Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Genetic Determinism and Essentialism on the Electronic Frontier

The latest bit of what, in the scientific world, is discredited genetic determinism, comes from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). This is not the first time the EFF has strayed from electronics to genetics, where it seems inclined to overstate scientific findings. 1/ Now the organization wants the Supreme Court to decide whether it is an unreasonable search or seizure for police, without probable cause and a warrant, to acquire and analyze shed DNA for identifying features that might link a suspect to a crime. That is a perfectly reasonable request, although, in the unlikely event that the Court takes this bait, making the case for a Fourth Amendment violation will not be easy.

What is less reasonable, indeed, what many geneticists and bioethicists regard as ill-advised, is to portray DNA as a map of “who we are, where we come from and who we will be.” 2/ My DNA is not who I am. It determines some things about me — my blood type, for example — but not my occupation, my interests, my skills, my criminal record, or my political affiliation. Yet, rather than simply point out that people have legitimate reasons to want to maintain the confidentiality of certain traits or risks that DNA analysis could reveal — such as an inherited form of Alzhiemer’s Disease — the EFF is concerned that “[r]esearchers have theorized DNA may also determine race, intelligence, criminality, sexual orientation, and even political ideology.” 3/

Of course, researchers have “theorized” almost everything at one time or another. And the prospect that police will collect DNA from a suspect surreptitiously to find out if he is a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican seems a tad silly. Still, I was curious: Is there really a theory of how genes determine political ideology?

I turned to the news article in a 2012 issue of Nature cited by the EFF. 4/ Nothing in the article gives a theory of genetic determinism for political ideology. The article refers to twin studies that imply genetics plays some role in political behavior. There are some reports of candidate genes from studies that have “yet to be independently replicated.” 5/

As for a theory of how unknown genes might, to some degree, in some settings, influence political ideology, the theory is that some genes affect general attitudes or emotional reactions that could relate in some manner to political ideology. For example,
US conservatives may not seem to have much in common with Iraqi or Italian conservatives, but many political psychologists agree that political ideology can be narrowed down to one basic personality trait: openness to change. Liberals tend to be more accepting of social change than conservatives. ...

Theoretically, a person who is open to change might be more likely to favour gay marriage, immigration and other policies that alter society and are traditionally linked to liberal politics in the United States; personalities leaning towards order and the status quo might support a strong military force to protect a country, policies that clamp down on immigration and bans on same-sex marriage. 6/
These remarks are not a basis for a true friend of the Court to imply that political ideology might be a genetically determined phenotype. 7/

  1. See David H. Kaye, Dear Judges: A Letter from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Ninth Circuit, Forensic Science, Statistics and the Law, Sept. 20, 2012.
  2. Brief of Amicus Curiae Electronic Frontier Foundation in Support of Petitioner on Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Raynor v. Maryland, No. 14-885, Feb. 18, 2015, at 2.
  3. Id. (note omitted).
  4. Lizzie Buchen, Biology and Ideology: The Anatomy of Politics, 490 Nature 466 (2012).
  5. Id. at 466.
  6. Id. at 468.
  7. For a critical discussion of factual errors and distortions in Supreme Court amicus briefs generally, see Allison Orr Larsen, The Trouble with Amicus Facts, 100 Va. L. Rev. 1757 (2014).

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