The Gene Illusion

Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology Under the Microscope

Jay Joseph, Psy.D.


Reviewed by Mira de Vries

Belief that social inferiority is inherited through genes proliferated in the educated classes before any research on the matter was ever done. The father of professional prejudice cloaked as science was Francis Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin, to this day hailed as a great medical scientist. He called this field "eugenics". It was Galton who suggested the utility of twin research though he undertook none himself. That he left to his successors such as Josef Mengele. After WWII embarrassing revelations of mass murder in the name of eugenics prompted those engaged in this field to change the name to "genetics". This type of research goes on until this very day. I have personally seen with my own eyes in 2014 a mailing from my country's twins registry reminding subjects to fill in and return questionnaires.

Joseph does an exhaustive and thorough job of pointing out the methodological flaws of twin research, too numerous to mention in this review. The same he does for adoption studies. Moreover, he questions the morality of even embarking on such research, considering the consequences for the personal lives of so many people and that "conclusions are shaped to fit  ideological ends."  For example, "[Suppose] research ... found that more Jews than non-Jews had [genes] associated with greed? Wouldn't there be a justifiable uproar that such research was even being done?"

He did not however mention another form of injustice that shouted to me from the pages: gross intrusion of the researchers into the lives of their subjects, and obscene violation of their privacy. Volunteer? Of course not. States provided the researchers with apparently unlimited access to files in psychiatric institutions, adoptions agencies, criminal courts, and the population registry, among others.

Modestly, the author proposes only two suggestions for improvement, namely the establishment of research registers and reduction of the importance attached to researchers' conclusions. Personally I doubt his suggestions will do much good. The registers are too easily circumvented or misled. Diminishing the importance of research results will not happen due to “powerful and well-connected interests promoting political, professional, and business agendas” as he himself points out elsewhere.

Joseph himself, of course, is not entirely free of self-interest. According to the back flap, he's a practicing clinical psychologist. In the nature/nurture debate, it is auspicious for him to come down solidly on the side of nurture, blaming people's misfortunes on such factors as upbringing and even capitalism (!). He does at one point briefly acknowledge that factors other than either nature or nurture could be of influence. But he clearly overlooks the MeTZelf point of view, namely that we can never identify with certainty the cause of what we perceive as deviant human behavior.

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