The pith: there are differences between populations on genes which result in “novelty seeking.” These differences can be traced to migration out of Africa, and can’t be explained as an artifact of random genetic drift.
I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the headline “Out of Africa migration selected novelty-seeking genes”, I was a little worried. My immediate assumption was that a new paper on correlations between dopamine receptor genes, behavior genetics, and geographical variation had some out. I was right! But my worry was motivated by the fact that this would just be another in a long line of research which pushed the same result without adding anything new to the body of evidence. Let me be clear: there are decades of very robust evidence that much of the variation in human behavior we see around us is heritable. That the variation in our psychological dispositions, from intelligence to schizophrenia, is substantially explained by who our biological parents are. This is clear when you look at adoption studies which show a strong concordance between biological parents and biological children on many metrics as adults, as opposed ...
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I’m going to promote a comment:
…would knowing the root biological cause for differences which are already apparent to us change anything?
It’s obvious to you that there’s a contradiction here, but to the average educated person this makes total sense.
The proximal reason seems to be that in thinking about “genetic” and “environmental” factors, the average educated person still fundamentally views “genetics” as equivalent to genetic determinism and “environmental” factors as equivalent to social norms or parenting tactics. In this black-and-white view of human development, quantitative distinctions and complex causal models have no place. Genetic causes are irremediable and ever-lasting, whereas environmental causes are a generation-away from disappearing with the right appropriations to social programs. That’s why an environmental cause for phenotypic differences doesn’t “count” but a genetic one is game changing.
It seems as if the nature-nurture world view painted in the 1970s by the anti-heredity crowd has remained largely intact with only minor modifications in the mind of the average educated person. Since the 1970s, they now know to respond to questions about nature-vs-nurture by saying “both”, but their understanding goes no deeper than that. As best as I can ...
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Dr. Daniel MacArthur points to a long article by Edmund Yong, Dangerous DNA: The truth about the ‘warrior gene’. Dr. MacArthur notes on his twitter account: “Nice piece on behavioural genetics…but should emphasize MOST behav. gene assocs are actually false.” I think he’s pointing to the winner’s curse; there are lots of people studying various topics, but only a subset of studies pass which yield appropriate effect sizes and p-values actually get published. A sequence of such may give a false sense of certitude as to the strength of the association between a locus and a trait, as negative results are not usually published. I hope David Dobbs keeps this in mind in relation to his new book on the ‘orchid hypothesis’. We have decades of research which suggest that a lot of human behavior is due to variation in genes within the population. In other words, many psychological traits and predispositions are heritable. But both the earlier linkage studies and now the associations which try and establish a particular gene as the primary causal factor are much more provisional, and like much of science wrong or ultimately of marginal long term value.
The incredible amount of press which genetics and genomics research with behavioral implications receive in the press is more about our psychology than the state of science as it is now. Similarly, consider the enormous swell of neuroimaging research within the past decade. Both genetics and neuroscience offer up the possibility of establishing a sturdier biophysical grounding for the human sciences, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Finally, the fact that we know that psychological traits are heritable is useful in and of itself, whether we know the underlying genetic architecture of the trait or the neurobiology mediating between the genetic and behavioral level. Look to the parents, and you shall know a great deal.
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