Fanatical Genes?

One of the very interesting features about online social media like YouTube has been the appearance of online pundits like Alex Jones and Jerome Corsi and Michael Savage and Lionel Nation and Jordan Peterson. There are hundreds of them. They are people who can all talk for hours, non-stop, about anything and everything. They remind me a bit of 60s rock bands: They’ve all got a slightly different sound. And they can make a lot of noise.

Another one of them is Stefan Molyneux. He did a demolition job on Karl Marx the man (as opposed to Karl Marx the philosopher) which greatly impressed me. So yesterday I was listening to him again, firstly talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, and then about Why People Hate Donald Trump, and then about slavery. I think he’s an academic of some sort, and a student of philosophy. And he could talk the hind legs off a donkey.

Midway through one of these talks he mentioned, matter-of-factly, that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer. I haven’t managed to find where he said that, but I know that he said it, because when anyone says something like that, it goes off like a bomb. And I’ve come to believe that anyone who thinks that smoking causes lung cancer is someone who has been thoroughly propagandised. They’ve been told over and over again, and in the end they believe it.  And more or less everybody believes it. It’s almost impossible not to believe it. But to me it’s a belief that’s an indicator of the degree to which someone has been successfully trained. In the West we’ve all been being trained to think this for the past 70 years and more. It’s been an incessant drumbeat. There’s been a similar drumbeat message in recent years that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming, but a lot of people don’t believe this yet, probably because they haven’t yet been told enough times. I don’t know whether Stefan Molyneux believes that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming, but because he believes Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, I won’t be too surprised if he believes that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming as well.

Another thing that he is clearly fully signed up for is genetic determinism. It came through very strongly while he was talking about Donald Trump (in fact I never found out what his explanation was for why people hated Donald Trump). Here’s what he said 20 minutes and 15 seconds in, my emphases added:

…when we’re talking about rise of the agricultural revolution we are in general in Europe talking about the end of often a couple of hundred years of religious warfare where the most religious were killed off. There’s a reason why the West became less fanatical, less fundamentalist, and more secular in the 18th, 19th centuries and it had a lot to do with the fact that religious warfare had killed off the gene set of the most religiously fervent. They had attacked each other, they had killed each other, and therefore those who had not got involved in those fights, who more sceptical, who were more secular, who were more rational in that sense… Well, I think we all understand that. Unfortunately when I was younger I thought it was just intellectual change, it’s just ideas that come forward, and there’s certainly truth in that. But fanatical genes fight each other to extinction, and then you get a more rational society emerging from the bodies of the most fundamentalist, and they’re fine with the separation of church and state. The more fundamentalists weren’t, which is what they were fighting over, which was control of the state to have a mono religion imposed by the power of political might.

Fanatical genes? Are there genes for fanaticism? The West became less fanatical because fanatical genes had wiped themselves out in religious wars? I burst out laughing. Because the idea struck me as perfectly ludicrous. In fact pretty much every genetic explanation of anything always strikes me as implausible. I’ve read Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker, and many of his other books, and books by people like him, and I came away sceptical.

I suppose that one reason for my genetic scepticism is that, as best I understand them, genes code for proteins. And proteins are long chains of chemical compounds that make up the tissues in bodies. Genes provide the blueprint. But while I’ll accept that genes provide the blueprint for proteins, and maybe even the entire body forms of plants and animals, I don’t believe that there are genes for character traits like fanaticism. 

For example, I don’t think I’m a smoker because I’ve got the smoking gene. And I don’t think I’m a blogger because I’ve got the blogging gene. And I don’t think I dislike celery because I haven’t got the celery gene. I don’t think this sort of genetic explanation is any sort of explanation at all. And also I don’t think that life and living things are quite so simple.

But Stefan Molyneux has clearly bought the whole neo-Darwinian genetic mindset lock, stock, and barrel. He describes (12:30) “the big five personality traits” – attractiveness, competence, smartness, industriousness, and conscientiousness – as being largely genetically determined. And for good measure he added that:

“levels of risk-taking have been measured as significantly genetic.”

How do you measure levels of risk-taking? And how do you measure attractiveness, competence, smartness, industriousness, and conscientiousness. When we measure the length of things, we measure them in units of inches or centimetres: what are the units of attractiveness? There are none. So I don’t think it’s possible to measure any of these things. They are incommensurable.

I think the same problems arise with notions like “happiness”. Utilitarianism calls for “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” But, alas, we can’t measure happiness. There no Happiness Meters that you can buy on Amazon. There are also no Utility Meters there either. Nor are there Attractiveness Meters.

I often describe Idle Theory as a variant of Utilitarianism. But it’s a Utilitarianism from which Utility and Happiness and Pleasure and Satisfaction have been stripped, because all those things are things we can’t measure. But the idleness of some living thing – how much work it has to do to stay alive – is something that we can measure, in principle at least. And idleness is measured with clocks.

So I found myself disagreeing with Stefan Molyneux. I have similar disagreements with all these new YouTube motormouths. But that’s half the fun of it.

About Frank Davis

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Fanatical Genes?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Quote – ‘ How do you measure levels of risk-taking?’ I think boys take more risks than girls. Girls have different attributes than boys because they are female. Female or male is genetic. Also, smokers who do not get cancer – and there are many – have a protective gene? Lots of external environments cause cancer. We cannot deny that smoking is one of them I don’t think. Alcohol causes nasty physical conditions too. And more social consequences than smoking – who can deny that? In smokers, eaters and drinkers – and perhaps religions? there are people who do it too much. There might be a genetic aspect to that. Like an addiction gene. I think I have it!

    Nice post.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I think boys take more risks than girls.

      Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. I can think of lots of reasons for suggesting that girls actually take more risks than boys.

      But my point was: How do you measure the degree of risk-taking? Just thinking that maybe boys take more risks than girls isn’t measuring the risk. It’s guessing. It’s like me guessing that some mountain is higher than another one. You don’t actually know until you measure it. Science requires measurement. No measurement means no science. So I don’t think that Stefan Molyneux was doing anything that could be described as science. He was just telling an interesting story.

    • Joe L. says:

      Lots of external environments cause cancer.

      On what basis have you formed this belief? I will hazard a guess it’s something you’ve been told repeatedly that you’ve come to believe as truth. Aside from ionizing radiation (which can directly penetrate and mutate DNA), can you name one more “environmental cause” of cancer which has been found to have a consistently reproducible dose-response causative relationship with cancer?

      We cannot deny that smoking is one of them I don’t think.

      Why not?

      • Elizabeth says:

        Yes, good question. I was thinking of nuclear fallout/radiation, radon, hut fires, air pollution, deisel, medical scanning/diagnostics and that kind of thing. But, in women, whose cancer rate is rising, it COULD be parabans, or chemicals in hair products, and cosmetics. I don’t know. And no one else seems to either.

        Ive only been told smoking causes cancer by the usual methods of ant smoking propaganda. But nevertheless, I smoked for fifty years. I was always aware I was carrying around with me my own little lung pollution chamber and it was possibly doing something ‘in there’ I have never believed the SHS myth. But , to me, constant cigarette smoking is logically a cause of lung problems later on in life. Why deny it? It doesn’t happen to everyone. But it does happen to some. That makes me think that some people are tougher in some way than others.Is there a ‘tough’ gene?

        Some recent funerals in my life, have all been women who died of the kind of cancers regarded as smoking related. None of them smoked! They were simply old ladies. But when I die, of possibly the same cancer, it will be recorded as smoking caused because I am classified as a smoker. My husband gave up in 1980 and he is also recorded at the doctor’s here as a smoker.THATS how science gets done! That’s why we really know diddly squat…..

        • Frank Davis says:

          But , to me, constant cigarette smoking is logically a cause of lung problems later on in life. Why deny it?

          Constant tea drinking is logically a cause of stomach problems later on in life. Why deny it?

          Constant shoe wearing is logically a cause of foot problems later on in life. Why deny it?

          Constant music listening is logically a cause of ear problems later on in life. Why deny it?

          The list is endless. And equally “logical”/.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Oh, how funny about the shoes! I wore three inch stilleto heels constantly as a young woman. One night at a party when I was twisting the night away, our family doctor said to me “if you go on wearing those shoes, you’ll have Morton’s neuroma in your feet by the time you are fifty!” And I did. No denying that. Everything can be done too much. Everything. You are right.

        • Rose says:

          My money is still on diesel.

          Devil in the diesel

          “A COMPOUND discovered in the exhaust fumes of diesel engines may be the most strongly carcinogenic ever analysed, say Japanese researchers. They warn that a major source of the chemical is heavily loaded diesel engines, and that it could be partly responsible for the large number of lung cancer cases in cities.

          The compound, 3-nitrobenzanthrone, produced the highest score ever reported in an Ames test, a standard measure of the cancer-causing potential of toxic chemicals. “I personally believe that the recent increase in the number of lung cancer patients in vehicle-congested areas is closely linked with respirable carcinogens such as 3-nitrobenzanthrone,” says Hitomi Suzuki, a chemist at Kyoto University who led the study. Test emissions from truck engines and the air above central Tokyo both contained the compound”

          Dirty Diesel

          “Michael Abramson: “The lungs of city dwellers are much dirtier than the lungs of rural dwellers. So that if a post mortem examination is performed, you actually see the black deposits on the outside of the lungs of city dwellers and also in the lymph glands in the middle of the chest.

          And this is true, even in people who haven’t worked in a coal mine or haven’t smoked. It’s simply the effect of breathing in fine particles over the years of a lifetime.
          Diesel vehicles are a major source of fine particles. We tend to measure them by their size in thousandths of a millimetre, so they really are quite small, and the two fractions that are most widely discussed are what’s called PM-10, that’s particulate matter with a diameter less than 10-thousandths of a millimetre, and PM-2.5 which is the fraction where the diameter is less than 2-1/2 thousandths of a millimetre. And for the PM-10 fraction, we know that about 75% of that comes from diesel exhaust, 75% that’s contributed by mobile sources”

          “Diesel exhaust is a chemical cocktail of about 450 different compounds. At least 40 are toxic contaminants like arsenic, benzine, cadmium, dioxins, toluene and formaldehyde.

          Even the two most carcinogenic chemicals ever discovered, 3-nitrobenzanthrone and 1,8-dinitropyrene, are found in diesel exhaust, especially from engines working under heavy load.”

          The Urban Distribution of Lung Cancer Mortality in England and Wales 1980-1983

          “Lung cancer area mortality rates for the period 1980-1983 in England and Wales followed the pattern observed for previous years, with high rates concentrated in urban districts and low rates in remote rural districts.”
          http: //

        • Joe L. says:

          Everything can be done too much. Everything. You are right

          I think you missed Frank’s point, Elizabeth.

          One can take any unexplainable condition and pretend to create a link between it and some action/choice which appears to be related and then use that “link” to imply causation.

          To the layman, with no in-depth knowledge of the subject at hand, the “theory” sounds plausible, and thus, without any scientific support, it will be accepted as truth, especially if it is repeated enough.

        • Elizabeth says:

          No. I did not miss Frank’s point. I know he is trying to say that logic can be misapplied to anything. But sometimes other people know from experience things we don’t know! In the sixties, our family doctor must have had experience with other women who had worn high heels all their lives to warn ME. There weren’t studies and scientific statistics about how the constant wearing of high heels ruins your feet. I worked in the UK with hearing impaired people. The prediction is that hearing impairment in young people will rapidly rise. Why? Because sound pollution has increased with how we are applying technology to our ears. You can wave away the term ‘logical’ in any way you want, but ears, feet and lungs behave in the same way in all of us. Logically, wearing stilettos wouldn’t cause deafness. And cocaine use logically wouldnt seem to cause Morton’s neuroma.

          I think nuclear fallout from thousands of tests might have caused a lot of cancers, and perhaps still is? And I’m definitely with Rose on the diesel explanation. Both would be described as environmental as was my first comment.

  2. garyk30 says:

    I have read that IQ/cognitive ability is mostly genetic.
    IQ could be used as a marker/predictor for smartness, conscientiousness, industriousness, and competence.

    IQ is measurable.

    I suspect that attractiveness is a cultural concept.

  3. Frank Davis says:

    IQ is measurable.

    Is it? It produces a number. But is it actually measuring anything? I’m not sure it is.

    I can remember that the last time I took an IQ test, it occurred to me that I was only likely to get a high score if I tried. What if I couldn’t be bothered? What if I couldn’t be bothered to try to answer all the stupid questions I was being asked? And at the time I almost couldn’t be bothered. So IQ tests may well be measuring the engagement of the participants in the questionnaire, measuring how much they want to do well..And maybe not even measuring that. e.g. A track event like a 100 metre sprint may not be measuring who can run the fastest, but who wants to win the most.

    It also occurred to me that my good spacial skills (which were being tested in the IQ tests) were probably not innate, but the result of a lot of practice by me in thinking about objects in space, and drawing them. It was something I was doing all the time. People get good at things when they do them a lot.

  4. waltc says:

    I think if they ever unlock all the secrets of biochemistry (itself a byproduct of our DNA) we’ll learn we haven’t got as much free will as we like to think. Enzymes, proteins, hormones (and not just the sexual ones) etc can affect what we think of as personality. I believe male and female brains are different, but biochemistry can modify that in many directions. As for smoking and/or drinking, who knows? Maybe some difference in dopamine sensitivity or biochemical homeostasis.

    This suggests a genetic link between creativity and circadian clocks:

    • margo says:

      I like that, Walt. Being an ‘owl’ has been the bane of my life. I love the night for thinking, writing, dreaming, and early rising makes me ill. I have to have some work done in my house next week and the firm doing it insist they have to start at 8am. This week I am suffering from pre-trauma anxiety. Nobody understands!

      • RdM says:

        Yes quite a wide-rangingly good article, a few links to check out.

        I’ve always been a night owl too, at least able to be after adolescence.
        Extreme owl at times, but still generally to bed after midnight even when moderate.
        Like now… almost 1am.

        I know some “larks” as well – they’re almost like another species! ;-)

        I have to have some work done in my house next week and the firm doing it insist they have to start at 8am. This week I am suffering from pre-trauma anxiety. Nobody understands!

        I understand completely. I try to always arrange appointments for afternoons, or at least late morning. Don’t be bullied by them!

        Just insist! (You are the paying customer!)
        Tell them that you work late, that 8am isn’t convenient, that it has to be later.
        Remind them that lots of people work night shifts, perhaps. Essential services…

        Make them work around you.
        Are there other firms who might be more accommodating?
        Anyway, what if it’s a reluctant night owl employee pressed equally into morning work and not up to scratch in terms of quality of it at that time of day?

        Well, just thoughts.

        Else heave a sigh and set the alarm uncharacteristically early, attempt early sleep!
        Best of luck! ;=})

  5. DP says:

    Dear Mr Davis

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness Idleness.

    One of the problems with the pursuit of Happiness is that some people are Happiest when they are tormenting other people and making them seriously unHappy. Our Debs, for example, is probably positively ecstatically Happy when she’s being unIdle on her next smoker persecution plan.


    • Rose says:

      And I quite enjoy doing the research to prove her wrong, DP.
      It gave me something interesting to do when she got me slung out of every place of hospitality in the country.
      I only took up smoking in the first place to find out why they were lying about road tar, but life intervened and without the internet it has been impossible until recently.

      It keeps me wonderfully entertained and turns out to be the most gripping whodunnit I ever read.

No need to log in

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.