Friday, July 8, 2011

The Evolutionary Roots and Meaning of Flannel

I was walking down the street yesterday afternoon, starting to compose a blog post in my head, when I realized that I often do that -- but when I sit down in front of the computer I draw a blank. I guess that's what you call Writer's Block, and the only remedy I can see is to sit down anyway with a topic in mind and a few links to hand, and dig in. John Kenneth Galbraith used to say that the results were pretty much the same whether he felt like writing or not, and my experience points to the same conclusion.

So: Argggghh. I checked out Robert M. Sapolsky's The Trouble with Testosterone: and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (Scribner, 1997) from the library yesterday. Someone I was arguing with on Facebook claimed that testosterone made men more aggressive than women. (I thought it was the Y chromosome?) I knew that was at best oversimple, and having read Sapolsky's title essay standing up in a bookstore a couple of years ago, I thought it would be a handy reference. But instead of just rereading "The Trouble with Testosterone," I started at the beginning of the book, with the essay "How Big Is Yours?" (Thiiiiiss big!) Which quickly put me in a bad mood.

"How Big Is Yours?" begins with a meditation on "our" treatment of the mentally ill in former years, though Sapolsky admits that while we no longer persecute epileptics "for their presumed bewitchment," "the mentally ill give the rest of us the willies." While we can draw the line between a person and his or her disease in some realms, "in many other realms" we don't do such a good job.
Witness, for example, the Neanderthal bellowing in so many editorials about how John Hinckley was "getting away with it" when he was hospitalized as a schizophrenic rather than being jailed after shooting Reagan. Or contemplate the number of teachers and parents who are not very good at drawing the line between the essence of who a child is and the learning disabilities that impinge on that essence -- and who instead let words like "lazy" or "stupid" creep in.

If many of us are not very good at drawing that line now, that problem is going to get worse. Some astonishing new trends in neuropsychiatry and behavioral biology indicate that the line will shift in directions we never would have guessed. This shift affects much more than our understanding of the biological imperatives that drive a small group of us to monstrous behavior. It also affects how we view the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make each of us a healthy individual [23].
Parenthetically, I wonder how Sapolsky, or anyone else, knows what "the essence of who a child is" ... is. If those learning disabilities are innate, aren't they part of her essence? What is the essence of a person?

Sapolsky goes on to discuss the research on schizophrenia led by the psychiatrist Seymour Kety of Massachusetts General Hospital several decades ago. By examining adoption records "meticulously maintained in Denmark," Kety's team "showed that genetics does in fact increase the likelihood of the disorder" (23). The work entailed interviewing the relatives of schizophrenics in large numbers, and while they weren't schizophrenic themselves,
along the way someone noticed something: a lot of these folks were quirky ... just a bit socially detached and with a train of thought that was sometimes hard to follow when they spoke. ... They believed in strange things and were often overly concerned with magical or fantasy thinking. Nothing certifiably crazy -- belief in some New Age mumbo jumbo or astrology, or perhaps a very literal, fundamentalist belief in biblical miracles. None of these are illnesses. ... Is there a gene for believing in the Force and Obi-Wan Kenobi? Certainly not, but perhaps there's something closer to it than we ever would have imagined [24].
The reader will have perhaps noticed, as I did, something of the snake oil salesman in Sapolsky's style. A fondness for overheated language like "Astonishing." "Directions we never would have guessed." "Closer to it than we ever would have imagined." It's not uncommon in popular science writing.

Anyway, Sapolsky goes on to describe obsessive-compulsive disorder, brain-related disinhibition, such as Tourette's synrome and Huntington's disease, and
People with a type of temporal lobe epilepsy ... tend to be extraordinarily serious, humorless, and rigid in their ways. They tend to be phobic about doing new things, and instead perseverate on old behaviors and tastes, tending to walk to work the same way each day, usually wearing the same types of clothes, ordering the same meal in restaurants. ... Such people also tend to have an intense interest in religion or philosophy [26-7].
He reaches a climax with a report of Simon LeVay's research which found a difference in the size of a part of the hypothalamus between men and women, gays and straights. He admits the force of (some) criticisms of Levay's work, that "the scientific jury is still out" on it, but protests,
suppose his finding turns out to be accurate. And suppose a small interstitial nucleus in a male turns out to be more a cause than a consequence of homosexuality. What will happen when brain imaging techniques improve to the point, as they inevitably will, where we can measure the size of this brain structure in a person? Being gay is not a disease. ... Do we inform adolescents of their nucleus size when they have not yet become sexually active and haven't expressed a sexual preference? What do we do with an openly and happily gay or straight adult whose nucleus is the "wrong" kind? What will we make of nuclei of intermediate sizes? And will the Food and Drug administration move to squelch the predictable festering of quacks flogging their methods of changing nucleus sizes? [30-31]
It's mildly alarming when a scientist (Sapolsky's a Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford) is this dumb. Even if Levay's conclusions had been correct, and they have not been confirmed in attempts to replicate them, you wouldn't be able to tell whether a man is gay or straight simply by looking at his interstitial nucleus. Levay found a range of sizes in his samples within each group; the difference he found was average, not absolute. Remembering that he was working with brains from cadavers, and that there's no way to measure the sexual orientation/preference even of living individuals, some of the "heterosexual" men had smaller interstitial nuclei than some of the "homosexual" men, or even of the women. The fault lies not with Levay's lab work, but with his biological-determinist agenda and his mistaken belief that if homosexuality is proved to be innate, it will be proved to be a benign or even positive trait.

[P.S. I just noticed that Sapolsky made a small but significant mistake in that passage: What do we do with an openly and happily gay or straight adult whose nucleus is the "wrong" kind? The difference LeVay thought he found wasn't between "kinds" of nucleus, but of size: supposedly, if your INAH-3 shrinks too much, or doesn't grow big enough, you'll want to be penetrated by males.  This is a lovely example of a scientist carelessly turning a difference of degree into a difference of kind.]

For that matter, there are problems with Kety's work with schizophrenics. Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin went over Kety's data (which he graciously and properly supplied them) in Not in Our Genes (Pantheon, 1984, 222ff). The problems are statistical, but so are Kety's conclusions; as a statistician, Lewontin is qualified to discuss them. In general, most touted claims of genetic causes -- for schizophrenia, alcoholism, homosexuality -- crumble when someone tries to replicate them, or even looks at them cross-eyed. But the refutations are less well remembered than the original claims, as Sapolsky's use of Kety and Levay shows.

Sapolsky admits the downside of such findings: "In every generation, there will be brownshirts whose biological ideal comes with an Aryan profile, and in every generation there will be some scientists and physicians who will be happy to march into hell with them" (31). This is just a tad Eurocentric, of course. There's no reason why people must idealize the "Aryan"; it could just as easily be Sun People versus Ice People, or noble Israelis versus insectlike Arabs; or the jade-white Han race with its ancient civilization over upstart big-nose redface gwailo. But, no doubt thanks to his neurochemistry, Sapolsky's an optimist: "this new knowledge will be rife with promise as well ... When science teaches us repeatedly that there but for the grace of God go I, when we learn to recognize kinship in neurochemistry, we will have to become compassionate and tolerant, whether looking at an illness, a quirk, or a mere difference" (ibid.). Will we "have to"? There's no reason to think so. There's evidence that scientists and doctors are actually less tolerant of difference than the general population. Maybe it's because the passion for order that draws many people to science goes along with a tendency to intolerance of messy difference.

Though Sapolsky doesn't have temporal lobe epilepsy, he recognizes himself in the syndromes he describes: "At times when I am overworked and anxious, I develop a facial tic and I count stairs as I climb them. I usually wear flannel shirts. In Chinese restaurants I always order broccoli with garlic sauce", and so on. "Yet it is reasonable to assume that there is some sort of continuum of underlying biology here ... Perhaps whatever neurochemical abnormality causes a schizophrenic to believe that voices are proclaiming her the empress of California is the same abnormality that, in a milder form, leads a schizotypal person to believe in mental telepathy" (28-29).

And there's the rub. As with men's interstitial nuclei, you can't tell by noting someone's personality quirks whether they have temporal lobe epilepsy or are just quirky. Labelling certain constellations of quirks as the result of neurochemical disturbance, though, will tend to stigmatize all of them, regardless of their cause. If male homosexuality were associated with smaller interstitial nuclei, genetic markers, or differences in hormonal level, it would become defined by it: anyone, regardless of actual sexual desires or behavior, who showed up on the assays would be diagnosed as homosexual -- which is not a good thing.

I say this, not because I object to studying the biological underlay of human behavior, but because I recognize that there is such an underlay -- it just doesn't explain much. If there turns out to be a neurochemical reason why I tend to eat the same thing in the restaurants I patronize, there will also be a neurochemical reason why other people tend to try everything on the menu, and go to a wide range of restaurants. People who change their outfits regularly and go shopping for new ones as often as possible will be as neurochemically influenced as someone who wears flannel every day; and so on. The "normal" is not the result of moral virtue but is merely the most common neurochemical configuration. Like invoking the supernatural, invoking biological causes for human behavior explains everything, and therefore it explains nothing.

Someone I know on Facebook posted a reference to the evolutionary roots of religion in his status. It occurred to me to ask if anyone is studying the evolutionary roots of science. No one could think of any; indeed the very question seemed to baffle them. But if everything human has evolutionary roots, then science must also. And given its great cultural significance, why is no one, apparently, studying its evolutionary origins and meaning?

Which reminds me of something else. A survey of elite scientists (cited in Julie Des Jardins' The Madame Curie Complex, 124) found them to be a bit socially detached, obsessively wrapped up in a world of their own; I immediately thought of them when I read Sapolsky's description of schizotypics. Could it be that not only believing in magic and fantasy, but being a world-class physicist is (gasp!) the result of neurochemistry?

In his Introduction Sapolsky says that one of the book's essays, "Primate Peekaboo," was written when, "to my embarrassment, I was devoting about ten hours a day to thinking about the O.J. [Simpson] trial," and so it "considers the intense voyeurism that is common to all of us primates" (14). How interesting. I paid hardly any attention to the Simpson case. Am I not a primate, then? One trouble with Sapolsky's type of pop science exposition is that it ignores individual differences and social factors: the corporate media's obsession with Simpson, for example, was based at least in part on his celebrity as a football star among jock-sniffing male reporters, whether or not they covered a sports beat. Does primate voyeurism extend to ten hours' cogitation per day, or was that a quirk of Sapolsky's neurochemistry? As I said, if everything is biology, then everything is biology.