Genes determine the funniest things (Just don't tell Larry Summers' enemies)

Posted: Jun 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Here are some recent headlines from the world of science:

"Researchers Say Intelligence and Diseases May Be Linked in Ashkenazic [Jewish] Genes" - New York Times

"Some Politics May Be Etched in the Genes" - The New York Times

"Feminists Feed on Lawrence Summers' Flesh, Vital Organs; Pancreas Swallowed Whole, 'like a Cocktail Peanut.' " - New York Times

OK, I made the last one up. Feminists didn't actually feed on the president of Harvard University, but it's certainly been all-you-can-eat-at-Sizzler night, metaphorically speaking. In January, you might recall, Larry Summers raised the possibility - nay, the hypothesis! - that as a statistical matter biological differences may partially account for the disproportionately low number of women at the top ranks of science. In response, an activist feminist professor from MIT contracted a case of the vapors, and when she arose from her fainting couch she was on the "Today Show" complaining to a supportive Katie Couric about what a bigot Summers is. Fast forward from her Café Vienna moment with Katie, through more groveling than Jake Blues offered to Carrie Fisher at the end of "The Blues Brothers," and we have the recent announcement that Summers will spend an additional 50 million of someone's tuition dollars over the next 10 years to atone for his - and Harvard's - alleged bigotry toward (just-as-smart-as-you-Mister-Man) female scientists.

The flames of the Summers' auto-da-fe cast a useful light on the cognitive dissonance, schizophrenia and bad faith dotting the intellectual and political landscape today when it comes to genetics.

Consider the other headlines I mentioned above. One paper by a respected independent researcher suggests that Jews from Northern Europe (aka Ashkenazi Jews) are more likely to get certain diseases, like Tay Sachs, in part because Jews have been selectively breeding for intelligence for centuries. Central to the theory is the fact that Jews have been middleman traders, financiers and bankers since the Middle Ages - occupations that require high levels of intelligence.

Or consider the new study that claims, as reported just this week in The New York Times, that political attitudes are in some part genetically determined. The study itself, which appeared in the American Political Science Review, is far more cautious than the Times' coverage of it. But the basic gist is that studies of twins have revealed that genetics plays a significant, but far from ironclad, role in political attitudes. Identical twins are more likely to see politics through a similar prism than other siblings. Or so the authors claim.

"It is not that opinions on specific issues are written into a person's DNA," the Times's Benedict Carey reassures readers. "Rather, genes prime people to respond cautiously or openly to the mores of a social group."

Sounds plausible, but there's good reason to be skeptical. Since the 1930s, the Left has offered a string of theories suggesting that conservatives are simply wired "wrong" and that our views can be ascribed to mental defects rather than conviction. It was this thinking that prompted 1,189 psychiatrists in 1964 to take out newspaper ads declaring Barry Goldwater to be "psychologically unfit" to be president. Just two summers ago, a Berkeley study claimed to prove that conservatism was more akin to a personality disorder than an actual political philosophy.

Indeed, one gets a whiff of this sort of thinking in Carey's coverage . The most ominous concern he raises at the end is that the study calls into doubt "the future of bipartisan cooperation or national unity." Why? "Because men and women tend to seek mates with a similar ideology . the two gene pools are becoming, if anything, more concentrated, not less."

This last bit strikes me as piffle. Did mates select for bipartisanship more during the Bronze Age?

Here's how I read Carey: The bipartisan divide exists because those chromosomally damaged right-wingers aren't going away until we can find a cure.

In other words, the Times is showing it's biases.

Which brings us back to the mortification of Larry Summers. Is it so unreasonable to assume there are greater genetic cognitive and behavioral differences between men and women than between, say, Jews and gentiles - never mind conservatives and liberals? If genes make us more open to some group mores, why can't they make one gender more open to one field of study? The animal kingdom is replete with enormous male-female disparities. Even among the branch of humans we call feminists, it's a widely held view that men and women think and behave differently.

Such views only become controversial when some aggrieved group's self-esteem is on the line - and the possibility of extortion is in play. Then, suddenly, Dr. Summers' pancreas becomes a cocktail peanut.

The problem is these sorts of stories are going to be pouring forth daily for the next 20 years, and there's just not enough of Summers for everybody with low self-esteem to feed on.