International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-R525
Organized session / standard talks
Why is behavioral genetics so controversial?

James Tabery (University of Utah, United States)

Behavioral genetics has been and continues to be surrounded by controversy. Why? Answering this question requires attending to the history of the discipline, to the social structure of the discipline, and to the philosophical assumptions built in to the discipline. This session is designed to provide such an interdisciplinary approach—drawing on the resources of history, sociology, and philosophy. Historian of science Nicole Nelson will assess behavioral genetics’ controversial nature by examining the history of animal behavioral genetic research, paying particular attention to how the environment is conceptualized and controlled in such investigations. Sociologist of science Aaron Panofsky examines the controversial nature of behavioral genetics by exploring the way that the discipline structured and then restructured itself in response to external criticism at key moments in the discipline’s history. And philosopher of science Peter Taylor evaluates the (lack of) attention given to underlying heterogeneity in attempts to intervene on gender differences.

Accumulating and circulating knowledge about genes and environments in animal behavior genetics

Nicole Nelson (University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States)

One of the curious features of controversies around behavior genetics is that the field continues to be subject to criticisms that it promotes genetically determinist ideas in spite of practitioners’ recurring assertions to the contrary. This paper approaches this facet of controversy in behavior genetics by examining asymmetries in the distribution and circulation of knowledge about different kinds of factors contributing to behavior. Using ethnographic data from an animal behavior genetics laboratory, I argue that even in cases where practitioners are explicitly seeking out genetic contributions to behavior, they also acquire knowledge about environmental contributions to behavior through the process of working with animals and creating a controlled experimental setting. Indeed, it could be argued that animal researchers end up accumulating much more knowledge about the effects of environmental factors on behavior than they do about the effects of genes, since so much of their daily practice is devoted to enacting the environmental controls that make the sought after genetic effects visible. This informal knowledge about environmental effects on behaviors, however, is typically neither privileged nor publishable, and I argue that the asymmetric circulation of this knowledge accounts for some of the disconnect between critics’ and practitioners’ views of the field and whether it is genetically determinist. While practitioners may gain an intimate sense of how multiple factors work together to produce behaviors through their daily practice, it is typically only the sought after genetic findings that circulate in published or popular accounts, leaving animal behavior geneticists open to critiques that they are myopically focused on genes.

Controversy in behavior genetics: A structural account

Aaron Panofsky (UCLA, United States)

Why has behavior genetics been so controversial? Sophisticated accounts, including those of my co-panelists, have focused on the inherent structure of knowledge in this domain, hidden assumptions, and research practices. But why then have behavior geneticists perseverated on topics that draw these critiques? This presentation draws from my book Misbehaving Science (2014) to offer a social structural explanation. First, I show that the most inherently controversial topics—surrounding heritability estimation particularly—were denigrated by behavior geneticists themselves at the field’s origins fifty years ago. Second, I show how the IQ and race controversy of the early 1970s put heritability estimation at the field’s intellectual core by splitting and reorganizing the disciplinary composition of the scientists making up the field and by propagating a “bunker mentality” which undermined internal dissent. Finally, I show that provocation—deliberately wielding controversial knowledge to build professional status—became a dominant strategy for scientists in response to the field’s organization and location in scientific status hierarchies. Thus controversy has become inscribed in the field’s professional logic.

His nature, her nurture, or what good are conceptual critiques for tackling practical concerns about the development of gendered individuals?

Peter Taylor (University of Massachusetts-Boston, United States)

How difficult is it to change the typical distributions of a trait, such as aggression, substance abuse, suicide attempts, as they differ between males and females? This can be construed as a matter of fixity versus flexibility in the development of traits in individuals over their life course or of the relative degrees of hereditary versus environmental influences on the variation between versus within groups. This paper contrasts the conceptual critiques of research of the two construals with a view to clarifying how they address practical concerns about the development of gendered individuals, as raised especially by feminist scholars. Drawing on my book, Nature-Nurture? No (2014), I argue that inattention to heterogeneity has limited critique as well as research under both construals.