At either extreme of the nature vs. nurture debate, each proposes there are things in life we cannot control, particularly the circumstances of our birth. We don't choose our parents and their respective family trees. Neither do we choose our birth-country, or the culture (or sub-culture) in which we're born and raised.
Sometimes a study or some broader body of research emerges that points to this uncontrollable side of life, arguing that something about the way we were born has a bearing on who we are. When doctors find that certain genes or family histories may predispose us to heart disease, it's called medicine. But when scientists argue that the circumstances of our birth—be they genetic, environmental or otherwise—determine our behavior and attitudes, our successes and failures, even our intelligence, that's called determinism. And wherever it appears, controversy attends, raising specters of days when colonialists, eugenicists, public health officials, and political idealists believed they could cure the human condition through manipulation and force.
Understanding those fears helps shed light on the controversy surrounding a recent paper published in the American Economic Review, entitled, “The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development.” In it, economists Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor argue that the economic development of broad human populations correlate with their levels of genetic diversity—which is, in turn, pinned to the distance its inhabitants migrated from Africa thousands of years ago. Reaction in some circles has been swift and vehement.
An article signed by 18 academics in Current Anthropology accuses the researchers of “bad science”—“something false and undesirable” based on “weak data and methods” that “can become a justification for reactionary policy.” The paper attacks everything from its sources of population data to its methods for measuring genetic diversity, but the economists are standing by their methods.
The quality of Ashraf and Galor's research notwithstanding, the debate illustrates just how tricky it's become to assert anything which says something about human development was in any way inevitable. Ashraf and Galor aren’t the only ones coming under fire lately. Geographer and author Jared Diamond, for example, who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel, has been branded an environmental determinist who cuts culture and colonialism too much slack with regard to the rise and fall of civilizations—criticism that has been renewed recently with the publication of his new book, The World Until Yesterday.
Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has come under similarly scathing attack by big name thinkers from Robert Trivers to Richard Dawkins for suggesting that highly social animals from ants to bees (and perhaps humans) may be driven to driven to divide labor and act altruistically—what’s known as eusociality—because of a eusocial gene or set of genes.
The debate over whether our genes can determine our future is fierce. But why? Why does the contemporary scientific community posses such a basic discomfort with the idea of determinism wherever they smell it?
At a fundamental level, determinism provides tidy, clear answers for why things are the way they are. But the very notion of an "answer" is fundamentally antithetical to good science, which is as it should be. Scientists develop theories and theories evolve as new data emerges. And when they think they have answers—particularly about something like genetics—humans have a long history of getting things really, really wrong.