Love of Shopping is Not a Gene: exposing junk science and ideology in Darwinian Psychology

Anne Innis Dagg's "Love of Shopping" is Not a Gene is a scathing, entertaining and extremely accessible geneticist's critique of "Darwinian Psychology" — that is, the "science" of ascribing human behavior to genetic inevitability. Dagg, a biologist/geneticist at the University of Waterloo, identifies Darwinian Psychology as a nexus of ideological pseudoscience cooked to justify political agendas about the inevitability of social inequality, especially racial and sexual inequality.

One after another, Dagg examines the cherished shibboleths of Darwinian Psychology, examining the research offered in support of such statements as "Rape is genetic" or "Black people are genetically destined to have lower IQ scores than white people" and demolishes each statement by subjecting it to scientific rigor, including an examination of all the contradictory evidence ignored by proponents.

Dagg opens the book with what seems to be an issue of personal affront: the story that "many" animals practice infanticide as a means of eliminating the genetic competition. This claim originates in part with Craig Packer, who seemingly lost his head when Dagg dared to point out that the overall data suggested that lionesses, not lions, were apt to kill cubs, and not cubs born to other lionesses, but their own progeny, to give the remaining offspring a better chance of survival. When Packer was sent a paper to review, he sent Dagg a threatening note promising to go public with a "harsh" characterization of her as a "fringe scientist" with a "bizarre obsession." Meanwhile, Dagg's investigation of the references cited in support of infanticide among other animals, especially primates, finds them to be just as specious as the claims of infanticide among lions.

Dagg uses this incident as a springboard to consider the ideological baggage that accompanies claims from Darwinian Psychology: claims about the inevitability of war, the natural subservience of women, the ordained inferiority of visible minorities, and concludes that challenges to Darwinian Psychology are met with such virulence because DP's claims offer comforting, ethical absolution for greed and violence.
Undermining this comfort is a dangerous business.

For example, take the claims about the "natural" emergence of male-dominated hierarchies in other primates: at first, baboons were held to be the poster primates for the inevitability of bosses (especially male bosses). Chimps — much closer to humans — were ignored, because the research at the time suggested that chimps didn't organize in hierarchical structures. Then, as baboons were shown to have a largely matriarchal structure, they were abandoned in favor of chimps, just lately "discovered" to have a male-dominated hierarchical system. Likewise sheep — where the intimidating ram is ignored in favor of the oldest ewe, not to mention the matriarchal lions.

Dagg moves through genetic pseudo-science for inherent "criminality" and the shameful history of this kind of "scientific policing" and then on to the claims for a "rape gene." Here is where Dagg's genetics background allows her to make mincemeat of the Darwinian Psych crowd (whose number includes few actual geneticists): in a discussion of how the mechanics of a "rape gene" would work — that is, the mechanism by which such a gene could be passed on to sons — Dagg shows the general nonsensical nature of this sort of claim.

Dagg also does a good job with the IQ-and-race crowd, first by demolishing their research methodologies (using non-normed IQ tests against varying populations from varying backgrounds) and then by showing that their flawed hypotheses about cranial capacity's relationship to intelligence is not borne out by evidence, as many "brilliant" men's brains have been found to be of sub-normal weight after death, and showing that environmental factors produce much wider differences in IQ than does cranial capacity. (She also describes just how bad the cranial capacity data cited in support of this hypothesis is, dating back a century to phrenologists and racist doctors, ignoring modern, comprehensive studies that show no appreciable "racial" difference in cranial capacity).

The book goes on in this vein for 200-some very entertaining pages. As a debunking of pseudo-science, this is very masterful; but it is even better as a piece of social criticism, a look at exactly why Darwinian Psychology has found such a receptive audience among ideologues, particularly from the right. Anne Dagg was my advisor during my brief tenure as a student in Waterloo's Independent Studies program, and oversaw my work on genetic algorithms. She is now my colleague (I'm a "Scholar in Virtual Residence" at IS) and I was delighted to get a signed copy of Love of Shopping from her the last time I dropped in on the department.

"Love of Shopping" is Not a Gene: Problems With Darwinian Psychology