The “Bad Mother” Gene.

// 31 March 2010

The Times has published an article questioning if it is possible to inherit the “bad mother” gene. The article argument is based on two studies; one study from Richmond University in Virginia on rodents where there was a correlation between the number of ‘switched on’ ‘maternal neurons’ to the neglect and abuse of their offsprings, and a second study performed at Yale University which identified a certain area of the brain’s level of neuron activity could be correlated to the measure of ‘adequate’ and ‘inadequate’ parenting in humans. The article does a successful job of weaving the story of Sian Busby who is anxious if she has inherited the “bad mother” gene from her grandmother who drowned her two one-week-old babies.

People tend to believe what science has to say. But we need to be critical of how the messages can be twisted to manipulate us into thinking something differently. There are three main critiques I have of the Times article.

1) The article uses arguments of socio-biology. You have the gene, therefore your behaviour can be abnormal. It’s largely based on the assumption that behaviours are propagated by genetic material for the sake of the evolutionary good of the human species. It sounds good but that is not the way genetics works. The argument is then reduced to the eternal debate of nature versus nurture. Nature; being that we’re born this way and we can’t alter, or be responsible for our behaviour. Like dogs chasing after a car. The other hand is Nurture; which argues that we are not defined by our genetic material and our environment can define ourselves just as much as our genetic material can. The argument in the Times article is broken down to “We found the “bad mother” gene, but don’t worry you can change your environment to prevent the expression of the gene.”

Socio-biology makes this argument time and time again. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Here are two examples;

Congrats! You’re gay! It’s because you have a genetic disposition to being gay. But if you ever not want to be gay, you can just change your environment to decrease your disposition of being gay. Especially since it would make everyone else feel better that you changed your sexual orientation. And don’t forget to blame the mothers.. because it’s their frigid sense of caring which caused all children to become gay.

Congrats! You’re a rapist! You found the rapist gene. You can’t help it that you rape women because you’re naturally pre-disposed! Way da go for absolving responsibility for your actions. It’s not your fault that women wear short skirts and tempt you by walking out late at night. You have the gene and you should have freedom of expression.

While genetic material can cause an increase in particular behaviours, you are not made by your genes. Your behaviour can actually rewire your neuronal patterns in your brain. People are more than their genetic makeup.

2) There are two parties who have something to gain by you believing this story, a) the neuroscientists b)the reporter at Times magazine.

Neuroscientists have actually very little understanding of how the brain works. There was a joke that in order for the brain to be simple enough for us to understand it, we’d be too stupid to figure it out. The study is simply conveying a simple experiment that the brain has more neuron firing activity in correlating abusive parenting. But the problem with the argument is causality. How do we know that it’s the genes that cause the localized area of the brain to fire more frequently? It’s probable that people who come from abusive backgrounds have their brains re-wired from their environment and thus propagate the learned behaviour to their own children. We actually don’t know the cause of the increase in neuronal activity and to say it’s because of our genetic material makes the argument all too destined.

Second, we forget that scientist don’t just simply study out of the goodness of their own hearts. They study things because it makes them money. In order to gain funding, they often send their research to popular newspapers to generate some publicity. The Times caught the bait, and wrote a sob story of Sian Busby and her grandmother. The Times is also looking to make money, and stories of bad motherhood sells papers.

3) Lastly, the Times article used as a scare tactic for women. We live in a society where we believe if you’re born with the genetic disposition of being a woman (two X chromosomes) that you’re also genetically disposition to being a mother. Why is it that stories of bad mothers sell papers but stories of bad fathers never make the press. If all the boys and men who have failed to live up to their responsibility when their partners were pregnant were tested for the “bad father” gene, I could hypothesis that they would have a certain limbic area with increased neuronal firing. Then I could run an experiment and test that theory and then write to the Times and ask them to publish the article. It’s that simple.

In order to move forward from these myths, we need the public to have larger confidence in understanding scientific materials and take everything they read with a grain of salt. The socio-biological argument is often used against what society sees as the norm, and is twisted to be harmful for women, people of different sexual orientation, or people of different racial backgrounds. Shame on you Times for not being more diligent with with your research.

Josephine Tsui writes for goodgirlsmarrydoctors.webs.com. She’s a jack of all trades as she use to dissect sheeps brains, did open brain surgeries on rates and removed the brains of snails. She’s also published in agricultural research in the field of international development to ensure that women are food secure.

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 1 April 2010 at 9:01 am

A really helpful analysis, Josephine, thank you.

Louise // Posted 1 April 2010 at 10:36 am

Nice post, Josephine! And your critique is spot on.

It really winds me up when animal research is assumed to map so neatly onto human behaviour. Having read some of the original research on which the Times article is based, the scientists in question (psychobiologists, mostly) are a lot more cautious about their conclusions. But once it gets into the hands of the popular media, all caution, subtlety, and probabilistic causality is lost and the message becomes A-causes-B. Grrrrr…

The mangling of science in media news cycles is summarised beautifully in this cartoon http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?n=1174

Jennifer Drew // Posted 1 April 2010 at 3:39 pm

Short answer – there is no such ‘thing’ as ‘bad mother gene.’ However we are living in a society wherein misogyny reigns supreme and science is commonly harnessed to support these women-hating lies. Do male rapists have a ‘bad gene’ which predisposes them to rape and commit sexual violence against women and girls? Short answer no – but our male supremacist society legitimates, excuses and justifies men’s violence against women. How? Because men are supposedly ‘provoked’ into committing violence against women and girls when a member of this group dares to challenge/refute men’s pseudo innate right of ownership and control over all women and girls.

Or to put it another way – science is never objective and neutral because scientists cannot separate out their cultural and social conditioning. This is why once upon a time women were believed to be ‘victims’ of the wandering womb’ and hence men told women we are incapable of rational thought or reason. Ergo: the human status only applies to men – because only men are supposedly human!

Shea // Posted 1 April 2010 at 6:11 pm

Great post Josephine- we need more exposes of fake science.

I love the way complex human behaviours get reduced to “you are the sum of your genes” as if we were all microbes. Genes aren’t destiny.

I’m assuming that you’ve done open brain surgeries on “rats” though rather than “rates”, unless creative accountancy is your field! :-)

aimee // Posted 1 April 2010 at 8:21 pm

What I really hate is the assumption that the grandmother who drowned her babies must have been a ‘bad mother’. Did they not consider the myriad other factors which could have contributed to the grandmother’s actions? Maybe she was ill? Maybe the pressures society puts on mothers, coupled with the fact that they are often expected to take on all the childcare was too much for her? But no, it’s no one else’s fault but her own. She MUST be a ‘bad mother’. Good job science, in promoting horrible, misogynist myths and ill informed opinion, presented as legitimate science.

Daniel Charlebois // Posted 2 April 2010 at 11:31 pm

I thought the article from the Times was interesting and did in fact present both sides of the story (e.g. professors with conflicting viewpoints were quoted) – granted the science itself was not placed under much scrutiny.

The nature vs. nurture debate seems to be settled – the real question now seems to be to what extent does each play a role (which is likely to be variable from case to case).

It is true what you said about scientists – we do know very little about what we are studying (that is why it is research and we have jobs!) and it is true that correlation does not prove causation – there has to be a mechanism shown to link the cause and the effect (here e.g. one idea, if not done already, is to “knock out” the genes in question and see if what happens).

Scientists often pursue some combination of what they are passionate about (otherwise it is no fun!) as well as a project that they think will receive funding (no money, no science!). The only thing a scientist loves more than “proving” something, is showing that another scientist is wrong (which results partly from ego and partly from the fact that there is limited funding – this helps keeps science honest)! Whether research gets publicity doesn’t say anything (one way or the other) about the credibility of their findings (the peer review processes often does) – but agreed everyone has their motives and this must be taken into account.

How do we know that the Times used this article as a scare tactic for women? And if this is in fact true, what exactly is their motivation (i.e. what are they trying to scare women into doing)? I think if similar findings were found for the opposite sex, it would also make the news. In extreme cases (e.g. infant drowning) bad parenting on the part of either sexes definitely does make it into the news. However, in less extreme cases perhaps bad parenting on the part of the mother does make it into the news more often – I would have to see the numbers to know one way or the other.

Sorry for the long post but thanks for the interesting read Josephine!!!

claire // Posted 3 April 2010 at 4:10 am

I’m not sure if your remark about it being probable that people who are abused in childhood have had their brains re-wired as a result was meant to be serious or sarcastic. If serious, what a load of tosh! You are falling into a trap of assuming that environment would “force” someone into a behaviour just as much as genetics.

Shea // Posted 3 April 2010 at 9:31 pm

But how is the nature v nuture debate even close to being settled?

I find the vast majority of these articles about a “bad mother”gene or a “gay” gene to be so spurious as to be laughable. You know why?

Because of the entire human genome only 1%– yes that is 1% of it is comprised of genes that code for proteins! 8% is dark matter, which we don’t know what it does, the remaining is junk DNA, which again we don’t know what it does. In all likelihood it had a use somewhere in our evoultionary history and has now fallen by the wayside as our environment has radically changed, rendering whatever adaptation useless.

The fundamental point is 97% of our genome contains vast regions of DNA the function of which, if any, remains unknown.

Someone somewhere agreed to fund this research- why? As aimee pointed out the assumption is that because the grandmother drowned her babies she was a”bad mother”. Not a desperate one, not a poverty stricken one, or one suffering from post natal depression, but a “bad” one. Got that, bad. A loaded value judgment.

There are cases of “bad” fathers, that is neglectful, absent fathers every day that never make the papers. If a “gene” were to be found (highly dubious) that somehow controlled this, do you honestly think it would be under the headline “bad fathers”? I don’t. I think the article would focus heavily on the need for men to mate with a variety of women in order to pass on their genes. There would be very little implicit judgment there.

Horry // Posted 4 April 2010 at 11:18 am

@ Claire

I was wondering about that comment on abuse and rewiring too. When I was pregnant with my first child I ended up seeing therapist as I was so frightened that my own abusive childhood would make me a bad parent. I never considered this to be genetic, though, but absolutely believed that the things I’d experienced could have made me incapable of bringing my own children up in a safe, loving environment. The therapist was great, but I still get scared now if I feel angry with my children, even if I don’t express it. But this isn’t healthy for me or them, and I really resent the implication, which I can’t help picking up in the (otherwise really interesting) piece, that people like me have more work to do than the average parent in undoing our “rewiring” so that we don’t pass on “learned behavour”. I don’t see the point of such speculation, and it seems to me that dismissing research that is overly reliant on “reading” genes, but half-buying into “environment is destiny” arguments (yeah, I know it says “probable”, but still…) isn’t good for anyone who wants to live free from prejudice and fear. And yes, the piece does say “you can actually rewire your neuronal patterns in your brain”, but in the context of everything else this can read like a get-out clause when actually, maybe we should feel we don’t need to fix ourselves.

Josephine Tsui // Posted 4 April 2010 at 12:15 pm

@Horry,Thank you for sharing.

To clarify, I’m not taking a position on the nature vs nurture debate. I don’t think the environment defines who we are any more than our genetic material. I really don’t think scientist have a clear cut answer. The argument of nature vs nurture is used to justify behaviour to be socially correct.

Why isn’t there a similar argument to make men feel bad about themselves? We see plenty of examples of bad fatherhood but we rarely lay the responsibility on that particular man’s shoulders. For example, we entertain the thoughts that abusive husbands were violent because he didn’t have a father growing up (absolution of responsibility based on environment) or their mother was drinking while pregnant with him or his father was also a violent person (absolution of responsibility based on genetics).

@claire; you’re right on that point, a person can’t absolve their abusive behaviour because they were born in an abusive environment either. But we can’t say the responsbility of our behaviour is 100% genetic or 100% environment.

With the ‘bad mother’ gene, women are not absolved of responsibility but rather feel burdened with guilt! 1) I have the ‘bad mother’ gene so I have to increase the responsibility of monitoring my behaviour 2) I was born in a ‘bad mother’ environment so I have the increased burden of being a bad mother to my children. Scientist don’t know the answer to the nature vs nurture debate but it’s the way that the argument is used which is gendered. When have we ever heard someone say ‘I”m a good mother because I came from a long line of good mothers?’

@Daniel, I’m not saying the Times is using this article as a scare tactic for women. The nature vs nurture argument is often used to justify societally acceptable behaviour which are often along gendered lines! I expected the Times to have considered all aspects when writing this article and we need more women scientists to determine if there is is such a thing as a ‘bad father’ gene.

@Shea and to everyone.

Please excuse my typo! I did indeed did RAT surgeries, not RATE surgeries. LOL!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 4 April 2010 at 1:28 pm

On the topic of seeing the woman who drowned her newborns as ‘bad’- the number of infants killed by mothers (and fathers and other family members present at the birth) in the past is actually quite high. In 19thC Ireland, they prosecuted about 100 women a year for killing their infants (and prosecution depends on being caught!). Infanticide killings were often higher than the homicide rate for all other killings in a single year. In an era where women had no access to abortion or contraception, the killing of newborns was often a method of family limitation- that was at the same time horrific and illegal but also frequently turned a blind eye to by local communities who recognised that poverty and desperation were hard taskmasters. And, yet discussions of childkilling in the past are rarely discussed in terms of poverty or family limitation- and might offer a useful perspective on the social benefits of legal abortion and access to contraception.

Eronarn // Posted 6 April 2010 at 2:38 am

I’ve posted a lengthier critique of this article on my blog. It’s too vitriolic for me to repost it on this site, however. Here are the main points that I make off-site:

-This article attributes the problems of a poorly written article to sociobiology.

-Instead of rightly attacking the credibility of science journalism, this article attacks the credibility of scientists and the scientific process.

-To do that, it relies on some fairly exaggerated strawmen and a certain degree of alarmism and misplaced doubt.

-It does nothing to further the understanding of scientific materials” that it claims is so important. It’s not even an article about scientific materials: it’s an article about a popular journalism article that poorly represents scientific materials.

There are many good reasons to doubt the importance of a “Bad Mother” gene. This article does a poor job of highlighting them and simply muddles the issue further for those without a scientific background, who who would benefit the most from having the issue clarified.

Kristin // Posted 6 April 2010 at 10:39 am

Eronarn, I think those of us without the scientific background just looked on this as yet another piece of sexist rubbish and that was clear enough, thanks.

Darnell // Posted 6 April 2010 at 11:54 am

Stories of bad fathers DO make the press, and on a scarily regular basis. The big difference is that each case is treated as a personal aberration on the part of the man involved. The media never seize on any particular bad father case and use it to make specious generalisations about fathers and fatherhood the way they continually do about mothers.

Eronarn // Posted 6 April 2010 at 6:28 pm

Kristin:

I do not think you would be very happy if the men you encounter in life brushed off your concerns with “I think those of us with penises just looked on this as yet another piece of feminist rubbish and that was clear enough, thanks.” To some degree it makes sense to view the article through an exclusively feminist lens because most people who will be exposed to it do not understand science. The point of reporting scientific discoveries in news media – at least, the point for certain views of the role of journalism – is to educate the public on topics they might not otherwise be exposed to. If this type of education is sexist, either in the case of individual incidents or on a systematic level, it should be called out as such.

What doesn’t make sense is to view the scientists and science through a feminist lens without taking the effort to put their research in context. This is just plain intellectually lazy. To say that this research is overstated or flawed because it makes some women look bad ignores that research can, in fact, make people look bad. Sometimes it can do that even if they haven’t actually done something wrong yet. Responding to that in a scientifically sound way can get you, for example, the current literature on race and IQ which identifies most of the gap as due to economic and social disparities. Refuse to use science to defend your point of view and those attacking it won’t need to use it, either: that’s how you end up with The Bell Curve instead.

Beyond being a shortcut, though, it’s counterproductive to boot. If there is a “Bad Mother” gene with some significant effect – and I doubt this is it, for the record – it is absolutely crucial that women, and in particular feminist women, be involved in society’s response to that discovery. This will make all the difference between those genetically-at-risk being helped or being ostracized (or even worse). Denying something because its implications make you uncomfortable or harm your cause means refusing to join that important discussion.

Darnell:

Um, does “deadbeat dads” ring a bell? My experience with media is that it’s pretty even-handed in making all kinds of parents look bad.

Shea // Posted 7 April 2010 at 2:13 am

@Eronarn -I took the bait and read your critique of this. Thats five minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.

Its clear that you don’t understand science. This just astounds:

“By the way, it makes me cackle with glee to see a feminist simultaneously believe that people with XX genes will be treated by society as genetically predisposed to be a mother, but that people with genes ‘causing’ them to rape will be… given a pat on the back, apparently.”

Um, first its impossible to be genetically predisposed to be a mother with XY chromosomes. Second no one has XX *genes*. People have XX chromosomes or XY, these contain genes – there is a distinction. Third

Josephine isn’t arguing that people have genes causing them to rape or that they will be given a pat on the back. She is criticising the genetic determinism being portrayed in these sort of arguments.

Your whole critique spectacularly missed the point of the OP. I don’t know whether its because your American (my assumption) and therefore unable to understand sarcasm or whether the nuances of the debate escape you.

“I am pretty sure that the public response to “we found the rape gene” would be to lock up people with the rape gene, not to absolve them of responsibility.”

Well given the current conviction rate for rape in the UK, this looks at best doubtful. We absolve people without knowing if they have the *rape gene* of responsbility for raping through blaming the victim – i.e she was drinking, or she had a prior sexual relationship. Is it really a stretch to imagine that if the gene was identified, that is wouldn’t provide further ammunition?

“I don’t even know what the point of this section is. What is the argument here? That men have genes too? That newspapers are interested in writing about both men and women (despite the author saying otherwise in the same paragraph? Who the fuck knows, really.”

If you are going to critique something you could at least try and understand it. The argument is and was that it is ridiculous and irresponsible to hypothesise that a complex range of human behaviours can be narrowed down to the existence of a gene or genes.

The point of the paragraph beginning “If all the boys and men who have failed …..” was to demonstrate that its possible to make a spurious hypothesis become headline grabbing very easily.

Which is a criticism of the Times article. It lacks scientific rigour and journalistic integrity. We are talking about experiments on rodents, not human beings, and yet from that we have a “bad mother gene” that women are supposed to be concerned with.

All your criticisms about the OP are really criticism of the Times article.

“To say that this research is overstated or flawed because it makes some women look bad ignores that research can, in fact, make people look bad.”

No one is shying away from “research that makes people look bad”. This is poor research on a faulty premise. Are you seriously telling me you think the byline: “Will identifying ‘bad mother’ neurons prevent deaths such as Baby P’s, or condemn women before they even give birth?” is scientific in any way?

This is research in its infancy, on rodents, not human beings. There is a massive leap to be made.

“Um, does “deadbeat dads” ring a bell? My experience with media is that it’s pretty even-handed in making all kinds of parents look bad.”

To my mind “deadbeat dads” is more a criticims of lazy, uninvolved parents. “Bad” in this context is abusive, violent or murderous, given the examples cited. (I’ll let you off a bit, in that your from the USA and might not have heard of the Baby P case). Its clear that the media doesn’t treat bad mothers and bad fathers the same or you wouldn’t have the term “family annihilators” used to describe almost exclusively: fathers who kill their children. A term which masks the role of men. Top of the google results is an article from the BBC- “what drives a father to kill his children?”

You see men have to be driven, for women its in their nature.

Kristin // Posted 7 April 2010 at 9:57 am

Eronarn, no, I would not be happy if anyone (with or without a penis) dismissed concerns I had about sexism by labelling them ‘feminist rubbish’. Because sexism is unjust and discriminatory, and feminism tries to counteract injustice and discrimination against women. Or did last time I looked.

I agree with you that it makes no sense to view scientists and science purely through a ‘feminist lens’ without putting their research into context. The big problem is that a lot of so-called research is deeply flawed because many scientists (who are fallible human beings like the rest of us) view their research through a sexist lens. Or a racist lens.That is far worse than being intellectually lazy.

gadgetgal // Posted 7 April 2010 at 10:14 am

@Shea – well said! I made the mistake of reading it too, and no amount of eye scrubbing will take away the sting of the wasted time I’ve spent now…

Paul // Posted 7 April 2010 at 10:42 am

Kristin and Shea, very well put. Constructive. Articulate. Informative. Witty.

Thank you!

Ally // Posted 7 April 2010 at 10:47 am

I think the central point Eronarn was trying to make was that the claims about the bad mother gene in the times article were not made by the scientists collecting the data, but were the inferences of the science journalists writing the article made from examining that data.The OP attacks the scientists for spurious claims that were made by journalists, and not them.

Kekele // Posted 7 April 2010 at 11:38 am

“…the central point Eronarn was trying to make…”

I can only laugh.

Darnell // Posted 7 April 2010 at 12:59 pm

Kristin and Shea – absolutely!

Carrying on from what Feminist Avatar said about infanticide and how child killings are hardly ever discussed in terms of poverty or family limitation, I read that during the 19th century, murder of babies and children was also quite common for insurance purposes. It could be lucrative. ‘Half-benefit’ meant no doctor’s examination was needed, and the payout could be as high as twenty pounds. The child or young person would be murdered, usually by arsenic poisoning, and the money collected. A lot of doctors were misled by cause of death either because they didn’t care or didn’t believe anyone could fool them. As Feminist Avatar points out, many people in the community turned a blind eye.

Denise // Posted 7 April 2010 at 1:16 pm

“Professor Craig Kinsley, whose research has so far been limited to rodents and small mammals”.

Helluva leap for Craig to then parrot what can only be pure (unscientific) speculation about human beings then, wouldn’t you say?!

Might be a good idea to introduce brain scans for scientists.

Eronarn // Posted 7 April 2010 at 11:58 pm

Shea:

That’s a lot to respond to!

#0:

“Um, first its impossible to be genetically predisposed to be a mother with XY chromosomes.”

This is actually just an aside, hence the numbering, but why do you believe this is the case? I would recommend not making this statement lightly: genes are not exclusively located on sex chromosomes, being a mother doesn’t require bearing children, and having an XY karotype doesn’t mean that you’re not female (or vice versa).

#1:

“Second no one has XX *genes*. People have XX chromosomes or XY, these contain genes – there is a distinction.”

Yes, that sentence is incorrect. I didn’t proofread my post as closely as I should have.

#2:

“Third Josephine isn’t arguing that people have genes causing them to rape or that they will be given a pat on the back. She is criticising the genetic determinism being portrayed in these sort of arguments.”

In the portion of my writing which you criticize here, I am responding to this portion of her writing:

“Socio-biology makes this argument time and time again. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Here are two examples;

Congrats! You’re a rapist! You found the rapist gene. You can’t help it that you rape women because you’re naturally pre-disposed! Way da go for absolving responsibility for your actions. It’s not your fault that women wear short skirts and tempt you by walking out late at night. You have the gene and you should have freedom of expression.”

Again, sociobiology doesn’t make this argument as a whole (though individual sociobiologists might, of course). If anything, society – including scientists – is far too willing to attribute agency to actors even despite contrary evidence. “Blaming the victim” is not solely a feminist concern, and I see it time and time again across a wide variety of situations: weight gain, drug addiction, rape, politics, domestic violence, and so on. This is not just some personal anecdote, either; it is well-studied concept in psychology known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. We are quite willing to explain away our own failings as the result of factors beyond our control, but that doesn’t apply to others in the same way. (This is a gross oversimplification, mind you! There are many subtleties to the concept.)

The presentation of that section may be sarcastic, but I read it as an actual attempt to attribute that argument to sociobiology. Some of the issues in that section may be relevant when discussing media coverage or public opinion – though I think the “gay gene” example is much stronger – but they are certainly not representative of the beliefs of sociobiology.

#3:

“Well given the current conviction rate for rape in the UK, this looks at best doubtful.”

Conviction rates are subject to a wide variety of influences. It’s not as simple as “people are willing to protect rapists” – which people, which rapists, and under which conditions? In the United States, at least, we are all too eager to brand minorities as rapists (even if they haven’t actually committed a rape). The same applies to those accused of sexual crimes against children. I don’t hope to address a subject as complex as rape in a handful of paragraphs, but I hope you can agree that society *does* care strongly about rape under certain conditions.

Were a “rape gene” to be identified, I would be wholly unsurprised to see widely used in short order. There are actually already serious concerns over the overwhelming probative value attributed to DNA evidence. Consider how the presence or lack of DNA evidence can strongly shape the outcome of a modern rape case. Now imagine how the existence of a “rape gene” could be used poorly to “decisively” settle what is often perceived as a he-said/she-said matter.

“We absolve people without knowing if they have the *rape gene* of responsbility for raping through blaming the victim – i.e she was drinking, or she had a prior sexual relationship. Is it really a stretch to imagine that if the gene was identified, that is wouldn’t provide further ammunition?”

In the case of a “rape victim gene”, yes, I believe that it might well be used against women. As an example one can compare the intersection of rape and mental illness, and then note that there is strong evidence for genetic influences.

A “rape gene”, though? No, I don’t believe so. As another example, I would suggest examining the way race influences rape. Juries in the United States care if a black man is accused of raping a white woman. They don’t care that he had no control over being born black. I do not believe that this is an exact parallel, by any means, but I think it is quite believable that juries will opt to otherize those with “unwanted” genes and thus make it quite acceptable to punish them.

#4:

“If you are going to critique something you could at least try and understand it. The argument is and was that it is ridiculous and irresponsible to hypothesise that a complex range of human behaviours can be narrowed down to the existence of a gene or genes.

The point of the paragraph beginning “If all the boys and men who have failed …..” was to demonstrate that its possible to make a spurious hypothesis become headline grabbing very easily.”

But that section doesn’t look anything like your description of it. The mock hypothesis is not “ridiculous” or “irresponsible”. There could very well be a “bad father” gene, and it could very well manifest in a way visible on brain scans. Because limited conclusions could be drawn from the hypothesis as stated, it wouldn’t be a great study IMO, but it would be worth doing. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is already doing it. Do you have any objections to that proposal on a scientific basis?

Your response really makes me wonder whether you are actually conveying the author’s intent properly. I wouldn’t expect someone with her background to write that as an example of a “ridiculous” or “irresponsible” hypothesis. The reason that I don’t understand this section is that I am reading it straight: it is a reasonable hypothesis that ends with “It’s that simple”, but it seems to have no relevance to the rest of the piece and make no point. To me, it reads as “I could study this topic, and then it would be reported in the news. It’s that simple.” That’s fine… but what meaning does that statement really carry?

#5:

“Which is a criticism of the Times article. It lacks scientific rigour and journalistic integrity. We are talking about experiments on rodents, not human beings, and yet from that we have a “bad mother gene” that women are supposed to be concerned with.”

The article does, yes. I don’t go into much detail about why the article is wrong – there isn’t enough time in the world to pick apart every bad piece of science journalism – but it’s quite clear in my post that I think it is wrong.

On the other hand,

“All your criticisms about the OP are really criticism of the Times article.”

This just isn’t the case. The author quite clearly makes several claims about sociobiology, science, and scientists that I find objectionable. I quite clearly express my disapproval of these claims. I’m unsure of how you came away with this understanding of my point.

(Some criticisms that I make apply to both, of course. I’m certainly no fan of The Times!)

#6:

“No one is shying away from “research that makes people look bad”. This is poor research on a faulty premise. Are you seriously telling me you think the byline: “Will identifying ‘bad mother’ neurons prevent deaths such as Baby P’s, or condemn women before they even give birth?” is scientific in any way?”

Of course it’s not scientific. I think you have mistaken science journalism for science. The two don’t have much in common with each other. I have no problem with criticizing science journalism and do it frequently.

That you read this non-scientific article and came away with the belief that this is “poor research on a faulty premise” emphasizes one of the author’s points: “we need the public to have larger confidence in understanding scientific materials”. I am in full agreement with her about that; the bulk of my objections are about specific claims she makes that I consider untrue. Here, I just disagree as to whether this article is a good attempt at increasing public understanding – but public understanding is clearly a good thing.

“This is research in its infancy, on rodents, not human beings. There is a massive leap to be made.”

Yes. Again: bad science journalism, not bad science.

#7:

“You see men have to be driven, for women its in their nature.”

Perhaps coverage is different here (do you really use “family annihilators”? That’s kind of horrifying). We’re a very violent nation and have no share of crime stories, but it’s been my experience that coverage on this topic differs mainly in that women are portrayed as suffering from mental illness. I don’t do media studies, though, and would be glad to read some research on this specific topic.

(As an aside, I don’t think it is clear whether mental illness counts as “driven” or “nature” according to your classification. I think you could make an argument either way, but this is really a touchy issue that I don’t want to get into on this comment thread.)

Kristin:

I don’t agree with your choice of words – ‘a lot of so-called research’ is a fairly crude way of describing a very complex problem.

Otherwise, though, I’m in full agreement. Being critical of science is not merely important but mandatory. You won’t find too many scientists who disagree with that; it’s kind of the point of what they do, after all.

However, this isn’t a blog for scientists. It’s a blog for feminists. It may win me more friends to criticize scientists here, but doing that will be far less likely to prompt what I see as a very necessary discussion.

gadgetgal // Posted 8 April 2010 at 11:06 am

Ok, to get the discussion back to the research and away from the nit-picky non-debate, I’ve had a look at some of the scientists statements about it, as well as what the research is actually showing, and honestly I just don’t see the real point in it, in the end. I mean, research for research’s sake is all well and good, but I can only really see the results of this being useful (if it’s proven that the genes or lack thereof are also to be found in humans) in court cases where someone has already harmed a child as a means of saying diminished responsibility. Which, again, I’m not hugely harsh or anything, so it might be good for that, but you can’t really use it for any other reason. If, for example, you decide to test everyone before giving birth, you are essentially setting someone up for failure – you have this gene, so you’ll be shit at it. Or it’ll misplace care – since scientists obviously disagree as to whether the gene is inherent or yet another factor of the environment. As Prof. Alison Fleming, director of the Centre for the Study of the Psychobiology of Maternal Behaviour at the University of Toronto said:

“The idea that a woman’s brain is ‘hard-wired’ in such a way that she will abuse her children and that it is not within her power to refrain from doing wrong is based on a misunderstanding of neuro-anatomy. All behaviour is dictated by the brain, but the brain is formed in interaction with our environment.”

This means it could be something that develops over time, which means pre-testing would be useless anyway. Anyway, we’re a long, LONG way from any of that, since the tests have only been done in rats and it looks like the research is getting short-shrift even within the field itself! It’ll be a long time (if ever) when enough testing and research is done to prove the point either way.

As to whether the article or the research itself is at fault, I’d agree that the article is the usual crap the newspapers spin out when they need filler stuff, but sadly I’d say some of the blame has to go on the presentation Kinsley made to them – he said an awful lot of stupid things which they used as quotes. For example:

“We are all a slave to our brain function. An abusive mother has something malfunctioning in the brain so, in that respect, her behaviour is beyond her control.”

Simplistic and inaccurate, since environmental factors influence the development of brain functions as well as your own personal actions, which may or may not be related to how your brain works, it just depends upon the person and the situation.

And he doesn’t really come up with a useful application for his research which then makes his argument look a bit pointless:

“According to Kinsley, new mothers whose brain scans identified them as having inadequate numbers of maternal neurons could be targeted with counselling or nurse visiting programmes.”

Um, duh? That should happen anyway, and the health service in this country has been doing it for YEARS. We already have the availability of counselling services for new mothers, and midwives and nurses have visited homes since my mother was giving birth! It needs some fixing up, but the basic principles are there – the research seems to be extremely USA-oriented, where they have no decent health service so they need someone to use the word “neurons” to tell them the sensible thing to do that we’ve been doing for years and they should have done in the first place! It’s a nice enough reason to do it, but for us us over here it means the research itself is pretty useless – not the fault of the article writers OR the scientists, it just is what it is. Since our system here is more comparable to the Canadian system, where they don’t have to argue for the need for decent maternal services because they already have them too, I’d be more inclined to listen to Fleming anyway:

“It’s perfectly possible to be a good mother with ‘bad genes’ — or ‘bad brain cells’ for that matter — just as it is possible to be neglectful, abusive or inadequate with good ones.”

Ally // Posted 8 April 2010 at 11:46 am

Surely the point of it is that it is a tiny pixel on the screen on the way to finding out what bits of the human genome do?

Juliet // Posted 8 April 2010 at 2:44 pm

Well, Prof Kinsley is certainly a slave to his brain function – or the lack of it.

Marilyn French stated that men have always sought to control women’s reproductive function. That is often the motivation behind a lot of research.

Darnell // Posted 8 April 2010 at 4:18 pm

Denise- ‘introduce brain scans for scientists’

LOVE that idea!

Eronarn // Posted 8 April 2010 at 7:56 pm

gadgetgal:

“This means it could be something that develops over time, which means pre-testing would be useless anyway.”

This statement doesn’t mesh well with the current practice of medicine, mental health, or social work. Many conditions develop over time, but knowledge of risk factors is still important. In some cases it can let people prevent the condition from ever occurring, as in the case of diabetes. In other cases it can help identify people who might benefit from different services than a member of the general population would – whether that’s someone with a family history of alcoholism, or someone in a population with a high rate of HIV+. It can also be important from an informed choice perspective: the medical industry does not prevent older parents from conceiving, but it does provide information about increased rates of complications.

The most well-known example of a genetic test for a condition is probably BRCA. From Wikipedia:

“Instead of a 12 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer, women who have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a risk of approximately 60 percent[1] (up to 85%[2]) risk of developing breast cancer. ”

Or in other words, from 15% to 40% of women who have these mutations won’t develop breast cancer. It’s my belief that the screening is still valuable, however, as long as medical professionals help interpret its results correctly. I believe that this extends to any hypothetical “bad mother” gene – or for that matter to any “bad father”, or “bad friend”, or “bad student” genes.

I am not sure how I feel about your comparison between national health systems. The US system is a joke, certainly, but even in countries with adequate care it is standard practice to use predictive factors to allocate care efficiently. I predict that it will be very hard to do that with a “bad mother” gene or even with a brain scan… but I don’t think it’s impossible.

To end on an optimistic note: some harmful parenting practices that were once accepted are now seen as so awful that we’ve begun to examine them through the lens of pathology. Even if you don’t think that’s desirable, or even possible, I think that it says a lot about how parenting has changed for the better.

gadgetgal // Posted 9 April 2010 at 4:35 pm

@Eronarn – I think you’ve confused the reasons why I said I failed to see the point in the research overall. Testing for things like cancer and other innate health issues is one thing and this is another – why? Because even in the case of early screening for cancer the entire process is voluntary. The same would have to go for testing in this instance, and I see a few problems with actually making any use of the research whatsoever. A lot of women simply wouldn’t choose to get tested (personally I wouldn’t, especially since I can see all the faults with making a supposition out of the data it provides) and many women who did get tested would feel condemned before they even committed a crime! Imagine choosing to have that kind of black cloud hanging over your head – would you? Seems like it may end up causing more problems than it solves, increasing depression, therefore increasing the risk that either they will harm themselves or their children (self-fulfilling prophecy time!). Or would you be in favour of forced testing for everyone? We’re moving into the dicey area of unethical with that one, so, as I said, if it can’t be used in any kind of widespread or meaningful way, and may actually increase harm when it IS used, then what was the point in the research? If the money spent on testing a few rats had instead been put into maternity care, child protection services and stimulating the economy in order to reduce poverty, the results would have been more effective – a reduction in harm to children. And no research required!

As I said, I can maybe see the point in the research if it’s being used to encourage better services for women and children in the US (I lived there for nearly half my life, so I’m aware of how appalling the health services are there) but I’m not even sure why it was reported over here – we already provide a decent healthcare service and child protection service for every single person who lives here, we don’t say “no help if we feel you don’t need it or can’t afford it”, so it just seems like a grand old waste of time! Again, the fault of the reporting not the research, but as I’ve said, since the money would have been better spent trying to solve the problem in actuality rather than just intellectually I still can’t see what the point was in the first place!!

George // Posted 9 April 2010 at 5:42 pm

@gadgetgal –

Moreover, do we really want a eugenicist state where our freedoms are regulated according to our genes, as interpreted by those in control? Forced sterilisation of women shouldn’t be so far off in our cultural memory that we forget this very real possibility.

gadgetgal // Posted 9 April 2010 at 6:44 pm

@George – that worries me too! It worries me especially when I wonder who would be interpreting this data and making those kinds of decisions? With an election coming up it just makes me realise how we don’t know, and how the rules might change anyway when someone else gains control…(shudders)

Eronarn // Posted 9 April 2010 at 6:48 pm

gadgetgal:

I consider it very counterproductive to advocate cutting “pure” research funding to increase social service spending. Part of this is ideological, and part is practical: in the US we spend vastly more money on medical services than on research, and don’t necessarily get much for the cost. I am unfamiliar with the UK, but I have heard that it is not much better in ratio of research expenditures to medical expenditures.

(And in America, at least, any push to cut ‘useless’ research would almost certainly be used as an opportunity to make cuts in ‘useless’ departments like literature, women’s studies, or philosophy.)

I agree that scientific discoveries – whether genetic or not – can be applied in a very negative way. That’s why it’s important that they be published as public-funded, peer-reviewed scientific literature. Not spending public money on research doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get done: it means it only gets done if someone stands to make money off of it. I’m much more afraid of a private company offering a proprietary “bad mother” test (think family insurance rates or employment in child care!). They’d be relatively free to make misleading claims about how effective it is without disclosing what they’re actually doing.

Tiffany // Posted 14 July 2010 at 8:15 am

I have serious doubts about ‘scientific’ research about ‘bad’ genes. That being said, I do think that biology does factor into a person’s identity/self, and effects behavior. Feminism has long fought against the idea of biological determination because it was based off of bad science. However, we can not rule out the influence of biology all together. There is no doubt that biology does play a huge part who people are, and who they become (in combination with socialization of course). I don’t fault scientists for making (feeble) attempts to try make some sense of why people are the way they are.

It boggles my mind how some parents could neglect or abuse innocent children…I wish I could better understand it

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