May 18, 2008

Michael Medved Mismeasures Man: The Myth of an American Gene

Discovery Institute Fellow, Bigfoot true-believer and general crackpot-at-large Michael Medved has whipped up a column published on and it's a doozy. He's read a couple of books written by psychiatrists and decided that there's American DNA that's different from Canadian DNA, Italian DNA, or Swedish DNA. He postulates that Americans are aggressive risk-takers because we're genetically different and, ultimately, genetically superior to non-Americans because our ancestry consists of people who made the choice to leave their homelands and emigrate here based on their possession of some sort of risk-taking gene. I feel like I have to cite him just to prove he's actually saying this stuff because it's hard to believe that there are still people in the world who think that there's a genetic basis for culture.

Respecting - And Recognizing - American D.N.A.
By Michael Medved
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In today’s ruthlessly competitive international economy, the United States may benefit from a potent but unheralded advantage: the aggressive edge sustained by the inherited power of American DNA.

The radical notion that our national character stems from genetics as well as culture has always inspired angry controversy; many observers scoff at the whole idea of a unifying hereditary component in our multi-racial, multi-cultural society. Aside from the varied immigrants who now make up nearly 15% of the population, the forebears of today’s Americans journeyed to this continent from Asia, Africa, Latin America and every nation of Europe. Our stark differences in appearance, if nothing else, argue against the concept of common DNA connecting contemporary citizens of wildly divergent ancestry.
They scoff at such things because nobody has been able to find a basis for saying that it exists. Culture is not part of our genetic programming, its a set of learned behaviors. The children of immigrants from Asian countries in which individuality is subservient to social identity can become just as broadly individualistic as any twentieth-generation American, and children of Americans raised abroad will similarly become more like the cultures in which they grow up than they would have if they'd been raised in the USA. There's simply no basis to think that there's a hereditary basis for this sort of thing. We've yet to identify any specific risk-taking gene, or haplotype for that matter, in human beings. Given real-world observation and a lack of evidence, it's reasonable to scoff at the notion that there's such a thing as "American DNA" beyond the fact that some DNA happens to reside in the nuclei of individuals born in America. That's not what Medved means, of course. He's talking about some imagined allele that codes for a character state called "American." He goes on:
Nevertheless, two respected professors of psychiatry have recently come out with challenging books that contend that those who chose to settle this country in every generation possessed crucial common traits that they passed on to their descendents. In “American Mania,” Peter C. Whybrow of U.C.L.A. argues that even in grim epochs of starvation and persecution, only a small minority ever chooses to abandon its native land and to venture across forbidding oceans to pursue the elusive dream of a better life. The tiny percentage making that choice (perhaps only 2%, even in most periods of mass immigration) represents the very essence of a self-selecting group. Compared to the Irish or Germans or Italians or Chinese or Mexicans who remained behind in the “Old Country,” the newcomers to America would naturally display a propensity for risk-taking, for restlessness, for exuberance and self-confidence –traits readily passed down to subsequent generations. Whybrow explained to the New York Times Magazine that immigrants to the United States and their descendents seemed to possess a distinctive makeup of their “dopamine receptor system – the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking.”

John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University Medical School makes a similar case for an American-specific genotype in “The Hypomanic Edge”—celebrating the frenzied energy of American life that’s impressed every visitor since Tocqueville. The United States also benefited from our tradition of limited government, with only intermittent and ineffective efforts to suppress the competitive, entrepreneurial instincts of the populace. Professor Whybrow says: “Here you have the genes and the completely unrestricted marketplace. That’s what gives us our peculiar edge.” In other words, “anything goes capitalism” reflects and sustains the influence of immigrant genetics.
I haven't read the books that Medved mentions here (I'm just finishing up Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation as I write this), so I have no idea as to whether he's accurately representing what these authors have written and can deal only with Medved's own contentions. I can, however, make note of what Peter Whybrow says in an interview in the New York Times about his work:
In his new book, "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough" (W. W. Norton & Company), Dr. Whybrow argues that in the age of globalization, Americans are addictively driven by the brain's pleasure centers to live turbocharged lives in pursuit of status and possessions at the expense of the only things that can truly make us happy: relationships with other people...

"In fact, I think happiness lies somewhere behind us. This frenzy we've adopted in search of what we hope is happiness and perfection is in fact a distraction, like mania is a distraction..."

...Historically, he says, built-in social brakes reined in our acquisitive instincts. In the capitalist utopia envisioned by Adam Smith in the 18th century, self-interest was tempered by the competing demands of the marketplace and community. But with globalization, the idea of doing business with neighbors one must face the next day is a quaint memory, and all bets are off.

Other countries are prey to the same forces, Dr. Whybrow says, but the problem is worse here because we are a nation of immigrants, genetically self-selected to favor individualism and novelty. Americans are competitive, restless and driven to succeed. And we have succeeded...

But for Dr. Whybrow, with globalization here to stay, the solution lies with the individual: It's up to each of us to ruminate on our lives and slow down enough so that we can limit our appetites and find a better balance between work and family.

He suggested following the example of a man his friend saw running along the beach: "A high tide washed all the little fish onto the beach where they were all gasping for breath. So here's this fellow scooping up each fish and throwing them back into the sea, and my friend goes up to the fellow and says: 'This is a fruitless task. It's not going to make any difference.' And the fellow picks up a fish, throws it into the sea and says, 'To this one it does.' "
So unlike what Medved says, Whybrow certainly doesn't see this "American DNA" as a good thing, and he isn't a proponent of unfettered capitalism. He sees our society as being the victim of an illness, not the benefactor of positive selection. Medved misses the point entirely; Whybrow thinks that Medved's "American DNA" is a deleterious allele, essentially a genetic disease that's killing us. Note that Whybrow himself never brings up the presence of any genetic markers that he's isolated; the notion that the traits he postulates as existing in immigrant populations is pure speculation. He makes no mention of any particular tests or observations that back up such a connection. Medved takes for granted that it must exist based on some authority that he already agrees with in his search for some objective justification for the American exceptionalism with which he already agrees.

In fact, most first-generation immigrants aren't big risk-takers. They tend to settle in restricted geographies, close to others who share their cultural heritage as a rule. The American landscape has historically been dotted with such places, from Little Havana in Miami to Chinatown in San Francisco. My own ancestors, who immigrated here from Europe, settled in the Lower East Side of Brooklyn and joined existing communities of Eastern European Jews. They didn't strike out for uncharted lands in Amarillo, Texas. They didn't dive into American culture and adopt radically different ways than those by which they lived in the Old Country. My great-grandfather on my father's side was thoroughly European in his attitudes and outlooks. My grandfather was somewhat less so, having lived most of his life in New York City. My father, having been born in the US, was almost fully Americanized, but he was not a great risk-taker, even as a police officer. I, in turn, am even more fully possessed of American culture and certainly more of a risk-taker than either my father or grandfather, both of whom were civil servants whereas I have in my lifetime started my own business and then gone back to school at a relatively late stage in life when that risk didn't pan out. Nobody else in my family, all descended from immigrants, has done that. The story of my family is fairly typical, I think. There's nothing heritable about this aspect of American culture anymore than religion or fashion sense have a genetic basis.

To fully grasp the import of Medved's statements, though, we should ask ourselves what this "American DNA" would mean for America if it were faced with some great disaster. For example, did we see a vast wave of emigration during the Great Depression? Did huge number of Americans leave the United States, depleting our pool of those possessed of Medved's "American DNA?" Would that even have been the right thing to do? I would like to think that we Americans would come together in the face of some great disaster, that we would stay here and work through the tribulation. I would expect that Medved would want the same thing, though his contention that "American DNA" drives people to leave their countries of birth to seek opportunities elsewhere when the chips were down would lead to a different situation entirely.

Perhaps the reason that "only a small minority ever chooses to abandon its native land and to venture across forbidding oceans to pursue the elusive dream of a better life" is because they don't abandon their "native lands" easily, that they believe in their own peoples and nations just as we Americans like to think that we believe in ours, and that they're willing to put their lives on the line to preserve their own society — a worthwhile thing to keep in mind as we here in the USA approach a holiday during which we commemorate the sacrifices made by those from our "native land" who have done precisely that for us. Perhaps those proportionately few who choose to leave the lands of their births do so because they have nothing left to lose and because, historically, America has provided opportunities for immigrant labor in a nation whose streets have been said to be "paved with gold." Might it not, then, be just as cogent (and every bit as incorrect) to say that "American DNA" is drawn from a gene pool of those who abandoned their homelands in times of trouble, and so is the stuff of cowards — and that American aggressiveness, then, is nothing more than over-compensation, a sort of midlife crisis in which a false bravado substitutes for the shiny red and phallic sports car and trophy mistress of a 50-something, insecure middle management nobody?

Neither my hypothesis nor Medved's is factual, of course. In fact, many of those who come to the US aren't risk-takers. Let us suppose for a moment that there was a heritable basis for this behavior. A man from a traditional, religious village in Hungary is a risk-taker and heads for America. He brings his wife with him; she doesn't want to come, but she has a socially prescribed duty to her husband to do so. He has the risk-taking allele; she does not. The net gain of the supposed allele in the American population in this case is zero. That is to say, unless we are willing to not only take the existence of a risk-prone haplotype for granted but then to further speculate that those who possess it can somehow recognize one another, find that trait attractive and be more likely to partner and produce offspring who themselves survive to reproductive maturity, this whole argument quickly becomes meaningless. That's what makes Medved a crackpot, though. He doesn't think through the ramifications and contingencies of what he's saying. He merely cherry-picks things that support what he already believes and then attempts to convince others to join him in his speculations.
The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S. Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits. Among contemporary African-Americans, however, this very different historical background exerts a less decisive influence, because of vast waves of post-slavery black immigration. Some three million black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean arrived since 1980 alone and in big cities like New York, Boston and Miami close to half of the African-American population consists of immigrants, their children or grandchildren. The entrepreneurial energy of these newcomer communities indicates that their members display the same adventurous instincts associated with American DNA.
Well, maybe Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws weren't such a bad idea after all — at least not before 1980! If whites and black had interbred, all that inferior slave DNA would have diluted our precious American DNA. As much as this brings to mind Dr. Strangelove's Jack D. Ripper, it brings to my mind just as much certain bastardized eugenic ideals from Nazi Germany as well. It leaves aside, of course, plenty of historic evidence that weighs heavily against Medved's hypothesis, too. He's forgotten things like Nat Turner's rebellion — certainly an example of risk-taking — and numerous other slave uprisings among the allegedly risk-averse slave population. He leaves out the fact that Haiti was a country founded by slaves and was the first in the Western hemisphere to outlaw slavery after breaking free from French rule, an act of rebellion that certainly qualifies as risk-taking every bit as much as did the American Revolution. He fails to recognize, in fact, that most of the Caribbean countries were likewise settled by enslaved or indentured populations placed there — frequently against their will — by the Dutch, French and English.

Moreover, what about all of those emigrants who voluntarily resettle in countries other than the USA? Brazil has been an immigrant nation since its founding. Not only did the Portuguese settle there, bringing slavery with them, but there have been massive waves of immigration by Italians, Japanese and Germans through its history as well. Certainly France has a substantial population of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. The UK has tremendous South Asian populations, as does Canada. Australia certainly has its share of people who weren't born in Australia and went there of their own free will. Do these countries also benefit from "American DNA?" If not, then the concept itself is meaningless. If so, the concept of American DNA is similarly meaningless, because it also turns out to be Brazilian, British, Canadian and Australian DNA.

In one pass, Medved ignores history and provides justification for American segregationalism without ever providing any basis for his assumption of his American DNA hypothesis. Instead, he echoes the kind of blood-nationalism used as a means to invite genocidal eugenics by dictators and madmen. Medved has learned as little from history as he has learned from molecular biology.
If Whybrow, Gartner and other analysts are right about the role of inherited traits and tendencies in shaping our national character then the insight carries crucial political implications. Senators Obama, Clinton and other leaders who seek to enlarge the scope of government face more formidable obstacles than they realize. Their desire to impose a European-style welfare state and a command-and-control economy not only contradicts our proudest political and economic traditions, but the new revelations about American DNA suggest that such ill-starred schemes may go against our very nature.
From Whybrow's statements in the New York Times, I don't think he'd agree here with Medved that we should be striving to preserve his imaginary allele that is making us, in Whybrow's own estimation, sick. Nor does it make sense that a genetic predisposition leads people to vote in one way or another. One could as easily draw the conclusion that since having a "European-style welfare state" would be something new in the lifetimes of American voters, they would be attracted to its novelty and be secure in the knowledge that if it wrecked the country utterly that they could always emigrate to greener pastures. In fact, even if Whybrow and Gartner really did say what Medved thinks they've said, it doesn't lead to any particular conclusions about "American DNA" and how the traits for which it codes would be expressed in a given environment. It could be just as easily used to justify using drugs or invading Mexico as it can be for voting for or against any particular policy. What Medved winds up doing in his last paragraph, though, is proposing a eugenic basis for politics. People who would be in favor of a particular way of running the government, he's saying, are genetically un-American. Real, genetically-pure Americans must be opposed to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Perhaps those who support them are the impure product of ancestors who betrayed precious "American DNA" by mating with all those risk-averse freed slaves and their descendants.

It is a very short leap from Medved's fantasies about American DNA to a true statement of eugenics. Medved is advocating here, essentially, that America's blood must be purified. If America is to maintain its edge, to be an aggressive world political and economic leader, we must rid ourselves of those who do not possess the proper hereditary background. The Jews Blacks Irish possessors of un-American DNA must be purged. He's done everything but suggest that genetic screens be set up at polling places, probably because he knows he doesn't have to. There are enough foolish, historically and scientifically ignorant and/or equally ethno-nationalist people in this country to do it for him, to take his bizarre "reasoning" to the next step.

Remember, folks, it's we evil Darwinists who embrace eugenics, not those good-hearted people at the Discovery Institute. The people who backed Expelled would never, ever come out in favor of anything that could lead to the devaluation of any human life. I'm sure that they'll be coming out with a statement thoroughly blasting Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Michael Medved to bits any minute now. Medved himself will resign in disgrace.

Just you watch. And keep your eyes peeled for bigfoot while you're at it.

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