From Homo Economicus to Homo Genomicus? Free Will vs. Your DNA

Fans of musicals will most likely remember the endearing West Side Story song, “Gee, Officer Krupke”. In the song, the juvenile delinquent Jets explain to the forces of the law that their delinquency is not their own fault but rather, as the pretend psychologist says, “Society’s played him a terrible trick, And sociologic’ly he’s sick!”* With this song, The West Side Story (unintentionally, we can assume) enters headlong into one of the most pernicious and annoying debates in the social sciences – structure vs. agency.

The form of this debate goes along lines something like this: Someone argues that a large structure of society (class, caste, etc.) determines the behavior of those people enmeshed in that structure. Someone else argues that, wait, you’ve forgotten agency! People have free will, don’t they? If they didn’t, why would there ever be deviation, innovation, or resistance? And the argument sallies forth from there, arguing about the relative importance of particular structures, mobilizing other structures to explain residual variation (for example, explaining the actions of women of color as some sort of interaction between the two structures of race and gender), etc.
In this post, I’m going to talk about various notions of responsibility, agency and determinism. Terms are usually poorly defined, and often the level of analysis varies widely between the two arguments (trying to explain societal level outcomes vs. trying to explain individual decision-making, for example).

I personally find the whole argument a little baffling. As much as class or gender are not the most rigorous of scientific concepts (compared to, say, the electron), they are still miles apart from ‘agency’ or ‘free will’ in the commonsense usage. What role can free will play in an explanation of society? Why does the argument “you’ve forgotten agency!” still play so well in these circles? One reason, I think, for the continued persistence of this argument has to do with enduring enlightenment ideas of free will and rationality. And that brings us to homo economicus, at least momentarily.

Homo economicus refers, somewhat humorously, to the model of human nature found in classical and neoclassical economic thought. The “Chicago Man”, infinitely rational, possessing perfect knowledge of the market place, his own preferences and the preferences of others, is the extreme form of homo economicus. Modern versions of economics often allow some deviations – imperfect and asymmetrical information (as in George Akerlof’s model for why the market for used cars is so awful), and limited processing power forcing us to take short cuts (the “bounded rationality” model derived from Herbert Simon’s work, amongst others). Nonetheless, the model is one of an individual choosing (I mean, it’s called rational choice theory). Humans are modeled as paragons of rationality, and rationality is the ability to choose well.** This conception of humans-as-choosers fits nicely into the enlightenment framework, and the legal framework. The “law and economics” perspective has been on the rise in legal theory, with consequences in tort law and other areas beyond my understanding. For more on that, check out the blog of economist Gary Becker and judge Richard Posner.

These legal-economic arguments have seemingly done well in recent years in part, I would argue, because the basic model of human nature in the law and economics framework is not too far from the model implicit in the law. A sociological model with structure playing a determining role is a much harder sell in a legal framework based on individual responsability. Even biological arguments that subtract choice from the equation are extremely difficult to sell. Allan Brandt, a historian who has studied the tobacco industry in the 20th century, gave a lecture at Michigan recently. He told a story of a 1980s law suit where a woman attempted to get damages from a tobacco company for her smoking-related illness. This woman started smoking after the first warning labels were added to cigarettes, so she was not arguing (as previous successful claimants did) anything related to the tobacco industry cover-up of damaging information. Rather, she was arguing that she simply could not quit; she was addicted. Medical experts testified about the addiction – it is, after all, a recognized medical condition, with physiological symptoms, etc. The tobacco company’s closing statement asserted, however, that the woman chose to smoke. The jury found in favor of the tobacco company.

I am not arguing here that this argument was the only factor that led to the jury’s verdict. Rather, I am simply illustrating what I think is a fairly evident larger point: arguments that deny an individual’s freedom to choose, that deny individual responsibility to argue instead for a social/structural responsibility or even a medical one, are very difficult to make in 20th-21st century USA. This difference in strength of certain modes of argument connects with some of the ideological debates between Democrats and Republicans for example (see Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant for example) in addition to those of sociology and economics and I’m sure other areas.

But, this not the end of the story, as there is a new model in town, with a form of structure more compelling than the sociologists’ variables or even the doctor’s disease: genetics. A recent Washington Post article illustrates nicely the consequences of this new understanding of human nature, which I am playfully calling homo genomicus until somene points me to a better name or tells me that someone else made that up first. The article, “DNA Tests Offer Deeper Examination Of Accused”, explores a “second generation” of DNA tests:

Rather than simply proving, for example, that the blood on a suspect’s clothes does or does not match that of a murder victim, these “second generation” DNA tests seek to shed light on the biological traits and psychological states of the accused. In effect, they allow genes to “testify” in ways never before possible, in some cases resolving long-standing legal tangles but in others raising new ones.

Already, chemical companies facing “toxic tort” claims have persuaded courts to order DNA tests on the people suing them, part of an attempt to show that the plaintiffs’ own genes made them sick — not the companies’ products.

In other cases, defense attorneys are asking judges to admit test results suggesting that their clients have a genetic predisposition for violent or impulsive behavior, adding a potential “DNA defense” to a legal system that until now has held virtually everyone accountable for their actions except the insane or mentally retarded.

Some gene tests are even being touted for their capacity to help judges predict the likelihood that a convict, if released, will break the law again — a measure of “future dangerousness” that raises questions about how far courts can go to abort crimes that have not yet been committed.

Genes are like other structures in that they are used to explain behavior without reference to intentionality or choice***, but in this case the structures are individual rather than social. “My genes made me do it” as a defense is on the rise, according to the article, and is starting to be taken seriously. Sayeth the Post,

Studies have shown that up to 62 percent of antisocial and criminal behavior is “heritable,” a rough measure of a genetic contribution. And in a few cases, courts have allowed arguments seemingly akin to “My genes made me do it.”

The Supreme Court of South Carolina reversed a murder conviction for a man who shot a shopkeeper in the head, concurring with the killer’s attorney that his actions were an outgrowth of severe, genetically rooted depression — essentially saying that what he did was the result of an inherited disease rather than an act of free will.

Interestingly, the article makes no mention of the classic problem with behavioral genetics arguments: the interaction between genes and environment. For example, consider the arguments for a genetic basis for sexuality. Sexuality is not a static concept, with fixed ahistorical categories of “gay” and “straight” (and maybe “bi” and “trans”). In other places and times, including the not too distant past in the United States, or contemporary Central America, sexuality (which itself wasn’t even a term or idea until recently) just worked very differently. For example, “maricón” in some Spanish-speaking countries refers to a man who is penetrated by another man. The penetrator is not considered sexually deviant. Similar concepts applied in some places in early 20th century America (see, for example, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940). A more extreme example is the “ritualized homosexuality” between men and boys found in certain parts of Melanesia, that (as far as I know, which is very little) is understood completely differently from male/female relationships.

So given that sexuality is not a fixed thing, that there are at least a great many possibilities, how can we talk about a ‘gay gene’? What does that mean? In particular, if it means “a gene that, given the current constellation of contingent institutions and etc. we call contemporary culture, leads to an increased chance of someone identifying as gay/having sex with people of the same gender” then it seems that the genetic determinism/structuralism isn’t much stronger than other forms. But genetic arguments have the advantage of sounding like Science! in a way sociological or even psychological arguments simply don’t.

Lastly, even if we accept the argument that genes somehow code for certain behaviors, what do we do with that? Back to the Post for a moment:

Such decisions are worrisome, said Markus Heilig, a research psychiatrist and neurochemist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “To argue that behavior can be predicted, you are arguing this guy does not have free will,” Heilig said. “So how can you hold someone accountable?”

Not everyone goes that far.

“Just because you can explain a behavior’s cause doesn’t mean it is excusable,” said Nita Farahany, an expert in behavioral genetics and the law at Vanderbilt University.

What is the relationship between explanation and justification? What do you with behavior that is explicable but which you wish to deter or feel the need to punish?

Before finishing this post, let me hazard one definition of homo genomicus: a conceptualization of human nature which holds that individuals are defined by their unique, stable genomes and that the behavior of individuals can be understood as the expression of those genomes. For a fun critique of this understanding of human nature, I recommend very highly Aryn Martin’s 2007 Osiris article, “The Chimera of Liberal Individualism: How Cells Became Selves in Human Clinical Genetics”. In that article, Martin examines this genetic notion of individuality in dialogue with the medical finding that at least a small fraction of people exhibit “chimerism”, that is, having cells with more than one different genetic makeup (due to some interaction between the mother and fetus, or between twins). Martin draws on Ian Hackin’s fabulous concept of “Making Up People” to show how chimera were made up, and how they challenge this genetic notion of the self. My favorite take home quote, from an immunologist,

So my worldview is that I think we’re probably all chimeras and that we’re probably all not just circulating chimeras, we’re tissue chimeras, too. It’s just a different kind of view of the self. I mean, the self’s not a clone of one. It actually, intrinsically, the thing we call a self, has these minor populations.

So, it’s possible that homo genomicus will prove unstable turf for the creation of a new understanding of human nature. For the moment though, and for better or worse, I believe that it is very much on the rise.

* The Social Worker later in the song, of course, disagrees asserting that “deep down he’s no good” and what he really needs is a year in the pen… The whole song is a humorous take on notions of responsability, free will, criminal justice, and 19-20th century forms of expertise. I think I might over-analyze in the morning…
** I am eliding an important point here: in most formal definitions, rationality is not the ability to choose well but simply the ability to make a choice consistently with your preferences. There is some nuance there, but I would argue that much of the nuance of the formal definition is ignored not 10 pages later in most economics textbooks, as they go about assuming nice-seeming preference sets, so we’ll make do with the less nuanced version here.
*** I’m not 100% that’s a fair description of structure. I think some kinds of structures (for example, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus) are structures that determine those intentions and choices. Famously, the habitus is a “structuring structure” that is also a “structured structure”. But these intentions and choices are the not the free will/agency kinds of choices that agency folks in the debate want to argue about, I think.

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