Mind the trap of biological determinism

Issue section: 

John Parrington’s article (Nature, nurture: mind the trap, October SR) ignores the racist use of genetic research and reduces the social problem of mental illness to the micro-level where it cannot be solved.

The human brain is not a super-computer, as Parrington claims, but a super-connector that enables collective problem-solving. Blocking our ability to solve problems is a capitalist system that celebrates individualism and promotes biological solutions. Parrington falls into this reactionary trap.

Parrington says nothing about the real danger of biological ‘explanations’ for human behaviour being used to support racism and eugenics. Instead, he warns that “recognition of the importance of social factors in mental illness can sometimes spill over” into a rejection of biological differences which he falsely equates with individual differences to raise the spectre of totalitarianism. In reality, strong social connections encourage individual development and threaten the hold of ruling classes.

Parrington presents mental illness as a disorder of brain biology, when evidence shows that it flows from disordered social relations. He concludes that because all boys do not respond equally to hardship then the difference must be biological, when it could be different levels of social support. All parents transmit behaviour patterns to their children, but Parrington cites biology to explain why “the experience of the Holocaust has been associated with an increased risk of stress disorders that may be passed down to future generations.”

Mental illnesses are not “distinct pathological conditions” that can be studied genetically. Mental disorders have not been established as specific entities, and there is no definitive lesion, laboratory test, or brain tissue abnormality that can identify a mental illness. If we cannot accurately identify who has schizophrenia, then research into genetic causes has no meaning.

Parrington’s statement that “effective diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders requires a proper understanding of human brain biology” would delight the pharmaceutical industry. And the Pentagon would applaud his excitement over brain interventions “to manipulate memory, both to overcome amnesia and cure depression.” The Pentagon is investing millions of dollars in brain-stimulation technologies to ‘treat’ PTSD, anxiety, and traumatic brain injury.

Parrington concludes that biology and environment play equally important roles, so mental illness could be cured through scientific expertise or through mass self-determination. Either will do. This academic dialectic is incompatible with marxism.

Susan Rosenthal
Guelph, Canada