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Sam Smith sings like a dream but he’s as clueless as Nicholas Wade when it comes to genetics

Psychologists speak of “folk psychology” or “folk physics” as the intuitive notions we have about the world, which typically describe some aspects of reality but ultimately are gross oversimplifications.

I encountered a good example of “folk genetics” the other day after following the clickbait link to “22 Things We Learned Hanging Out With Sam Smith”:

1. He wasn’t afraid to speak up for equality at his Catholic school.

“From what I can remember, they believe that you can be homosexual, but you just can’t practice it, which is ridiculous,” he says. “I would just say, ‘I am proof that it’s genetic. It has to be, because it wasn’t a choice.’ And that’s it. That’s my only argument, you know? You love who you love, and I can’t help that I like guys.”

The fallacy, of course, is to think that everything is a choice or is genetic. Just google *identical twins one straight one gay* if you want to learn more. I followed these links myself and found that genetic essentialism on this topic is not restricted the pro-gay side. From the other direction is the homophobic “nooneisborngay.com” that announces “How is it possible that identical twins with identical DNA have different sexual attractions? Simple. No one is born gay. . . . if people are born homosexual, then all identical twin pairs should have identical sexual attractions, 100% of the time . . .” Nope nope nope. A lot can happen between conception and birth!

Anyway, this all gives me some sympathy for the ill-fated genetic essentialism of Nicholas Wade. If a Grammy-winning artist and the savants at nooneisborngay.com can get this wrong, what hope is there for a New York Times science writer?

P.S. It’s still OK to like Sam Smith, right? I think he can’t really be overexposed until his second album comes out. The backlash starts then.

P.P.S. I originally titled this post, “An amusing window into folk genetics.” How boring can you get??? So I retitled as above. Like John Updike, I have difficulty coming up with good titles.

23 Comments

  1. Keith O'Rourke says:

    Just to show off my naive sense of genetics, identical twins have the same genes (letters) but will differ on epi-genetics (punctuation) and many other non-choice biological “determinants” e.g. immune system evolution, bacterial flora, etc.

    Eats, shoots and leaves.

    • Steen says:

      – Epigenetic marks: inherited (according to the strict traditional definition). The interesting epigenetic marks depend mostly on the underlying sequence and mom and dad’s history—I think you would call the rest of the base and histone modifications stochastic variability.

      – Microflora: ideally received in large part from mom at birth. Interacts with genotype.

      A study of the epigenome and/or microbiome and/or antibody repetoire of identical twins discordant for sexual orientation sounds like a surefire way to get a glamor mag publication.

      We can profile immunological exposure history at quite high throughput now: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6239/aaa0698

      • Keith O'Rourke says:

        I do have to be careful with what I (working as a statistician) pick up playing in other people’s backyards.

        My toxicology colleagues told me about a European plant that if eaten will cause genetic changes that result in kidney failure (it used to be in some natural health products) – but not epigenetic by strict traditional definition.

        A group at Columbia or NYU was evaluating the microbiome as a possible system of “finder print” identification – they reported that it does not work very well as only unique in about 1 in 10,000 and it changes over time (my guess is the virome will be more complicated.)

  2. Michael Bailey says:

    The injection of “choice” into this issue has been intellectually retarding. The complement of “genetic” is “environmental” not “chosen.”

    We do not choose our desires. We choose whether to act on them.

    • Jonathan (another one) says:

      We actually have no idea how much we choose, or how much free will we have, or what free will means. That seems a lot more problematic than whether or not we’re born gay.

    • Dan Simpson says:

      I tend to fall into the default position that the “born this way” essentialism serves nominally straight people more than anyone else as it ensures them that any non-heterosexual feeling they have is just a momentary aberration.

      Anyway. Happy Pride!

    • James says:

      The desire to understand these differences as an intellectual curiosity for scientists that may have implications for other types of genetic/environment interactions is perfectly understandable. However, as a civil rights and legal issue, the biology vs. environment discussion is entirely beside the point. Relationship and partnering differences between consenting adults is not a legitimate reason to strip someone of an individual right that has been found to be a Constitutionally protected.

  3. Rahul says:

    A lot can happen between birth & expression too.

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Indeed, a lot can happen between birth and expression. When I wrote, “a lot can happen between conception and birth,” I was responding specifically to the misinformed statement, “if people are born homosexual, then all identical twin pairs should have identical sexual attractions, 100% of the time.”

      • Jacob says:

        This is actually kind of a bad example, since some of the scientists that Nicholas Wade believes (the Ashkenazi intelligence guys, Cochran and Harpending) specifically advance the idea that homosexuality is caused by a pathogen. I think most other people think it’s some kind of autoimmune response, not necessarily pathogen-linked.

        • Andrew says:

          Jacob:

          Sam Smith, Nicholas Wade, and the folks at nooneisborngay.com express their genetic essentialism in different ways. I’d be inclined to attribute these different expressions to some mixture of genes and environment.

  4. MP123 says:

    The risk of developing Type 1 Diabetes is increased by a combinations of HLA genes.

    The risk of developing Type 1 Diabetes is increased by exposure to certain viruses.

    So, is Type 1 Diabetes genetic or not? Often one twin will develop Type 1 Diabetes, while the other does not.

    Who is clueless again?

  5. Dave says:

    “If a Grammy-winning artist and the savants at nooneisborngay.com can get this wrong, what hope is there for a New York Times science writer?”

    This line needs to go straight to Gelman’s “Best of” collection…

    • Steen says:

      +1. There must be some way this can fit in the lexicon. The Sam Smith fallacy? The nooneisborngay.com fallacy?

      Click bait?! That interview was published in a fine print journal: Rolling Stone.

      Liking Sam Smith sounds acceptable, as long as you don’t like that Ed Sheeran fellow too much.

  6. candid_observer says:

    Excuse me, how is Nicholas Wade a “genetic essentialist”, and what is that even supposed to mean?

    I quickly read the link you posted on it, and all I see is some strange argument that Wade shouldn’t be taken seriously because some views held on race in the distant past were wrong. I gather this was supposed to imply that his current views (what those might be is hardly obvious, since so much of what he writes he admits is speculation) will likewise be discarded. Great argument, of course. I guess since science and knowledge progresses, and some beliefs change, we should ignore all current theories. This will be a great boon to scientific education of course due to the elimination of all subject matter.

    Really, your comments in that link were scandalously silly. You make a big stink about the fact that, in the past, there were such distinguished races as “Celtic, Gallic, Teutonic, and Slavic”, and that Italy was considered a race apart from the rest of Europe, yet, in the present, Wade doesn’t assert any such thing. Has it entirely escaped your notice that scientists today actually know vastly more about these matters because of genomic studies? That if Italians are lumped with other Europeans at a certain resolution, than that is done because that is what genomic studies show actually happened? So why pretend that Wade’s view on that particular matter is just one more passing fad?

    I suggest you save your snark for someone you understand.

    • Andrew says:

      Candid:

      As I wrote in my linked review, what Wade is offering is essentially a theory of economic and social inequality, explaining systematic racial differences in prosperity based on a combination of innate traits (“the disinclination to save in tribal societies is linked to a strong propensity for immediate consumption”) and genetic adaptation to political and social institutions (arguing, for example, that generations of centralized rule have effected a selection pressure for Chinese to be accepting of authority).

      As a statistician and political scientist, I see naivete in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior. For example, he writes that declining interest rates in England from the years 1400 to 1850 “indicate that people were becoming less impulsive, more patient, and more willing to save” and attributes this to “the far-reaching genetic consequences” of rich people having more children, on average, than poor people, so that “the values of the upper middle class” were “infused into lower economic classes and throughout society.”

      Similarly, he claims a genetic basis for the declining levels of everyday violence in Europe over the past 500 years and even for “a society-wide shift … toward greater sensibility and more delicate manners.” All this is possible, but it seems to me that these sorts of stories explain too much. The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right. For example, the United States and other countries have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay rights in the past 20 years, a change that certainly can’t be attributed to genes. Given that we can see this sort of change in attitudes so quickly (and, indeed, see large changes in behavior during such time scales; consider for example the changes in the murder rate in New York City during the past 100 years), I am skeptical of Wade’s inclination to come up with a story of genetics and selection pressure whenever a trend happens to be measured over a period of hundreds of years.

      As I also say in my review, Wade may very well be correct in many of his suppositions, but he’s clearly a genetic essentialist. Being a genetic essentialist doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything he says, it’s just how he sees the world. He shares that with Sam Smith.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Perhaps it would be worthwhile to consult what Nicholas Wade wrote about male homosexuality and genetics in the New York Times in 2005?

        “Some researchers believe there is likely to be a genetic component of homosexuality because of its concordance among twins. The occurrence of male homosexuality in both members of a twin pair is 22 percent in nonidentical twins but rises to 52 percent * in identical twins.

        “Gay men have fewer children, meaning that in Darwinian terms, any genetic variant that promotes homosexuality should be quickly eliminated from the population. Dr. Hamer believes that such genes may nevertheless persist because, although in men they reduce the number of descendants, in women they act to increase fertility.”

        So, it would appear that Mr. Wade’s view is that it’s likely both nature and nurture play a role in this, as in much else.

        * By the way, the 52% concordance figure among identical twins comes from an early study by J. Michael Bailey. A later one reduced the concordance considerably.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    The funny thing is that the predictions made by Folk Genetics tend to be more accurate than the predictions made by Academic Cultural Anthropology.

  8. Martin says:

    Is it possible that this has to some degree become a matter of semantics, i.e. that expressins like “genes” have a much broader and less exact meaning than the scientific term? I read that statement above as saying that their is no conscient choice involved when it comes to sexual orientation. However one acquires one’s sexual orientation, the conscient mind does not perceive it as “having become” heterosexual or homosexual, one simply is this or that way. And a common shortcut to refer to this perception is, as I read it here, that it is “genetic.” There is no more reason to argue about this than arguing about the expression “quantum leap” in common parlance, at least in principle. Though I understand that the semantic confusion between these concepts sawn by the likes of Wade need, in Niall Ferguson’s words, clarification. But when somebody like Sam Smith is saying it, I’d not necessarily talk of a fallacy, or at least consider that he is simply using that word differently, and very much in line with common parlance, at that.

    • Andrew says:

      Martin:

      I see your point, and I’m inclined to give Sam Smith the benefit of the doubt in any case, but I don’t think it’s just semantics. Beyond the distinction of genetic vs. inherited, there’s also the idea that if something is genetic it is immutable. Even if Smith did not choose his sexual preference, that does not mean it was already determined at conception or even birth.

      To put it another way, I think it’s worth trying to keep these concepts untangled.

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