The Fallacy Of Ignoring Genetics
By David Metcalfe
February 23, 2020
Like Father, Like Son: The Dual Influence of Agency and Environment
My brother recently started working for “Frito Lay Chips” last summer, after a string of construction and landscaping jobs. It’s what you might describe as his first “real job”- full time hours, a company truck, pension plan, health benefits, vacation days, etc. It will likely be his career.
Now, did he decide on working for “Frito Lay Chips” completely independently, through his own reasoning? Did he think to himself, “that is the best possible job to do for x reasons, so I will apply for it”? Well, he could make that argument. He could say, “these were the jobs I was doing, here’s what my options were, and this was the best one. I used my own objective reasoning to arrive at this career.”
But here’s the thing: I know my brother’s upbringing (it’s basically the same as mine). Our dad worked for “Frito Lay Chips” the entire time we were growing up. As kids, when dad got too busy, we would go help him, and he’d give us a small amount of money. We grew up in the “chip business”.
Do you think it’s possible that growing up in the “chip business” is what caused my brother to arrive at the career he has?
Well, I’m not in the chip business. I also worked with my dad just as much, and grew up in the same environment. But that sort of work was never something I took to. For my brother, it was. My brother also didn’t originally intend to work in the chip business. He had been apprenticing for carpentry, but he ended up not liking the work.
But out of the millions of potential jobs, and thousands of different delivery sales jobs, and several different chip companies, he just so happened to work for the exact same one as my dad. Coincidence? I think not. It was something he knew; something he had been around all his life. In fact, it was a huge help to his application to mention that his dad had worked for the company for 26 years, and that he had helped on many occasions. He was also able to get a reference from a star employee for the company, who my dad was good friends with.
Now tell me this: if you knew nothing of my brother’s history, and only his present decision making, would you have a full understanding of his resulting career? Absolutely not! There is no doubt that his upbringing had a direct affect on his decision.
A Few More Genetic Influences
There are many more personal examples like this:
Do I speak English because I objectively evaluated all the languages and decided that English is the best one? Does growing up in an English speaking area have something to do with it?
Am I an Edmonton Oilers fan because I objectively decided that they are the best team, completely independently of my upbringing? Does growing up in Edmonton area in a hockey obsessed town have anything to do with it?
Did I play basketball for 6 years because I logically evaluated all the sports and decided that basketball is the best one? Did the fact that basketball was the only sport at my school have anything to do with it?
We also know of many examples in contemporary medical and social science. Doctors are always interested to know what kinds of past medical conditions your family has had. Why? Because it increases your likelihood of getting it yourself. It’s not the same as a diagnosis- you may avoid it- but it does increase your chances. Sociologists find that people who come from families where one of the parents went to jail increases the chances of the child someday going to jail massively (I’ve read as high as 18x, according to one study!). Psychologists find that certain mental health issues have a high degree of heritability- some conditions have an 80% genetic correlation!
This is to say- your upbringing does not determine everything about you- but it determines a lot. My dad was a chip man, and my brother is too, but I’m not- I still had agency to choose differently. All the men in your family may have died from a heart attack, but if you eat healthy and exercise, you may avoid it. Your parents might have gone to jail, but you can choose to follow the law when you grow up. There is agency, sure. But we can’t ignore the genetic origins to it. It’s somewhere in this balance that we recognize both the influence of our individual agency and the social environment we are situated in as to what results come about in our lives.
Does Environment Affect Our Beliefs?
The genetic component to our beliefs is important to recognize as an influential factor, even for those who believe they are so rational as to be above it. I personally have come to appreciate this more in my own understanding of things. Would I believe democracy was a good thing if I lived in 12th century England? Would I believe that Jesus died for my sins if I was born in 1950 Saudi Arabia? Would I believe that E=mc2 if I was born 5,000 years ago?
You may say, “but what if you were born in 12th century England, but you were able to hear about democracy somehow, and you reasoned through it and realized it would be great?” or “but what if you were born in 1950 Saudi Arabia, and you somehow heard about Christianity and you secretly studied it?”. This highlights another aspect of forming belief- availability and access to evidence. There would be no one in 12th century England who believed in democracy, and if there were, we would have virtually zero large scale examples in modern society to prove its efficacy. There would be no Christians in 1950 Saudi Arabia, and even if there were, I would not have access to resources to study it, or would be easily dissuaded from doing so by the government. “E=mc2” knowledge is something that is very time relevant; how could I possibly know that unless Einstein had figured it out?
Our social environment influences our beliefs in a huge number of ways: what we learn, what information we have access to, what opportunities we have, what relationships we build, etc. There is no way to completely escape it.
Now, you may say, “but we have access to all knowledge because we are in a free society with internet and access to all sorts of books”. That still falls into the problem of time relevance, for one, but it also highlights the unfortunate nature of the infinite nature of evidence. For example, there are 49.7 million articles on Wikipedia. If you were able to read each one in one minute, it would take you 94.6 years of straight reading to get through them all. And Wikipedia is just short summaries, and hardly does justice to any topic in its entirety! There is too much information for us to think that we can know everything on a topic. Without the completeness of evidence, both due to time and mental limitation, there is no way of knowing if there is more information out there that could contradict your beliefs.
Relationships are also huge. I’ve never met anyone with political or religious beliefs who hasn’t had some kind of relational connection with an individual who espouses those beliefs. It solidifies and directs our beliefs. If you are married to a conservative, for example, you’re more likely to remain conservative, due to the influence they have on you, your motivation to remain in agreement on important issues, and your positive psychological association of them and their beliefs causing you to view the beliefs more positively, among other things.
Is This A Genetic Fallacy?
The “genetic fallacy” is a fallacy of irrelevance. It’s a misattribution. It’s saying that something can be completely defined by its origins, when in reality, its origins are totally irrelevant. Are doctors committing the genetic fallacy when they ask for your medical history to determine what conditions you might be at risk for? Of course not! The reason is because the genetics are relevant. The question of the genetic fallacy is not whether or not you are assessing the likelihood of truth of something by its origin, but whether or not it is actually an influential factor or not.
We can clearly see that our careers, our language, our favourite sports teams, our health, our religion, our political ideas, etc. all have relevance in the social environment in which we were raised in and exist in today.
The real fallacy, in this case, would actually be to ignore the genetic influence. It would be for a doctor to say, “I don’t care about your medical history, because it’s not relevant. The only things that affect your health are what you choose to do.” Or it would be for us to say, “My birth place and time and social environment had no influence on me, and continues to have no influence on me today. I am a logic machine who is independent of all that.” No, no one is a completely independent logic machine. So many things influence us, and the important thing, in understanding our own beliefs and the beliefs of others, is to appreciate that fact.
What Should We Do In Light Of This?
But people like to believe that they are correct, and telling them that they may have cognitive limitations to achieving absolute truth will not bode well with them. Appreciating the genetic components of our lives and beliefs takes humility, the ability to entertain the thought that you may be incorrect about some things, and ultimately, that other people may have contradictory opinions that are just as valid as yours.
This does not mean that pursuing truth is now irrelevant. That would be like saying that I have to be a chip man just because my dad was a chip man, or a social worker telling a child that they will definitely go to prison just because their parent did. We still have agency, and if we work at it, we can advance our knowledge greatly, and approximate truth to a much greater extent. That’s like a doctor saying, “you have increased risk of heart disease because of your parents. But you can mitigate or even avoid the effects if you eat very healthy and exercise lots!”. The heart disease risk and its effects are impossible to be totally rid of, but it doesn’t need to define you.
In the same way, whether we are born into a Muslim or Christian family, in a conservative or liberal area of the country, have relationships with certain people with certain views and so on, there is no way to completely separate ourselves from it, but we don’t have to let it define us. We get to have our own views. And those views can have greater or lesser accuracy. Determining which are the more or less accurate is the pursuit of truth that we can all take part in- through reason and evidence as best as we can attain it. It’s a pursuit that never gets totally solved, but nevertheless yields great rewards along the way.