Gene of the Week — Not!

Posted by Pete Shanks March 5, 2012
Biopolitical Times

A pair of political scientists who specialize in behavioral genetics, Evan Charney and Bill English took out a very large statistical hammer in order to crush a rather small nut. And then they found a target worth their effort: reductionist genomics itself.

Their recently published paper in American Political Science Review [abstract] initially addresses a four-year-old paper by James Fowler and Christopher Dawes that claimed to show that "two genes predict voter turnout" [pdf]. (We noted it here in one of our earliest "Gene of the Week" posts.) Over the first 10 pages of a 34-page paper, they "critically examine the candidate gene association study methodology" and demonstrate "on the basis of the data set employed by Fowler and Dawes, that two genes do not predict voter turnout."

But that was just a warm-up. The press release put out by Duke is more direct than the peer-reviewed paper:

Charney and English also document how the same two genes that Fowler and Dawes claimed would predict voter turnout are also said to predict, according to other recently published studies, alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, anorexia nervosa, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, depression, epilepsy, extraversion, insomnia, migraines, narcolepsy, obesity, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, Parkinson's disease, postpartum depression, restless legs syndrome, premature ejaculation, schizophrenia, smoking, success by professional Wall Street traders, sudden infant death syndrome, suicide, Tourette syndrome, and several hundred other behaviors. They point to a number of studies that attempted to confirm these findings and could not.

In the paper, they explicitly, and in detail, discuss "broader issues in genetics" such as the complexity of the genotype-phenotype relationship. They raise, for example, the difficulty of identifying the specific genetic correlations with the "highly heritable" trait of height. Perhaps less well known is the research on the heritability of aggressive behavior in Drosophila, which they quietly note is low, due to "a high level of environmental variance (despite the fact that the scientists assumed that the environments were identical)."

With all this, they cite several papers to suggest that "the science of genetics is undergoing a paradigm shift" comparable to the one physics underwent as relativity theory and quantum mechanics supplanted the Newtonian worldview.

Cycling elegantly back to their starting point, they conclude:

Advances in genomic science suggest that this reductionist approach is ill conceived, and proponents of "genopolitics" have yet to present compelling evidence to the contrary.

In a world where even E. O. Wilson, the "father" of sociobiology can be denounced as an apostate (see last week's New Yorker), for questioning the genetic theory of altruism that he himself helped to popularize, Charney and English may be dismissed as outsiders. They are, after all, focused on public policy and political science. But it's hard not to conclude that the tectonic plates undergirding genomic theory might be shifting. And it's heartening to see push-back from political theorists willing to suggest that the emperor has no visible clothing.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: