Gene Promoters: On Chagnon and Diamond

Like clockwork (or a comet, perhaps), the noisiest problem in anthropology makes its return every few years. And this year we are blessed with the two noisiest comets in anthropology returning together. Both Diamond and Chagnon have new books and, more importantly, new book campaigns with money for appearances and exposure to media outlets. Even better, they both have stone axes to grind.

The worst slur slung by both Chagnon and Diamond is that cultural anthropology is an unrepentantly anti-scientific activity that has intentionally turned away from the dominate paradigm in the biological and behavioral sciences in favor of navel gazing. The obvious follow-up question on the lips of bloggers and journalists alike becomes: What the hell is wrong with cultural anthropology?

The hyperbolic leader in this round of hippie bashing is Razib Khan whose blog bio says he has “an academic background in the biological sciences.” In a lovely post entitled Against The Cultural Anthropologists, Khan writes, “The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn’t that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy, just as Creationists have been extirpated from biology.”

Sidebar: I make the hippie bashing comparison jokingly, but I think the comparison isn’t far off base. The metaphors and sentiments are similar. At the very least, there is the sense that the moral economy, and particularly the scientific establishment at the center of the moral economy is somehow under threat from an unwashed (literally) group of skeptics.

While the line between self-reflection and narcissism may be thinner than anyone wants to admit, cultivating a critical attitude towards knowledge production should be accepted as the starting point for scientific inquiry, not as an obstacle to it. As the field of STS studies has demonstrated time and again, the process of scientific inquiry, even in the controlled environs of a laboratory, is messy business. And the field further demonstrates that there is always a gap between the lived reality of an experiment and its idealized reconstruction in reports and journal articles.

That cultural anthropologists have long been concerned with exposing some of what Pickering termed the “mangle” in their practice is not a sign of laggardness or a slouch into solipsism, but rather an institutionalized form of critical practice. And, it must be this way in cultural anthropology because the position of researcher to researched is far complex and nuanced than it is for laboratory science, or those like Chagnon and Diamond who believe that they are doing science in a laboratory idiom.

The recent #overlyhonestmethods topic on Twitter would seem to hilariously demonstrate that quite a few “hard” scientists are fully aware of the uncomfortable gap between their practice and what they are institutionally allowed to report.

For the last 18 months I have been conducting research in a DIYBio lab, and I have worked on several projects over that span. In the laboratory, it is routine to make nature uniform so that experimental results can be predicted and repeated. The importance of a hypothesis rests precisely on the assumption that, for a brief moment, the workings of some small part of the world can be made uniform. Away from the bench, in the world of language and social life, this illusion quickly falls apart. It also falls apart when some piece of lab equipment malfunctions, but that is another story.

But, what of the dominant paradigm that Chagnon and Diamond use and which cultural anthropologists deny? Certainly this must be SCIENCE as it was meant to be. The paradigm that informs Chagnon, Diamond and their chorus of supporters in the blogosphere is an adherence to the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. To be more specific, they are both, more or less, sociobiologists who believe in genetic determinism.

For fields like population genetics, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, the gene is a unit of calculation in the exact sense formulated by Johannsen in 1909. This is unproblematic if one understands that in this conception, a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact. And, like Geertz noted of “mind”, when deployed in this sense by Diamond and Chagnon, a “gene” is a social concept which explains behavior, values, attitudes and social mores.

The problem comes in considering the gene as a unit which transmits determinate behavioral traits on a one-to-one basis, which is precisely what Chagnon does. Why are the fierce people so fierce? Because they inherit the genes from the most violent males among them. Note also, that in Chagonon’s formulation, women are of little import except as carriers of genetic information.

In contrast, the molecular view of the gene has undergone what can only be called a deconstruction since 1909. In the molecular view, the gene, as a unit, can be located in multiple spots (some quite mysterious) and behave in any number of surprising ways. It is, in the molecular view, far from the kind of determinate factor which Chagnon and Diamond rely upon for their analysis. At best, the molecular gene fuzzily transmits traits, more or less.

For example the definition of a gene given in the 4th edition of Molecular Cell Biology is “the entire nucleic acid sequence that is necessary for the synthesis of a functional polypeptide.”  In other words,  a gene is a string of macromolecules that code for a protein. Note that the one-to-one correspondence between gene and behavior is absent and in its place has been substituted a definition which leaves open questions of the relation of elementary to complex phenomena.

26 thoughts on “Gene Promoters: On Chagnon and Diamond

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