All posts filed under: Biology

Against Determinism—A Brief Reply to Jerry Coyne

In my previous Quillette article, I offered what was intended to be an intellectual history of agency, drawing partly upon the traditions of the continental school of philosophy. I contended that those intellectuals most resistant to deterministic explanations for human affairs are unconsciously, and fiercely, trying to protect the historical legacy of agency from normative determinism. I linked the rise of agency to the rise of secular-humanism, and argued that a belief in agency and free will could therefore be understood as a new version of Pascal’s Wager. This provided Coyne with a great deal of ammunition for his critique of my piece; he drew many parallels between my arguments for believing in free will and the apologetics offered by religious fundamentalists for their belief in God. However, the arguments for some notion of free will are about as hard to shake as the sense that we have it, and I don’t think they are shaken much by Coyne’s hard determinism. In this brief reply to Coyne, I’ll also take my cue from Ben Burgis’s …

Socialization Isn’t Responsible for Greater Male Violence

Earlier this year, Dr. Julia Shaw wrote an article for Psychology Today entitled, “Why Are We Not Outraged that Prisons Are Filled with Men?” in which she argues that there is something “pernicious” and deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates men at far higher rates than women. “Prison,” she explains, “has always been an almost entirely male structure. It’s hard. It’s cold. It’s unempathetic. It’s punitive. Practically every descriptor we use for prison prides itself in its masculinity.” Shaw says the heavily disproportionate incarceration reflects a lack of faith in men, who are then adversely affected by the experience of prison and the social stigma they are forced to carry upon release. And “what leads us to blindly accept that our prisons are full of men?” she asks. I think it’s because we accept as dogma that men are naturally more criminal—particularly more violent—than women, thus they deserve to be incarcerated at higher rates. It’s about time we question this assumption. As Shaw points out, men are overrepresented in prisons because they commit more …

How Prophetic Was Gattaca?

Dystopian science fiction films often have the veneer of plausibility. For example, the premise of an overpopulated world (Soylent Green), or a deep freeze earth (The Day After Tomorrow), or an infertility epidemic (Children of Men), generate voyeuristic horror but rarely possess the credibility to elicit anxiety of a real world, highly probable outcome. The 1997 film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is an exception. Technology has now caught up with Niccol’s dystopian vision of a society where every member is categorized and determined by their genetic origin. Last year a Chinese bioengineer announced the germline editing and live birth of twin girls using CRISPR technology. In the world of Gattaca, preimplantation screening and genetic engineering have generated a culture of discrimination based on genomic scores. The story’s hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), has the bad luck of being conceived the old-fashioned way, his genome left to the crapshoot of meiosis. His genome is read to his parents at birth: neurological condition: 60 percent; probability of manic depression: 42 percent; probability of heart disease: …

The Academic Quarrel over Determinism

A Professor of biology at Williams College, Luana Maroja, recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic describing her great difficulty in getting students to accept the expert consensus on many issues in her field of study. Biology has been a great source of tension in intellectual spaces for a long time now, and this doesn’t seem due to change anytime soon. More often than not, biology seems to be the lynchpin upon which the fiercest disputes among intellectuals turn. Why does biology produce so much rancour? Sam Harris recently interviewed author Jarred Diamond on his podcast. During the course of that discussion, Diamond revealed that he had been forced to increase security at his personal residence when some colleagues threatened him 10 years ago. Additionally, he had two bodyguards accompany him to a university lecture after an “angry anthropologist” threatened to disrupt his remarks. Diamond hasn’t been an enthusiastic promoter of biological explanations for human affairs. On the contrary, his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, vigorously disputed the notion that biology alone can explain …

‘The Guarded Gate’ Review: Elites and Their Eugenics Projects

A review of The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants out of America by Daniel Okrent, Scribner, 496 pages (May, 2019). ….our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… —T. Roosevelt to C. B. Davenport, January 3, 1913 How are we to understand the widespread enthusiasm for eugenics in the U.S. a century ago? Some scholars like Nicholas Pastore have argued that hereditarianism in general and support for eugenics in particular is more commonly found on the political right, whereas others like John Tierney argue that eugenics is …

The Real Gender Gap in Heart Disease

Because I’m that guy, I took a poll at the recent family barbecue. “Heart disease—who has it worse? Men or women?” I asked. The answers came quickly. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law said, “Women.” My father-in-law, arms crossed, said confidently, “Men.” My mother-in-law remembered hearing about how heart disease affected women more than men during the February American Heart Association (AHA) “Go Red for Women” campaign. Apparently, the message wasn’t heard by the men at this family gathering. They were moved by stories of men—fathers, brothers, friends—they knew who died from heart disease. We are taught that facts should trump feelings, evidence should trump anecdotes, and at first glance it would appear the men are too in touch with their feelings. It is the mission of advocacy organizations like the AHA to raise awareness. Charts like this one are widely disseminated and used in countless presentations on the topic: The graph demonstrates that over the last few decades the number of women dying from heart disease has been significantly higher than men dying from heart disease. …

A Contrarian View of Digital Health

“The pursuit of health is a symptom of unhealth.” —Petr Skrabanek Picture Jim from Kentucky. A farmer, tall, Peterbilt hat. Just retired. He takes basic meds for high blood pressure and diabetes. Arthritis slows him but he has no cardiac symptoms. He plays cards, goes fishing and hangs out with his grandkids. Jim’s family bought him a smart watch, so he could improve his health. The watch kept telling him that his heart rate was low. Jim called his family doctor, who arranged an urgent cardiology visit. Jim’s electrocardiogram showed occasional premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). His cardiologist worried because PVCs can indicate trouble. Jim tried to reassure his doctor, saying, “I feel well.” The cardiologist insisted on further testing. One of the scans—known for its propensity for false-positives—showed an abnormality. So Jim, the asymptomatic happy man who met the cardiologist because of a smart watch, had a near-normal coronary angiogram—a test that requires placing a catheter in the heart. Soon after the procedure, Jim stopped talking, his face drooped and he could not move the …

A Victory for Female Athletes Everywhere

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) this week upheld the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) regulations governing eligibility for the women’s category in international elite athletics competition. In effect, CAS decided the question “who is a woman” for purposes of elite sport. And it ratified the IAAF’s preferred answer: A woman in sport is anyone whose legal identity is female—whether they personally identify as such or not—and who has testosterone (T) levels in the female range. That may seem like a mere technical ruling. But as I’ll explain in this article, the ramifications are profound for female athletics everywhere—a cause that has been central to my life and to the lives of millions of girls and women worldwide. The female range for testosterone is categorically different from the male range. In general, males have 10 to 30 times more T than females. Most females, including most elite female athletes, have T levels in the range of 0.5 to 1.5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). For men, typical values are 10 to 35 nmol/L. The …

Selective Blank Slatism and Ideologically Motivated Misunderstandings

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. ~John B. Watson Blank slatism is the view, exemplified here with John B. Watson’s characteristic arrogance, that human nature is highly flexible and largely determined by environmental forces. Because almost all the available evidence suggests that blank slatism is incorrect, many scholars are puzzled that versions of this philosophy appear to remain popular in certain university departments and among the intelligentsia more broadly. Some critics of progressivism, such as the economist Thomas Sowell, have contended that political progressives are particularly likely to hold blank slate beliefs as a result of their tendency to attribute many social disparities to environmental and social causes and to de-emphasize genetic ones. Others—usually those favorably inclined to progressivism, like the Guardian‘s …

Ignoring Differences Between Men and Women Is the Wrong Way to Address Gender Dysphoria

Among the many divisive topics animating people these days, sex and gender are perhaps the most incendiary. This is in large part because not one but two groups feel that their political identities are at stake. On one hand, many women feel blindsided by the argument that trans women should be considered literal women, and question the effect of the trans movement on female sex-based rights and protections, as they have come to define them. On the other, many trans people are aghast at what they feel are attempts to block their political advancement toward equal social and legal status. Whether the arenas of dispute are bathrooms, schools, sport, women’s organizations, or parades, the emotions are intense and the arguments apparently intractable. To understand what’s at stake, it’s helpful to delineate two argumentative positions at play: (1) sex eliminationism, which argues for the abolition of the recognition of biological sex as a meaningful category; and (2) gender eliminationism, which argues for the abolition of gender. As a feminist and philosopher who finds herself stuck between …