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Zeitgeist: Moving Forward - The Genetic Argument (Snippet)

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So you're a scientist, and ... somewhere along the way, hammered into your head is the inevitable “nature versus nurture” and that's at least up there with Coke versus Pepsi or Greeks versus Trojans. So, nature versus nurture: This, by now utterly over-simplifying view of where influences are- influences on how a cell deals with an energy crisis up to what makes us who we are on the most individualistic levels of personality. And what you've got is this complete false dichotomy built around nature as deterministic at the very bottom of all the causality. Of 'life is DNA' and the 'code of codes' and the Holy Grail, and everything is driven by it. At the other end is a much more social science perspective which is: We are 'social organisms' and biology is for slime molds; humans are free of biology. And obviously both views are nonsense. What you see instead is that it is virtually impossible to understand how biology works outside of the context of environment. [ It's Genetic ] One of the most crazy making yet widespread and potentially dangerous notions is: “Oh, that behavior is genetic.” Now what does that mean? It means all sorts of subtle stuff if you know modern biology, but for most people out there what it winds up meaning is: a deterministic view of life, one rooted in biology and genetics. Genes equal things that can't be changed. Genes equal things that are inevitable and that you might as well not waste resources trying to fix, might as well not put societal energies into trying to improve because it's inevitable and it's unchangeable. And that is sheer nonsense. [ Disease ] It is widely thought that conditions like ADHD are genetically programmed, conditions like schizophrenia are genetically programmed. The truth is the opposite. Nothing is genetically programmed. There are very rare diseases, a small handful, extremely sparsely represented in the population, that are truly genetically determined. Most complex conditions might have a predisposition that has a genetic component, but a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination. The whole search for the source of diseases in the genome was doomed to failure before anybody even thought of it, because most diseases are not genetically predetermined. Heart disease, cancer, strokes, rheumatoid conditions, autoimmune conditions in general, mental health conditions, addictions- none of them are genetically determined. Breast cancer, for example. Out of 100 women with breast cancer only seven will carry the breast cancer genes. 93 do not. And out of 100 women who do have the genes not all of them will get cancer. [ Behavior ] Genes are not just things that make us behave in a particular way regardless of our environment. Genes give us different ways of responding to our environment. And in fact it looks as if some of the early childhood influences and the kind of child rearing, affect gene expression: actually turning on or off different genes to put you on a different developmental track which may suit the kind of world you've got to deal with. So for example, a study done in Montreal with suicide victims looked at autopsies of the brains of these people. And it turned out that if a suicide victim (these are usually young adults) had been abused as children, the abuse actually caused a genetic change in the brain that was absent in the brains of people who had not been abused. That's an epigenetic effect. “Epi” means on top of, so that the epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes. In New Zealand, there was a study that was done in a town called Dunedin, in which a few thousand individuals were studied from birth into their 20s. What they found was that they could identify a genetic mutation- an abnormal gene- which did have some relation to the predisposition to commit violence, but only if the individual had also been subjected to severe child abuse. In other words, children with this abnormal gene would be no more likely to be violent than anybody else, and in fact, they actually had a lower rate of violence than people with normal genes as long as they weren't abused as children. Great additional example of the ways in which genes are not “be all - end all.” A fancy technique where you can take a specific gene out of a mouse, that mouse and its descendants will not have that gene. You have ”knocked out” that gene. So there's this one gene that encodes for a protein that has something to do with learning and memory. And with this fabulous demonstration you “knock out” that gene and you have a mouse that doesn't learn as well. “Ooh! A genetic basis for intelligence!” What was much less appreciated in that landmark study that got picked up by the media left and right, is take those genetically impaired mice and raise them in a much more enriched stimulating environment than your normal mice in a lab cage, and they completely overcame that deficit. So, when one says in a contemporary sense that “Oh, this behavior is genetic” to the extent that that's even a valid sort of phrase to use, what you're saying is: there is a genetic contribution to how this organism responds to environment; genes may influence the readiness with which an organism will deal with a certain environmental challenge. You know, that's not the version most people have in their minds. And not to be too 'soap-boxing' but run with the old version of “It's genetic!” and it's not that far from the history of Eugenics and things of that sort. It's a widespread misconception and it's a potentially fairly dangerous one. One reason that the biological explanation for violence, one reason that hypothesis is potentially dangerous- it's not just misleading it can really do harm- is because if you believe that, you could very easily say: “Well, there's nothing we can do to change the predisposition people have to becoming violent. All we can do, if somebody becomes violent is punish them- lock them up or execute them- but we don't need to worry about changing the social environment or the social preconditions that may lead people to become violent because that's irrelevant.” The genetic argument allows us the luxury of ignoring past and present historical and social factors. And in the words of Louis Menand who wrote in the New Yorker, very astutely he said: “It's all in the genes, an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are. Why should someone feel unhappy or engage in antisocial behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth? It can't be the system. There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere.” Which is a good way of putting it. So, the genetic argument is simply a cop-out which allows us to ignore the social and economic and political factors that, in fact, underlie many troublesome behaviors.

Video Details

Duration: 8 minutes and 41 seconds
Year: 2011
Country: United States
Language: English
Producer: Peter Joseph
Director: Peter Joseph
Views: 116
Posted by: tzmgermany on Apr 27, 2012

This video features a short segment of the movie Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, which you can watch here: More information on the zeitgeist movies can be found here: Repository-Location:

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