“Wherever you go, there you are.”
I try to keep my ears open to how public figures speak about science and anthropology. It’s always interesting to learn how different people, particularly influential people, perceive these subjects. For example, in his 2009 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize Barack Obama said that “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” That’s an empirical claim, but I don’t think the archaeological evidence is on his side.
However, Obama’s statement offered a tantalizing window into the way he might see war – that it is simply an unavoidable outcome of human nature, implying that we may be stuck with it indefinitely. I don’t know for a fact that he actually thought that way; that’s me trying to read between the lines. And I’m not saying that such a view is wrong; I don’t think war will be eradicated anytime soon either. But I don’t think we should reduce something as complex as the large-scale arming and mobilization of military forces simply to some fuzzy notion of an aggressive human nature.
This brings me to Donald Trump. More than once, I’ve noticed that he likes to say that he’s a “big believer” in the “gene thing” as an explanation for whatever success he has had in life (see here and here). A quick Google search shows that he’s done this for years, and that he has credited several of his ‘superior’ traits to his genes or some generic notion of heredity, a pattern I find interesting. Some examples:
1. His Success (Feb 2010) here
“Well I think I was born with the drive for success because I have a certain gene…I’m a gene believer… hey when you connect two race horses you get usually end up with a fast horse… I had a good gene pool from the stand point of that so I was pretty much driven.”
“I am proud to share this report, written by the highly respected Dr. Harold Bornstein of Lenox Hill Hospital, stating that I am in excellent health. I am fortunate to have been blessed with great genes — both of my parents had very long and productive lives.”
3. Intelligence (Aug 2015) here
“I had an uncle went to MIT who is a top professor. Dr. John Trump. A genius… It’s in my blood. I’m smart. Great marks. Like really smart.”
4. Leadership/ Understanding Other People (Dec 2015) here
(from Michael D’Antonio in the L.A. Times) “I’m a big believer in natural ability,” Trump told me during a discussion about his leadership traits, which he said came from a natural sense of how human relations work. “If Obama had that psychology, Putin wouldn’t be eating his lunch. He doesn’t have that psychology and he never will because it’s not in his DNA.” Later in this discussion, Trump said: “I believe in being prepared and all that stuff. But in many respects, the most important thing is an innate ability.”
5. Real Estate Development (date unknown) here
(Also from D’Antonio. I can’t find an original source, however). “He once said he possesses a genetic “gift” for real estate development.”
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I’ve written before about genetic determinism and the problematic view that organisms are “hard-wired” to look or behave in a given way. In fact, this was one of the most popular posts on this site (see Developmental Plasticity and the Hard-Wired Problem). Of course genes matter, but they also go hand-in-hand with the nurture side of things.
I don’t know that Donald Trump believes everything in life is genetically determined, but there are reasons to believe that he might think this way. At one point he did say that “the most important thing is an innate ability.” Also, his son, Donald Trump Jr., once said that:
“Like him, I’m a big believer in race-horse theory. He’s an incredibly accomplished guy, my mother’s incredibly accomplished, she’s an Olympian, so I’d like to believe genetically I’m predisposed to [be] better than average.”
I’m trying to be fair. Most people probably think that they are better than average in some way, though our egos probably prefer the illusion of our superiority to an actually measured estimation. And, our particular favorite ‘superior’ trait probably varies person to person. Better than average in what? Intelligence? Artistic ability? Height? Beauty? Kindness? Athleticism? Smashing things with your head? We all have our niche.
Since the Trump family likes the analogy of race horses, then presumably the trait they have in mind is being able to run some race towards ‘success,’ which – I’m guessing – they likely define as success in business or accumulating wealth. If that’s the case, then they might think that those who aren’t fast enough, because they lack the right racehorse genes, deserve to be left behind.
Of course, the problem is that it’s rather easy for someone standing at the top of the hill to attribute their position to winning the genetic lottery. We probably all crave an explanation for why we sit where we do (“Wherever you go, there you are”). Surely, it’s more complicated than any single cause, and genes are one factor among many. For example, if genes were everything, then we wouldn’t see life expectancy improve so dramatically in several countries. Nor would we see populations become taller as health and nutrition conditions improve, etc.
The larger point is that genes can easily become reductive and ideological to justify inequality and the status quo. Jon Marks put it this way:
“the argument went that social stratification in America was caused by innate intellectual differences, and consequently that government programs designed to assist the socially disadvantaged and to ameliorate economic inequality were useless and doomed to failure.
It’s an old theme. Why aren’t you the Pharaoh? Because the Pharaoh is a better kind of being than you, with better ancestors and better innards.”
Like Marks, I’m suspicious of people who’d like to explain complex social phenomena as the simple result of their better ancestors and better innards. In any case, we could probably use a little more critical thinking on this. I’m more inclined to agree with another person who ran for President (and won), who wrote the following at age 14:
“A boy is born in a rich family, brought up in a clean environment with an excellent education and good companions, inherits a fool-proof business from his father, is married and he eventually dies a just and honest man. Take the other extreme. A boy is born in the slum of a poor family, has evil companions, no education; becomes a loafer, as that is all there is to do, turns into a drunken bum, and is worthless. Was it because of the rich boy’s abylity (sic) that he landed in the lap of luxury, or was it the poor boy’s fault that he was born in squalor?…. But how much better chance has the boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth of being good than the boy who from birth is surrounded by rottenness and filth? This, even to the most religious of us, can hardly seem a ‘square deal.’