By Gary Berg-Cross
One of the discussion topics after Chis Mooney’s presentation on The Republican Brain concerned determinism. One questioner framed a question about genetics “partially determining” ones personality, ideological stance etc. This was a gestured to by Simone Amselli in her blog on Mooney’ presentations:
“Mooney’s theory is somewhat deterministic: ‘our political inclination is dictated by the configuration of our brain’. This seems to be the conclusion Mooney is aiming at.
However determinism is a huge subject… and a lot can be said about it. Even the cultural context can be deterministic.”
Both Chris and I were more than a little uncomfortable with a verbal concept like “partially determined.” This seems counter to the very idea of determinism which argues that for any happening there are conditions such that, given those conditions (say a set of genes), nothing else could happen.
What people who propose “partially determinism might mean is that events are affected by a factor or as Chris said “influenced.” Genetics and environment are huge factors involved in driving human behavior. They certainly interact and they have many components that interact over time. An interactionist model, contrasted to pure genetic or environmental ones is shown in the 3 part graphic below.
As developmentalist Jerome Kagan put it to broaden the nature vs nature issue:
Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form.That’s a much better model for what is going on than determinism by either single factor approach.
So part of what the research that Chris reports on is saying is that from things like twin studies we understand the 2 sides and their interactions better.
“Nature, we are starting to realize, is every bit as important as nurture. Genetic influences, brain chemistry, and neurological de velopment contribute strongly to who we are as children and what we become as adults. For example, tendencies to excessive worrying or timidity, leadership qualities, risk taking, obedience to authority, all appear to have a constitutional aspect.” Stanley Turecki
This general idea of interaction is an important way of understanding complex phenomena (like obesity). Take climate change. In a November 01, 2012 article in Business Week Paul M. Barrett declared after Hurricane Sandy - It's Global Warming, Stupid. The article quotes Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota explaining how to understand the influence of climate change on a storm like Sandy:
“Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.”
Eric Pooley, senior VP of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), explained it using a baseball analogy that we all might understand:
“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”
And we can go way beyond that frame to understand some of the factors that influence something like a storm. Mark Fischetti of Scientific American summarized the broadening consensus about the mechanistic factors:
“Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us.
Do sure climate scientists agreed that it's difficult to link a single weather event to global warming but many agree that the damage caused by Sandy was worse because of rising sea levels.
It’s a network of influence. And so is the gene-environment situation. We shouldn’t think of it as 2 modular, isolated items. When we step closer we see a biological-development network. And there are structures and mechanism at work. Cells for example. In bio-organisms, most cellular components exert a functional influnce through interactions with other cellular components. And in complex organisms we have complex organs. We humans have a complex brain. We know a bit about the neural interconnections there, but there are also interconnections at brain component such as the amygdale and neo-cortex.
All of this is not well covered by simple terms like “determined.” We need to slowly develop a vocabulary to understand these better and not force arguments into Procrustean beds that lop off part of real understanding to fit binary views of reality. Opposing ideas are easy parts of a debate, and can start understanding but often evolve into larger understanding.
All part of open inquiry and a life of learning.
The burgeoning field of computer science has shifted our view of the physical world from that of a collection of interacting material particles to one of a seething network of information. In this way of looking at nature, the laws of physics are a form of software, or algorithm, while the material world—the hardware—plays the role of a gigantic computer. — P.C.W. Davies
'Laying Down the Laws', New Scientist. In Clifford A. Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them (2008)
Gene-environment interaction: http://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/2250_Genetic_Environmental_interaction.html
Tangle of nature vs nurture: http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/student-voices/the_tangle_of_the_naturenurture