rather than a mere expression of ‘the facts’. It’s a heavy point which would require a lot more argument if we were serious, but just roll with it for now.

Second bombastic thing: which scientific approach we take – reductionist or otherwise – determines what interventions we make in our world. This should be unsurprising, really — it doesn’t take much imagination to see that a world in which we think everything is genetically determined would look very different for our own — but we’ll take an example: ADHD. The last couple of decades have seen a continued explosion of diagnoses for this malfunction and kids have been increasingly hopped up on ritalin. I myself was diagnosed as a child. But why so many; why now? One story we could tell would implicate reductionism itself. If we look for the causes of behaviour inside the individual and, specifically, in the genome then any intervention to mitigate that behaviour will have to take place inside that very individual. But it could have been otherwise; we could have explained the behaviour by the environment: school is boring. Implication? Make school less boring rather than reprogram the kids who, after all, are alright.

So to recap this potted story: politics, or at least our very many background beliefs, can influence the kinds of scientific programs we undertake, but so too can those scientific programs affect the interventions we make in our surrounding world and one another – our politics. This reveals a kind of reciprocity between science and politics which I don’t take to be contentious, but which is very uncommon nonetheless.


Now, look back at the National Post byline we started off with. “Does [suicide] run in families like a disease?” starts looking like a very loaded question. What does it presume? Well, firstly, that legitimate go-to explanations are ‘internal’. That is, we should look for genetic and hereditary explanations for behaviour. Even if we think – deep down – that things are more complicated, we can now ask whether there is a risk in using  this explanatory idiom. Is there? Yes, probably. If we tell a story of genetic causation then we risk a fatalistic social attitude towards these people. This comes at the cost of focusing on environmental changes which – after all  – are obvious crises facing aboriginal communities. More crucially, however, is seeing that this reductionist explanatory mode exists quite apart from the cardboard-cutout image of science that pursues mere facts of the matter. This explanatory reductionism precedes evidence; it is a framework, a way of seeing. Now, are we right to think there’s a risk that our adoption of this explanatory mode has been informed by our politics? Do we think there’s a chance that our scientific pursuit for hereditary explanation could actually be a convoluted way of affirming our prior attitudes about the behaviour of certain kinds of people?  More concretely, do we think that a cadre of misogynistic endocrinologists could end up with a scientific image which confirms their prior and essentialized views of what women are like?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions then you should also think that even asking the question about hereditary suicide is one we should be more careful about. Of course, this is not to say that these are the kinds of questions we should never ask – genetic explanations are incredibly powerful and socially helpful. Rather, it’s a cautionary tale that what we take as mere conjectures about scientific fact can often be bound up with our social and political biases, and can thereby bias the kind of actions we take, which often end up confirming  the views we started out with. The upshot is not that we should stop doing science and do politics instead, but rather that we should give ourselves tools to do both at the same time. Especially since that’s already what we’re doing, though not necessarily doing well.


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