Behaviours are said to be caused by genetic or environmental factors, or some combination of the two. What does that mean for how we act, and view the actions of others?
There is a tendency today to point to the systemic variables correlated with behaviours – both natural or environmental – and then to suggest that those patterns of action are determined, and therefore unworthy of either positive or negative appraisal.
This is most often the case with behaviours that are correlated with genetic makeup. If a behaviour is correlated strongly with some identifiable set of natural traits, then a move is made to argue that it is determined, and should therefore be accepted.
The social analog is to isolate variables that influence an outcome, and infer that they are the key causal component. For example – race, gender, income and education levels, crime rates, and so on and so forth.
What these arguments leave out, among many things, is the fact that correlations – natural and social – can be found for every type of behaviour imaginable. This does not make any of them causally determined, necessary, or good or bad.
Correlation, and even Causation does not imply full determinism
Just because a particular behaviour is found among groups of people with certain natural or social traits, it does not follow that ceteris paribus (all else held equal), or in all circumstances this behaviour will occur.
To illustrate, we need only recognize that many people with a given genetic makeup, or from near identical social circumstances do not exhibit the same behaviours as all of their peers. Indeed, this is even true of monozygotic (identical) twins.
Genetic makeup, and social/environmental variables set a range of possibilities that are probabilistic, not deterministic. Whereas single cell mutations are directly responsible for a specific illness or trait, most patterns of behaviour are complex – the result of a confluence of factors. The biological term ‘phenotype’ reflects this complexity – it is the set of observable traits that an organism exhibits, captured by the formula: genotype + environment = phenotype.
If we understand the data from social and natural sciences on the social and natural factors underlying behaviour, then we ought to recognize that in many cases, it merely indicates that people with certain traits are predisposed towards certain behaviours, but do not necessarily manifest them. These ‘factors’ therefore limit the range of possible behavioural outcomes in some way, but do not prescribe or determine them in any concrete specificity.
Addiction to sexual behaviours, drugs, alcohol, violence, crime, you name it – are more likely among people with natural and social traits of a certain type, but they are never determined by them.
A promising way in which to understand the relationship between nature and nurture, and the extent of their causal implications for behaviour is to study twins.
Robert Plomin – a behavioural geneticist who focuses on the influence of genes on psychological individuality – has recently summarized almost fifty years of study in the field, in his popular science book Blueprint: how DNA makes us who we are. In it, he claims that polygenic scores are reliable indicators that track the heritability of a trait.
‘Heritability’ is the key statistic that Plomin and others in his field rely on to draw their conclusions. It is the ratio of variation in a given trait within a target population that is NOT determined by environmental factors. It relies upon polygenic scores – a value ascribed to a bundle of genes that represents its weight of influence on a given trait.
Explicitly, such constructions do not refer to genetic causation, but point to the extent to which a bundle of genes is present in an organism when that organism exhibits a particular trait. ‘Not determined by genetic factors’ is a phrase that does not reference a specific mechanism, but a category that has been defined statistically. No assumptions about what specific entities are responsible are made, or causal conclusions entailed.
An important takeaway from Plomin’s book is that there is no ‘gene for’ complex traits. Instead, there are hundreds and thousands of genetic bundles that ‘explain’ some of the variation in traits.
Ok, so on this view, it’s not a single or small number of genes, but a large number that explains most of the variance in a given trait. Well, no, not really.
Think of it this way – if you list all of the antecedent causal factors responsible for an event, you will not have thereby provided a causal story. You will have simply listed a bunch of facts that somehow condition the outcome.
If I tell you the ‘reason’ why Napoleon invaded Russia was that he had an inferiority complex, that he woke up on the wrong side of the bed one morning, he had a large, well-trained army, one of the most cunning chief diplomat’s in history (Talleyrand), and so on, I will have simply thrown a bunch of items onto the floor without a good story about how they fit together.
This is what Plomin, like other determinists of varying stripes end up doing.
What about epigenetics (the study of the changes in organisms due to the ‘modification of gene expression’) – alas, not much.
We might be tempted to say – along with classical determinists – that it only seems that behaviour is not fully determined by the antecedent causes that precede it. If, on the other hand, we were Laplace’s demon, we would know the position of every particle in the universe, and would therefore be quite capable of predicting every consequent event. Practically impossible, though theoretically, if true it would give credence to the materialist or physicalist worldview.
The well-known problem of induction in philosophy precludes the possibility of showing causal relationships in the way in which a materialist worldview would require, by the standards of its own assumptions. All that can be seen is that there is a relationship between event A and event B that follows that is supposed to be the effect. The ’cause’ is a hypothesized connector term that describes the nature of the relationship between A and B, but it is not in itself an additional piece of furniture in the world. It is difficult to describe how any singular item in the world that, of itself, strictly entails a complex phenomenon.
‘Levels’ of Reality and the Problem of Anti-Metaphysical theories
One last interjection here about metaphysical issues with strictly real-world implications. It is well known that the ‘levels’ of reality that we describe with different language and understand with different disciplines are populated by an ontology, the likes of which are not defined according to the assumptions implicit in its methodological approach.
For example, a Darwinian understanding of the evolution of an organism precludes the very use of the term organism because it assumes that all life forms are continuous, constantly in flux. It is a great irony that a towering book like the Origin of Species must deny that there is anything like a species; on the assumptions of the theory, species are always in flux, defined only by a loose amalgam of physical properties and behavioural patterns that varies from organism to organism within the species category at a given time, and across long and short spans of evolutionary time.
The problem is that, as far as we can tell, many of the properties that describe the entities and phenomena in nature are emergent – that is to say, they are not found in the sum of the parts of a thing, but only in the whole.
Most things are in fact like this. How is a tree, a smile, a laugh, a car, concepts like ‘nation’, ‘province’, or ‘behaviour’ made up of, or found in the ‘parts’ or ‘elements’ that comprise them? We have an inkling that at some level that they must be, but there is no way of pointing to the parts of a concept ‘contained within’ its constituent elements.
Quite frankly, there is nothing alarming about this – few of the greatest thinkers have been narrow materialists, or reductionist in their understanding of the world. Examples include Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Hubble, LeMaître, and Einstein – thinkers with a religious, deistic, or agnostic worldview.
Trying to have one’s Cake and Eat it Too
In an attempt to circumvent the problem that materialism and a deterministic understanding of the world presents, some analytically-minded thinkers have proposed that properties and facts (and thereby theories) supervene upon one another. The technical definition is that some property X supervenes on Y if and only if a difference in Y is necessary for a difference in X to occur. Thus, a chair is said to ‘supervene’ on the molecules in the room, meaning that it cannot exist in the form that it does without the configuration of the molecules. The same goes for thoughts, which are said to supervene on brain states, and so on.
This distinction hypothetically allows for the preservation of our ability to say that the different ways in which we understand the world are valid and the things that we see and describe are real, while maintaining a strict, matter-based, causally determined understanding of nature.
It is essentially to say that some state of affairs X, causes some later state of affairs Y, but to remain agnostic about whether or not this relationship is fully deterministic fashion.
This doesn’t seem to work for the simple reason that it doesn’t solve the problem – it merely asserts the obvious fact that we can’t describe the causal relationship between different levels of reality, only infer it.
Determinism or not, Behaviours are neither good nor bad simply because they exist
So far, we’ve seen that the possession of natural and social traits only influence, and do not determine behaviour. Many people who exhibit such ‘traits’ do not manifest the behaviours that they are associated with.
What are the implications of this for an understanding of the value we ascribe to actions and patterns of behaviour? The fact that genetic predisposition + environmental circumstances = certain behaviours does not mean that those behaviours are ‘natural’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It just means that, given a number of other characteristics of the social environment at present, a certain number of people tend towards certain behaviours, on average.
There are very few patterns of behaviour – in all their fine-grained specifics and variability – that are purely causally determined by natural traits alone, or a combination of natural and environmental ones. The specifics can change a great deal.
Since we have a more pluralistic set of values in the society in which we live, the common denominator must be levelled down. What this has entailed is that terms that refer to values are defined as broadly, and therefore inclusively as possible. In practice, this means that they are in fact empty placeholders, so vague that they are meaningless. Not in an academic sense either – the meaning of words has implications for action.
This is the true meaning of the move towards ever more ‘inclusion’ – the discouragement of the pursuit of higher values and development of institutions that reflect them, as well as public and private practices that operate according to higher standards.
True, this levelling down effect is not unique to the pursuit of inclusion. Any values that serve almost exclusively as the orienting principles around which social and moral issues are framed end up performing a crude surgical procedure that lops off so much of the complexity that exists in the human moral landscape. Not every issue is reducible to a small set of values.
I would argue that in the eyes of many today, the only virtue is to be tolerant of everything except intolerance, where the latter means virtually anything that causes emotional discomfort to a select number of people, albeit a ‘select’ number that is rather large, as membership includes only complaining and posing as a victim. This is perfectly logical from the perspective of such a view, given that to exclude members from the victim group is itself ‘non inclusive’, and therefore bad. The only judgments that are good are those that are non-judgmental.
This is a reductionist worldview of profoundly low complexity, obvious incoherence, and virtually no value. In fact, it is the negation of value, of judgment, of toleration and a massive paradox – not just of the abstract and theoretical type, but of the concrete and practical.
Theoretical, because it makes no sense to tolerate things that are not worth tolerating. To be fair, it is not necessarily true that to tolerate means to value. In fact, it never did to John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration is seen as one of the key developments in the enshrining of negative rights, and laws that protect the dignity of the individual against the coercion and violence of the state and other citizens alike.
In secularized form, his argument is that the free determination of one’s actions is a necessary precondition of their being called good.
As he puts it, ‘the Care of Souls is not committed to the Civil magistrate, any more than to other Men’. It is finally up to the person.
The care of a person’s soul or character cannot “belong to the Civil Magistrate, because his Power consists only in outward force; but true and saving Religion consists in the inward persuasion of the Mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God” (Letter Concerning Toleration, 26).
He notes rightly that “the Magistrate may make use of Arguments, and thereby draw the Heterodox into the way of Truth, and procure their Salvation…but this is common to him with other Men”. Coupled with the last claim that, “though the rigour of Laws and the force of Penalties were capable to convince and change Mens minds, yet would not that help at all to the Salvation of their souls” (Letter Concerning Toleration, 28). Thus, it makes no sense for a state, or organization to compel people to behave in a certain way because even if they succeeded, these actions would not achieve their intended effect. To develop character, actions must result from the understanding and intention of the person.
The secular reading simply supplants ‘salvation of soul’ with ‘improvement of character’, or ‘self-actualization’, or some cheaper self-help trope. The core meaning is the same.
It is paradoxical in the practical realm because it requires that any action that someone expresses enough subjective indignation about must be stopped for the sake of including that person. What this means is that you should not strive to become more dignified, to engage in noble pursuits, or to be a better person, insofar as this means acting in ways that exclude, that frustrate, that upset, that result in inequality. Not a single person acts in this way, nor could they. Yet, our public discourse is filled with the shrill cries of aggrieved persons, and their self-appointed ‘champions’.
The irony of course is that there is much to complain about, genuine oppression and injustice, suffering and pain. That is all drowned out in a society-wide epidemic of the boy who cried wolf.
There is an easy way around all of this – make simple analytical distinctions. It is both possible to tolerate all sorts of behaviours and ways of life, enshrine them in the legal code, exist harmoniously in social, public and professional life, and yet still disagree about their value or validity. You can both recognize someone’s inherent dignity and worth, treat them with the utmost respect and courtesy, work and play alongside one another, and yet disagree fundamentally about the value and validity of their actions and beliefs.
This should be obvious to everyone, for we all know this. Even the person who never expresses their opinion, who never scolds, is always affable and friendly in social situations – even this person has an opinion, and likely disagrees with you about some things in non-trivial ways. Get over it.
Acting out of Purpose, not Self-Expression
It was always understood that there is much in the norms that make human affairs that is contingent, and not worth getting too upset about. It was also understood that there are objective values that are cross-cultural, ahistorical, and universally applicable.
There is an alternative to the view that good=authentic expression/subjective preference/naturally or socially determined behaviours. It is a view that every person acts out in many settings in life, though they may not realize it.
All people implicitly believe – and many others explicitly so – that there are purposes towards which actions are directed through the intention of the agent. These purposes have value, and they are objective.
If you don’t wish to accept something along the lines of this, then that’s fine. But it isn’t clear how you can hold onto much of the language that you use in your daily life. What you do is merely an expression of whim, ultimately a spasm of molecular movement without design or purpose – just a sack of meat floating through space, sometimes bumping into others.
Things have right uses based on the form that they possess, and the purpose, or final end towards which they are directed. This means that the good of an act is determined by what kind of a thing people are, and what purposes they are directed towards in light of that nature.
Having a nature and a discernable purpose is ‘real’ and ‘true’, only if one accepts that a) values are objective and real, b) qualitative experience is a source of ‘data’, and c) that there are real differences in the ‘quality’ of experience itself. This difference is determined by the extent to which one strives to embody those values and principles.
Of course, the hard thing is taking the first step in becoming open to this possibility – perhaps the most difficult thing for a modern person to do, whose fundamental approach to the world is one of seeing the self as the ultimate arbiter – the creator and discoverer of value.