Are we causality crazy?

update: I forgot to post my amended picture:


Steven Pinker’s latest apology for behavioral genetics is in this weekend’s NYT Magazine. There are two things to pay attention to. 1) he’s right about personal genome sequencing: regardless of whether it’s correct, or the results can be properly interpreted for people, people are going to do it, and for all kinds of reasons, good and bad, and this is in itself something that will change behavior–call it proximate causality for individual behaviors. And the comparison with astrology, sorcery and other forms of readouts about your fate should probably be taken more seriously, especially by anthropologists, rather than used as a dismissal of genetic essentialism or determinism. 2) genetics seems to have become so confused with heritability that the claims about “what genes cause” have become incoherent; scales are routinely mixed up, which is what results in the manic fantasizing about why we conserve one gene or another (“gene so-and-so is correlated with baldness, therefore baldness must have conferred an advantage on our distant ancestors by serving as an effective way to deflect light before mirrors were invented” etc). As a result, our ability to argue about the roles that distant causality play versus those that proximate causality play have been compromised. Oh, and one other thing, There is no mention at all of epigenetics… is that deliberate, I wonder, or does it represent troubling ignorance on Pinker’s part?

and btw, I will note that our category for genetics at SM is “Race, genetics” which (and I’m not blaming anyone here) is interesting.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “Are we causality crazy?

  1. “Oh, and one other thing, There is no mention at all of epigenetics… is that deliberate, I wonder, or does it represent troubling ignorance on Pinker’s part?”

    The chapter in Pinker’s The Language Instinct which purports to discuss Whorf’s work shows such blatant disregard for basic standards of scholarship by its author that since reading it I’ve never been able to take his work seriously. That Whorf may ultimately have been wrong is irrelevant to the (lack of) value of the chapter as Pinker simply did not do the basic reading required to make any kind of informed critique.

    Sorry to rant, but Pinker’s treatment of Whorf has always been a bit of a sore spot for me!

  2. I’m not sure if there’s much he could have said about Epigenetics that would have added to the piece.

    DNA sequencing is pretty cheap, but epigenetic “code”? We have nothing even close to the tools needed to record all the methylation patterns, DNA chromatin remodeling, and prion infections, and et cetera going on in the body. Not yet, at any rate.

  3. Epigenetics is a buzzword – to be frank, it’s something we don’t really know anything about (as it applies to the brain, at any rate) but a lot of people are excited by it because they see it as a potential escape from genetic determinism.

    Genetic determinism really isn’t that scary, you know.

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