Beware Psociety’s Determinista

I have grown to admire the capacity for exchange and development of ideas that the internet now provides. With the right people answers can be moulded by drawing from all within a group. Unlike a chat or a public meeting, you do not need to take minutes for every word is, of course, recorded and read by all participants. Or can be. You can tell how well or not this has happened and, just as in face to face conversation, you can return to a topic, re-emphasise it and expand on what you previously said. However there is a very good measure of the body of the subject and how it has matured.

And then you can edit the record afterwards to show it all more clearly! Well, in the heat of exchange mistakes are made, plus you can correct poorly phrased points. In the following I have done just that. Whole portions edited out, corrections where appropriate and a clear flow so distilled.

Alan set the following puzzle : Do we have any free will at all? Is it really your choice whether you watch this [referenced] documentary or not? It is about psychopathy, serial killers and the implications that science has on attributing moral responsibility. No wonder we had a banking crisis! It is in 4 parts, and a key trial with enormous implications is described in Part 4: Horizon – What makes us good or evil? (1/4)

So I dutifully watched them all – again as I’d seen it on live telly some time earlier. I replied:

“So we’re talking of the accelerator functions in the control section of an X-chromosomal gene and variability to the coding section of the functional gene. These, it seems, in some cases, can take up memory of childhood trauma and precipitate psychopathy. Then again, sometimes they don’t.

“Profs Ponting (Genomics) and Talbot (Neurology), of Oxford Uni, recently talked on mental illnesses. They said genetic variations: “are often private to each individual. This tells us that different parts of the human genome can be disrupted independently in people with a single disease: there are likely to be many dozens, possibly hundreds, of “autism genes” for example.”

“And further it is: “extremely unlikely that there are single genes for major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia”

“Finally they added that these: “insights should ensure that unwarranted pronouncements of fault are not levelled at parents who produce anything other than a “normal” child.”

“Put another way this says we all carry variant forms of many genes and the interactions of them in vivo are outrageously complicated and unpredictable. And then you’re born! Or, again, you could say that life is a genetic illness.

“And, yes, Genetics is my first degree.”

And it developed. Carlos was interested but baffled by the subject. I tried to encourage him:

“Hey Carlos you ever heard of Sickle Cell Anaemia, SCA, in the states. Only ever in people of African descendancy.” It didn’t work, but I wanted SCA in the discussion anyway. I was asked to explain:

“Sure. SCA is a simple genetic illness, causing malformation of the red blood cells – sickle shaped not round. In native African populations in USA and Europe it is a problem, a genetic illness caused, I think, by a single gene variant.

“Back in malarial areas of Africa, however, it has the effect of blocking colonisation by the malarial parasite in the blood. In other words it has profound advantage and the gene in naturally selected.”

Zana pointed out it bestowed resistance to only one malarial type which I will research.Could that be counter evolution? Quite possibly there are many other such skewed interactions – ad hoc solutions to otherwise impossible situations. Working answers, adopted and so selected for, despite their imperfections.

“I’ll get back on the Warriors in a minute!” I added, reference to purported warrior genes in psychopaths’ genomes. So I came back:

“OK, Chromosomes are not strings of beads as there are control areas to moderate the actions of and access to the coded directions for gene products. Like imagine if all your computer files just opened out at random – there would be utter chaos!

“As I understand the mono amine oxidase A, MAOA, gene it’s operation has a number of control codings whose product/signal is required for the expression of the gene. The “Warrior inheritance” lacks all but a small amount of this coding, hence the gene in potentially underexpressed. Especially in the male as it is coded on the X chromosome. [Females=XX, Males=XY, thus males have only one copy of the gene and control sequences but females have two]

“Which could result in build up of mono-amine by-products from neural operation or other subsidiary side reaction chains. Akin to muscles producing lactic acid if you don’t pace yourself, precipitating stitch.”

Julia: ‎ Question – Does the mere fact that you can locate an inherited malformation, ‘genetic’ in that sense, necessarily lead one to conclude that complex forms of social behaviour are also genetically determined?

“Wow, Julia, I hope not! Does not my counter-genetical cynicism come over in my comments? Seriously, tho’, I used SCA as a straightforward, long known inherited genotype which carries more than a simple coding and then went on to try to show other alleles [gene variants found at any particular location eg dominant and recessive forms] can be a lot more involved.

“ So what we eat, where we live, who we socialize with, what medications we’re given (eg vaccines!), the stresses we encounter, air pressure, lunar phase, breast feeding as a child, our ages and-so-on-and-on all alter our physiology, our gene expression and, hence, our actions. Oh, and alcohol, of course, has major impacts here!

“Anyway, as the wise Oxford professors stated, there’s probably several hundred genes for autism. Carefully and individually tailored, they would have it, to the one who develops the complaint. These academics are so far from the real world I cannot honestly say I understand why they are where they are. It’s just part of the great disconnect we’re living through! But that’s another “thread” to start.”

Julia: Ah.

That’s the general problem with biological determinism in general – but the scepticism of scientists is never reported to the public and yet an unproven theory is taken up as a commonplace fact – ho hum…

Ho-hum indeed:

“Julia – Because it’s eye catching and sells newspapers, but also because it attracts research funding. So they set up Holy Grails to quest. Promise the best possible outcome and “show” how well they are achieving this in opaque data quietly published behind glaring publicity of the goals aimed at. Get dumb journalists to parrot off what’s been achieved in glowing tones of adulation!It’s called the New Scientific Method.

“There’s lots else but I think it’s most apposite to say that at present our evolution is way behind keeping up with our recent environmental changes, which have been profound. This is crucial to this discussion”

“Alan, as Erin just said, there’s far more to it than simply one gene being selected eg different allelic variants for MAOA, differing numbers of control elements. There are at least two variants of the MAOA gene itself unconnected to the Psychopathy issue. It IS interesting that the MAOA may be underproduced in times when there is high use of the neural pathways, so potentially creating this particular behaviour. It could be a toxicity, acting like alcohol, for example, as the byproduct accumulates. And there may be SCA type exchanges, too.”

Alan: Chris, but is it not still a valid question, what evolutionary advantage does a specific gene have? Bare with me here – genetics is a complex subject about which I know next to nothing.

“Natural selection acts upon the whole organism. The recently late Prof Steven Jay Gould summed up his life’s work as an/the evolutionary palaeontologistic theorist in a book I have in front of me now called “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory”. It is 1433 pages long. Neo-Darwinism updated and rarely uncontested it encourages the inclusion of chance. I love it. Also, simply, “what’s there at the time is good.”

“The Dawkins came to fame shouting about “The Selfish Gene”, though in conversation he backtracked. The image sticks and has managed to almost personify genes, battling it out on the high sierras of life. An oak tree produces 10000 acorns each mast but, during its 100 plus years, only a handful ever grow to maturity. That’s luck, not skill, so selection takes a long time and identity must be “fuzzy”. The Warrior locus seems to have impact on human behaviour, especially males, when the enzyme may be sparsely produced. With luck, in another, say, 10000 years we may evolve this effect away.

“And I know that’s not really an answer, Alan, more an atmosphere, an ether for emergence. Scoping, as they say.”

This was in the air but not absorbed I felt and matters drifted. I came back:

“Alan if I can just clarify further – there is no warrior gene. Instead, at most, there is less expression of a particular gene whose housekeeping product then cannot keep up with the work provided in certain situations.

“This means that any actions arising cannot be selected in any meaningful way. It is part of the greater genetic profile which is successful and whose makeup is subject to chance compositional change, within as wide a range of parameters of content as is biologically sustainable.

“Oh and I must just emphasize my “like” of your antipathy for reductionism, Erin. Curse on modern society it is!”

This was after she’d posted “Reductionists, (smh) I wish they could at least admit they are just now getting the iceberg in their sights, rather than claiming to have found any sort of key.”

Alan: Chris, thank you for clarifying. I don’t think that invalidates the discussion of the evolutionary advantage of psychopathy – not yet anyway – so the simplistic references to particular genes in my above comment can simply be replaced with ‘hereditary trait’. In the documentary it mentions (if I remember correctly) Lizzie Borden, a serial killer and I think it says something about there being many other murderers in her family line. This suggests that psychopathy may be hereditary, and unless someone can effectively dispute this I think the question of whether psychopathy/lack of empathy has an evolutionary advantage is still valid

Alan: Erin, I think you will find that plenty of psychopaths have children. From what I can gather they can be very clever at blending in to normal society – take the scientist who presents the research in the documentary. Maybe I am pushing the point too far, but I thought about this when I saw the doc two months ago and convinced myself at the time that lack of empathy can be explained by an ancient survival advantage that gets coded into and played out in our evolution – and no one has yet disabused me of this notion on this thread.

Oh dear, I‘ll have to work harder, I realised. OK:

“Venn diagrams. Overlapping spheres of influence. One “psychopath” with blue eyes. Another with brown. One with SCA, another without. One with an IQ of 150, another with IQ of 80.

“The marine cadets learn to be psychopathic in behaviour, the child sees its parent kill. It’s not “I am a psychopath – I must keep myself blended in until I can do my dastardly act(s)” as psychopath is the label affixed retrospectively by psociety. And would not a family tendency to killing each other be a very non-inherited characteristic!

“On the specific of lack of empathy I would imagine any advantage for this tendency is so recent – such as surviving a visit to a GP surgery(!) – that natural selection is yet to act on that sphere of activity. For a social animal empathy seems essential in a natural environment. That’s so not what we have now.”

Julia: But Alan there are two things that could be argued against this –
1. A warrior is not just ‘ferocity’ – nor are they ‘triggered attackers’ – war, in all the history I have read – from ancient accounts to modern, is about ‘the art of war’ i.e. it is not about the ferocity of force, it is about efficient use of force. It takes deliberation and ideological purpose.
2. There were warriors called Berserkers – but they used a narcotic to induce ferocious violence – but, although the Romans had some in their army – they only ever used them as a moral tactic – no campaign was ever won in Roman history because of ferocious violence. Caesar said wars are won by the ‘spade’ rather than ferocity.
3. The point about imagining a tribe some thousands of years ago having some evolutionary advantage from psychopathic traits, has no meaning from an evolutionary standpoint – since the time frame needs millions of years, and not thousands. If they were so useful, they still would be in recorded history, e.g. Homer, if we include oral traditions written down, which is some thousands of years old and they could be in surviving modern stone age cultures – but it’s demonstrably untrue.

That’s useful – Berserkers maybe analogous to American Marines. And the time scale is the right order, although thousands are fine by me – millions allow significant human evolution. Further clarification in order, tho’ we’re progressing better now. Right:

“Ferocity is not the attribute under discussion. It is a particular lack of remorse and/or empathy which may relate to underproduction of a particular housekeeping enzyme. Ferocity and aggression are par for the course, we’ve all got those, and empathy is actually harder to judge, nowadays, but I hope/reckon it’s still there as I’m sure it always was!

“And no-one says there’s a warrior gene. It does not exist, we’re talking control sequences only (as I wrote up above).

Julia: Alan you ask what, if any, evolutionary advantage do the genetic traits that make up psychopathy have.

As I understand it, this is your primary question – but Alan this means you already accept that psychopathy is entirely and exclusively caused by genetics, and that therefore they ‘must’ have some evolutionary advantage.

1. There is not enough evidence to say that psychopathology is entirely genetic – in the way, say, hair colour is.

2. Not all traits that are inherited are ‘advantageous’ – there are ‘genetic pathologies’ that are just that – pathologies. Williams’ syndrome is one – its traits are not selected because they are ‘advantageous’ as it is the pathological result of genetic mutation.

So, Alan, this question must be answered first – is psychopathy not simply a biological pathology like other biological pathologies, e.g. Williams syndrome?

Good interpretation although I am in need of research into this newly established syndrome, also know as “Elfism”. Also she is close to defining Psychopathy as a specific genetic illness. Anyway:

Alan: Julia, yes, now I understand. I was assuming that psychopathy was caused by genetics. I did admit somewhere in the thread to being almost completely ignorant of genetics in my appeal to Chris to indulge me.
1. OK, accepted.
2. And yes, I was also assuming that inherited traits have had in the past some advantage.
I am grateful to you for unpicking my unstated assumptions.
So now, how to answer the question: is psychopathy not simply a biological pathology like other biological pathologies like Williams’ syndrome?

Alan: Although the ‘not’ in your question implies that you already think that psychopathy IS a biological pathology. And I would guess that Chris agrees with you (didn’t he say something like ‘life is a genetic illness’?)

My turn again. Nearing resolution.

“I did say that, Alan, though it sounds better in context! I also used SCA to support the idea of unexpected outcomes in gene expression. MAOA is even more involved, with benefits and disbenefits and probably a lot we are as yet unaware of.
“Be careful of labelling ANY genetic condition as “simply biological pathology”.”

Then Erin stepped in

Erin: I see the conversation is winding down but since I spent time thinking about this today I’ll share what I came up with. Survival advantages of psychopathy:
1. Keen observation of environment
2. Very difficult to catch them off guard
3. The slightest hints at intricacies in social structure are analyzed
4. Points of weakness tabulated
5. Because of their observation and analysis they are able to adapt into nearly any social environment for a short duration.
6. Charisma – ability to swindle
7. Ability to sow their oats and move on without guilt (obviously I’m speaking of males)
8. Adept at dog eat dog dealings.

I don’t know Alan, it’s kind of scary how many advantages I saw once I started thinking about it. From a lone wolf all the way to a corporate leader the list could get quite long. Although I still have to stretch for the family man/woman!

Alan: So it seems that we are at the point where we can say either that psychopathy is inherited and has continued as a human ‘condition’ because it confers a survival advantage, or that it is just a pathology. My hunch is still the former although I lament my inability to convince anybody but myself – lol

Now hold on Alan. This is not the end yet, because:

“You inherit aspects of your physiology which can in certain circumstances allow “psychopathic” characteristics to be demonstrated. Life patterns and environment can emphasize or intensify this but these patterns can also be induced in more “normal” physiologies (eg marines, Berserkers)

“I think your list is a bit speculative, Erin, although I’m sure that the Occupy movement will have “Psychopath” in their lexicon for describing the Wall Street Criminals!

“You know, Alan, there is no need to make your choice as it is part of the personality spectrum and, as such, neither pathology nor simple deterministic genetic condition. There’s a kind of “no turning back” aspect to one’s development through life and modern society seems to encourage avenues to be taken which promote “psychopathic” tendencies. Perhaps we should look at this aspect more.”

Pause while took Tom to college and chewed over some more. Then:

“Is there a gene for musicianship, is there a gene for sportsmanship, is there a gene for genius? The answer is no, but within the inheritance are features which may assist in such progression. Follow that path and there seems to be positive reinforcement – “habit” even. We should take genetic labelling no further or we become determinista and encourage a New Eugenics.”

Julia: Hear, hear Chris – I whole heartedly concur.

Wow. Was I pleased to get there. Two days of teasing out our brains and I’d got it all saved to edit at leisure. This is the future of journalism. It’s also great evolutionary genetics – in more ways than one, I guess! I knew Erin would come back on my earlier reference, so enjoyed the last tidy up:

Erin: ‎Chris – Yes it’s speculative. I was trying to step into the mind of a psychopath based on what I have read. A simple mind game to sidetrack the logical debate and try to see right to the heart of what Alan was saying. If there are survival advantages, they MAY trickle backwards to genetics in SOME way. Just because genes are not the absolute answer to personality does not mean we should disregard their role completely.

“There’s a kind of “no turning back” aspect to one’s development through life”. Do you really feel this way or am I taking it too far out of context?

“ No, that’s cool, Erin. I love speculation and I love your description, too. Kind of “method discussion”, Marlon Brando style! My thesis is to take genetics off its present day pedestal and remove its accumulated fatalist/determinist streak. Modern use is horribly, yes, reductionist!

“Obviously our genetic programmes are crucial to the fantastic array of physiological functions we constantly run and to maintaining the dynamic equilibria amongst the vast numbers of variables, not least in our relationships with all other organisms we encounter both large and terribly small.

“We’ve all got that system pretty much adequate for all we attempt to do. Not “perfect”, just adequate, sufficient and allowing fuzz and blur, drift. But I’m always in awe at the complexity and beauty of the myriad interactions. Chromosome pairing and duplication then division. And it just does it. Phenomenal.

“ And yes, I do think there’s a strong element of no turning back. Aging, obviously, but habits, skills, thought processes, ways you react, that sort of thing. I think it is quite difficult to unlearn especially if you don’t realise the commitment you’ve made. And your physiology does the same sort of thing.

New words:
1. Determinista – Believers in the cult of pre-ordination. Genetically ordered fatalism. Akin to other theistic adherents.
2. Psociety – overly analysed social structure.
3. smh – Shaking my head.


About greencentre

Non grant supported hence independent scientist, green activist, writer and forest planter.
This entry was posted in Evolutionary genetics and biology, Medical Genetics. Bookmark the permalink.

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