Scientific hubris is dangerous

The belief that DNA and evil are associated is an example of a dangerously ignorant hubristic belief.

Associating crime with a disorder of DNA is ignorant and dangerous.

Associating crime with a disorder of DNA is ignorant and dangerous.

The Telegraph newspaper has an interesting article asking if evil is due to DNA. This is the sort of question people waste life over, abstracting complex problems down to simple questions that crime is due to defective DNA resolved by ingesting a magic pill.

If I owned a slave today, I would be considered evil, in ancient times most people would have seen my slave ownership as good, a sign of my wealth.  The idea of good and evil is subjective based on a set of rules.  Today the rules are that slave ownership is evil, thus those that participate in that practice are evil.  Truth is relative, in the West most people have no issues over the drinking of alcohol, but in Islam it is considered evil.

Since it appears that good and evil is based upon subjective judgements based upon a set of rules which differ between historical eras and culture, it is irrational to attribute evil to DNA.  Ask yourself is there a non-drinking gene, or a vote Communist gene in people’s blood? If such DNA exist, who has the claim of authority to define that the vote Communist gene is good or evil?

Adam Lanza shot to death a group of children, he is considered evil because many perceive that murder, especially of children, breaks a rule, thus it is evil action. Some people further try to explain away an act of child murder as a defect in the DNA, a safe alternative to other less palatable truths that society may have had a part to play in it.  What is the difference of Lanza killing children and the drones that President Obama sends to Pakistan that also kills innocent children? President Obama some might argue is no different to Adam Lanza, both result in deaths of children, both are indifferent to the results they brought about, yet one is considered evil and one is good.  How can one scientifically measure the individual who kills in the act of robbery and one who kills as a soldier on behalf of their nation?

This ignorant belief that subjective values can be determined by DNA is a dangerous slippery slope.  Adam Lanza is autistic, does this mean all autistic people should be regarded as potentially evil, to be locked away, or even euthanised? How quickly can a simple idea that a subjective value is attributed to a certain pattern of DNA escalate to defining everything by DNA, and then ultimately defining whole races of people as evil with the unfortunate consequences as the Jews suffered under the Nazis?

There are three alternatives to DNA I offer for why people act in manners contrary to a rule which would label them evil.  The first is mental illness brought about by stressful circumstances such as many war veterans might suffer in war. The second is alcohol or drugs impairs the mind.  The third is upbringing where the individual suffers an abusive background and whose mind is polluted by violent television, poison in, poison out.

It troubles me when science adopts an ignorant hubristic belief in an idea, blind to the alternatives, the irrationality of the belief held and the consequences of harm that the belief would bring to others.  Believing that evil and DNA are associated is a dangerously ignorant hubristic example of such beliefs.

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10 responses to “Scientific hubris is dangerous

  1. I think for many they consider the other factors you mention as relevant to what makes a person good or bad, or do good or bad things. But in this era, we now do have a means in some case of maybe distinguishing a gene that could cause someone to be more liable to be violent or angry. I agree it is a dangerous, slippery slope to go down, potentially impinging on moral freedoms and agency. All new technologies can have a dangerous influence on our moral sensibilities, and I think it is something that is not stressed often enough or strongly enough. But maybe in a specific case or two, a person who recurrently commits crime could be found to have a genetic problem of acting impulsively and not in their own interest or something like that, and if this could be treated in these specific cases it could be beneficial for society and the individual concerned.

    • Hi Jonathan, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately it is highly subjective and challenging to determine any connection between DNA and behaviour. Being violent or angry can be equally due to stress, drugs, a brain tumour or abusive upbringing as it could be to DNA. The idea that DNA alone can be measure of X in an individual is risky with so many other variables to take into consideration. It is true that through DNA testing one can indicate a possibility in a child before birth to a certain type of genetic disorder which through experience has with it known side effects.

      If an individual is constantly committing crime it could be as a result of other causes than DNA such as need to feed a family or brain injury.

  2. Scientific hubris? What scientific hubris?

    If you read the article, you would understand that human behaviour is dependent on neurocircuitry. Neurocircuitry rests on a foundation of genetics. Understanding human behaviour (and the violence cited as ‘evil’) requires a better understanding of how genetics influences it. That’s not hubris. What’s hubris is assigning to scientific pursuits gross misunderstandings of what motivates our quest for knowledge.

    Look, when you come across nebulous terms like ‘evil’ then you’re quite right to question what it is specifically these term represent. One of the great complaints about reporting on scientific pursuits is just how poorly done it is. The assumption (often well justified) is that the reading public has a high level of scientific illiteracy. To compensate for this scientific illiteracy, certain science reporters (and even scientists themselves) write and say very stupid things in the quest to simplify. The fault with this article is making that leap between associating the nebulous term ‘evil’ as if it were a real and specific effect an with ‘genetics’ as if it were the cause for it. This isn’t good science and this is not what any of the scientists interviewed are actually saying. What the scientists are saying is that there may be a genetic component that adversely affects the development and exercise of healthy brain circuitry. How is it that normal people who exhibit care and compassion for neighbours and small animals turn into accomplices inflicting great suffering? Why do some people radically change acceptable personal behaviour when joining a mob while others seem immune? Is there a genetic component to the likelihood for this altered behaviour?

    This is an important avenue for scientific inquiry that has zero to do with hubris and beliefs associated with what constitutes good and evil, but you smear science by suggesting the method comes with this kind of hubris. It doesn’t, any more than science produces relative truths equivalent to faith-based beliefs. If you are tempted to call something a relative ‘truth’, then you have chosen the wrong word by definition. Such relativity attempts to alter the meaning of words so that black can be interpreted to be some kind of white and up presented as another kind of down. Accepting relative thinking as legitimate serves to undermine our ability to communicate effectively by warping language. one of the effects from this kind of nebulous thinking renders the pursuit of knowledge to also be considered relative and equivalent to faith-based beliefs. This is always a danger because it allows people an excuse to think poorly and non critically and fool themselves into believing it’s wise and tolerant to do so. It can even lead people into assuming that charges of hubris are legitimately assigned to anyone who dares to present knowledge as anything other than relative.

    • Thanks for your insights Tildeb.

      You raise a good point about the potential loss of a message in the need to simplify. The art of communication however is to get a message across, however complex, in terms that anyone can understand. If the scientist desires the support of society and funders then they must communicate in ways that is understandable, otherwise end up ignored.

      The media is also noted for its bias in turning an original message into something else, but the message is quite clear in this article that there are those in science that strive to determine a subjective concept of evil around genetics, this is what I see as an example of hubris.

      DNA in my opinion creates the infrastructure and communications, but won’t determine behaviour which comes from environmental inputs. An example is Little Albert (baby) who in an experiment was subjected to a loud noise every time he saw a rabbit, which then conditioned him into a fight-flight response every time he saw the rabbit thereafter.

  3. I think it is the media, not the scientist which create this hubris.

  4. Wow, so many questions here to respond to… With that in mind, I will reflect and consider most rhetorical. I will say that human beings are inherently flawed, capable at convenience, of being both ‘evil’ and ‘good.’ Oversimplified? Perhaps the purest way to view this discussion is through simplicity.
    Incidentally, I’ve always believed that I do not have the ‘gene’ for becoming a drug or alcohol addict. My three siblings are all alcoholics and share a father. I am the only child of my biological father and mother.
    Just as my DNA dictates my blood type (B+) eye color or freckles, or my mounting neurological disorders, it seems clear that in this case, genetics plays on key. However, I do believe that one sentence spoken to a child can have lifelong impacts, good or bad.
    Autistic people do not see the world as we do. I speak from experience.

    • Most people like to categorise life into neat boxes, but as you show nothing is that simple. Alcohol is a tool, a coping mechanism, but DNA may cause the neurological disorder in which alcohol is used to cope.

      If one thinks of everything as a system made of many variables, of which all are feeding back into each other, each contributing in their own way to the overall problem, then abstraction by science which eliminates variables ends up producing something that is full of error and ignorance. If the scientist acts upon an abstraction that left out important variables then they will cause suffering and conflict. DNA may contribute to a criminal action, but it is one small variable of many.

  5. Pingback: The power of association | The Liberated Way

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