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Jeff Maylor

Does Objectivism address the importance of genetics?

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Genes and Personality  

29 members have voted

  1. 1. Do you believe genes influence IQ?

  2. 2. Do you believe genes influence personality?

  3. 3. Do you believe evolution has shaped our psychology?

  4. 4. Do you believe human populations could vary in genetic personality traits?



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Please take a moment to take the poll. I am a fan of Ayn Rand and I have an interest in psychology, personality and behavioral traits. In recent years, I have been impressed with growing evidence that aspects of personality may be influenced by biology and genetics. In a fundamental sense, this seems undeniable. We wouldn't even have brains without biology and genes, and without brains it is hard to see how we could have minds.

People like Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt have written books that counter the 100% environment only view of personality. This culture only view, sometimes referred to as the SSSM (Standard Social Studies Model), has been dominant in the humanities. This model denies any role for genes. This position seems completely unsustainable. Objectivists usually add the importance of free will to the problem of psychology and personality, but I don't hear much with regard to genes.

Twin studies seem to support a big role for genes in personality, at least 50%. This also includes items such as political and cultural preferences. In addition, IQ seems to be between 50% and 80% genetic. This alone is provocative, but in addition there are implications for various human populations on a large scale. Because while it is true that group patterns tell you little about a specific individual, it could in fact be useful information when considering large groups.

Studies suggest significantly more individualism among some populations than others. Some groups score higher on conscientiousness, within the same culture, than other groups, and so forth. Of course, culture is important, but there seems to be evidence that some of the variation is genetic.

In addition, the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology seems to offer fresh insight into human behavior.

And is there any reason Objectivism would be opposed to this position, from a philosophical view?

Edited by Jeff Maylor

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If there is a premise or conclusion that amounts to: "everything that is open to our volitional control is not actually open to our volitional control", then that would be a problem. But I'm not sure what you are arguing for or how it would be affected by this.

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I answered yes, but you need to define to what degree. Objectivism rejects polylogism, the idea that different races or classes have different kinds of logic. Objectivism also rejects the idea of inherited knowledge or literal racial memory.

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To the fourth one, I answered yes but mostly in the hypothetical sense. There is nothing that makes speciation impossible in humans(that is it won't happen because of populations being close but it could in theory happen if they were seperated) so there is nothing false about the idea that humans could evolve slightly different psychological influences.

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I don't see any reason that one would oppose these positions on Objectivist grounds. It is very important when coming to understand the principles of Objectivism to remember that it is philosophy, not science. It rules out certain 'scientific' conclusions when scientists engage in concept-stealing, as for example when a scientist claims to have evidence to support the conclusion that knowledge isn't possible to man. However, Objectivism does not prescribe scientific conclusions. I see nothing in your initial post that is denied by Objectivist ideas.

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If there is a premise or conclusion that amounts to: "everything that is open to our volitional control is not actually open to our volitional control", then that would be a problem. But I'm not sure what you are arguing for or how it would be affected by this.

Let me try and be more specific. I'm not denying free will or volition, but what most people mean by 'free will' is probably too expansive. Most people literally cannot make themselves be like Isaac Newton, no matter how hard they try and how good their thinking methods are, they simply don't have the IQ. And while you can choose to ignore pain or anxiety, if you are a person that is in some sense "wired" to feel more anxious, it will probably impact your choice of activities in life. There have been studies that show self-control is finite, meaning that our capacity to 'force' ourselves to do something that is unpleasant is not unlimited.

And on that point, this means I wonder about the claim of some Objectivists that every last bit of subconscious programming can be altered, such that a formerly nervous and anxious person can turn himself into an extrovert. Or maybe a more exact way of putting it is this: Are all those feelings and tendencies purely the result of conscious or subconscious programming? It seems like there is a growing evidence that aspects of our temperament are very genetic. I am thinking of all those dimensions of personality covered by the so-called Big Five.

Edited by Jeff Maylor

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I answered yes, but you need to define to what degree. Objectivism rejects polylogism, the idea that different races or classes have different kinds of logic. Objectivism also rejects the idea of inherited knowledge or literal racial memory.

Well I suspect that free will, while it exists, is more limited than most of us have thought. I used to have a very expansive concept of it, but everything seems to point to a crucial but limited role. Some of this may come from getting older and seeing how people struggle to change and can't. I believe Peikoff has said he has never seen anyone actually change personality, to any significant degree, in his whole life. Neither have I. So I can't give a specific answer as to how powerful free will is or isn't, just that it does not seem to be as unlimited as many used to think. Of course, volition would have to be finite, as everything that exists is finite.

And as I understand it, Objectivism really only claims that free will is the ability to focus or not. Correct? And sense we can only focus on so much, there are bound to be limitations.

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As for IQ in particular, I'm kind of doubtful if that's really an important measurement beyond a certain way of thinking, or if even the methods of measuring it are any good. Plenty of people with high IQ I'd entirely avoid calling intelligent. So I'm kind of doubtful that there's anything that makes Newton's achievements impossible to achieve. The issue is more how long it would take, in addition to the sort of education received as a child. Still, I'm not doubting there are differences in how information in the brain is processed.

Using the word "wired" is kind of vague, since you aren't referring to what about the brain is leading to that. Over time you might get habituated to think in a certain way, and as far as I know, how the brain functions can be altered to a degree by continually thinking about things in a certain way. So it's not out of the question to say there may be some genetic reason that leads a person to tend to be anxious, but that doesn't mean someone is simply "wired" to be anxious.

When you see the word "free will" used in an Objectivist context, the idea isn't that people can merely will themselves to alter how they behave. I can't will myself to be happy or will myself to be sad, but I can choose what I focus on. That might be what you mean by "limited." Volition is probably a better word to use in my opinion, because it doesn't have any potential confusion due to the word "free" meaning without constraint. There are constraints due to reality and consciousness having an identity, but decisions aren't caused deterministically. Basically, as you said, free will is essentially just the ability to choose to focus or not.

You are absolutely right that we can only focus on so much. That's the sort of thing Rand mentioned when discussing "Crow epistemology," by which she meant that only so much can be held in one's mind at a time. The number of discrete entities that can be held in one's mind is somewhere between 5 and 11 (or something around there according to what I've seen mentioned about cognitive science). Concepts are the means to be able to deal with more entities at once. However, that choice to focus is needed to form a concept in the first place.

"And on that point, this means I wonder about the claim of some Objectivists that every last bit of subconscious programming can be altered, such that a formerly nervous and anxious person can turn himself into an extrovert"

It probably could be done, but again, the issue is mostly how long it would take. Depends on what causes the nervousness and anxiousness. That may take a lifetime, or maybe a few years. That's an issue for psychology to address. Still, that wouldn't be a matter of willing yourself to be better, medication might be needed to help things along, or may even be required in order to alter how the brain processes stimuli.

Edited by Eiuol

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It probably could be done, but again, the issue is mostly how long it would take. Depends on what causes the nervousness and anxiousness. That may take a lifetime, or maybe a few years. That's an issue for psychology to address. Still, that wouldn't be a matter of willing yourself to be better, medication might be needed to help things along, or may even be required in order to alter how the brain processes stimuli.

Yes it is true that given enough time, more things might could be changed, but apparently our 70-80 years isn't enough to change dramatically. Also, I agree that a normal person might could learn everything Newton knew, given enough time (although I have my doubts because you have to keep so much going in your mind once you get to the advanced levels). But that issue of how long it takes you is important. IQ - which isn't a perfect measure - depends a lot of speed. So if it takes me a year to learn what it takes you a month to learn ... well you are probably smarter than me.

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On the magazine rack at the grocery store, the March 2011 edition of National Geographic featured a cover with a picture of a fox and the caption "Designing the Perfect Pet". The article appears on their website currently as Animal Domestication.

A thumbnail would paint several selective generations in two control groups. Control group A, a selection of the most approachable foxes. Control group B, a selection of the least approachable foxes. The resulting litters from each of the control groups were subject to a repeat of the selection process yeilding A' from A and B' from B. Within four generations group A foxes are wagging tails and leap into the researchers arm and lick their faces. Group B, by contrast, would hiss, bare teeth, and snap at the front of their cages upon human approach.

The article does touch on the genetic research involved in trying to identify different genes that may be useful in better understanding their observations.

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I answered yes to all questions. It's obvious to me that genetics play a huge role in our lives. They determine our basic attributes and influence almost everything about us except which ideas we choose to assimilate. While genes are not absolute determinants of what we become, they potentiate our abilities, and provide better-endowed individuals with huge advantages over others in all arenas mental and physical.

I'm also a big believer in racial diversity. If the different races of humans can differ in terms of skin color, which is obviously a genetic trait, they can differ in terms of any other trait influenced by genetics. Sadly, the influence of progressivism has totally warped the entire field of science dealing with race. If you even suggest that racial difference exist, you immediately get attacked as foaming-at-the-mouth racist in many quarters. Look at what happened to James Watson.

Edited by iflyboats

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On 3/19/2011 at 10:45 AM, dream_weaver said:

On the magazine rack at the grocery store, the March 2011 edition of National Geographic featured a cover with a picture of a fox and the caption "Designing the Perfect Pet". The article appears on their website currently as Animal Domestication.

Ran across another article on Real Clear Science that was reminiscent of this earlier posting:

The Silver Fox Experiment Still Shapes Thinking on Evolution

Apparently the referenced experiment is still ongoing:

Some 60 years later, his experiment is still going. It is one of the longest running science experiments ever, having outlived even its creator. And after all this time, it is still shaping the way we think about fundamental questions in biology — and even influencing the way we understand our own evolutionary trajectory.

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