Is Scientific Racism Making A Comeback?
Sensational stories about “smart genes” hint at a revival, but the reality is more complex
Maybe at one time it was primarily sensationalism and the desire for page views that motivated these “DNA determines this or that” articles, but I think now there is a deeper underlying issue that is driving their resurgence. It is no coincidence that the popularization of AI and machine learning are correlated precisely with this increase in DNA determinism in the popular press. Despite being non-existent currently and possibly ever, the idea of artificial intelligence, and the logically impossible logical contradiction machine learning have convinced the laymen that people are really nothing more than sophisticated biological computers. Thus it is no far stretch to infer that our DNA is the “code” that fully determines every aspect of our being from how we behave, to how we look, to what diseases we may or may not get, to how “intelligent” and “successful” we will be. Just like computer code, our DNA code is fully determinative of everything that we are or will ever be. The fact that this is utter and complete nonsense (like machines that learn and artificial intelligence) is never considered. If one studies the literature it appears more and more that the opposite is actually the case, DNA sequence is far less consequential then once thought, and by default it is environmental (or other unknown) factors that must be far more important in determining virtually every major life outcome from disease propensity to “success” to “happiness.”
As a micro/molecular biologist I was once a hard core DNA determinist. The more I learned about the role of DNA and the molecular basis of life the more it seemed it seemed obvious that DNA sequence must be the primary source of everything that made us what we were. As with many things in science and life that are accepted uncritically, the belief in the correctness of a given position is often inversely proportional to it’s actual correctness. Such is the case with DNA determinism. The fact that we have learned and know so much about the role of DNA in life processes is yet another reason DNA determinism has become the default position among the lay public and many in the scientific community as well. It is so much easier to point to gene sequences as the “cause” of any particular attribute when these sequences are largely known or easily discovered, and their role (largely) understood. A gene sequence is a cold, hard, known fact. It can be determined exactly, put into databases, and compared to other known sequences. It can be analyzed and seen, it is eminently knowable even for the non scientist. It is much harder to to suggest environmental factors which are mostly unknown, often impossible to pinpoint or even describe exactly, and have complex interactions with each other. They are in a word, fuzzy. Who wants to be told they are overweight for reasons that are mostly unknown or possibly unknowable or that “it’s complicated.” It is so much easier to be told you are overweight because of your genes, given the name of the gene(s) believed to be responsible, and maybe even shown the exact sequence(s) and how they differ from those who are not overweight. Because an explanation is easy and known and the “simplest” does not make it the correct one despite what Occam’s razor might suggest.