March 2005 Vol 5, No. 3
Science and Pseudoscience
By John Olmsted
When politics and science cross there is always a danger that scientific evidence will be selectively lined up to prove the political point. This has been going on for centuries.
Phil Gasper makes a number of good points about the nefarious role of people like Francis Galton and Edward O. Wilson using neuroscience to bolster their conservative beliefs. Unfortunately he then steps into the same mud himself with the logic that if some neuroscience and genetics is used for reactionary purposes then attributing any behavior to neurobiology must be reactionary.
This is a fall back to the old nature/nurture debate. It is also simplistic thinking that voids a very important feature of materialism. The biology of the brain is every bit as much a part of the material conditions of mental life as social experience. To deny that is to imply that the brain is some sort of neutral mass simply filled with social influences. We now know that genetics, social life and resultant mental phenomena are knitted together in a complex dialectic that is still not fully understood. In the future the nature/nurture debate will be looked at as old thinking.
To ask which is dominant is like asking which side of a triangle is more important. Genes and the environment are locked in a dance with experience turning genes off and on and genes guiding features of behavior. Take the example of schizophrenia; In the 60’s pundits like R.D. Lange made hay by stating the schizophrenia was the cry of the mind oppressed by a mad society. Bateson spoke of the double bind creating the madness. Psychoanalysts looked to the madness of the parent/child interaction. The result was mainly mother-blaming. It has now been shown beyond a doubt that schizophrenia is the result of profound abnormalities in the structure and chemistry of the brain and has no correlation with family upbringing. It is highly heritable but if you have a monozygotic twin with schizophrenia you have only a 50 percent chance of getting it. The interesting question is why it continues in the gene pool when it massively reduces one’s chance of sexual success. Schizophrenia hits the poor, the African American and the inner city dweller harder so it could be argued that it is caused by social conditions.
Real life is more complex. The angle that is gaining the most ground now is that it is a combination of genetic inheritance and early childhood infection that creates the disorder. The poor may be more prone to infections due to their living conditions. This combination of infections and genetics may be the basis of a host of mental disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism. There is also a major possibility that environmental toxins can create brain abnormalities and distort gene expression.
What about alcoholism and addiction? Surely this is not genetic; that would leave capitalism off the hook. In fact without a genetic/biological understanding there is no way to make sense of addiction. The people who denounce the biological explanation of addiction tend to be the moralists and the preachers who talk of it as depravity, a character flaw that can be cured by right living and thinking. The addict should be held accountable for their failings. Don’t use biology as an excuse.
The best work on this has been done by Nora Volkow [also spelled Volkov]. She and her colleagues have clearly shown that addicts by and large have genetically inherited deficits in the receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine. All drugs of abuse spike dopamine. For “normals” spiking dopamine over time is uncomfortable and they stop. For addicts with this deficit the spiking allows them to feel normal and is highly reinforcing.
This dynamic is very similar in attention deficit disorder. It is also true that there is some evidence that blows in life can reduce dopamine reception (and serotonin as well). It may interest comrades to know that Volkow’s grandfather is none other than Leon Trotsky. For all of these cases the understanding of the biological basis of the disorder is often liberating to those who suffer them.
I teach psychology at the local state university as well as having been an addiction counselor. I have had many people with a host of mental issues say that learning that their mental condition is related to differences in the brain and not to deficits in character allows them to feel dignity about themselves. After all everyone has differences in brain structures from the -norm.”
But what about sex differences? It will be years before the dance of biology and society is understood here. Meanwhile the research will be distorted and misused for all kinds of sexist purposes. It is not only the right that will pick and choose bits and pieces of gender brain differences to make dubious points. There is a well known researcher at Cambridge, Simon Baron-Cohen who claims that autism is simply the male brain to its extreme poor social skills and obsession with mechanical systems. There a number of feminists who say; “Yes there are lots of neurobiological differences. Women are better in some skills like verbal skills and picking up emotional cues and men are better at other things like spatial abilities (throwing).”
The brain is the most complex organ in the universe. At best we currently understand about 25 percent of how the brain functions. So perhaps it is wisdom and good politics to say that on some of these issues related to the brain the jury is still out. We are working on fully understanding it.
John Olmsted teaches pysychology at Portland State University, firstname.lastname@example.org.