Steven Pinker’s new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is out, and the reception reminds me of an album release from a trendy band during the 1990’s. I must beg my readers’ forgiveness for writing this very preliminary review for a book that I have not finished because the subject matter is so important. Most reviews and buzz for this book center on Pinker’s observations about the decline of violence and the advance of enlightened views. Pinker has been speaking about this phenomenon for years, and many facets of it are apparent in my own lifetime, such as the utter metamorphosis of public consensus regarding homosexuality. The book has a number of fascinating graphs that speak to the changes, and I have little reason to critique his central thesis, other than to say that I am not sure the trend entirely represents genuine progress. For example, I suspect that he could have placed a graph of the decline of fat jokes alongside his graphs of the decline of racial prejudices. While society has improved control over physical aggression, the obesity epidemic proves that indiscipline still finds expression. In fact, when one considers the growing acceptance of “alternative”—excuse me, “integrative” medicine, one can see how the triumph of enlightened tolerance can coincide with a lax shrug off of reason and scientific rigor.
Though I perused the tome in the modern cursory version of the word’s contradictory meanings, I gave special attention to the latter chapters, particularly chapters 8 and 9 on the nature of violence, itself, which has been one of my obsessions. That discussion concerns the overriding paradox of this work. How could this man, who wrote The Blank Slate to passionately declare that we are not and that behavior is part heredity, reconcile with a belief that societal evolution pushed radical behavioral modification? I regret to say that this was a serious weakness of an otherwise well-reasoned exposition.
First let me stress that I do not see Pinker’s observations as fundamentally opposed to the revolution taking place in biosocial criminology and genetic psychiatry. On the contrary, making aggression anomalous likely accentuates the role of genetics and biology in what deserves to be considered a veritable behavioral disease. What science really calls into question is whether historic trends justify extrapolation, and from what I can tell, Pinker has dodged such speculation. To illustrate his handling, the book contains extensive discussion of how the secular rise in IQ, known as the Flynn effect, could be reducing violence, but I found no mention of the evidence for subsequent plateauing. Then again, my hope is that the research on the genetics of violence, which I attempt to elucidate, could help channel efforts to find new ways, including pharmacological developments, to sustain aggression’s decline.
Judging by Pinker’s treatment of the subject, my message is not getting out. He dismissed research on monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) using a study with which my regular readers are all too familiar.
[A]n association between the gene and aggression has not been found in non-European populations, perhaps because they have evolved other ways of regulating their catecholamine levels. (Genes often act in networks regulated by feedback loops, so in populations in which a particular gene is less effective, other genes may step up their activity to compensate.) For now, the Warrior Gene theory is staggering around with possibly fatal wounds.
Nice try. Pinker is referencing the Widom and Brzustowicz paper that combined men and women to compare “whites” to “non-whites.” Gender was not controlled, and that white sample was 33% female. Non-whites were 38% female, but women were far more represented among non-white subjects with the low-activity, 3-repeat allele. For the subjects with the 3-repeat allele, which is the allele considered most impacted by the environmental trigger, whites were 24% female, and non-whites were 43% female. Antisocial behavior in women, but not men, is mediated by the epigenetic methylation of MAOA as well as a newly discovered second promoter that actually has more effect in women than the alleles mentioned. Also, of course, MAOA is located on the X chromosome. Women have two copies, which helps explain why even the radical Brunner-syndrome mutation that completely disables the gene does not seem to affect the behavior of women. It can be nice to have a spare.
Pinker seems to have received his introduction to this subject through the New Zealand Maori controversy, in which Rod Lea had to make amends for allegedly saying that the Maori are prone to criminality. Thus, Pinker is completely unaware that studies have found that MAOA influences aggression in non-whites. Weder et al found that the gene-environment association of MAOA and aggression held for a 58-subject sample of African-American and biracial children. Kevin Beaver’s research also helps support this association. His 2009 study on MAOA’s effect on gang membership and weapon use included African Americans. His 2010 study on African-American men and violence used a genetic index that included MAOA and four other genes that affect catecholamine levels.
At least claiming that MAOA does not affect non-white people fits a politically correct agenda of raising the self-esteem of minorities who feel the burden of a violent stereotype. What would you think of Steven Pinker if he spread a complete falsehood that could label a group of people genetically violent without any scientific basis whatsoever?
[T]he low-activity version of the gene is even more common in Chinese men (77 percent of whom carry it), and the Chinese are neither descended from warriors in their recent history nor particularly prone to social pathology in modern societies.
I previously debunked this, but I guess I must do so, again. A study by Lu et al found that 42 Taiwanese men, or 55% of their 77-subject control sample, had the 3-repeat allele of MAOA. Lea and Chambers copied the information incorrectly. Then, an editorial against MAOA research by a doctoral student repeated the falsehood. Now, Pinker has immortalized this slander against Chinese people in a bestselling book. The actual allele frequency given by Lu et al matches the allele frequency found for Asians in subsequent research, which is not higher than that of other groups besides white people. Pinker, like so many others, conflated the 3-repeat allele with the 2-repeat allele as the “low-activity allele,” even though the 2-repeat allele doubles the association with violence without needing an environmental trigger. The 2-repeat allele accounts for 4.7% of African-American MAOA genes and 0.00067% of Asian MAOA genes (assuming that the only Chinese control subject with the allele did not have mixed ancestry). Not only does this bogus insult create a new stereotype for Chinese people, but the numbers error reinforces an old generalization, as all four guilty parties were white boys. (Chinese people, when you buy my neighborhood, recall that I personally sent Pinker a corrigendum request.)
Herein lies the problem with popular science. Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor who previously chastised Malcolm Gladwell for misspelling “igon value.” Pinker’s new book encompasses a prodigious collection of disparate lines of evidence. Even so, he dismissed a vital segment of potentially life-saving research using biased sources that were motivated at least in one case by racial politics. When Dr. Phil stumbled through his television show episode on the warrior gene, he made mistakes and showed his ignorance, but he did not bring an entire field of study into disrepute. However, when Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen Jay Gould call IQ testing an “ice flow” or decry its “reification,” it has consequences for science. Gladwell and Pinker inhabit a pantheon of respected liberal thinkers whose influence reverberates throughout academia. Their stature alone can transform an ignorant statement into an authoritative observation. Their superficial summations can leave a lasting imprint on another’s life’s work, as they bring along a vast audience of comparative ignoramuses to boo rogue points of view (not unlike a daytime talk show).
Widom CS, & Brzustowicz LM (2006). MAOA and the "cycle of violence:" childhood abuse and neglect, MAOA genotype, and risk for violent and antisocial behavior. Biological psychiatry, 60 (7), 684-9 PMID: 16814261
Weder N, Yang BZ, Douglas-Palumberi H, Massey J, Krystal JH, Gelernter J, & Kaufman J (2009). MAOA genotype, maltreatment, and aggressive behavior: the changing impact of genotype at varying levels of trauma. Biological psychiatry, 65 (5), 417-24 PMID: 18996506
Beaver KM, DeLisi M, Vaughn MG, & Barnes JC (2010). Monoamine oxidase A genotype is associated with gang membership and weapon use. Comprehensive psychiatry, 51 (2), 130-4 PMID: 20152292
Kevin Beaver, Ashley Sak, Jamie Vaske, & Jessica Nilsson (2010). Genetic risk, parent–child relations, and antisocial phenotypes in a sample of African-American males Psychiatry Research, 175 (1-2), 160-164
Lu RB, Lee JF, Ko HC, Lin WW, Chen K, & Shih JC (2002). No association of the MAOA gene with alcoholism among Han Chinese males in Taiwan. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 26 (3), 457-61 PMID: 11999895
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Patrick-Michael Whittle (2009). Darwinism and the nature of Māori MAI Review
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Philibert RA, Wernett P, Plume J, Packer H, Brody GH, & Beach SR (2011). Gene environment interactions with a novel variable Monoamine Oxidase A transcriptional enhancer are associated with antisocial personality disorder. Biological psychology, 87 (3), 366-71 PMID: 21554924