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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bunfight over “warrior” gene

Alarm bells ring instantly in my head whenever I hear that someone’s discovered a “gene” for this or that trait. So often, the association between the gene and the trait is extremely weak, and the trait doesn’t materialise unless a whole host of lifestyle factors bring it out, such as stress, poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity or being generally downtrodden in society (see examples here and here).

Those alarm bells in my head ring even louder when genes for negative traits get linked somewhat uncritically to underprivileged ethnic groups who already get a bum rap in life.

Take this AFP headline yesterday: "Warrior" gene claimed to fuel violence in New Zealand Maori. Oh dear. In essence, the story was based around new evidence that twice as many Maori men as European men have a so-called “Warrior” gene which makes them more aggressive (see fallout from the story).

Even assuming this to be factually correct, and without going into detail about the gene itself, what does this say about Maori men? “They are going to be more aggressive and violent and more likely to get involved in risk-taking behaviour such as gambling,” according to Rod Lea of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in Wellington, quoted from a National Radio interview about his findings on Wednesday.

To his credit, Lea stressed the many other environmental factors unrelated to genetics that could aggravate violence, and acknowledged that in his view, the influence of the gene was “rather small”.

The trouble is that even with all these admirable and entirely justified caveats, the overwhelming message is the one in the AFP headline, a message easily seized on to reinforce and justify prejudice against minorities. For me, it raises fundamental questions about whether some avenues of research are best left un-trodden because what they reveal is bound to be socially and culturally incendiary, whatever the outcome. Or is it intellectually dishonest, even cowardly, not to investigate all aspects of the human condition? Post a comment below and let me know what you think.

By Andy Coghlan
All comments should respect the New Scientist House Rules. If you think a particular comment breaks these rules then please let us know, quoting the comment in question.
Yes, it would be intellectually dishonest and cowardly not to go wherever the data takes you. When the data's out there we can argue about its meaning, but to censor the data because we fear the arguments would be gutless.
By Anonymous Sebastian on August 10, 2006 11:55 AM  
It all comes down to Nature versus Nurture, doesn't it? You could argue that men are more prone to violence than women, but it doesn't mean that every single man is violent.
Genotype doesn't always get expressed (physically or in behaviour), so trying to predict an indiviual's behaviour based solely on genetics would be chancy at best.
Unless a subject is suffering from a mental illness, I think Nurture has more influence than a subject's genetic code.
That said, further research into genetics that would allow more effective treatment or even prevention of depression or schizophrenia would be most welcome. Using science to treat actual mental illness instead of using it as a stick to beat an already disadvantaged ethnic group, would be the best outcome.
By Anonymous Anna O Dowd on August 10, 2006 12:15 PM  
Here's what picks my pickle:

...what does this say about Maori men? “They are going to be more aggressive and violent"

This is sufficiently misleading to the general public as to be incorrect.

There is no reason to believe that the most violent Maori man is more violent than the most violent european man. There aren't different levels of warrior gene-ness, as that statement might imply -- it's simply on or off!

So “They are going to be more aggressive and violent" is wrong.

Correction: “There are going to be more men with the gene that increases aggressiveness."
By Anonymous Anonymous on August 10, 2006 12:45 PM  
It's impossible to separate pure science from the politics and emotions of the real world, but in the long run i think the more knowledge and understanding we have of ourselves the better out lives will be.
By Anonymous Anonymous on August 10, 2006 3:47 PM  
I equally get apprehensive when I hear mention of genes contributing to certain behaviours, especially when they're abysmally low contributions. Also is being more aggressive a bad thing?

It's like the age old lefty vs righty argument, I sometimes get moronic questions when people find out I'm left handed. In reality I should be going around saying "aww poor you, you're right handed" because left-handed presidential candidates are 6 times more likely to become president in the US; more likely to be billionaires; more likely to be a genius; more likely to be famous.

The same with bipolar, some researchers have put the artistic community at 90% with bipolar or bipolar related disorders. Actors, Inventors, Scientists, and having the disorder is seen as a mental health problem.

I know this gene will end up linked with being highly successful, because it's the aggression that will make them successful. It's the fact that they will gamble, they will fight, they won't give up that will end up making the people with this gene leaders and survivors. If this gene was a bad thing it would have been routed out, people carrying it if they were more likely to fight would have died out but they haven't.
Anytime I hear someone attempting to make some kind of genetic or evolutionary psychology argument "explaining" the violence and/or tribalism of a given minority population, I find it pretty laughable. Modern biases seem to have clouded the fact that many caucasian Europeans are descended from warring tribes, themselves. Oh, we like to get all sentimental about our "clans," and talk about warrior poets, and whatnot, but it's all the same damn thing. We humans are not so very different from each other, in the end.
Media mishandling strikes again...nothing does more damage to science than science misused for a good headline.

This is especially sad at the moment, when we need people to trust science to answer the big questions - coverage like this makes it easier for hockey-stick-denial ostriches and fundamentalist whackos of all stripes to discredit the attempts of sane people to save our species from its own folly and hubris.

If there is a gene for aggressiveness, wouldn't it make more sense to assume an over abundance of this in that branch of humanity which has in the past been responsible for more or less the wholesale slaughter, extermination or subjugation of other races?

And which race is this?

Certainly not Maoris
By Anonymous DeepThought on August 11, 2006 3:23 AM  
What we need is some research into genes that are more prevalent among journalists. I wonder how many of the tabloids would publish research showing that they carried a gene predisposing them to making up stories, or lacked a gene vital for understanding statistics.
By Anonymous pastychomper on August 11, 2006 9:26 AM  
Race differential research has allowed targeted diagnosis and treatment of things like diabetes in hispanics and sickle cell anemia in africans. Many of those lives would have been lost without honest research.

Differential gene studies are also critical to identifing environmental cancer causes and isolating viral immune factors. Many lives would be lost and suffering increased all around the world by blocking race based research.

PC people (who are often well to do whites with guilt issues) want to avoid all the evidence against their propaganda that everyone is totally idendical in all ways. It's just not true. Get over it.
By Anonymous Anonymous on August 11, 2006 10:38 AM  
I am a physicist and I am African-American. As a scientist I fully encourage extending the boundaries of knowledge. As an African-American I am extremely leery of the eagerness to attribute genetics to all behaviors without proper qualification. Racists and bigots have used science to justify their views and policies for centuries. In addition, too many scientists have been eager to add their support because they may have held such views themselves. Even today people still use science to support their claim that Black people are intellectually inferior to other groups and we are genetically dispositioned to excel athletically. Nazis also used science for their racist agenda. The scientific community must take active measures to insure that genetic research is not misused in such ways. Otherwise scientific credibility will be lost as people will come to view science as a tool of racists and source of propaganda instead of an endeavor to broaden human knowledge.
By Anonymous Kyron Williams on August 11, 2006 2:00 PM  
It's natural to feel affinity for those "like" us. And, so, varied degrees of aversion for those "unlike". Others in our family are like us; our friends are like us; those of our race are like us; our countrymen are like us; people who enjoy the same books, movies and music are like us.

Everyone else is different.

Every individual is an active member of multiple, ever-expanding, overlapping teams organized by common traits, goals and interests. There will always be opposite traits, incompatible goals, rival interests. There are rival families, rival schools and towns, rival races and rival fan clubs.

Everyone harbors prejudice. That's not ignorance; it's genetic, it's physical. It's even crucial at times. If your team doesn't win, it loses. Right?

But every prejudice should be open to regular reevaluation. Without the latest accurate information, each subsequent evaluation is unlikely to produce progressive results.

It is the failure to recognize our multiple memberships; the unwillingness to accept the recognition; the inability to accurately, objectively reevaluate our prejudices that is a function of ignorance and/or ignoble self-interest.

Neither will be overcome through institutionally mandated restrictions on acceptable knowledge.

Any objective reader will likely give caveats appropriate weight. Anyone swayed by AFP headlines is likely to have been leaning already.

It IS intellectually dishonest, even cowardly, not to investigate all aspects of the human condition.
Research on behavioural genes in humans is certainly questionable. Particularly when our investigations centre on linking traits with ethnic groups. Claiming that a disadvantaged ethnic group have criminal tendencies, addictive tendancies or other undesirable characteristics innate is controversial at best.
The "good intentions" of researches will always be lost in a predominately lay society. Headlines will determine people's reaction - either outrage, or perhaps in some a feeling of "thats ok then - their poverty, lack of education or over representation in prisons is their own fault - nothing can be done so why try". Both are of course undesirable reactions.
Even if we were to claim that this is not the research's responsibility, that he or she is responsibly to truth and academic integrity only, we must question the validity of many projects in the field.
Where is the principle of control? Even if neighbourhood, age and income could be controlled - the very nature of the project prevents a fair trial. You can not conduct "double blind" studies in this area - people know what their ethnicity is and they certainly know the prejudices that go with it. Under these circumstances the environmental effects absolutely can not be separated from the genetic.
It is my opinion that whatever intellectual curiosity studies of this type fulfil, they can not be conducted in an environment where prejudice still exists. Perhaps in some utopian future they could have their place - but would a less prejudicial society even ask for such a thing?
By Anonymous Anonymous on August 15, 2006 9:34 AM  
Let the evidence speak for itself. Ensure it is correctly gathered and please try not to censor it when the results are in.
By Anonymous Anonymous on September 29, 2006 7:29 AM  
Two years later, a remark about this was made without much context on newsmedia. I picked this up over in America.

Just as there is a higher liklihood of sickle cell anemia and superior muscles in certain areas for running- or so I've heard, it may be that the Maori have a gene.

This is akin to the news that, regardless of their race, most men who are most violent have exceptionally high levels of testosterone. This is not to say that high testosterone causes violence all by itself...It just means that this is a trait that goes along with aggressiveness.

This decade, in America, there is the rumor at least, that this is also true with women...That high levels of testosterone "for girls" within the female system makes for more aggressive females than those with lower levels of the same hormone.

Do genes play a role? Well, unless
our decades of studying the human genome are sorely mistaken then they most certainly do...from eye & hair color, to skin color and body type.

Of course, the mind over matter people would argue that this is an illusion in which case, there is some grievous error in all of our science.

A lot of scientific research helps, and some of it is like when that annoying upstart Copernicus got it right, but suffered...For centuries others resisted his accurate and unbiased perception of the planetary bodies...Then again, 400 years from now, perhaps humanity will have a whole new understanding.

Philosopheress & Writer,

Miriam Pia
By Anonymous Anonymous on June 12, 2008 11:07 PM  
This reminds me of the arguments re- the proneness of Canadian Indians to get drunk as though it was an innate tendency.I did a whole Masters'thesis on it and found plenty of evidence to show that when the environment creates conditions that are humanly unbearable, escape of any sort is sought. So drunkenness, violence and their inevitable consequences often ensue. The Maori are, like Native people in North and South America, under severe stress due to their
position in a society which is not always fair to them,and history has dealt them many severe blows. If there is an effect due to a supposedly aggressive gene, it may not be entirely useless... they need a fair amount of aggressivity to simply survive.To blame their ills on that presumed gene is to ignore (conveniently) all the other factors which ought to be dealt with to improve their lot. signed: an old student of aboriginal peoples who found them a lot wiser than white men!
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