Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Genes, brains and human nature; the joys and challenges of writing about science for non-scientists.

This post first appeared as part of a SpotOn NYC special event on Communication and the Brain (March 2013), on  

When I started the Wiring the Brain blog a few years ago, it was with the intention of writing mainly for students, scientists and clinicians in the fields of genetics and neuroscience. Many of the posts deal with advances in our scientific understanding of the causes of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. Perhaps because of that, or just due to general interest in the broader themes, the blog has also become widely read by non-specialists.

This presents some exciting opportunities to write in a different way and to convey the excitement of the field of neurogenetics to the general public, but also raises some particular challenges. The biggest difference I have found is that the assumption of a shared, global perspective is not always valid. When writing for scientific colleagues there is an implicit expectation of a common starting point – not just a background of specific knowledge about a subject, but a foundation of wider shared beliefs that do not need to be articulated explicitly.

In the context of the themes of the Wiring the Brain blog, these include: that the diversity of life arose through evolution by natural selection; that human genes and human brains are not that different from animal genes and animal brains; that human minds emerge from the activity of human brains and nothing else; that variation in genes can affect behaviour; that studying the components of a system is a good way to make progress in understanding the whole; and most fundamentally, that the scientific method is the best way we have of finding things out and not just one of many “ways of knowing”.

Being challenged on some of those positions has been an eye-opener. It makes you look for the evidence that supports them. For evolution, that is pretty much all the observations ever made in the field of biology. In that circumstance, the job becomes marshalling that evidence to convince someone who may not have heard it all laid out before.

On another topic, this prompted one of the few blogposts I have written that veered into philosophical territory, entitled “On discovering you’re an android”. This presented the overwhelming evidence for neuroscientific materialism, the position that the mind is what the brain does, with no need to invoke any immaterial or supernatural stuff. This theory is both counter-intuitive and highly discomfiting. After all, it doesn’t feel like you are an android (though one made out of meat). One’s “self” feels pretty real and stable and the idea that it emerges from and relies on the continued activity of the neurons in your brain can leave one feeling existentially precarious. It is human nature to recoil at this idea, but that’s what all the science says and science wins.

Or does it? Not everyone would accept that assertion. Many argue that science is just another belief system with no special claim to validity. Part of the point, for me, of writing the blog is to illustrate how science works, how we accumulate evidence, how current paradigms can be challenged, modified or even overturned by new data. That is, in fact, the polar opposite of a belief system. Also, it works!

A related claim, and a common enough reaction to writings on the subject of human nature is that scientists like myself are just reducing human existence to mindless biochemistry, even down to physics. This charge of “Reductionism!”, which comes from psychologists as much as from members of the general public, misses an important distinction between methodological and theoretical reductionism. Yes, geneticists approach a problem by looking for components of a system that can vary in a way that affects the performance of the system. That is an experimental approach that has proven hugely powerful, allowing one to identify important parts of a system and ultimately analyse how they function together to mediate that system’s functions. If the system is a human being, then that necessarily entails understanding it in the context of its relations to other human beings.

Changes in single genes can have large effects on behavioural traits in humans (for example, see here on genetic influences on impulsivity). This does not mean that the behaviour in question is mediated by a single gene. Nor does it mean that human behaviour is determined by genes – it simply says that variation in that component of the system can contribute to variation in patterns of behaviour over time. But no matter how precisely that sentence is worded, it is important to realise, as a writer, that it can still be misconstrued by people who are “reading between the lines”, or extrapolated to infer a much broader claim consistent with a reader’s preconceived notions of what scientists think.

That view may have been informed by the shorthand that many scientists and journalists use about “genes for this” and “genes for that”, which does indeed sound very deterministic and reductionist. The absurd hype in many press releases, driven by pressures for the next grant, adds greatly to this problem. (There’s no shortage of that kind of thing in coverage of neuroscience either, now affectionately known as “neurobollocks”). This kind of wording is sloppy, sensationalist and deeply wrong at a conceptual level. Still, “Scientists discover one of many factors that contributes to people’s behavioural tendencies, which express themselves over time in the context of each individual’s life experiences” does not make a good headline.

It is no wonder, then, that readers often conclude that a larger claim is being made – exposure to relentless hype in science coverage fully justifies that expectation. I occasionally get comments starting, “So, what you’re really saying is…”, which continue to say something I really wasn’t saying. Anticipating and pre-empting these kinds of over-extrapolations can be an important part of this kind of writing.

Another challenge, especially in writing about the causes of clinical disorders such as autism or schizophrenia, is that these issues are necessarily fraught for people suffering from these conditions or with children who are affected. Many have strongly held views about the causes of their or their child’s particular condition, sometimes unfortunately founded on misinformation. The scientific hoax linking autism with vaccines has been incredibly hard to dislodge from the public’s consciousness. It is almost impossible to combat moving personal anecdotes with dry statistical data showing no association. The former are much more psychologically available – we are cognitively wired to learn from specific instances of apparent correlations and very poorly adapted for statistical thinking. The apparent “autism epidemic” reinforces the notion of some environmental causes, though there is clear evidence that this reflects only an increase in awareness and diagnosis, not of the true underlying rates of the condition. Showing how such data can be evaluated, scientifically, can go some way to equipping people with the tools to distinguish solid claims from one-off observations and correlation from causation.

My experience of writing for scientists and non-scientists alike has been very enjoyable and stimulating and I have learned a lot from it. I think it has made me a better teacher and a more thoughtful researcher. I have been struck in particular by both the tremendous interest in science among the general public and by how poorly it is served by traditional media. Blogging provides an exciting opportunity for scientists to help fill that void directly.

Photo Credit: Oliver Burston, Wellcome Images - Position of the brain inside the head
Digital artwork/Computer graphic 2004 Collection: Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK: England & Wales, see


  1. Great piece. Perhaps another way to address the apparently conflicting perspectives is to say: our brains evolved to extend beyond biological programming and wire themselves up in adaptive response to the environment they’re living, developing, and interacting in.

    We know that DNA controls aspects of how humans progress from embryos to infants - children to adults. But everything else about who we become, everything not ordained by biological programming (and/or divine agency...soul, essence, or whatever you believe), we become through learning. Children adapt to the life-environments they grow up in (nutritionally, physically, emotionally, linguistically, socially, cognitively, academically). Children learn to become adults. The ‘you’ you were as a child learned to be the ‘you’ you are now. In profoundly underappreciated ways, for each and all of us, “I” am learned – “I” learned to be “me”.

  2. "human minds emerge from the activity of human brains and nothing else"

    Well... this might be true. But you still don't answer the question: "But why the brain activity gives birth to qualia ?"

    1. Well, that's true - we don't really know how qualia emerge from brain activity. But all the evidence says that is what happens - if you mess with the physical structure of the brain you change the qualia. If you alter the electrical activity in the brain you change the qualia. If you monitor that activity, it correlates with the qualia. It just doesn't seem like you need anything else.

    2. What about teleportation ? It is the well know question. What would happen if you teleport a person ? Would that new person would be still you or would be a totally new person ? Would YOU feel in that body or another person (of course with your own memories) would ? The processes in the brain would be the same, so it should be you there, if you regard the problem from this point of view. But still... you would be first destroyed before all your information could be moved to a new place.

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  4. I finally got around to reading this and found it interesting as usual. I must say you are an excellent writer. Your pieces are thoughtful and articulated in an organized and precise manner. If there is ever a misunderstanding of your point ("So, what you're really saying is...), it is not because you don't articulate your ideas cogently. Thanks for helping to educate us autodidactics.

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