Letters To The Editor


July 28, 2008

Genes can't explain all human behavior

David P. Barash is a superb scientist but a lousy sociologist ("Monkeying with evolution," Commentary, July 24).

As a historian of science, I fully accept the evolutionary explanation of human origins and the idea that our genes influence everything from eye color to temperament. But I also recognize the fallacy in Mr. Barash's argument.

Science is not simply an apolitical search for truth.

Seemingly objective criteria such as race and measures of cogitation are riddled with subjective cultural assumptions.

How are African-Americans selected for study? Do they self-identify, or are they chosen because they are "obviously" black?

And how is cogitation measured? By IQ? The cultural biases of IQ tests are legendary.

The history of human genetics is filled with examples of studies that were believed at the time to be rigorous and definitive but that we ridicule today. And there is no way to tell which studies will hold up over time and which will be relegated to the scientific dustbin.

The safe money, however, is on the dustbin: Most scientific facts get modified with time.

Further, finding genes to explain human behavior tends naturally to emphasize the genetic over the environmental components of the behavior.

For instance, if a behavior is anti-social, a molecular explanation for it will tend to suggest a molecular solution - a drug, for example, instead of a change in diet or a social program.

Mr. Barash does not merely argue that such questions are not his problem; he suggests that it is illegitimate to worry about them. That is simply irresponsible.

In short, the search for the genetic bases of human social behaviors is a valid intellectual activity, but it is a minefield of biases, stereotypes and assumptions.

"What is true" can only be understood in context.

Modern evolutionary genetics is bursting with new insights into human physiology, behavior and even culture; its results will shape the future of medicine, business and politics.

Its practitioners can no longer afford the toxic blend of arrogance and naivete shown in Mr. Barash's column.

And the rest of us cannot afford either ignorance of the science or uncritical acceptance of genetic determinism.

Nathaniel C. Comfort, Baltimore

The writer is a professor of the history of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University.

Tired of excuses for MARC delays

I have been a regular MARC passenger for more than four years from Odenton to Washington. And, like many other riders, I was completely disappointed by Maryland Transit Administration Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld's apology ("MTA apologizes for poor service," July 24).

As a MARC rider, I acknowledge that I am at the mercy of a number of factors outside of my control when it comes to making it to and from work in a timely manner.

However, I completely reject Mr. Wiedefeld's suggestion that hot weather is part of the reason for the delays we experience on a daily basis.

In the Mid-Atlantic during the summer, it gets hot. The MARC locomotives always seem to have a problem operating in this weather. Unfortunately, this routine scenario seems to come as a surprise to the MTA - as every time an engine gives way in the heat, MARC seems not to have any contingency plan prepared.

Mr. Wiedefeld is an experienced and very qualified administrator. As I understand it, he was brought in by Gov. Martin O'Malley to address the kinds of challenges the MARC system is facing right now.

These challenges will only increase as the ridership levels continue to rise.

I hope this isn't the best that Mr. Wiedefeld can do.

If the MTA believes MARC passengers deserve better, it should put its money where its mouth is and start offering refunds for delayed or canceled trains.

Anything less is just lip service, and I've had enough of that.

Sean McGraw, Odenton

Obama begins to mend fences

It was quite a treat to see Sen. Barack Obama treated like a rock star on his overseas trip ("Obama calls for U.S.-European unity," July 25).

While most of those who turned out to hear him speak can't help him get to the White House, they do stand to benefit if he wins.

And they are motivated by the same idea that attracts so many Americans to Mr. Obama's candidacy - the possibility of hope and change after the disaster of the Bush administration.

When was the last time President Bush got a similar reception in Europe and beyond?

Steven M. Clayton, Ocean, N.J.

Sen. Barack Obama's recent overseas trip bodes well for the rapid repair of the colossal damage that this current administration has done to this country's reputation.

It would be wonderful to have a man of world vision in the White House again instead of a myopic fellow from Texas.

Nancy Spies, Jarrettsville

Speech in Israel missed a chance

In the last paragraph of the article "Obama calls for U.S.-European unity" (July 25), Sen. Barack Obama speaks of "walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christians and Muslims and Jews."

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