Read this before you read another story on epigenetics

At Download the Universe, i09 editor Annalee Newitz critiques a new e-book about epigenetics — the science of how environmental factors can influence genetic expression — and violence. The book makes some pretty terrible (and non-scientific) insinuations about the idea of an inherent propensity towards violence and Newitz does a good job of both taking down the specific book and explaining the nuance behind a complicated topic.


  1. This part is spot-on:

    As any of the scientists he interviewed could have told him — if he’d bothered to ask — Mason is a classic example of somebody whose situation is too overdetermined for us to make any solid claims about her propensity for violence. Is she influenced by a genetic predisposition she inherited, by her own childhood experiences affecting her epigenetically, or by social issues we can’t quantify in the lab like economic difficulties, stress from having children when she was a teenager, or living in a neighborhood with gangs? We can’t possibly know without studying her brain intensively, and even then the answers would be extremely murky.

    But this part seems to have no bearing on the quality of the reasoning.  It’s attacking conclusions and superficial features of the arguments, rather than the underlying logic:

    Instead, Johnson devotes an incredible amount of time to a voyeuristic look inside Mason’s life, which he reduces to a series of bullet holes, homicidal men, and children who are already in trouble with the police. This story does not humanize Mason; it objectifies her, and reifies the notion that there are some communities where crime is being bred into the next generation because of child abuse.

    And this part seems like a textbook case of the strawman fallacy:

    You know, like maybe we’ll tackle it by going to the poor areas of Oakland and giving everybody there forced gene therapy?

  2. The problem is that by providing a compelling, but ultimately false, narrative, it’s quite likely that the narrative will be the take-away, rather than what is an interesting, but somewhat less compelling, set of facts from the rest of the article.

    We humans desperately want to hear that epigenetics are either entirely responsible or not at all responsible for these social problems.  Unfortunately, the data seems to indicate that they’re probably a contributing factor, which is interesting, but not all that compelling as a narrative.

    The author seems to be trying to have it both ways: facts which are accurate, but don’t claim all that much, and then so as to actually excite the readers, a narrative, from which it’s quite natural to derive the idea that epigenetics are hugely important.

    It’s easy to understand why the author did so, but it’s quite right for Ms. Newitz to call him out for doing so.

  3. Hi, Bobbie from MATTER here. We take issue with this characterisation and the review that’s linked, which is based around a series of incorrect assumptions and factual errors, as well as casual accusations of racism that we obviously reject. I’ve responded to the original review on Download The Universe:

    We have a more detailed response in the works.

    When I contacted Maggie to offer some context to this post, she explained she hadn’t read the original e-book and was just working off Annalee’s review. But since this post hasn’t been amended, I would point out just *one* of the several sections in the story that run counter to the unjustified claim that we “make some terrible (and non-scientific) insinuations about the idea of an inherent propensity towards violence”. 


    “But we should be concerned whenever simple labels are proposed for complex problems. Even though epigenetics may be part of the reason why people abuse drugs or turn to crime, it almost certainly can’t explain the detailed trajectory of a person’s life, or their ability — or inability — to change its course. Yet if the field continues to attract attention, some scientists will claim that it can, just as some eugenicists claimed that genetics could explain criminality.”

    There are many other passages that I could have included, but hopefully you get the idea. You can understand it’s pretty frustrating that what we actually published has been ignored in favour of what people want to think we published.

    1. I’ve re-read the article a second time, and I understand the frustration, and indeed there are the caveats there.  My apologies for my attack on the author.

      However, I do think that that the original problem remains.  I strongly suspect that a significant fraction of readers will come away with “they’re doomed by genetics” (or epigenetics in this case), essentially absolving the reader of any moral responsibility for attempting to address the problem.  It’s almost certainly that determinism that I was reacting to, and perhaps it’s what Ms. Newitz was reacting to as well.

      I’ll say for me, it was the certainty and determinism in the presentation of the original mice experiments combined with a sense of inevitable disaster in the narrative that combined to
      basically overrode the several caveats that were placed afterward.  However, I’ll add that I’m not certain it’s even *possible* to address the issue of epigenetics while making a compelling article.

      It reminds me of the Larry Summers controversy – his stated facts were quite possibly accurate.  However, it didn’t matter, as any defense of skewed male/female ratios would (and was!) taken as the “President of Harvard says women can’t do science”.  His actual words were irrelevant.  In this article, the caveats are essentially irrelevant if the general structure of the article dictates that the reader take-away is determinism.  And as a writer, it’s the effect of the words on the reader, not the actual words themselves for which the writer must take responsibility.

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