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April 28, 2005

Culture vultures scavenging on biology

In the responses to my post below on the relationship between genetics and culinary preferences, Michael Blowhard offered the following:

Yet there's another way to look at it: makes for a better party! What if the African love of (and genius for) rhythm, and the Asian love of (and genius for) negative-space, and the Italian love of (and genius for) look-and-feel-and-melody ... Well, what if they're manifestations on the cultural plane of DNA? Or at least DNA interacting with what's encountered in the environment?

My skepticism of "biocultural" models is drawn from my interest in history. I find "national stereotypes" to often be rather ephemeral creatures.1 Essentialist models are sometimes useful, but I generally feel most people either do not display the requisite caution or possess a large enough data base to construct a system that can dodge even trivial falsification.

Consider the Italians. A melodius people, outgoing and voluble. Lacking in discipline and rife with corruption. After all, these were the traits that allowed them to conquer the tribes of northern Europe, who in contrast were shaped by their genetics to be more efficient and orderly, no? Their natural artistry drew them to philosophies like Stoicism. And we all know that the ancient Italians surpassed the Greeks in their rendering of the physical form in all its manifest perfection!

Or consider the northern Europeans, a naturally introverted people who stay clear of crowds, fearful of battle and conflict, eternally prone to neutrality and passivity. Ask king Aelle of Northumbria of the meekness of the men of the north. Or ask Charles the Bald. Or Peter the Great.

Perceptions of "national character" change. I do think that there are average differences in the frequencies of alleles that control for particular behavorial predispositions, but I also tend to think that the speculations people can spin based on the obvious phenotypes are often unsound when viewed on a historical scale. The point is that the character of a nation or culture is an emergent property of the interactions of the people within that culture, biological predispositions are heavily mediated and transformed by particular parameters of the time and place (the "shy" phenotype is a lot more tractable than the "peaceful" phenotype, the latter is a really squishy tendency that is highly contingent on context).

I think Greg and Henry's ideas based on the variance in DRD4 allele is the right way to go when examing intergroup behavorial differences, but, such things only tell us the tendencies of individuals, they do not necessarily imply a particular cultural model. I think genetics can give us clues as to the bounds and probabilities of the cultural expression of any given group, but that still leaves a lot of room for variation and elasticity of the "national phenotype," especially as a function of time.

Which should be good for thinkers that work outside purely scientific/faux-scientific analytic modes! More room for intuitional impression.

1 - One of my critiques of Gary Nabhan in the review of his book was that he tries to have it two ways: first, evolution happens very fast (via selection), but second, modern populations should rely on the traditions of their ancestors because they have worked for so long. Obviously the high morbidity rates of some indigenous peoples transitioning to a high grain diet is selection, of a sort. Of course, that's not a solution (at least a humane one), but I think Nabhan's axioms are at cross-purposes here, and I think he knows it because he starts talking of tens of thousands of years all of a sudden, even though I don't think it is plausible that distinctive folk traditions would have fixed for that long.

Posted by razib at 04:38 PM