Friday, June 03, 2005

Genetic studies

The New York Times today reported the results of two very different genetic studies, one fairly straightforward and the other totally shocking if true.

First, the straightforward one. Researchers isolated the gene that determines the sexual orientation of fruit flies. Simply by turning on or off a single gene, the researchers could make a female fruit fly perform an elaborate mating dance before another female fruit fly. This is a neat experiment, all the more so because researchers had long known the genes responsible for mating but no one had ever thought to try this particular experiment.

My only quibble is with what one researcher said when interviewed for the article:

Hopefully this will take the discussion about sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science.

The problem is that the moral debate about homosexuality was never really about what causes homosexuality. The conservative premise, as I understand it, is that there is a distinction between having homosexual tendencies and engaging in homosexual sodomy, with the former perhaps beyond our control, but the latter very much so. For these conservatives, it is like saying that some people have a greater tendency than others to think murderous thoughts, but that does not make murder any less wrong. Whatever the science yields on the origins of homosexuality, it will do nothing to settle the cultural debate about gay marriage.

The second study is just plain stunning. Some researchers published a paper suggesting that certain genetic diseases long associated with Ashkenazi Jews, such as Tay-Sachs, exist as a byproduct of genes that make Jews smarter on average. The theory goes that when Jews were persecuted and could only work in commercial trades requiring some level of intelligence, there was intense evolutionary pressure to become smarter, and Tay-Sachs was an unfortunate byproduct of this rushed evolutionary product. Sort of how sickle cell anemia is a byproduct of evolutionary resistance to malaria.

I’m at a loss for words as to what to say about this, if it is in fact true, not just because it is utterly politically incorrect but also because of its implications about the interplay between genetics and culture and even between evolution and bigotry. There are so many politically incorrect ways that one could go with this, and not just with the Jewish people. Does ths study imply that black people dominate in athletic and not academic achievement because they were once slaves working the fields? This is all just so troubling because it seems to bring back social darwinism with a vengeance. The study also just seems wrong because I always thought it was about cultural values. Jewish people seem to have that Protestant work ethic that places great value on education and working hard to get ahead in life, and I had always assumed that these values were the reason why Jewish people have always seemed to succeed wherever they go.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone have any idea how short a period can be before evolutionary changes occur?

Thousands of years?
Hundreds of years?
Or the one week since POYS' last post?

- Curious George

6/08/2005 10:59:00 PM  
Blogger putonyourspecs said...

True enough. Go knock yourself out with today's post!

6/09/2005 10:47:00 PM  
Blogger The Critics said...

What, no link to "today's post"? How unlike you, Poys!

6/13/2005 03:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did the Jews have to convert to Protestantism to get that work ethic? hmmmm.
Also, isn't it true that economic success is often inversely related to reproductive success, with poor and persecuted populations having a much higher than average reproductive rate? So maybe it's just not true that Jews who gained economic success by being good merchants would be more likely to reproduce than their dull-eyed brethren.
Who knows? Not me.

6/16/2005 11:42:00 PM  

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