When We Think Like Karl Pilkington

In my last post, I dismissed a common objection to the study of the genetics of behavior, political or otherwise: complexity—as in, development is too complex for genes to affect behavior. I hope that I managed to convey the certainty with which scientists have answered the question “does genetic variation affect behavior?” in the affirmative. There is a considerable body of evidence substantiating this claim, from the most basic (centuries of animal husbandry by domestication) to the most extraordinary (myriad knock outknock downknock in, and transgenic experiments). We are no longer dealing with correlations alone but with unambiguous cause and effect: polygamous voles turn monogamous, anxious mice relax, and heterosexual fruit flies become bisexual, all at the turn of a gene or three.

So, whence the pushback? There are no devastating critiques of the plausibility of the idea that genes cause behavior and, more to the point, this idea has repeatedly and successfully met the gold standard of science: the experimental test. It seems to be a simple, straightforward fact; one that ought to be uncontroversial. Controversial, however, it remains.

Much of the resistance to behavioral genetic research seems to be rooted in a pair of related misconceptions. First, it gives the impression that “we” are not in control of ourselves, but that our “biology” regulates our behavior. Second, it appears to suggest that genetic effects can only be resolved through “biological” intervention, like trephination or gene therapy, invoking a hellscape of massive, conformity-inducing social control led by the Nurse Ratcheds of the world.

I call the first misconception—that there is some inherent difference between “me” and my “biology”—the Karl Pilkington view of the mind, after this absurd exchange on the Ricky Gervais Show.

Mr. Pilkington’s views handsomely align with those of René Descartes. Most of us recognize that the mind does not float in the ether; rather, it is a property of our brains in much the same way that software is a property of a computer’s hardware. To use an oft-repeated phrase: the mind is what the brain does. Yet, we set up an impossible Pilkingtonian dualism every time we invoke “biology” as something in conflict with “us”, “culture”, or the “environment”. And we do this quite a lot.

We do not exist outside of our bodies, consequently, neither does our culture. This is not to deny the physical existence of cultural artifacts but they have neither cultural meaning nor any effect on us outside of their interface with biology. My copy of Franny and Zooey exists as surely as the bookshelf on which it sits, but it has no meaning as literature without a brain to know it as such.

The second cause for consternation—that problems caused by particular gene variants can only be addressed by “biological” solutions—is more understandable because it is technically true. Still, it is massively overblown. Since youare your body (and brain especially), any problem you have must stem from a biological source. Of course, the effects of your social environment on your body may be this source; alternately, they may be part of the solution. 

There are many examples: for myopia, we wear glasses; for a bacterial infection, we take antibiotics; for Maple Syrup Urine Disease, we are placed on a special diet; for deafness, we are taught to sign. These are all equally biological interventions.

We need to rid ourselves of the illusion that the environment operates on us apart from our biology. Problems caused by genetic variation may indeed require interventions targeting its consequences directly, like gene therapy, but many problems that we handle through the use of “environmental” interventions are the result (at least in part) of genetic variation. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, for instance, is known to be highly heritable, but behavioral treatments appear to be quite effective in its management. What pathways these behavioral treatments affect—neural architecture, hormone production, gene expression, and more—are not yet known but there can be no doubt that they do anything else. Their effects are biological through and through.

Dispelling these two misconceptions can resolve many of the doubts surrounding behavioral genetics. Its findings should not imply a radical shift in worldview because we have known for a very long time that the Karl Pilkington view of the mind, tempting though it is to slip into, is wrong. You and your brain are one and the same and it follows that the specter of “what is biological is unchangeable” is also false since everything about you, including the parts that have undergone plenty of change, is biological.

So what then do the findings of behavioral genetics imply? This question has been eating away at some people lately. In the realm of political science, a few think behavioral genetic research is very important (see, for example, herehere, and here). Others are inclined to disagree. Me? I don’t understand the fuss.

Identifying the effects of genes on development, as both proponents and critics of behavioral genetics will agree, is a profoundly knotty problem. Worse, the effects of most genes on behavior are measurable but miniscule, which is one of the reasons why it is so damned difficult to replicate some kinds of research. Even if we did have a good idea of the small but reliable effects of a gene on a particular political behavior, it is not clear what we would do with that information. By one standard then, the findings of behavioral genetics shouldn’t strike anyone as significant.

However, this standard is not how we judge the quality or virtues of a scientific enterprise. Any work of significance to the public is the result of many years of serious research on what people would usually consider to be unimportant problems: “basic science” as many of us call it. It may be that the genetics of political behavior never bear any practical fruit but it is far too early in the game to make this call. In the meantime, it is forcing the social sciences to confront and shed their Pilkingtonian views. The importance of this alone should not be underestimated.


Cover image by rickmwalker.