Some indecent questions in genetics

  • Manu Joseph
  • Updated: Jun 26, 2016 23:51 IST
The reader naturally feels that Siddhartha Mukherjee is about to take a clear stand — favouring genes, perhaps, because his book is called The Gene. But he does not. He ends up suggesting “an armistice between fools”. (Getty Images)

There are indecent questions that are daft. ‘Are Tamil Brahmins smarter than Tamil Dalits?’ And there are indecent questions that are not stupid. ‘Do some races have a higher proportion of Neanderthal genes than other races, assuming that some versions of proto-humans interbred successfully?’ The science of genetics is filled with indecent questions. Imagine your papa’s deepest unspeakable racial and gender theories. They have been asked before in some form.

In The Gene: An Intimate History, which is an immensely enjoyable and persuasive biography of the human gene for lay people, Siddhartha Mukherjee takes on some of the uncomfortable questions. And he portrays the human condition without seeking refuge in the bunkers of political correctness. Yet, he would not make Donald Trump or Subramanian Swamy happy. To have a decent view of the world, it appears, we do not need compassion, which is a form of condescension; and we do not need the paranoia of victimhood. We just need to read more science.

On the persistent question that so often is a view couched in question — are some races, castes, populations more intelligent than others — Mukherjee suggests the question is meaningless. There is greater genetic diversity within races or even within small ethnic populations than between races. Races are almost the same; individuals are very different.

Read | A Brahmin in your genes?

The type of intelligence that can be expressed as IQ appears to be chiefly a function of genes, and it is heritable. There are a number of studies that suggest this, which Mukherjee does not dispute. So, even though the genetic diversity between races is very small, can it be that some races are hardwired to possess higher IQs than others?

Whites do perform considerably better than African-American in IQ tests. But then African-Americans are more likely than whites to hail from poor, violent or unhappy homes, and such candidates tend to underperform in tests. But, Mukherjee points out, “The difference in IQ scores between wealthy whites and wealthy African-Americans is even more pronounced: Far from narrowing, the gap widens at the top brackets of income.”

Even so, Mukherjee says, we do not need the hypothesis of white genetic superiority to explain the phenomenon. The self-esteem and intellectual confidence of blacks have been so battered over the decades that they have been conditioned to believe that they would perform poorly in an IQ test. A social psychologist demonstrated this. When black students were tricked into taking an IQ test “under the pretext that they are being tested to try out an electronic pen” or through other ruses, they did much better than when they were told it was a test of their intelligence.

The intelligence that IQ tests measure, “is a meme masquerading as a gene,” Mukherjee says, “…To call the score in such a test ‘intelligence’, especially when the score is uniquely sensitive to the configuration of the test, is to insult the very quality it sets out to measure.”

Read | Mensa India IQ test reveals bright minds amid poverty

When culture is evicted from IQ tests the results are often surprising. I know a man in Maharashtra who has been testing the IQs of impoverished tribals. He uses a specially composed test that does not require formal education. It is approved by Mensa, a society of people who are considered more intelligent than most. The tribal students who clear the test are granted membership of Mensa. Over the past decade, more than 500 tribal students have joined the society. It is silly though that this must be the only way they can show they are exceptionally smart.

The modern world is a creation of one race whose strongest innate and cultural features are materially rewarded, and other races have rushed to imitate it (somewhat poorly because imitation is often clumsy), creating a notion that a set of human attributes are superior to other qualities. It is the great fortune of whites and browns that the Ethiopians did not manage to create a capitalist world where material success involves running 42 kilometres in under two hours and ten minutes.

Another significant contentious question that Mukherjee examines is whether we are prisoners of our genome, hence prisoners of the genetic material of our immediate ancestors, too. Should we even try to fight who we are in our core? Are the adorable and the psycho merely exact prophecies of genomes? In the heart of the question is a debate that is popularised, as it so often happens, by that third-rate aspect of language — alliteration. ‘Nature versus Nurture’. Are we shaped more by our genes or environment. Mukherjee makes a rare rude observation. “Identity, we are now told, is determined by nature and nurture, genes and environment…But this too is nonsense — an armistice between fools.”

Read | Scientists say it’s your genes can determine your education

This view is tantalizing. The reader naturally feels Mukherjee is about to take a clear stand — favouring genes, perhaps, because his book is called The Gene. But he does not. He ends up suggesting “an armistice between fools”. Even so, I feel that at gunpoint he may consider genes a stronger influence than environment. That is the undercurrent in the second half of the book.

To explain the biological meaning of the self he provides the details of several studies of identical twins, a category of siblings geneticists love. This is a summary of the lives of a pair of male twins, separated weeks after birth, both renamed Jim after adoption, and who grew up eighty miles apart: “Both drove Chevrolets, both chain-smoked Salems, and both loved sports, especially stock-car racing, but both disliked baseball…Both Jims had married women named Linda. Both had owned dogs that they named Toy…One had a son named James Allan; the other’s son was named James Alan. Both Jims had undergone Vasectomies.”

In another case, a pair of twins separated at birth had the same recurring nightmare — “their throats stuffed with various — but typically metallic — things: door knobs, needles and fish hooks”.

Mukherjee argues that what you are born with are tendencies. Then you collide with people, places, love, accidents, arts and insults. Predetermined tendencies become a random person, one of those unique people.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Twitter: @manujosephsan

The views expressed are personal

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