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Rules of the Road for Biological Research

Science: It will no longer do to take a reflexively anti-biological stance toward every finding in the news.

July 19, 1998|CAROL TAVRIS | Carol Tavris is a social psychologist who writes frequently on behavioral research

My earliest ambition, at age 6, was to be the world's first woman bus driver. Before long, I saw that women were as rare as egrets in bus driving and a whole lot of other occupations, too, including law, medicine, the police, science, news reporting, bartending, real estate and insurance. That was then.

I got to thinking about the progress and setbacks on the road to sexual equality that I have witnessed in my lifetime as I was reading an article called "The Female Brain." The writer began with the usual caveats: There are more differences within any group of male brains or female brains than there are between the two sexes; moreover, experience and stimulation change the brain throughout life. Then, cheerfully throwing these cautions aside, the writer proceeded to generalize about "the female brain." (Not, you notice, some female brains or Louise's brain; the female brain.)

My first, automatic reaction was to say, "Here we go again." Like most people who support equal rights for women or other stigmatized groups, I am uncomfortable about biological research, with good reason. It has a long and inglorious history of justifying discrimination and bigotry. Yet it will no longer do to take a reflexively anti-biological stance toward every finding that makes the news. It is indisputable that biology plays an important role in intelligence, temperament, emotion, obesity, ulcers, schizophrenia and many other areas once thought to be purely psychological. Why not sex differences in the brain?

Biological research has long been polarized between the social conservatives who love it and the social reformists who hate it. Conservatives typically welcome biological findings, because such evidence seems to support their belief in the immutability of human nature and group differences. Liberals tend to reject biological findings, because such evidence seems to dispute their hopes for improving the human condition. But in fact both sides often make the same mistake: They assume that if something is "biological," it's permanent and fixed, whereas if it's learned, it can readily be changed.

This clash of assumptions erupted in the heated controversy a few years ago over "The Bell Curve," by conservatives Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. The authors argued that because IQs are largely genetically determined, there's little point spending money on social programs designed to raise the IQs of lower-scoring groups (read: African Americans). Liberals replied with scathing attacks on the authors' methods and their argument of a genetic contribution to intelligence.

In fact, the pro-biology forces are right that genes do set a range for our intellectual abilities; but the pro-learning forces are also right that experience, stimulation and nutrition determine where in a given range anyone actually falls. If children who are at risk get mental stimulation starting in infancy, their IQ scores can be raised as much as 15 to 30 points. That's why behavior and abilities that have a biological component can indeed be affected by learning. Conversely, some learned behavior can become deeply ingrained and almost impossible to modify. Most people, for example, do not easily change their religious beliefs, sexual attitudes, prejudices--or even their table manners, despite the best efforts of their spouses!

Biological findings don't automatically dictate a conservative social policy; rather, our goals and values determine how we will use biological research (or any other). For example, future evidence of a genetic contribution to homosexuality could be used to promote acceptance of a normal variation in sexual orientation--or to find ways of eradicating this biological "defect." Biology doesn't cause homophobia; homophobia causes a misuse of biology.

We can, I think, accept the contributions of biology as long as we resist the tendency to reduce complex problems and behaviors to a few physiological mechanisms. I propose a few guidelines to help assess biological findings in the news:

* Be wary of "first findings"; always wait for scientists to replicate the research. Findings from biology somehow seem more solid and reliable than, say, findings on family influences. The brain, after all, is a physical thing; you can touch it, probe it, scan it. In reality, however, there is far more subjectivity in brain and genetics studies than most people realize, and far more variation in physiology. For example, everyone got exited when genes were reported for manic-depression, a kind of alcoholism and sensation-seeking, respectively. But scientists have so far been unable to reproduce these findings.

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