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Stop the presses -- permanently

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday November 18, 2009 09:31 PM

We recently had a bit of a dustup here about the value or non-value of newspapers.

Coincidentally, I spent a few minutes this evening gathering up, for recycling, a sheaf of recent issues of the New York Times, lying scattered about the house where I've flung them in rage. (Sometimes I get to page 3, sometimes the top front-page headline is enough to set me off.)

Last Sunday was certainly a first-section day, if not first-page. That's why I never got to this inner-section piece which I happened to find face-up tonight underneath the clavichord:

The Evolution of the God Gene

In the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, the archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery have gained a remarkable insight into the origin of religion.

During 15 years of excavation they have uncovered not some monumental temple but evidence of a critical transition in religious behavior. The record begins with a simple dancing floor, the arena for the communal religious dances held by hunter-gatherers in about 7,000 B.C. It moves to the ancestor-cult shrines that appeared after the beginning of corn-based agriculture around 1,500 B.C., and ends in A.D. 30 with the sophisticated, astronomically oriented temples of an early archaic state.

This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection.

Now this is pretty beathtaking. I'm sure the Oaxaca excavations are fantastically interesting and enlightening, but they can't possibly have any bearing at all on the claim Wade wants to make, which is that religion is a "wired-in", genetically-determined, biologically evolved and selected-for bump in the human brain.

The logical gap between the Oaxaca finds and Wade's made-up just-so story is wide enough to drive a galaxy through -- so wide that many Freshman Comp teachers might notice it, and write a mean little marginal note. But the Newspaper of Record has laid it out, accompanied as always by some nice attractive photographs, with the usual magisterial self-assurance. That's the way it is, folks. Science has spoken.

This slug-stupid and rat-ignorant piece, a thousand words of vapid wishful thinking and factless speculation, is the sort of thing subscribers to the Times pay for. It's a racket that needs to be closed down. Religion may be the opiate of the people, but the Times is the opiate of the Upper West Side, and it's time for us to go cold-turkey.

* * * * *

There's more involved here, of course, than just the familiar vulgar Philistinism of the Times. The reason that Wade's indigestible haggis of arm-waving illogic and irrelevant quick-study erudition passed editorial muster is simply this: the Times is the Vatican of American received opinion and ideological orthodoxy, and these days, there is absolutely nothing more central and fervently-believed in America than the idea that there is a biological explanation for everything.

Do you like sex with members of your own sex? Ah, you must have the Gay Gene.

Do you not enjoy school, and are you uninterested in pleasing your teachers? You must have the Learning Disability Gene.

Are you upset about the state of the world, and the mess you're leaving to your gay, learning-disabled children? You must have the Sour Old Depressed Guy gene, which only gets activated at the age of 50.

How could such a gene get into the genome, and stay there? I have no idea, but I bet Nicholas Wade could come up with an attractive story, in less time than they give you to take the SAT. He couldn't cite any real evidence in support of it, but we couldn't disprove it either -- it's notoriously hard to prove a negative.

Dr Johnson observes somewhere that there are but two causes of belief: evidence and inclination. There's no evidence for sociobiological novelettes like Wade's; but there is a strong inclination in the culture to wish that they were true.

Of course it's otiose to point out that this is part of the (amazingly) still-ongoing reaction to the Sixties.

Our masters clearly hated it when we decided, back then, that the sky was the limit and anything was possible. The genetic explanation for everything was the response: it's all programmed in the genome, and human agency is an illusion.

What's puzzling is how we've embraced it, across the board. From liberals to libertarians, everybody seems to have bought the idea that genes are everything.

Why are we so eager to deny our own competence and autonomy -- our own capacity to act, our own agency, as the buzzword goes? Why do we desire so strongly to believe that our lives are pre-scripted in that silly scrap of DNA?

I dunno exactly, but it's worth pondering. I can tell it's inclination and not evidence. But to explain the inclination -- hoc opus, hic labor est!

Comments (24)

Nate Johnson:

I'm inclined to believe that this is one of MJS's finest-ever posts.

Al Schumann:

The gene reductionist syllogism is toxically cute and dishonest. I blame all those suburban anomie and impotence novels bought by the people for whom suburban anomie and impotence were insufficiently awful on their own.

But whatever the cause - perhaps a received wisdom consumption gene? - the syllogism goes:

This form of human behavior exists.
People exhibiting the behavior reproduce.
Reproduction makes more humans.
Therefore the behavior contributes to the continuity of the species.
You have DNA. Exhibit the behavior, or we'll kill you.

The best part is that the syllogism was designed by nominal atheists. The first part, anyway. I added the bold font bit.


this is calvinism in a darwinian world
and i for one like it
despite its profoundly un dialectical
mechanistic metaphysics

never much for the woodstock
"cultural lysenko-ism "
too 1984 idealist for me
i prefer to think our very genetically determined brain structure prevents successful new speak brain washing
enter chomsky i say.... dancing

give me mendel on the half shell any time
give me the sci fi gene dream:

now we have discovered the code
and its actual physical basis
why we won't just alter
we'll design our "fate" right ??

the sky re opens subject to
the plastic mediation of dna enssambles

we will produce ourselves genome wise
eh ??
its like automation in the early 18th century

cost reduction and research time
govern how high we'll fly

okay so we're stuck for a half dozen
more generations with our mother nature legacy genes...big deal


ending paper copy dependence
and arduous truck delivery
only frees the gray lady to even greater cheaper faster injections of meme dope

kill the gray lady and the washington post
or la times or chicago tribune cartel will replace em

the addicts will get re-hooked up el quicko

Al Schumann:

Owen, I'd say the demise of the NY Times is devoutly to be wished, regardless. The progression from Punch to Pinch to, presumably, Squint and then Munch is not a healthy one. True, there's no end of pushers waiting to take their place, but a bout of cold turkey is a salutary experience. Many's the junkie who's found full remission long after their first market dislocation.


"Why are we so eager to deny our own competence and autonomy -- our own capacity to act, our own agency, as the buzzword goes?"

It's that famous Escape from Freedom that Erich Fromm warned us about so long ago, although he didn't touch biology if I recall. Which is also why we make sure to stay safely within the confines of consensus reality as delivered by the Times, etc.; awareness suggests... the potential need to act?

Yeah, Smiff; I was noticing that, too, for awhile. It sounds like the modern-day version of "God's Will".

These doorknobs lost me back when Hillary Clinton, in an attempt to justify continued involvement in the Iraq Disaster, claimed that we had a "Responsibility Gene" (and, at that moment, I felt damned lucky that my parents taught me that it's not nice to hit a girl).

I got the Sour Old Depressed Guy gene and it's activated before its 50-years floor. It's been active since I was 42. WTF?

More seriously, since Americans receive such crap masquerading as "education," it is no problem for a clown like Nikki Weighed to offer such non-scientific pap as "science."

I mean, we have a whole raft of Americans who think that "economics" is a science.


radical freedom of the ego
how quaint how hippy hippy
the human condition is a comdey of humours
relieved by the brief bathos of lust
for the other's body or blood


"we have a whole raft of Americans who think that "economics" is a science"

starting with ME pal

come cross my bridge some time
wanta see some economic science ???...
i'll show you some economic science !!!


"Owen, I'd say the demise of the NY Times is devoutly to be wished, regardless"

i'd settle for a punch at pinch

op, a follower's facility for holistic systemic observation and analysis doesn't turn sociology into a hard science. one can try to superimpose scientific principles onto a fully subjective field of experience (human whimsy, the foundation of all "economics") but the whimsical nature of human behavior renders it unscientific at best.

what monetary decisions seem sound to me at 12:30 pm (right now) may seem idiotic at 12:50 pm (20 minutes from now) and therefore there's nothing scientific about this study of how I choose to assess money, value, needs and wants.

we'd all be a lot better off if "economics" were treated as the Ouija-board-reading game it is.

PS to op --

Charles MacKay already explained why human whimsy is not the foundation for scientific analysis of a hard, dependable, replicable sort.


All class rule rests, thanks to the sheer situational requirements for sustained and glorified stealing, on the ideology of bio-superiority among the overs. This is just our age's form of that story.

I commend attention to Ha-Joon Chang's corollary point about "culture." In the hands of the epoch's mainstream "thinkers," it is merely a sophomorically-built Trojan Horse for the same old bio-claims. See Bad Samaritans, Chapter 9.

When I hear "gene" or "culture," I reach for my revolver...


Hillary Clinton gushes over 'crush' on Miliband

"Clinton, who is married to former US president Bill Clinton, described Miliband as "vibrant, vital, attractive, smart. He's a really good guy -- and he is so young!"

According to the Sun, Miliband reciprocated the warm feelings, calling Clinton, 62, "delightful" and a "tease."



gene is a wonderful word md

as is the wildly formal science
of pure population genetics
almost platonic
which of course is apt

the over class after all
IS superior
the metrics of their society

yes there isn't any one set
of coherent metrics
that will cull out uz helots
from the spartans
at least not without signifigant exceptions both ways

simply applying more screens
to suspcious interloper souls
usually suffices arbitrary as it may be

and if a few spartans
must be culled
as the result of unre examined
" false positive"
for helotry ...too bad
the fewer of them the bbetter so far as they're concerned
and further
if per chance
an interloper does get thru
why like kafka's K
he'll prolly drive himself to suicide or worse
what with conjuring fantastical
and back room
kangaroo judges and jurys

You might find this http://cwis.org/fge/articles/06/2604 Who Speaks for Indigenous Nations 2.ppt 1999 power point interesting.


I think MJS has got it right -- the point is to sap the idea of individual responsibility and agency in a thousand little cuts of pseudo-scientific verbalizations. Echoing Marcuse's "repressive de-sublimation", this might be called depressive over-explanation.

Scoff now, Smith. But when you lose the seasonal Times Fashion Guides, you'll be crying just as hard as the rest of us.


" think MJS has got it right -- the point is to sap the idea of individual responsibility and agency in a thousand little cuts of pseudo-scientific verbalizations."


I am actually not acquainted with the overseers who want us to believe something OTHER than that we are individually responsible for our place in life. I venture the average American thinks s/he has a lot more agency -- certainly in the area of class mobility -- than, in fact, s/he actually has and this misconception has certainly been carefully cultivated. You'll get no argument from me that our overseers certainly like us powerless, but I don't think they see it as being in their interests for us to know it.

I also think MJS complaint here is somewhat at odds with his complaints about 'Merit brats' whose faith in individual agency is somewhat excessive. I mean isn't the pernicious Obama cult all about the merit virtues of building a resume? Weren't black folks supposed to learn that they too, can be president, and if they're actually losing at life, it's all their fault?

Finally, the idea that there is a genetic basis for behavior is not some flash in the pan idea that is 100% pure ideology. There is actually a little science at work and I don't see the idea that there may be, say, a gay gene, as being inherently more at odds with one's sense of mastery over the universe than learning early on that you have two arms rather than three. It certainly doesn't provide any foundation for asserting 'bio-superiority of the overs' an idea that not even the execrable Times has ever really cottoned to.


"Are you upset about the state of the world, and the mess you're leaving to your gay, learning-disabled children? You must have the Sour Old Depressed Guy gene, which only gets activated at the age of 50."

I actually appreciate what MJS is getting at here, which is less about sapping individual agency than the attempt to make folks believe that the way they see the world and feel about it is unrelated to how the world actually is. Before there were gene theories about depression, there was psychology which essentially did the same thing. The world's not a mess -- you're just neurotically obsessed with everything bad in it.


a) I don't think we understand genetic or psychology any where near enough to make the (very immodest and unqualified) claims the article makes--this is probably the genetics equivalent of String Theory; i.e., wild philosophical speculation, at best.

b) Of course, human agency (or free will or whatever one wants to call it) is subject to limits, in the sense our physical abilities have limits. What is in question is that specific limits are being arbitrary defined for what, there is good reason to suspect, are ideological reasons. (In fact, I don't see how one can meaningfully make general statements about human agency that aren't trivial. Examination of specific cases is required.)

By the way, until a precise, or much more precise, definition of religion is provided talking about it in a scientific connection is pointless. A lot of different things are covered by the work, many not strictly having to do with "faith". As significant component, e.g., is simply proving a shortcut to knowledge either beyond present scientific understanding or in domains that are ideologically fettered as a result of reactionary forces (like economics and political science today). (John Dewey's writings on religion are worth reading, if only to underscore the in fact significant lack of clarity sounding the concept.)

Presumably, the article authors are interested in the psychological value of religion. But if so, is it not possible that whatever psychological needs religion fulfills might also be fulfilled, perhaps even better, by other, more rational institutions--participatory political and economic institutions where people have some bona fide control over their own lives, e.g.? (What replaces "religion" might not be one thing. Various apparently unconnected institutions might end up filling the gap.)



You and MJS will get no argument from me on this particular article's lack of merit. I was just taking issue with some of the assertions here about the ideological basis for the recent ascendance of nature vs. nurture.

Sometimes the Times is just inept and philistine.


good stuff mm
i agree with the general strike of your arguments

i might add
the whole high toned scrap here
may overplay the ptracical roll
of conceptions of self in social activity

and the agency notion itself might operate
more persuasively thru
the social group paradigm
and it's or their self organizing dynamics

i will say
the notion of a gay gene(s)
or pattern of genes
seems to me
headed only toward one demagogic conclusion
the gas chamber or the abortion clinic

gayness or girlness
its not like nose length or ear shape
or color
it's more like jewness

imagine research on
a jewish gene(s)or pattern of genes

the caution flag flies robustly over head

i recognize the defense provided by
"a scientific discovery" of non agency here:

"it's fate i didn't choose to be born
"this way"
ya that argument works in certain contexts
but it fails the extermination context

let us conjecture gayness or gender identity is a complex of behaviours
a pure "social context outcome '
however an outcome
that forms between
somewhere between months 36 and 48 (pn)
just to pick an appropriate interval

like mother tongue 'language aquistion '
and fixed
all unconciously and without "personal agency"
prior in fact to the development of coherent self conciousness

this is of course a wild spectulation
but the agency becomes the social group
and the distinct stages of "the mind's"
structural/behavioural development

if so
then of course social context itself
can be examined
but it will quickly lead to
complexity and deep cultural embeddedness
ie impervious to "simple " gene pool cull
or pre natal screening

to me the gay gene biz is dangerous pseudo science
pseudo science ??
ahh that's the door to a new debate

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