Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sarkozy and the popular science of Genes

There is popular science as there is popular culture. However, popular science is different from popular culture in many aspects including the fact that it is not, like popular culture, a different perspective on things, and the fact that it has to rely on criteria of real science; test, truth, verification, refutation. It cannot hide itself from real science for a long time. Popular science is defined here as what stays in public awareness and consciousness from scientific knowledge once this knowledge has been made available to the public. Take for example the Nature/Nurture debate. Popular science of Nature/Nurture is actually some 50 years back regarding the advances made in the current scientific inquiry in this field. Popular science is fixated on the big discoveries in Genetics (but not on the current science of Genetics), thanks notably to books like the 'Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins which had a huge impact, not only on the layman, but also on academics outside the field of Biology like Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, and thanks to the early sociobiology of Edward Wilson.

In the meantime, the field of Epigenetics, which is the current field of Genetics, was taking on slowly in the scientific debate of Nature versus Nature. Epigenetics tell us that Genes for simple or complexe features are expressed (or not expressed) in a Context, the environnement of the gene first, which is the cell, than the larger environments; the body and the outside environment. Epigenetics tell us that our features and complexe behaviour are the results of a long history of transactions between genes and their environments during development, which is a long process in humans, and that these transactions have influence across generations. Today's Epigenetic is reactualising the concept of the transmission of some acquired features across generations. Scientists are studying the medium of this transmission and it seems that modulations of internal states, stress reactions, and emotions, by early family and social interactions, are key factors in this transmission.

Popular science can be harmful when it enters the political sphere and inspires policies. That's exactly what French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy hints about in an interview he gave to philosopher Michel Onfray when he implies that our complexe behaviour is already fixed at birth, determined by our genes.

« J’inclinerais pour ma part à penser qu’on naît pédophile, et c’est d’ailleurs un problème que nous ne sachions soigner cette pathologie-là. Il y a 1200 ou 1300 jeunes qui se suicident en France chaque année, ce n’est pas parce que leurs parents s’en sont mal occupés ! Mais parce que génétiquement ils avaient une fragilité, une douleur préalable. Prenez les fumeurs : certains développent un cancer, d’autres non. Les premiers ont une faiblesse physiologique héréditaire. Les circonstances ne font pas tout, la part de l’inné est immense ».

''I think pedophiles are as they are already at birth. The absence of treatment for such a pathology is a real problem. There are 1200 to 1300 youths who commit suicide every year in France, that's not the fault of their parents. That's because they have a certain predisposition, a fragility, a precondition for suffering. Take for example smokers. Some will developp cancer and others won't. The first have a precondition, a certain physiological hereditary weakness, the others don't. Circumstances are not everything, there is a huge part for the innate in what we are.''

I recommend reading the whole interview published on Onfray's blog in French because Onfray's rendition of the interview gives a chilling portrait of Sarkozy, the man...

In his statement, Sarkozy seems to oscillate between two points of view, both of them false and both of them extreme. His judgement on pedophiles accredits the idea of the all genes explanation while what follows still accredit the all genes explanation, for smokers for example, while countering the other view which states that environment influences gene expression. Ironically, the all genes explanation, in the classical Nature/Nurture debate, can be turned the other way, where the causes of a pathology are attributed entirely to the environment. However, in the now more than two centuries quarrel between the Nature and Nurture explanations of complexe behaviours, none of the parties has been able to prove entirely the complete causal relationship bridging the multiple levels of organisations and transactions between the organism and its environment(going from the gene to the cell, to the organ and Brain structure, to the Brain network involved in the behaviour, etc..., and the other way, from the environment to the body and the brain and back to the behaviour). This is why the actual science of behaviour has moved from this sterile opposition between Nature and Nurture. If smokers and people who are suicidal come to smoke and commit suicide, it is because they have experienced an adverse environment whixh adds to their innate predispositions for a pathology.

There is no way out from such a debate. The only way out is the one taken actually by modern biological science, which is to recognize that we are the products of both our genes and environment through a non linear history of transactions between both components.

The far right candidate Jean-Marie le Pen was a better analyst and had a more critical view of the Nature/Nurture debate by stating that Sarkozy must have been wrong. How on earth can Sarkozy affirm such a thing while not noticing, at the same time, that biological determinism is antinomic to personal responsibility ? Says Le Pen. In other words, Le Pen is asking what is the use of Politics if everything is predetermined by our genes ?

According to Sarkozy, there might be also a gene for voting for Sarkozy. Indeed, this vision of Genetics and Biology is inflational. There is nothing that could not be explained by Genes and therefore, Genetics, as seen this way, could well be the end of Politics and the end of everything else.

It is interesting however to realise that Sarkozy is articulating naively the main contradiction in the Conservative NeoLiberal Ideology of our time, which relies heavily and exclusively, for its social policies, on the biological sciences, to boost the old idea of the survival of the fittiest, an idea Darwin borrowed from the social sciences of its time, while borrowing from Religion a conservative framework for morality which make all people equal because they are the creation of God. Sarkozy pushes his naiveté even further when he expresses his views on Religion which he considers as the ultimate tool for taming people's discontent with Neoliberalist policies which leave many behind.


Anonymous said...

Petit, petit, il est petit, c'est génétique?

olaf krassnitzky said...

Why would personal responsibility be different from all other neurocognition? Genetic determinism is out, but is biological determinism (which includes the environment)? Sociologists usually do not make a distinction between the two.Olaf

Sonia Mansour-Robaey said...

Personal responsibility is different from all other neurocognitionbecause we are not only responsible forour own actions but we are also responsible for others, like in the doctor-patient ethics.