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Bad Science for Worse Philosophy: The “Ruthlessness” Gene

Hebrew University recently completed a study on the genetic basis for “ruthlessness,” and it’s getting some media coverage.Nature included it on their news page, with the flattering headline, “Ruthlessness gene discovered.”The story even made it to the Drudge Report for a day or two, assuring wide-spread attention.

All of this sensational coverage, for a study design that should raise some eyebrows–and some chuckles, if not for the fact that it’s being taken so seriously.Here’s the basic study design:200+ student volunteers participated in what the study calls the ‘dictator game.’The game is supposed to determine if the volunteer behaves like a ruthless dictator.Students (a class of individuals notoriously in need of funds) are given 50 shekels (about 14 dollars) and told they have the option of keeping the money, or give it to someone they will never meet, for no particular reason.That’s it.That’s the test of a dictator.Apparently, people with fewer repeats at their AVPR1a gene tended to give away less money.

There are some problems here, both with methodology and interpretation, which should jump out at the casual reader.The problems begin with equating a student who keeps $14 he has been given in a game with Hitler, Napoleon, and Saddam Hussein (comparisons explicitly drawn in the Nature article).The problems continue with the unfortunately common “one gene, one trait” fallacy of popular genetics.While the pea plants Mendel first tested his theory of genetics on had a number of traits- height, flower color, etc- which were controlled by one gene, human beings have very few. Not only are diseases like cancer usually caused by multiple genes, not all genes are expressed identically in different people.Environmental factors can play a huge role.

This particular poor study design, with its sensationalistic and scientifically misleading press coverage, joins numerous other attempts to attribute complex character traits to genetic chance, rather than personal choice.The danger from this study does not stem from the fact that the ‘dictator game’ is laughably vague in its implications, or even that the association between a gene of unknown mechanism and an undefined character trait (‘ruthlessness’) is sloppy enough to make even a social scientist blush.

No, the real crime is that this sloppy science is used to “prove” a lack of free will.If a dictator kills and murders (or simply retains $14), he does it because his AVPR1a gene was just too short.He did not choose to overthrow a country and keep its people in chains.And- the implication is obvious- if he did not choose it, if he was born to that destiny, how can we condemn him?

This is biological determinism: the notion that our actions and our character are predetermined by our genetic make-up.This theory, whether it takes the form of the simplistic conclusions of the ‘ruthlessness’ study, or more complex genetic analyses, renders us free from fault, free from responsibility, and free from the possibility of choosing to change.Punishment becomes unjust, morality becomes meaningless, and eugenics or criminal convictions based on genetics become logical possibilities.This is not merely sloppy science.It is sloppy science used to defend a terrifying philosophy.

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