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Prophet Without Honor

Francis Galton and the Birth of Behavioral Genetics

THE INVENTION OF THE MICROCHIP HAS transformed molecular biology, yielding great progress in genomic medicine—especially in fields such as oncology and infectious disease. Unraveling the genetic underpinning of mental illness, however, has proved more daunting. This is hardly surprising, as many psychiatric disorders are highly heterogeneous and therefore difficult to link to specific genes. Further, most behavioral traits are likely polygenic—that is, controlled by many interacting genes. But despite slow progress in the area of behavioral genetics, psychiatry—after many decades lost in the wilderness—has benefited enormously from advances in neuroscience and has established itself as an empirically based medical discipline.

Unfortunately, psychoanalysis dominated American academic psychiatry during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Although it has since lost much of its influence, psychoanalytic thinking did much to obscure the prominent role of genetics in mental illness. Furthermore, despite significant advances in our understanding of the biological bases of behavior, psychoanalytically-tinged thinking has stubbornly hung on—having so thoroughly infected Western culture and folk-psychology. (Superstition, it has been said, may assume many disguises.)1 Large segments of the population, including many therapists, still assume a person’s behavioral problems and proclivities are predominantly shaped by one’s close relationships and “formative” experiences. In therapists’ offices throughout the world a watered-down version of Freud’s approach often still plays some role in the therapeutic process, as the patient (with the therapist’s guidance) concocts a “how-the-leopardgot-its spots” story of his or her current difficulties. We now know, however, that the mind is not structured along narrative principles but rather according to the laws of natural selection—from a blueprint written in digital code, composed of the base pairs that constitute our genetic endowments.

Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and the founder of the field of behavioral genetics.
Illustration by Anna L. Goldstein

While Freud was on the continent developing that prodigally creative but highly fanciful blend of nature philosophy, philology, and crypto-science he would call psychoanalysis, across the channel in the English countryside, the true scientific revolution led by Charles Darwin had already taken shape. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is generally thought to focus chiefly on the evolution of physical characteristics and the differentiation of species; however, Darwin showed a keen interest in behavior throughout his career—from the chapter on instinct in The Origin of Species to the two major works that are in good measure devoted to the study of behavior (The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals). Less well known is the important role that Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, played in the Darwinian revolution. Galton explicitly tried to extend Darwin’s project by undertaking the first empirical studies of the inheritance of mental characteristics in humans; in doing so, he became the founder of the discipline known today as behavioral genetics.

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CONFIDENCE SCAMS EXCERPT: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time; ARTICLES: America’s Stonehenge: Did Highly Developed Europeans Build a Sophisticated Astronomical and Religious Monument on the American East Coast More than 3000 Years Ago?; Is It ET?: Is Star KIC 8462852 a Sign of an Extraterrestrial Civilization?; Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution—An Empirical Test; Ruins of Empires: Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-Francois Volney, and the Separation of Church and State; Winning the Vaccination War in California; Prophet Without Honor: Francis Galton and the Birth of Behavioral Genetics; When Cops Kill: An Insider’s Perspective; Guns and Games: The Relationship Between Violent Video Games and Gun Crimes in America; More on Morals: On Science and Morality (1) Deontologists are Covert Consequentialists, (2) Expanding Science to Include Morals, (3) Clarifying Confusions; Alligators in the Sewers! COLUMNS: Who’s Crazy Now?: DSM-5 and the Classification of Mental Disorders; The Delicate Dilemma of Defining Rape; REVIEW: Red Team: How To Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko reviewed by David Priess; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Haunted Houses; Earliest Ghost Stories; Ghostly Evolution