Ourselves, Cute Cats, and Genes as Rhetorical Devices  

Society is everywhere—humans have not existed outside of society for many millennia. The societies humans created live in privilege some and not others based on status categories rooted in morality. Social status can of course involve beliefs about genetics and relationships and often do. But as the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote, the “brutal action of the struggle for existence and selection” is indeed tempered. Meaning humans exceed other critters in the world because we do indeed worry about morality. As Durkheim noted, we find people routinely sacrificing on behalf of others, irrespective of genetic relationships. This emphasis on the “socially constructed” nature of not only society, but also the concepts which help us understand society, is taken for granted by sociologists and anthropologists. But, others do not share our appreciation for this approach.

Last year, Razib Khan who writes about population genetics, cat genetics, and other subjects held our own Michael Scroggins up as an example of why Cultural Anthropology should be “extirpated” from the academy. He complained about the failure of cultural anthropology to understand science. And in particular, he complained about Michael’s assertion that “the gene” is simply a rhetorical device that emerged out of philosophical discussions about 100 years ago. Michael was making a conventional point in anthropology, which is that scientific constructs like the gene are, well, “socially constructed” rather than a positive fact. Razib, was making a “positivistic” point from the field of genetics that a gene is an actual “thing.”

Michael’s approach flew in the face of what many in the natural sciences, including Razib, believe, i.e. that “the gene” is a fixed entity which can positively be touched, felt, measured, and exists in the world outside the imaginations of scientists. In other words, it is the old positivist vs. constructivist argument. As a social scientist, I tend to come down on Michael’s side—I think that the gene like everything else, is a concept created by the minds of humans to facilitate understanding, communication, and other human goals.

Anyway, a few of Razib’s fans joining the fray at in the comment section of Michael’s blog were less careful than Razib himself. A few resorted to Bell-Curve type reasoning which correlates intelligence quotient with race, particularly in US populations. I popped in at some point, basically supporting Michael’s position—I believe strongly that culture trumps genetics (and also the neural sciences), particularly in the short run (i.e. centuries). I also agree with Michael that “the gene” is a social construct—albeit a useful one—invented a little over 100 years ago.

In my view, the problem for the genes equals intelligence crowd is that they start with assumptions which reinforce pre-existing views of the world. For example, the I.Q. concept was invented about 100 years ago by the psychometricians from Princeton and elsewhere. What these psychometricians did was come up with intelligence testing in which they assumed that they themselves (and their own children) as normative, i.e. really smart, in coming up with their scales. Or in their words have a high level of “cognitive function” as measured by a test which measures English vocabulary and mathematically-based abstract thinking. Not surprisingly, people like them (and their children) do pretty well on such exams, which is one reason why residence and social proximity to the test-writers in terms of income, class, residence, etc., correlates so highly with good SAT and i.q. scores. And why shouldn’t they? The people who write the tests get to select the answers, too!

In this context our commenters reminded us, intelligence is in the terms of psychometricians a “thing” just like the gene. They even have a name for it, the “g-factor”, which is a thing in the brain produced by genes, where “cognitive function” is found. This positivism combined with positivistic genetics, leads to the assumption that race (i.e. genetics) correlates with intelligence. In other words, only a brief leap of faith in “correlation implies causation,” and it can become assumed that the g-factor is passed on via DNA.

But there is an alternative to the heritable “g-factor” solution of this problem. For example if you change the culture, even a high i.q. Princetonian becomes an absolute dolt. I know, because that is what happened to me when I joined the Peace Corps in 1980. I had great GRE scores, but was a dolt in a Thai village, and have a big scar on my thumb to prove it—the big scar resulted when I flunked a basic rural Thai i.q. test that the six year old in front of me was scoring really high on. It involved taking a sharp machete, identifying the direction of the grain in a bamboo stalk, and then peeling off a strip about 1 mm. wide. Easy for a Thai six year-old to do in 1981, but not so easy for the 23 year old Peace Corp Volunteer with high GRE scores! The good news is that I didn’t have to take the rest of the rural Thai i.q. test, which, since it is designed by a rural Thai psychometrician, involves a lot of things having to do with rice cultivation. If I had been given the whole rural Thai i.q. test, I would have starved—as would the Princetonian with perfect GREs—and won a “Darwin Award” on my rural Thai i.q. test.

Which brings up the subject of why human culture is so much more important than biology in determining our destiny.   The answer is that humans are made for social life, not biological life. We are first products of our societies, not our genes. I know that this flies not only in the face of both Darwinian logic, and also the modern economics which asserts that individual fitness determines material success. Meaning that the male who competes the best, makes the most babies, and earns the most money!


Basically, the response to this attempt at correlation equals causation is to point out that humans, unlike animals, are moral creatures, not economic or genetic beings. We worry about what is right and wrong, and will sacrifice ourselves for what we believe is right. Thus Mother Theresa had no children, and took a vow of poverty. But after her death we still derive moral meaning from her sacrifices. These sacrifices trumped decisions based solely in economic or genetic reasoning. Likewise, Razib Khan spends hours blogging and being underpaid for it, because he believes it is the right and moral thing to do, and like Mother Theresa he is able to influence the broader culture.

Or to quote the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing in 1890 to the economists of his day:

     No doubt our economists tell us, man is naturally made for social life. But they understand thereby a social life which would be absolutely different from the one we have before our eyes, one where there would be no traditions, no past, where everyone would live on his own without worrying about others, where there would be no public action except to protect each individual from the encroachments of his neighbor, and so on.” p. 40.

Writing again in 1893, Durkheim screwed up his courage, and took on the ideas of Charles Darwin himself, the one in whose footsteps modern biologist follow.

     If the hypotheses of Darwin have a moral use…They overlook the essential element of moral life, that is, the moderating influence that society exercises over its members, which tempers and neutralizes the brutal action of the struggle for existence and selection. Wherever there are societies, there is altruism, because there is solidarity.” P. 83.

Durkheim’s point is that the struggle for existence is indeed tempered by moral life, and not just by “selection of the fittest,” genes, or anything else. Many many people besides Mother Theresa sacrifice their fortunes, honor, and reproductive fitness on behalf of an abstract future, and without reference to genetic relationships.

Having said that, I still find a place for genetic arguments, particularly when they describe long-term migrations which cannot be otherwise traced—such studies are a rough estimation where no other meansure is available. Such studies add to our understanding of the past, which is a noble moral task for its own sake!

But the problem with such studies is that they tend to reify human beings as simply the product of in-bred social units, which, assume a tendency to make babies with their cousins, in the same way that Charles Darwin did when he married his cousin (in case you were wondering—they had ten children together!). But people are also infernally capable of finding social partners across genetic distances which defy classification by DNA molecule, except in the crudest of ways. Indeed, as Razib Khan points out in his NY Times article, “Our Cats, Ourselves” even cross-species social interactions between humans and cats cause genetic variation in feline genomes. But what really causes this “selection” for domestic feline characteristics? Is it only survival of the fittest, or is there also maybe a moral component as well? Judging from the number of YouTube cute cat videos, people do place moral value on cats, even if the cats don’t reciprocate. Cats in other words, are also a “rhetorical device,” just like the gene. How rhetorical? People love their cats—a very human and moral emotion!


Durkheim, Emile (1973) Durkheim on Morality and Society, edited by Robert Bellah. 1973.