Nature vs Nurture – genes vs environment

Talk given by Daphna Whitmore at the Marxism Conference in Auckland, June 2008

Every week a new gene is supposedly found for something. This week New Scientist has a headline: They’ve discovered the gene for religion. Dig a little and it’s clear that the claims are grossly inflated. Well, it turns out they haven’t quite found a gene for religion after all, but postulated it exists. The theory is based on a computer programme that predicts that if a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, that religion will flourish. And this passes for science somehow!

The popular notions of what genes do are interesting.

I caught part of a programme on TV a few weeks ago. It was about people’s behaviours and their sex lives. The participants were asked to record how many times a day they had a sexual thought. The results were a little mixed, but one male had a huge number of sexual thoughts, another male had a moderate number which was about the same as one of the women and one woman had very few. It was a small sample of only about 4 people, so not the most rigorous scientific study. The conclusion drawn by the programme narrator was that “men think about sex more than women, and this is because in evolutionary terms this is an advantage. A woman once pregnant gains nothing from further copulation, whereas a man can keep spreading his genes around to great evolutionary advantage.”

This sort of theorizing is rather typical these days. Yet in the sample there was as much difference between the two men as there was between one man and one woman. But hey, we all know that humans are driven by the need to spread their genes, don’t we? So how do we explain that bizarre anti-evolutionary practice of contraception?

The trouble with many of the crude genetic explanations is that they come about through a series of assumptions and are deeply coloured by social and historical context.

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