THE BLOG
06/04/2007 12:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Morality Research: Is This The End of Media Gene-Mongering?

Some news about the origins of human morality, but first some background:

As closet social Darwinists, American neo-conservatives and their media puffers have for the past three decades been marching under the banner of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, shouting a mantra that genes determine all human behavior, which in turn means inheritance determines all human behavior, which implies a rational basis in biology for inherited wealth, status, and privilege.

Call it gene-mongering.

When they say it's not what they mean, ask them what exactly do they mean, and you will probably get a blank look.

Or maybe they'll provide a sophomoric bleat: "Genes are important." Or the equivalent: "Genes hold culture on a leash."

Yes, genes are important, but so are fetal environment, postnatal development and environment, peer groups, and culture. And often these are so important they make any possible influence of genes trivial. As for the "leash," the leash is often so long it gets lost in the grass.

You can find extreme forms of gene-mongering ideas in rightist publications such as National Review, New Criterion, and Commentary, and in many books and newspaper op-ed commentaries about the genetic basis for this or that behavior, always without considering counter-evidence and counter-arguments.

Last week two important scientific papers about the roots of human behavior appeared in the journal Science (May 18, 2007), and of course neo-con gene-mongers and their press-puffers have ignored these research papers, maybe hoping no one will notice new science that contradicts their mantra.

The papers are as follows:

1) Jonathan Haidt: "The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology." Science 2007 316:998

2) P. Bloom and D.S. Weisberg: "Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science." Science 2007 316:996.

Both papers are extensive reviews of recent research. One paper deals with the origins of morality, and the other paper deals with the origins of childhood views of reality. The conclusion of both reviews is that development and culture are always intensive determinants of human behavior, in one case of morality, and in the other case of the way we view the real world as revealed by science.

In an editorial in the same issue of Science, Alan I. Leshner, Executive Publisher of the journal, cites these papers as illustrations of how behavioral science has "come of age".

All right, fine. Coming of age or not coming of age, we're back to the 1960s, when nearly all behavioral scientists understood that human behavior derived from both biology and culture. Then came the 1970s, and the biological-determinist thunderclap of sociobiology, followed a decade later by the rumble of its offshoot evolutionary psychology.

The American political right immediately adopted sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as the scientific basis of a neo-social-Darwinism, although they've never called it that, maybe because they essentially lack the courage to say what they really believe.

To crystallize the issue, here is what John Haidt, behavioral scientist at the University of Virginia and author of one of the cited papers, says in conclusion about human morality:

"Even though morality is partly a game of self-promotion, people do sincerely want peace, decency, and cooperation to prevail within their groups. And because morality may be as much a product of cultural evolution as of genetic evolution, it can change substantially in a generation or two."

So let's be clear: Any idea that morality is exclusively or for the most part fixed and genetically determined by Darwinian evolution has no basis in modern science, and it would be a public service if the gene-mongering puffers and pundits in the national media would take heed and stop blowing hot air into the public arena because they think it makes good copy.

Political rightists never give up easily. Is this the end of neo-con and media gene-mongering? Probably not. It may take a while to get them to stop barking about genes. Meanwhile, anyone interested in the roots of our behavior and the implications of those roots needs to pay attention to what modern behavioral science is telling us.