Determined by degrees

December 3, 1999

A row about a book highlights the large gaps that exist between proponents and critics of genetic determinism

Academics are deeply divided about intelligence research, especially the possibility of a genetic component of intelligence.

This week, Dylan Evans, a research student at the London School of Economics, had to recall his book Introducing Evolutionary Psychology after a wrangle with biologist Steven Rose, a leading opponent of genetic determinism.

Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, complained about a caricature of him in the book. Opposite a picture of the 19th-century eugenicist Francis Galton saying "Geniuses and idiots are born, not made" is a cartoon of Rose with a speech bubble stating that intelligence is determined entirely by a person's environment. "That is a fatuous statement, and attributing it to me is prejudicial to my reputation as a scholar," Rose said.

Books in the depot have been frozen and those in shops withdrawn pending the insertion of an apology that will be pasted over the cartoon.

Evans says the spat illustrates the tension between those who favour genetic explanations of intelligence and those who emphasise environmental influences. "Strictly speaking, Rose is right to object. He does not espouse the extreme form of environmental determinism that I mistakenly attributed to him. Yet there is a heavy dose of irony in the air when such a prominent critic of genetic determinism complains that he has been falsely accused of not putting enough importance on genes," Evans says.

He adds that intellectual debates should be resolved without resort to threats. "These matters should be settled by argument and evidence. Otherwise, we risk creating a climate of censorship in which everyone is too afraid to speak out."

But Rose draws a clear line between his complaint about Evans's inaccurate description of his views and the general argument about the influence of genes on intelligence. "I have an intellectual dispute with evolutionary psychology. I have a problem with what I regard as a defamatory statement. They are different issues.

"It is ridiculous to say that these ideas are being suppressed. You cannot open a newspaper without seeing a story about genes for this, that or the other. There are major issues in biology, psychology and social sciences being raised by genetic determinism, and these are being fought out in the public domain. It is disturbing to me as a biologist to see this sort of stuff. That is a separate issue. What Evans is not allowed to do is to claim that individuals express views that are totally absurd."

Rose, with sociology professor Hilary Rose, has edited a critique of evolutionary psychology to be published next year. Coming to Life will have essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Gabriel Dover, Mary Midgley, Patrick Bateson and others.

The spat follows an earlier debate between Rose and Colin Tudge, another LSE academic, in an issue of the journal The Biologist titled "Who is Afraid of Genetic Determinism?".

Sian Griffiths

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