Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Looking through Matt Ridley’s Genome

He’s quick on his feet, and can easily shrug off any allegation of simple genetic determinism by retorting that he believes in really complicated genetic determinism.

But he does believe that behaviours are genetically determined, and he accepts ahistorical stereotypes of what behaviour is.

p. 111 There was a spoof map of the Y chromosome published in Science a few years ago which purported to have located genes for such stereotypically male activities as flipping between television channels… The joke is funny, though, only because we recognise those habits as male, and therefore far from mocking the idea that such habits are genetically determined, the joke reinforces the idea. The only thing wrong with the diagram is that these male behaviours come not from specific genes for each of them, but from the general masculinisation of the brain by hormones such as testosterone, which results in a tendency to behave this way in the modern environment.
No, the joke is precisely that we recognize those habits as culturally determined. If the map had entries for testicles and beards, that would be ‘”recognised as male’, but it wouldn’t be funny.

Remote controls in men, big breasts in women;
118 Suppose, for example, that [a gene determined] something like breast size (remember, this is just a thought experiment). Back in the middle ages, large breasts might mean more milk, or might attract a richer husband whose children were more likely to die in infancy.
But in the middle ages men didn’t like women with big breasts; look at Cranach’s nudes. Big stomachs, possibly. He simply ignores anything that suggests cultural/environmental change might be independent of genes.

He also believes that genetics favour unrestricted free markets.
151 It is the hardest thing for human beings to get used to, but the world is full of intricate, cleverly designed and interconnected systems that do not have control systems. The economy is such a system. The illusion that economies run better if someone is put in charge of them … has done devastating harm to the wealth and health of people all over the world, not just in the former Soviet Union, but in the west as well.

175 the great beauty of embryo development, the bit that human beings find so hard to grasp, is that it is a totally decentralised process. … We do not organise societies that way; we are obsessed with dragging as many decisions as possible to the centre to be taken by governments. Perhaps we should try.

This might be more convincing if societies were anything like cells – if, for example, they reproduced, or were designed for procreation, or were, well, anything like cells.

He looks at the Whitehall experiment on how job uncertainty under privatisation worsens your health. Does he conclude that privatisation is in any way bad? No, because it’s the market, and the market is always right; instead, he suggests that the health drop is the fault of too much government -
156 It explains why unemployment and welfare dependency are so good at making people ill. No alpha-male money was ever such an intransigent and implacable controller of subordinates’ lives as the social services of the state are of people dependent on welfare.

One speculates, too, about this.
113 Seminal fluid contains proteins… Their purpose is entirely unknown, but Rice has a shrewd idea. [In fruitflies] they have the effect of reducing the female’s sexual appetite and increasing her ovulation rate.
Matt Ridley may have found it to be true that when he fucks a woman it has the effect of reducing her sexual appetite, presumably meaning she doesn’t want to do it again, but anybody with more self-insight might have wondered whether that wasn’t just him.

He has a chapter on eugenics (286), but in the end he goes with his economic prejudices rather than his genetic ones – he believes it should be left to the individual parents rather than being made compulsory.

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