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Links With Your Coffee - Monday

The right loves genetic explanations for poverty or mental illness. But science fingers society

When the map of the human genome was presented to the world in 2001, psychiatrists had high hopes for it. Itemising all our genes would surely provide molecular evidence that the main cause of mental illness was genetic - something psychiatrists had long believed. Drug companies were wetting their lips at the prospect of massive profits from unique potions for every idiosyncrasy.

But a decade later, unnoticed by the media, the human genome project has not delivered what the psychiatrists hoped: we now know that genes play little part in why one sibling, social class or ethnic group is more likely to suffer mental health problems than another.

This result had been predicted by Craig Venter, one of the key researchers on the project. When the map was published, he said that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them. "Our environments are critical," he concluded. And, after only a few years of extensive genome searching, even the most convinced geneticists began to publicly admit that there are no individual genes for the vast majority of mental health problems. In 2009 Professor Robert Plomin, a leading behavioural geneticist, wrote that the evidence had proved that "genetic effects are much smaller than previously considered: the largest effects account for only 1% of quantitative traits". However, he believed that all was not lost. Complex combinations of genes might hold the key. So far, this has not been shown, nor is it likely to be.

In 2004, America's multinational corporations offered Congress a deal: They would repatriate hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign profits -- to invest in new plants and create new jobs at home -- in exchange for a break from the 35 percent corporate tax rate imposed on overseas profits when they are brought into the country. Editorial Series

A Republican-controlled Congress leapt at it, passing the Homeland Investment Act, which allowed companies to repatriate some $300 billion in 2005 and pay only 5.25 percent in taxes. As for all of those promised factories and jobs, they did not materialize. Research by three prominent economists, including Kristin Forbes, a former top economic adviser to President George W. Bush, found that between 60 and 92 cents of every dollar brought home found its way into shareholders' pockets.

-An ungodly row: Dawkins sues his disciple (Oh Josh)

Josh Timonen was one of a small coterie of young protégés around Richard Dawkins, sharing his boss's zealous atheism. But now he and the evolutionary theorist have fallen out spectacularly. Professor Dawkins's charity has accused Mr Timonen of embezzling hundreds of thousands of pounds.



IIRC Josh has commented here before right Norm? I signed up and commented on the RDF forums when it started out but it wasn't really my cup of tea and stopped going there, but the regulars there seem to really dislike the guy. The accounts from people who were there when the forum crap went down are pretty much unanimous. Of course it doesn't mean he's guilty though.

re: the dawkins/timonen row:

allow me to direct your attention to this, my first (there may have been another, i'm not sure) direct conversation with timonen, right here on this blog, back in '07, about the atheist "A" t-shirts. it just happened to involve accusations of intellectual theft (on my part, light-hearted and non-serious) and what i thought was his over the top, lawyerly, super defensive response to my "accusations/implications". fwiw:

btw, for those who don't feel like reading the entire thread: here's norm's reply to my implication that "not for profit" organizations are often, if not usually, not "as advertised":

At the very least you could acknowledge that the 'business' is not for profit, and the goals are outlined here

the "here" was a link to a "mission statement" sort of thing which i don't know if they ever got straightened out but it certainly wasn't at the time. norm's credulity at the time amazed me and i'm here to say (in the most friendly manner possible, i hope) that "i told you so". and furthermore, josh's character is in full view on this thread and he never fooled me for a moment. the line between "ideologue" and "oppurtunist" can be very unclear to the inexperienced. i do not consider myself among this group (of the inexperienced).

While there is no question Josh was an opportunist, it doesn't necessarily follow that he would be dishonest. That also hinges on whether the charges turn out to be true. And yes I suspect they probably will, though I'll reserve final judgment for a while.

All businesses non-profit or not is subject to our human nature. I suppose the difference between you and I is that I give folks the benefit of the doubt going in and let there actions speak. You apparently assume that the glass is half empty. If it will fill your glass a little you can have your I told you so.

Oh, and although I don't recall the details Josh credits me with putting him in touch with Dawkins, should I feel guilty.

I suppose the difference between you and I is that I give folks the benefit of the doubt going in and let there actions speak.

i think, if you read the whole thread in context, you'll see i gave him the full "benefit of the doubt" (a jewish legal commandment, btw) and reassured him (he seemed to need reassurance) that i wasn't after his money. furthermore i never accused him of being dishonest. it was, rather, his apparent honesty that made me suspicious of his motives. he just seemed too "legally sensitive" for an otherwise casual (including me admitting i was wrecked at the time) blog exchange.

his "dishonesty" as a theif remains to be proven or disproven. i am here merely as a character witness. :)

Let me correct my own grammar, it's the difference between you and me.

Sensitivity to questions about honesty may very well be a sign that there is something to worry about, but that's not the only plausible reason. No one enjoys having their honesty called into question even indirectly.

i don't understand what you're trying to say. like i said, i never called his honesty into question. his defensiveness was not in reaction to any accusation against him of dishonesty on my part. i accused him of being disingenuous, not dishonest. hairsplitting, you might say. fair enough. but hairs can be split, and sometimes it makes a lot of difference. and why are you trying to defend him based on the "anyone would have been insulted" argument? there was a real issue there, it wasn't a simple insult. i certainly didn't intend it that way.

Hair-splitting indeed, the accusation is not being disingenuous a form of dishonesty? I don't know what percentage of individuals in business are dishonest to the extent he is accused of but would guess it's less than 10%. I think most would consider being accused of being disingenuous an insult, whether simple or not I don't know what that means. I think your I told you so, was as much luck as some deep insight, or perhaps I'm just jealous of your god-like ability :)

You guys haven't changed at all in three years.

neither luck nor deep insight nor "godlike ability". i've always been a good judge of character and this includes the written word. i get it from my mom, who could (and would, forcefully) tell you if a person she had just met was a decent sort within about 20 seconds. (this, of course, made my life hell as a teenager.) it takes me more like 5 minutes, or an internet exchange of some minor depth, but i can do it too. this doesn't make me lucky (i wish it did) or deeply insightful or godlike. and i'm wrong sometimes, too, like my mom was. let's hope i was wrong about mr. timonen, who certainly contributed greatly to the popularity of the dawkins blog/organization.

if i had judged your character based only on some of the things you were writing about israel when i first came to this blog, i wouldn't be here. but i saw something real, and searching, and a genuine concern for justice beneath the bluster and i went with my instincts there. you may still hate israel and all it stands for, and use inflammatory language now and then, but you are not an anti-semite and i saw this right away, and therefore decided you were worth talking to, in spite of our many (continuing) disagreements. also: your blog was my introduction to the internet, full stop, and i will always be grateful for your "letting me in" in spite of my mostly contentious (and often purely obnoxious) early attempts at commenting. you could have dismissed me as a troll, or one of those "i support israel no matter what they do" people, but you didn't. proving that you too have some good character judgement skills.

I'll bet you have your mother's eyes too, don't you?

from the formal complaint:

  1. On July 15, 2010, Defendants’ lawyer, Alan Abrams, Esq., sent an email to Plaintiffs’ litigation counsel suggesting that “the RDF website (which . . . was created by Mr. Timonen) . . ., merchandise using the RDF logo created by Mr. Timonen, and audio-visual and musical materials created and produced by Mr. Timonen” are all “Mr. Timonen’s intellectual property rights” which have not been transferred or assigned to RDFRS or Professor Dawkins.

The "genes are leftwing" article strikes me as quite superficial and unsupported.

I mean, for one, the "nature vs. nurture" thing was never a good debate to begin with. Some diseases are definitely genetically determined (Huntington's chorea), some are definitely traceable to specific trauma (traumatic brain injury, PTSD), and some are fuzzier, may require a combination of factors, and may have different causes in different cases (ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, psychopathy, depression). So the question has different answers in different cases. And such discussions frequently ignore environmental biological influences (prenatal environment, drugs/poisons, malnutrition) or chalk them up as being on whatever side will support the writer's stance.

This also applies, IMO, to non-disease traits, such as personality traits (extroversion, openness, sexual orientation) and talents (athleticism, intelligence).

The other problem with this article is that it focuses a lot on whether or not specific genes have effects. But the heritability of certain traits can often be assessed by twin/adoption studies, without uncovering specific mechanisms. We don't need to identify specific genes to see that height or eye color are strongly heritable. To claim "none of the genetic influences we understand so far explain X, therefore X is not influenced by genes" is at best an argument from ignorance, and at worst demonstrably false.

I also don't see why this should be a political issue. I don't think it's likely that poor people have a radically different gene pool (in fact, I think works like The Bell Curve are horrendously overblown), but even if they did, that wouldn't mean that they deserve to live in severe poverty. (How exactly could one "deserve" low intelligence or schizophrenia anyway?)

Nor would it commit people to some kind of straw-man "biological determinism". Different environments can cause the same genotype to lead to different phenotypes. New gene combinations can result in offspring that are not like their parents. And in developed countries there are no strict castes ruling out social mobility (and the associated mixing of people of different backgrounds). It's ridiculous on the face of it that any social class could not have healthy and talented offspring. So it's not like recognizing a genetic influence prevents you from addressing environmental obstacles and injustices.

In fact, sometimes genetics is the more humane explanation for a trait anyway. What parent would want to be responsible for their child's chronic depression or learning disability? Hasn't it been beneficial for gay rights that being gay is less and less regarded as a choice or the outcome of trauma?

Of course, this has no bearing on whether or not any trait is actually caused by any particular thing. But it does mean that the left doesn't have to roll over and die if there turns out to be a genetic contribution to social inequality.

if i had judged your character based only on some of the things you were writing about israel when i first came to this blog, i wouldn't be here. but i saw something real, and searching, and a genuine concern for justice beneath the bluster and i went with my instincts there.

Well stated. I do think that jonathan is a good judge of character. He smelled a rat with Josh. He may have felt that his instincts were wrong perhaps, but he could not avoid that smell of stinky rat. Perhaps fellow atheists were more blind to it for obvious reasons. Jonathan is not an atheist, and yet he not a believer of God. I think that he enjoys challenging people on their beliefs... well maybe... Our discussions re Cro Magnon man leads me to believe that he might be an "intelligent design" kind of guy..


bottom line is that he looks deep into the heart of the responses of fellow bloggers and responds accordingly.

I no doubt embarrassed jonathan and this response is too touchy feely.. but.. oh well

you may consider me thouroughly embarassed. regarding being "right" on a character judgement call, i did smell a rat, but i reserved judgement then and i still do. the one incontrovertable thing that happened there for all to see (nothing to do with me being "right") again, is that i stated an idea about how the t-shirts should be marketed, and timonen, later in the same thread, restated what i had said with no mention of me, as if it had been his idea. it wasn't the kind of idea that could be litigous, i don't think, but it looked to me like "intellectual theft", for all to see, on the public forum of norms blog. i don't care if he used the idea or not, or got it from me or not. his handling of the matter was "unmenschlike". his legalistically minded defensiveness also seemed strangely out of place and yes, it smelled funny to me.

I had a copy/paste statement from the plaintiff's complaint up above which demonstrates that Josh is wanting to make money from his design ideas for the Richard Dawkings not-for-profit group. Jonathan had a suspician, based upon Josh's responses, that he was more of a practical businessman than an idealogue. Turns out that jonathan was right. At least give him credit for that. Good luck? perhaps, but he was right.

Jonathan may have been right - but when I went back to the thread he referenced, all that came through clearly was he was wasted. We could all be forgiven for having missed his "wisdom".

His wisdom might have been Dr Fell syndrome

Anyway, I'll give credit where credit is do.

BTW JoAnn,

In most contexts, most guys would rather be considered to be practical businessmen than idealogues. Of course, you may have meant idealist... :)

I meant idealogue ;)

: an impractical idealist : theorist

2: an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology

Yes - I know what it means (surely you know that I'd check anyway before needling you about it). But now I really am confused...

The point that jonathan was attempting to make was that Josh was pushing those ridiculous A t-shirts more because of making a buck than reasons of being an idealist wanting to change the world.

...being an idealist ...

Just as I surmised, you stinker! You could have just done me the honor of accusing me of pedantry!

accused.. well! I happen to have a particular soft spot for pedants in some circumstances. Our local pedantasaurus, for example, I am rather fond of, notwithstanding my prior rant on another thread about the beauty of language blah blah blah.. ;)

Jonathan had a suspician, based upon Josh's responses, that he was more of a practical businessman than an idealogue.

i don't want to beat a dead horse here, but i feel i'm being misinterpreted. i don't think there's anything wrong with being a "practical businissman" and never said that, and i don't think you can't be one and also be an ideologue. in fact they often go together quite nicely. the question comes down to "are you an HONEST businessman (practical or not). a not for profit business is still a business, and there's nothing wrong with selling t-shirts or whatever. the question is ALWAYS "is the money going where it's supposed to go?"


That horse is deader than Madame La Marquise's mare

Apropos of nothing in this thread except your posting, JoAnn, have you heard this?

No I had never heard that. Thanks.

And you could do me the courtesy of spelling my name correctly. Love you too, JoAnn.

I tend to think of you at times like a kindly dinosaur, pedantasaurux rex, what with using phrases such as "And you could do me the courtesy of..". I shall not, however, never again break this infraction.

Love, Jo Ann

Very interesting ... I seem to recall a few of my students seeing me as some kind of a dinosaur, but not necessarily kindly. It's good to live in the past sometimes.

Why genes are leftwing that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them.

I hate to bring up a touchy subject but thinking about this a day later. Doesn't this mean that one is likely not born gay?

A rather right wing idea?

When I posted a link to the article, I had some reservations, namely the mixing of politics and science always a bad idea, but after spending some time discussing it with my son and reading some comments here that it was pretty much bunk.

My son wrote:

The reporter seems to be relying on information from behavioral genetics. The concept being used is "heritability" but this is a technical concept that can be misleading. It is a purely statistical concept. Depending on your frame of reference a trait's having low heritability in this technical sense is not necessarily evidence that genes don't play an important role in explaining the its origins. Also, the following line is ridiculous. "When the map was published, he said that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them." This operates on the assumption that there is a one-to-one relation between genes and traits. Genes can catalyze cascading events producing multiple effects. 25,000 genes is plenty. Finally, I don't like the political association between environmental explanations being left wing and genetic explanations being right-wing. We may as well say that steady state cosmology was right wing and expansion cosmology was left wing and the lefties one. Its absurd. Lets keep politics out of science as much as possible.


I think his facts are interesting but his conclusions rather dubious.

The facts somewher refute the common cause common cure "disease" model of mental illness but even then that seems to be an open question.

But the political assumptions just don't fit neatly with the findings.

Depending on your frame of reference a trait's having low heritability in this technical sense is not necessarily evidence that genes don't play an important role in explaining the its origins

Brings to mind dominant and recessive traits.


grey, green, hazel, blue eyes color blindness blonde, light, red hair

etc... the list is interesting.

Also brings to mind recessive genes

Remember that for most genes, you have two copies of each gene that you inherited from your mother and your father. Each copy of the gene could be different. For example one copy may give you blue eyes while another may give you brown.

So, what color are your eyes if you have both the brown and blue eye version of the eye color gene? Brown. This is where the idea of dominant and recessive comes in. Dominant means that one of the versions trumps the other. In our example here, brown is dominant over blue so you end up with brown eyes.

This line of reasoning also brings to mind chaos theory

Chaos theory is a field of study in mathematics, physics, economics, and philosophy studying the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. This sensitivity is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[3] This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos.

Chaotic behavior can be observed in many natural systems, such as the weather.[4] Explanation of such behavior may be sought through analysis of a chaotic mathematical model, or through analytical techniques such as recurrence plots and Poincaré maps.

re: genes

Researchers Find a 'Liberal Gene'

ScienceDaily (Oct. 28, 2010) — Liberals may owe their political outlook partly to their genetic make-up, according to new research from the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University.


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