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Monday, December 06, 2004


Protestantism (and the synonymous work ethic) may be hereditable – but it is not genetic

I studied genetics as both an undergraduate and postgraduate. Now I investigate the sociology of genetics. I keep close eye on stories about genetics in newspapers, and keep a watch on the infiltration of ‘the gene’ into discussions that have absolutely nothing to do with genetics. And I don’t think I’ve ever read a more garbled pinning of personal character on ‘genes’ than this:

“Ellis is a product of his environment, having inherited the workaholic Leicester gene”

Now, I know that the author of this piece more than likely knows that there is no such thing as a ‘Leicester gene’. It does, nevertheless, concern me. The popular presentation and perception of genes is that they are a more or less deterministic and inalterable factor in human development. Speaking with ease about culture as genetic is at least a little way towards legitimising a reactionary response towards cultural and social problems, particularly when they can be identified with a distinct group, rather than an ameliorating and integrationist approach.

I agree this is a worrying trend, if not a particularly new one. I’ve read several books about memetics – cultural replication thought of as the same as genetic replication – and find them overly simplistic and deterministic. They take little account of the ways cultural transmission is and has been discussed by sociologists for the last century. A pretty foolish thing to ignore I think (and extremely arrogant too).

There are a small number (1-2% ?) of persons who are “workaholics” to the point that a mental health professional will think of obsessive-compulsive behavior. That is probably heritable though genetic may not be entirely out of the question. Ellis may or may not be a part of this fringe. One danger of over assuming genetic determinism is that if it is established that genetics is determinate for those who may need professional help many will assume that it applies to the whole population, and reccomend mental health solutions for the healthy.

What Max Weber called the Protestant work ethic produced a change in behavior of a population in two or three generations, not long enough for any genetic drift or change. Even allowing the heritability may have caused some individuals to do better or worse in the new culture, it was obviously a cultural phenomenon.

The thing that needs to be remembered is that both genetics and environment set limits, but the individual can choose what to do in those limits. Usually from the individual perspective, if no one else’s, these are fairly rational choices.

The big danger of over-assuming that we are determined by either genetics or environment the fact that an indivdual will make his own decions will be over looked. The rational choice from the individuals point of view may fit his situation, but it may not be a good decision for any one else.
Hank F M

Thinking of people’s behaviour through a ‘rational choice’ model is deeply problematic. That’s not to suggest that people are incapable of rationalising their choices – clearly they are. The problem is that so much of our conduct is constrained by psycho-social discourses over which we have varying and often limited conscious awareness.

People are active agents with relation to these normalised ways of being. They make choices, are creative, and resist the norms, but sometimes (and this is a central paradox of being a psycho-social subject) they rely on the things that keep them from making ‘free’ choices – disproportionate power relationships or naturalised notions of gender roles for example.

The rationalised subject noted in your comment is devoid of any historical or cultural context. It is a solipsistic and unconnected singularity. It is, in fact, recognised as the economic-rationalist subject of a particular modernist, Western, middle class and masculine frame of thought. Work in critical psychology, feminist theory and psychoanalysis has deconstructed this supposedly natural rational individual as a construct of economic concepts and game theory.
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