Bad genes? Or bad genetics?

by E. John Winner

The following shouldn’t be seen as a condemnation of genetic research, which has proven invaluable in understanding evolution, epidemiology, breeding of better food sources, etc. But there is still a holdover from the era of eugenics that some cling to: the hope that genetics can be used to determine the differences in behavior of individuals of different populations, to the extent that we can predict behavior and life-stories before they ever happen, and take steps to control them. This is worse than fantasy – predicated on obvious cultural biases, bad questions asked poorly, useless research, misguided interpretation of the data – in short, everything private funding groups and some government agencies are willing to throw away money for. It’s a joke, but because of the money involved, it’s likely to continue for some time.

A Problem with Eugenics

According to the Wikipedia entry, “Eugenics (…) is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.” (1)  It is built on an assumption that is grounded in a presumption, concerning the values of the researchers involved. The assumption is that the human species needs to be improved genetically, and this is grounded in the presumption that such improvement can be determined according to values upon which we should all agree. In fact, all such values are culturally bound, completely and inextricably. Consequently, the “improvement” offered will always imply the hopes and prejudices of a given group, within a given culture. There is no way to realize eugenics that isn’t inherently ethnocentric or ethnophobic.

Consider:  I’m sure some hope that eugenics can be used to discover and eliminate genetic predispositions to religious belief, but surely, a religious eugenicist will hope that the same can be done to eliminate predispositions toward atheism. After all, technology plays no favorites.

Furthermore, the very assumption that the human species needs to be improved in this regard is itself highly questionable, since it implies the devaluation of the species, as it actually is. It implies that there is something wrong with being human, that humans are inherently flawed, which is a residue of the Abrahamic “fallen man” mythology.

As an illuminating side-topic, consider the following: Practitioners of “bio-criminology” (which I would argue is a pseudo-science) engage in targeted genetic study of criminal populations that are overwhelmingly African in descent. They seem to hope that genetics will reveal a genetic predisposition to violent behavior, such as mugging or rape. The argument for targeting more African Americans than European Americans would be that there just are more African Americans incarcerated for such behavior. The argument is clearly flawed, since it completely disregards sociological knowledge about the conditions African Americans must confront in various communities, where crime rates are fairly high.

And yet, the practices of predatory capitalists playing the stock market and sending viable companies into bankruptcy have clearly devastated far more lives than all the muggers in America. But one never hears bio-criminologists suggest that geneticists should find the genes responsible for predispositions toward greed and callousness, dishonesty on the stock exchange, or the ruthless exploitation of employees. And there never will be, because white collar criminals contribute to college funds, establish foundations that offer grants, and of course, hire bio-criminologists.

I have sworn to myself not to consider any arguments for eugenics, until I get a certified promise that we will target the behaviors of the real criminals in this society, like the ones who work on Wall Street.

Genetics and Race

I believe the word ‘race’ is as empty as the Medieval term ‘simples’, which was used to indicate that non-clerics and non-aristocrats were incapable of education “by the grace of God.” It should be retired. After all, a lot of archaic words get retired as we acquire greater knowledge. Or should we speak of sending spaceships through the “ether’?

Biologically, what’s important to begin with is that we’re all of one species, with an indefinite capacity for variant expression of genetic material, the diversity of which increases through inter-mating. The effort to close any of this off is suspect, since it effectively argues that science (a) should be used for a purpose, and (b) should be shut down when it reaches the limit of this purpose. This is just nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. Using genetics to constrain human behavior impoverishes human possibility.

The micro-parsing of genetic material can never get around the macro-evolutionary evidence of inter-mating.  I’m a living counter-example to all the race-specific gobbledygook metrics used to define differences between humans. I can trace my own lineage through centuries of inter-mating between different genetic families – Celtic, Jewish, Mongolian, Slav, Pole, Angles, Saxon, Norman, probably Italian (through the Roman conquest of Europe), and Gaul. Through the Jewish and Roman genetic inheritance, I have additional Semitic genes in me and that probably means some African inheritance as well.

This wonderful interplay of genetic recombination between peoples of differing evolutionary histories (and also the same evolutionary history, as we’re all the same species) continues to this day. All my nieces and nephews have wedded people of African or African-Hispanic descent (Hispanic descent includes inheritance from Semitic, Hibernian, Gaul, and other genetic sources). I’m “white” (i.e., pale tan). My kin have brought forth brown-skin (dark tan) children with a rich inheritance. I believe they can achieve any good they want by making the effort and see no possibly sound genetic argument to the contrary.

One of the fathers is Jamaican. Jamaica has a rich African/Irish/Scottish genetic inheritance, with large doses of additional genetic material from China, England, and Spain. The genes of the original inhabitants of Jamaica, the Arawaks, are probably all lost – the British exterminated them many centuries ago. We’ll never know what good they could have brought to the common gene pool of the modern era now.

The great moral I learned from evolution when I was young is the importance of diversity, including the diversity of reproduction and of opportunity for genetic expression through the unlimited possibility of human behavior. The pure don’t survive drastic environmental change. The mongrels will inherit the earth, as we always have. Anyone who doesn’t like this might consider moving to another planet.

Most of us are mongrels. The effort to parse genetic metrics for racist purposes rests on the hope of the purveyors that they are somehow “pure” in their inheritance. But in reality, they are genetic stews like the rest of us, and all that their arguments amount to is “please make my skin color special, for political purposes.”  I and my family have no interest in doing that; my ancestors had no interest in doing that; and my family’s descendants inevitably will reject it as well.

The effort to deny or ignore social, political, cultural, and economic influence on human behavior isn’t only close-minded, but patently cruel. Such an effort isn’t objective science, but social sadism. Diversion from consideration of social influence (by digression into “science,” prior to careful examination of the nature of the scientific research or its proper interpretation) is an obvious effort to deny the harm such influence can inflict. “They hurt? They were born to it, let them get used to it.” Or “let them eat cake” and we all know where that led.  Hopefully, we can reason this through, but sometimes I doubt it.

I have never opposed the knowledge gained from genetics. Indeed, in other contexts I have argued for funding to further its research. I simply don’t believe it should be tied to outmoded cultural constructs that have done nothing but cause harm over the centuries.  No one denies that genetic groupings have certain identifiable characteristics that can be traced – but only through many over-lapping historical narratives. I know I have Mongolian genetic material, because my paternal grandfather had inheritance partly from Hungary, and the Magyar influence is evident in the phylogenetic-morphological physical manifestation. The Magyars procreated with Mongolians during the Western conquest of the Khans. That means I share genetic material with most Chinese living today, whose ancestors mated with the Khan Mongols during their Eastern conquest.

They didn’t need any jets and a global economy for this, only fast horses and mates to reproduce with.  In other words, the future some geneticists suggest, where we’re all interbred through more diverse social interactions, thanks to greater mobility born of modern technology – is already the present we live in. We’re all the products of the mobility of conquering tribes from long ago. And we’re all genetically complex and impossible to fix to simply defined groups. The genetic blend does not result in homogeneity.  We’re not a melting pot, but a stew.

The lesson to be learned by genetic studies of trace inheritance of genes across many generations is that we’re all of a family, but we’re not all the same and never can be. The genetics will never blend in the way that more liberally minded genetic racialists suggest.  Instead, the variation and diversity will continue to multiply. That is what makes ‘race’ an archaic, useless (and to many of us abhorrent) concept. It belongs to the infancy of science.

Genetics and Crime

What’s the use of genetic research into specific behaviors of individual behaviors, if we can’t properly define what those behaviors are?  The insistence on the part of behavioral geneticists, that they’ll find the secret genetic code to “intelligence” (defined behaviorally – but how?), potential for “success” (defined economically, within a presumably normative capitalist society), or “crime” (determined by what criteria? within what society?) isn’t just wishful thinking – it’s damned near criminal negligence.

That genetics can produce tendencies in behavior can’t be denied, given the appropriate stimulus, like we see with alcoholism. But tendencies are not deterministic, which creates a problem when trying to use genes to predict behavior. Environment matters, which throws a wrench into genetic-reductionist explanations of human behavior, as social environments are as varied and diverse as the humans who live them out.

On the broader issue of the relationship between heritability, genetics, and behavior, I’ve long maintained that any studies on these issues need to be rigorously examined for the socially-biased assumptions we make about behavior. Without such examination and consequent qualifications, such studies will likely prove worthless.

Consider the article “Abandon Twin Research? Embrace Epigenetic Research? Premature Advice for Criminologists,” by Terrie E. Moffit and Amber Beckley (2).  Towards the end of the study, Moffit and Beckley make an odd remark, that is apparently widely accepted in the field, namely that cigarette smoking is strongly associated with crime. Really?  In 1950, it was estimated that more than half the population of the US smoked cigarettes. (3) If the Moffit and Beckley remark is taken as a necessary correlate, then should we assume that in 1950 half the population was involved in crime? Obviously, the correlate requires considerable historical and social qualification to be in anyway meaningful. Today only some 20% of the population smokes cigarettes. What percentage of these smokers are active criminals? No doubt engaging in any “risk-taking” behavior will leave one more open to other risk-taking behaviors, yet there’s an important question about whether any such behavior necessarily or only incidentally leads to any other specific behavior. Those more likely to smoke cigarettes may be more likely to eat at McDonald’s once a day, and any good nutritionist will tell us that this is risky behavior; but it’s not a crime.

What constitutes “crime”? Crime is socially, culturally, and politically defined.  It’s not hanging out there in the environment like mosquitoes, nor is it an inevitable natural behavior of the body like defecation. Until well into the 1980s, homosexuality was quite literally criminal behavior. Now, across the industrialized world, gay marriage is becoming legal behavior. In 1980, homosexuality was considered risky behavior, and psychiatrically diagnosable. Now that diagnosis has been considerably reconceived, and will probably be reconceived further. Yet in 1980, behavioral-genetic criminology research would have needed to account for it (in the same era that behavioral psychologists were supposedly developing “therapy” to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals).

There was a time, not so long ago, when a husband beating his wife was considered perfectly legal, and in some countries it still is. In the US, of course, such behavior is criminal. So, if we find genetic markers for “spouse-beating behavior,” these can be used in genetic statistics on tendencies to criminal behavior, but not in Saudi Arabia, where it is not a crime and is, in fact, sanctioned by the state religion.

This is no argument that wife-beating is a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, the point is that an argument either way cannot be made using genetic information. It’s quite obviously a matter of cultural values argued over and voted on among people who have some real interest in it.

Without taking this into consideration, scientific research into such matters flies blind and without fuel. That tells us that questions concerning genetic tendencies toward ‘criminal behavior’ are (a) ignorant and ill-formed and (b) irrelevant to social and political debates concerning what constitutes criminal behavior. After all, should we give genetic counseling to Saudis who immigrate to the US, warning them not to reproduce for fear that their male off-spring will become wife-beaters – and thus, criminals – in their adult lives?

But let’s take a less culturally charged example.  Smoking marijuana is considered a crime in most states, but no longer so in Oregon, Colorado, California, Washington, and soon, likely, a number of other states. Should the state of New York insist on genetic counseling for emigres from Colorado?  Corporal punishment in schools is now considered grounds for the charge of battery in New York. Should geneticists search for genetic markers for “tendency to use corporal punishment while teaching”? Should the state of New York then provide genetic counseling to teachers who move there from, say, Kansas, where corporal punishment in public schools was long considered acceptable?

What constitutes a “crime,” let alone any “tendency toward criminal behavior” such that geneticists can conduct research on them? I never see this question addressed in the literature. Ultimately, I suspect, behavioral geneticists don’t even bother with such methodological and philosophical issues. Their attitude would appear to be, “tell us what it is and we’ll find markers for it.”  Such an attitude is blatantly unscientific. Behavioral genetics needs a new paradigm to become a reliable science.

Frankly, any genetics research on human behavior should be approached cautiously and skeptically. Tendencies don’t make certainties, and if they don’t, then any such research is going to have considerably limited application or even none.

The Meaninglessness of “Race”

If one were to grant “racial” status to all the genetic differences that pass down through generations within given populations, expressing themselves in physical differences, we would have a multitude of “races,” maybe hundreds or even thousands. Pygmies, Bush People, Zulus, Swahili – these are all so phenotypically different, that we must reject any notion that there is a “Negroid” race. Similarly, with the Irish, the Swedish, Hungarians, Southern and Northern Italians – etc., and the outdated classification “Caucasian.” Indeed, I have enough Irish in me – part Pict, part Celt, part Moor, part Norse – to dislike being classified with the British! Up the Republic!

The effort to define races biologically is really an effort to find some meaningful way to categorize according to skin color and physiognomy. And you can’t get there from here.

If the word ‘race’, applied to those of differing genetic and ethnic backgrounds, is in anyway ambiguous or open to differing interpretations – if it is in anyway vague and unspecific – then it can’t have any scientific value. Notably, it appears that the only scientists continuing to use it are those with open social agendas, such as “bio-criminologists,” who hope that certain behaviors can be tagged to certain populations for better monitoring and therapeutic interventions. Of course, these social agendas engender as many problems as they seek to resolve. What exactly are we supposed to do with “criminally genetically inclined” people?

‘Race’ is an anachronism, a word the understanding of which is entirely social and cultural, with no scientific basis whatsoever. It is an excuse for political, economic, social and cultural biases – used to control the population drift in voting blocks, labor, marriage, and the like. Scientifically speaking, it is pure fiction – the remnant of fairy tales that we should have stopped telling at least a century ago. Indeed, it suggests an immature unwillingness to live in the present of our multi-cultural, post-modern world.

The term ‘stars’ once referred to any object seen in the night sky.  It was made scientifically useful only when redefined, exclusively encompassing those objects that could be interpreted as suns within given planetary systems.  Might ‘race’ also be salvaged by redefinition. The answer would appear to be “no,” because it carries far too much political, social, cultural and historical weight, which cannot be adequately stripped from it.

One reason I mentioned ethnic phenotypic differences, is because in the past, and in some regions still today, these have been taken as establishing racial identities, which has led (and still leads, in some places) to useless wars and genocidal “ethnic cleansing.”  Why hold on to a term that has been used for such purposes, when it lacks the precision needed to be useful in biologic categorization?  Those desperate to cling to the idea that there are racial differences between us will seek out the slightest nuance to make the point; anything that in any way re-affirms their own sense of superiority.

But here’s the biological fact of the matter: If I have a sexual encounter with a member of the opposite sex of any supposed “race” – black, Chinese, Australian aboriginal – a human child will be produced. That’s because our genes are fundamentally the same, the differences being phenotypical and superficial, insofar as we belong to the same species.

Some will interject discussion of “breeds” as we see in other animals, but these are the result of externally controlled reproduction. But humans procreate uncontrollably , and that difference makes all the difference. There is no means of tracking the reproductive history of any particular human lineage across centuries in a manner that affirms some supposed “purity.” While the phenotypical differences may seem obvious, there is no grounding genotypical difference between “races.” (4)

Phenotypical differences generate the beautiful kaleidoscope of human experience. But they don’t make us fundamentally different. On the contrary, they assure us that we’re fundamentally the same. They could not have arisen were we in any way genetically different, as racists want us to think we are.



As we read through the Wiki article, we find that there is a recent trend among some geneticists to use the term ‘eugenics’ to apply to any effort to use genetics to address certain health conditions, such as inheritable diseases like Huntington’s, or to provide parents with the opportunity to decide whether to abort a fetus with such diseases. This is just a mistake. First, no one opposed to classical eugenics has ever argued that we shouldn’t use genetics to address health conditions or diseases, because we can do so without attempting to improve the species genetically, which is what eugenics is about. Secondly, resurrecting the term ‘eugenics’ for what is pretty standard genetics seems to bury history or at least, confuse our understanding of it. Third, the choice of whether to have a child or not, given the potential for heritable diseases, has long been available through understanding family histories, and it has not dissuaded a large number of people from having children regardless. For such restrictions to have a large enough impact on the population to affect genetic improvement, they would have to be compelled from outside the family, perhaps by law, and then we would find ourselves entangled in the arguments concerning classical eugenics, as remarked above.

Finally, there’s the question of whether we really want to use genetics to improve the species, since it’s quite possible that naturally occurring reproduction actually contributes to our survival, since we don’t know what environmental challenges we will face in the future. What may appear to be a weakness now, may prove to be a strength in another era.

Let’s stop calling any serious genetics a form of eugenics, and let’s stop pretending that we’re wise enough to direct the course of human evolution.

  3. Mixed heritage off-spring (so-called ‘mongrels’) of controlled breeding tend to be hardier and more likely to survive than their pure-bred relatives (apparently inheriting the most adaptive genes from both parental lineages). Can we not learn from this? Genetic purity is a fundamental flaw in the scheme of evolution. The greater the difference, the greater chance for survival.

**This essay benefitted from discussions with my friend David Polizzi, Professor of Criminology, Indiana State University.






4 responses to “Bad genes? Or bad genetics?”

  1. EJ, this is excellent thank you. Particularly important is the part about the search for the genetic preconditions for “crime,” which as you correctly point out is not only incoherent — crime is not a natural kind — but extremely dangerous in a liberal society.

  2. davidlduffy

    Hi EJ. You might guess that I might find this essay a bit lacking.

    Let’s just concentrate on the Moffitt and Beckley paper first. It is a response to one by Burt and Simons in the same journal, and about 4 and a half pages long. The first half discusses the use of twin and family designs to examine environmental determinants of criminal behaviour. What research does it summarize: a Danish adoption study showing “social class in which people grow up has a direct environmental effect on their probability of criminal offending”, and a co-twin control study that found that “within pairs, the twin who received relatively more maternal negativity and less warmth developed the most aggressive behaviors”. As to smoking, it receives a discussion solely in the context of the second half of the paper, which is on epigenetics. Specifically, the authors point out that since smoking causes marked epigenetic changes to many genes, and smoking is ASSOCIATED with criminal behaviour (in our current social environment), this will confound interpretation of any correlations between criminality and gene methylation.

    Re cultural relativism and criminality, if like many others, I perceive a basic commonality of morality across most cultures, then it’s not suprising that psychiatrists have tried to define conditions such as anti-social personality disorder which they hope are transcultural in nature. Sure, certain antisocial behaviours are useful (and profitable) in particular environments, but we don’t have to be contractualists to think to ourselves, “he had better not treat _me_ or my friends that way”, or “slavery is a lesser evil than just killing the losers in a war”. Do you think “environmental” criminology OK, or is it just as bankrupt?

    As to race, it remains a useful construct in medical genetics, and not just because of culture-driven concomitants. I find it amusing that it is mysteriously effective in predicting disease but not any other human phenotypes.

    Eugenics is practiced in many places around the world, in the context of nasty inherited diseases. As to parents fiddling with their children’s genomes in the future, I would think interventions like choice of educational institution will probably still have as big an effect on social outcome, in the same way as genetic changes to improve risk of heart disease might be of the same size as taking statins or new drugs designed once we understand the genetics of conditions like say essential hypertension.

  3. Side note, EJ: The “ether” was the topic of a recent Nobel Prize in physics. They just call it “dark energy” in the modern era.

  4. Dan,
    thank you for the complimentary remark.

    Droll, but no ‘gotcha.’ You know very well the ether of which I write is the supposedly unidentified gaseous medium long thought to surround the earth. I am perfectly aware that the term has kept in play, while physicists tried to explain certain electromagnetic and other phenomena, but apparently every time they achieve a better explanation they develop a more useful term of art for it. Dark energy is not ether, it is dark energy. If the term ‘ether’ does resurface, so what? I acknowledge in my essay that terms are often redefined in science to accommodate new information. I just don’t think ‘race’ can be, and I don’t think ‘eugenics’ ought to be.

    I was hardly attacking Moffit and Beckley. On the contrary, I found their paper interesting and informative, although it hasn’t cured me of my skepticism concerning twin studies. I only noted their casual remark associating cigarette smoking and criminal behavior. You yourself emphasized “associated” as though this mitigated the implicit presumption of a strong correlation between the one behavior, and the set of behaviors we call criminal. It does not. I deny there is any such correlation at all. If there is statistical comparison between the number of criminals who smoke and the number who don’t and the number of the percentage of the population who smoke or don’t but commit no crimes, that may be suggestive, but of what? To me it would suggest, for instance, that there’s damned little to do in prison besides smoke cigarettes. Or that people who commit crimes may be attracted to joining groups of others who find smoking attractive. Associating smoking with criminal behavior in any direct way, either genetically or psychiatrically, derives from a presumption that smoking is itself somehow offensive and anti-social. I suspect that, because this would explain certain directives found in New York State regulations governing mental health agencies, concerning the collection of data and the treatments the NYS Office of Mental Health expects of such agencies. Apparently, even if smokers are not inherently ‘criminal’ in disposition, they are presumed to suffer some mental condition. I think that presumption misguided. I think it more likely that someone learns smoking by being with people who smoke, and learning to appreciate certain habit modifications. This without doubting the addictive nature of nicotine use.

    This brings me to your other point, concerning environmental criminology and psychological studies of ‘anti-social behavior.’ This point has little to do with anything written in my article. Obviously any behavior takes place within a social environment and can be studied as response to that environment. But I will remark one essential flaw in your case. Crime is simply and only the violation of law. Therefore proper definition of ‘criminal behavior’ has nothing directly to do with ‘anti-social’ behavior. One can act as anti-socially as imaginable and never violate a law (eg., hermits). On the other hand, eg., members of gangs where membership is understood as requiring willingness to violate law, are not engaging in anti-social behavior. On the contrary, their behavior is highly socialized, it is simply socialized to include violation of law. The gang stands in opposition to the larger society surrounding them which inherited or enacted those laws, But that is not an opposition to social responsibility per se. On the contrary, gang members exhibit a rigid determination to fulfill the expectations of their immediate (gang) society, and are fearful of loss of status or physical retribution if they don’t. That is in fact a major obstacle to rehabilitation, which is the process of bringing them to recognize that responsibility to the larger society can bring increased benefits and the potential for a longer life.

    So any study of criminal behavior – that is, properly, behavior violating law – that begins with the presumption that violations of law are necessarily ‘anti-social’ in motivation is flawed at the base. Maybe not fatally, but perhaps in a way that taints further study. The presumption also suggests a further presumption, namely that only the larger society that enacts law has any claim to social responsibility, and while this may be politically useful in enacting law, and socially useful in educating the young concerning law and social responsibility, it is flawed in its application as a sweeping determination of behaviors or of the individuals enacting them.

    Finally, as to the usefulness of ‘race’ in certain medical usages: I would suggest that these be rethought as well. It is certainly possible, eg., to refer to sickle cell anemia as largely appearing among those of African descent, rather than somehow an inevitably ‘Black’ disease. I am certainly not suggesting that we make medicine ‘politically correct.’ And I have certainly not suggested that genetic studies, especially in medicine, be somehow rewritten so as to exclude tracking genetic heritage. I am suggesting that we can pursue such studies – and the practical benefits of their application – without using them to define some outdated ontological classification, which is all ‘race’ is.

    As to your remark on eugenics, I won’t comment, because they are neither contrary nor contradictory to what I wrote in my essay.