Tuesday, March 11, 2008

More pointless propaganda for genetic determinism

Did anyone else see this piece of utter tripe in the Independent on Sunday? According to "scientists" the British sense of humour is in our genes. OFFS, as the kids might say.

"A survey of more than 4,000 twins suggests that humour regarded as typically British – sarcasm and self-deprecation – is linked to genes found in British men and women, but not shared, for instance, by Americans.

"While telling jokes and looking on the bright side of life – which researchers dubbed positive humour – is common to both sides of the Atlantic, only in the UK did they discover genetic links with negative humour – biting sarcasm and teasing. Experts admit that the results have left them baffled."

Baffled are they? Let me help them - could it be that their "British" subjects shared a "British" sense of humour and their "American" subjects didn't - and there also happened to be a common genetic trait in those "British" subjects that was not found in their "American" cousins. This does not add up to a genetic predisposition to finding toilets funny or laughing at old people slipping on icy pavements (or is that sidewalks?).

This is the news?

"They [sciencedudes] say it may explain why the British like aggressively sarcastic or denigrating humour such as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and, of course, The Office. He [scienceman] highlighted the difference between Ricky Gervais's dreadful character David Brent and his much less embarrassing US counterpart played by Steve Carell. "

"The British may have a greater tolerance for a wide range of expressions of humour, including what many Americans might consider aggressively sarcastic or denigrating: like Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. In the North American version of The Office the lead character is much less insensitive and intolerant than in the original UK version," he added.

"...negative humour – teasing and ridicule, as well as more offensive, racist or sexist forms of humour, together with self-disparaging humour – appeared to be genetically linked only in Britain."

Was the qualification for taking part in this "research" a science degree and watching too much TV? Is there any evidence that Brits enjoy racist jokes more than Yanks? Could there be any historical reasons that the English have had a long tradition of telling jokes about stupid Irish people or the garlic eating French (a tradition that has certainly declined in my lifetime)? Could there have been any tensions in the past between these great nations that may help explain any of this more satisfactorily than "our genes made us do it"? Apart from all those wars and that nasty Imperialism business that is.

Did they stop to think that TV either side of the Atlantic is not a direct product of genetics but a cultural, economic and historical product. To divorce Friends or Monty Python from everything except some unproven genetic makeup of the extremely mixed populations of the country who first watched those shows is... what's the word... oh, I don't know... let's go with hogwash.

"Self-defeating humour tends to be highly correlated with neuroticism. People who tend to be more negative, depressed and anxious tend to use that kind of humour." That's the Brits is it? Definitely? Like, is that a scientific fact? wtf? Are we just taking cultural stereo-types at face value now - and saying it's hard wired into our oh so different brains?

What annoys me the most is that, because you can write an entertaining story about the research the "news" gets reported straight, without even the attempt at any sort of critical analysis. They wouldn't dream of treating a press release from the Tories in such an uncritical manner - but scientists, well now we are in the realm of proven facts. Apparently.

For instance, we could question how come there is a common genetic heritage to "British" people that is not shared by "Americans". Just who did these researchers define as Americans? A random cross section of the population? White people? How many Jews, how many Native Americans, how many Eastern European immigrants? The same goes for the British. The idea of a single British genetic stock is not politically neutral, nor is it uncontested - but it is an unquestioned assumption in this "story".

We might wish to ask ourselvs how could it be that people descended from the same genetic pool have a different genetic makeup? Was a self deprecating sense of humour an evolutionary disadvantage in the Wild West? I could see how that might work in a shootout;

"Draw!"... "Oh no, I couldn't possibly... after you." BANG!

Or perhaps the Plymouth Brethren left blighty because they were sick of being teased by their genetically crueler counter parts? I don't think so. Having some qualifications in genetic research does not allow you to make sweeping statements about the nuances in cultural difference between two places with such diverse populations. Well, that's what I reckon anyways.


Anonymous said...

Hang on a second. There has been some selection here between those who went to America and those who stayed. The Plymouth Brethren left England for America because they were religious fanatics, as did a lot of other people. Maybe this is why Americans are among the most religious in the world and the Brits are among the least.
A lot of others left England for America because they were criminals - transported or on the run. Maybe that explains the differential crime rate. (I wouldn't consider Australia here, because by the time we were deporting people there it was a time of extreme poverty so they weren't people who were inherently criminal, and there were a lot of political prisoners sent to Australia too).
The sense of humour stuff is nonsense though.

Jim Jay said...

Yes, there's selection - but that doesn't make it genetic though.

If American society was partially founded by religious fanatics then you'd expect that country to have a strong political-religious current.

That's the path US society found itself on but seeing as, by today's standards, large numbers of people who stayed in England were also religious fanatics it tends to undermine the idea there was a genetic predisposition at work, rather the different political situations.

As an example: If Blair could have got away with American style christian right politics he would have - it's the culture that made that impossible, not his genetic makeup.

Conversely Obama is constantly banging on about how christian he is - but that's because he *has* to in the american political system - but it doesn't seem to me to be the way he prefers to do things.

I hope that's not quite as rambling as I fear it might be.

Chris Hyland said...

Surely what they'd really need to do this study is sets of twins one of whom grew up in England and one of whom grew up in America, then see if they can predict which country the parents came from.

A lot of biologists tend to refer to this kind of pointless speculation as Just So Stories.

Chris Hyland said...

Just to be clear I'm talking about the article not your post.

Jim Jay said...

lol - don't panic chris that was clear from your previous post

weggis said...

I am of the view that those on the “left” are biologically programmed to that position. I therefore forgive you for this post.

John Mullen said...

Interesting post. It is incredible what drivel passes as science as soon as you use the word genetic. And then from the "science" to the press release to the sensational story it just gets further from any sense of rational analysis.

The idea that you can categorize humour easily into two or three categories is pretty weird in itself.

I have a theory that Australians are genetically programmed to run over kangaroos with their cars, because it never happens in the Lake District.