I am working on a series about identity and characteristics, essentially behavior, since that is all there is in the end, behavior and dispositions to behavior. I will talk about heritability more later, but these were some burning thoughts.
The other day I encountered a standard argument analyzing heritable factors, and as usual got caught off guard by this idea that a certain percentage of a characteristic's manifestation was “due to genes.” I decided the phrase was maddening. I partially mean this was a little upsetting, but more fundamentally I mean it was incapable of being clearly understood, which of course can be upsetting as well.
So, here is my maddening thoughts on such a phrase and idea. Let us take slavery. Now, we can create true propositions given certain social/environmental factors. An African in the southern United States in the 1700's is a slave “due to their genes.” Now, given that skin color comes from genes, and given that we had a social environment that relegates any person with a certain skin color to a life of slavery, under such conditions the phrase, “Slavery is correlated with genetic differences,” is true. Within such an unalterable social context, there is going to be a very strong correlation between certain genes (namely those controlling skin color) and social positions and behavioral dispositions (namely those that slaves exhibit).
But, you say, we are smart enough to realize that the correlation only holds because of the accidents of the social environment, one that we were capable of easily changing. And one that, after ridding society of slavery, rendered mute the idea that the genetic connection between certain genes and the fact that those gene's correlated with slavery was interesting or meaningful at all.
In the end, I argue, that such an argument is going to hold for any characteristic, including the ones being pointed to by many heritability claims. Now, obviously, some of the environmental engineering we would have to devise in order to rid any correlation between a defined characteristic and the social displaying of the characteristic due to genes may require very heavy handed steps. These may be steps or the creating of social/environmental structures that we are unwilling to engage in. But, still, in the end, the idea that differences in behavior manifestations is “due to genes” will be seen as a maddening phrase, just as it is for the idea that differences in being a slave tracked well with various genetic differences.
The phrase “due to genes” always only makes sense as we hypostatize the environment or social structures. As we ask questions about not only our ability to place individuals within different social and environmental spheres known to us, but also other ones that we can devise, the questions of what exactly genes are structuring becomes a little clearer.
Maybe the lesson here is that when someone makes claims from twin studies, for instance, and points to some identity factor as being correlated with certain gene similarities, and they do so without making claims about more bottom line mechanistic structures, we have to be wary about what exactly is going on. And the truth is that this is not entirely evolutionary psychology's fault. Part of it has to do with the way we take characteristics and behavioral dispositions as salient givens in the first place. That is, identity structures are not as robust and “part of who we are” as we take them to be, such as the way we describe people as extroverted, or intelligent, or heterosexual, or psychopathic. Furthermore, there are discursive, institutional, and self reflective factors that can seriously alter the manifestation of any behavioral repertoire. And such factors can probably be arranged to erase genetic disparities or erase the characteristic altogether.