This is one of those articles I’m writing mainly so we can refer to it whenever someone argues “it’s in the genes.” It’s a broader version of Why I Banned Gender Essentialism, and it’s very simple. Disclaimer: this article is not talking about physical traits that get passed on by genes. No one’s in denial about this. This article is about the desperate quest to legitimize age-old bigoted ideas about how “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “breeding will show.”
Long before genes were discovered, human beings had the idea that “blood” transferred all sorts of traits. Suitability to rule the world, or suitability to be a slave, for just two examples. It should terrify you to think that humans long ascribed entire lives of misery or absolute power to people based on nothing resembling merit – just the idea that these things could be inherited. And humans were proved wrong over and over and over, but still the idea persists. Why? Because it’s magical.
“It’s in the genes” = “It’s in the stars”
Then people discovered genes and, voila, confirmation bias! Genetics opened up the possibility that there were real physical ways in which people could inherit suitability for certain lives. Again, it didn’t matter how many total duds showed up in royal lineage, or how many potential great leaders showed up in slavery – we humans were absolutely determined to believe this bullshit. We had married it, and we lived with it, and we were dedicated to it no matter what.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that it’s magical thinking. I mean, which of these arguments sounds more plausible to you?
- The reason I’m a strange blend of meticulous nit-picking organizer and eccentric creative theorist who can’t even remember where the box was, it’s been that long since she thought inside it, is that I’ve got nitpicky Virgo and eccentric Aquarius both strongly placed in my astrological chart*; or
- It’s in the genes. We don’t know which ones. Nor can we point to anyone else on either side of my family that’s quite like me. But we feel sure it’s in the genes. We just do.
*(I am proud to say, the same astrological leanings have been theoretically assigned to Sherlock Holmes by the sort of fans who like to think about that sort of thing.)
#1 at least has reasoning. It’s based on totally unfounded assumptions about star positions connecting to personality traits. But #2 is based on totally unfounded assumptions about genes we haven’t even identified yet connecting to personality traits.
Environment controls gene expression
Let’s begin with why the quest to assign personality traits to genes is more hopeless than the search for the ark of the covenant. Cordelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, discusses numerous alarming studies which show how much environment controls the expression of genetic traits. Just as a lack of nutrition will prevent a child from reaching her full genetic potential height, so can what psychologists call “priming” limit our mental and emotional development.
She provides numerous examples of how performance on tests or answers to questions shift among the same individuals, depending whether the researchers have more recently reminded them of their identity as a woman or minority, or as a member of a particular field or nation. If you tell a student that a group he belongs to consistently does better or worse on tests than another group, he will tend to perform according to the stereotype. And even when we struggle to prove the stereotype wrong – i.e., western girls determined to prove they can kick ass at math – “stereotype threat” clouds the mind with defiance, anger and/or anxiety, which compromise our intellectual performance. Conversely, if you tell someone her group is more likely to shine on a test, that boosts her performance by adding confidence to the mental mix. Confidence relaxes the mind and helps it focus.
Therefore, you can never work backward from expression to determine genes. Because expression is so controlled environmentally, it doesn’t reveal much about the genetic makeup.
But that doesn’t prove genes don’t have some impact
That’s true. Logically, one cannot prove a negative. But we can say for sure that the vast majority of genetics/personality arguments so far are too flimsy to stand up – and some are outright bullshit (Louann Brizendine, we’re looking at you). So let’s discuss just what it is that these educated scientists are failing to take into account: family and social dynamics.
Why, oh why, can one family produce a sibling who’s confident and another who’s shy? I’ve never understood why people leap to the genetics argument when it’s actually pretty common for siblings to have things in common rather than be opposites – looking alike, sounding alike, etc. The most obvious explanation for a confident/shy dynamic is simply that the two kids were treated differently – possibly by parents, but probably also by outside influences. If the shy kid is a girl, I really have to throw up my hands and wonder what rock the “genes” arguers have been living under. It’s hard to, like, know five human beings of mixed gender without noticing that there’s a double standard for how females and males should conduct themselves.
And yet, people manage not to notice. People manage to somehow assume that women are just “naturally” (read: “genetically”) shy, unable to ask for raises/promotions, uncomfortable asking for dates/sex, etc. The lack of analysis and synthesis is just so irritating.
So let’s get to a more interesting question that’s been the subject of more serious research. Why do some kids in a family end up with a personality disorder while others do not? This happens commonly, and most people erroneously assume that it rules out the possibility of a negative upbringing causing the personality disorder (even though it’s well-established that most people with personality disorders suffered neglect or abuse during childhood, and the mechanism through which these things are proposed to damage personality makes excellent sense in light of what we know about the development of ordered personalities). We also have no known examples where two identical twins separated at birth both developed the same personality disorder while growing up in very different households.
Also, who’s never known a pair of identical twins who had distinctly different personalities? It’s not that uncommon. And the existence of such twin sets, all by itself, casts serious doubts over the idea that genes are a primary determinant of personality.
None of this supports a conclusion that the difference in sibling personalities must be accounted for by some unaccounted difference in genes – if anything, it makes that seem unlikely. The far more logical hypothesis is that it’s environment. Two siblings are typically two or more years apart in age. Their brains are at very different points in development when major life events happen (death, divorce, a parent’s addiction problems accelerating, the introduction of an abusive step-spouse, etc.). Additionally, abusive parents tend to play “favorites” with their kids in a very extreme way, sometimes even grooming one child to think abusively and another to feel like a born victim. The differences in the environment are obvious, and the fact that similar family dynamics pretty consistently produce similar personality issues in all sorts of gene pools – across races and nations – compels any serious scientist to investigate these dynamics before resorting to the assumption that “it’s in the genes.”
That said, at least one study has found some correlation between certain personality disorders and certain genetic factors. Does this warrant a conclusion that the presence of these factors gives one a personality disorder? Not unless someone establishes that large sample pools of people without personality disorders also lack these genetic factors – and given how every extended family has a disordered personality or two versus lots and lots of ordered ones, that seems unfathomable. My guess is that genes may determine which personality disorders a person is most susceptible to developing, but it’s the environment that determines whether an ordered or disordered personality develops.
These are the main arguments any “it’s in the genes” arguer needs to overcome before having his opinions taken seriously by anyone for any reason. Feel free to point these arguers to this article. They won’t get it; they’re typically very dedicated to this simplistic, magical explanation because it requires no thought, and most people are too lazy and irresponsible to think.