The “Bad Mother” Gene.

The Times has published an article questioning if it is possible to inherit the “bad mother” gene. The article argument is based on two studies; one study from Richmond University in Virginia on rodents where there was a correlation between the number of ‘switched on’ ‘maternal neurons’ to the neglect and abuse of their offsprings, and a second study performed at Yale University which identified a certain area of the brain’s level of neuron activity could be correlated to the measure of ‘adequate’ and ‘inadequate’ parenting in humans. The article does a successful job of weaving the story of Sian Busby who is anxious if she has inherited the “bad mother” gene from her grandmother who drowned her two one-week-old babies.

People tend to believe what science has to say. But we need to be critical of how the messages can be twisted to manipulate us into thinking something differently. There are three main critiques I have of the Times article.

1) The article uses arguments of socio-biology. You have the gene, therefore your behaviour can be abnormal. It’s largely based on the assumption that behaviours are propagated by genetic material for the sake of the evolutionary good of the human species. It sounds good but that is not the way genetics works. The argument is then reduced to the eternal debate of nature versus nurture. Nature; being that we’re born this way and we can’t alter, or be responsible for our behaviour. Like dogs chasing after a car. The other hand is Nurture; which argues that we are not defined by our genetic material and our environment can define ourselves just as much as our genetic material can. The argument in the Times article is broken down to “We found the “bad mother” gene, but don’t worry you can change your environment to prevent the expression of the gene.”

Socio-biology makes this argument time and time again. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Here are two examples;

Congrats! You’re gay! It’s because you have a genetic disposition to being gay. But if you ever not want to be gay, you can just change your environment to decrease your disposition of being gay. Especially since it would make everyone else feel better that you changed your sexual orientation. And don’t forget to blame the mothers.. because it’s their frigid sense of caring which caused all children to become gay.

Congrats! You’re a rapist! You found the rapist gene. You can’t help it that you rape women because you’re naturally pre-disposed! Way da go for absolving responsibility for your actions. It’s not your fault that women wear short skirts and tempt you by walking out late at night. You have the gene and you should have freedom of expression.

While genetic material can cause an increase in particular behaviours, you are not made by your genes. Your behaviour can actually rewire your neuronal patterns in your brain. People are more than their genetic makeup.

2) There are two parties who have something to gain by you believing this story, a) the neuroscientists b)the reporter at Times magazine.

Neuroscientists have actually very little understanding of how the brain works. There was a joke that in order for the brain to be simple enough for us to understand it, we’d be too stupid to figure it out. The study is simply conveying a simple experiment that the brain has more neuron firing activity in correlating abusive parenting. But the problem with the argument is causality. How do we know that it’s the genes that cause the localized area of the brain to fire more frequently? It’s probable that people who come from abusive backgrounds have their brains re-wired from their environment and thus propagate the learned behaviour to their own children. We actually don’t know the cause of the increase in neuronal activity and to say it’s because of our genetic material makes the argument all too destined.

Second, we forget that scientist don’t just simply study out of the goodness of their own hearts. They study things because it makes them money. In order to gain funding, they often send their research to popular newspapers to generate some publicity. The Times caught the bait, and wrote a sob story of Sian Busby and her grandmother. The Times is also looking to make money, and stories of bad motherhood sells papers.

3) Lastly, the Times article used as a scare tactic for women. We live in a society where we believe if you’re born with the genetic disposition of being a woman (two X chromosomes) that you’re also genetically disposition to being a mother. Why is it that stories of bad mothers sell papers but stories of bad fathers never make the press. If all the boys and men who have failed to live up to their responsibility when their partners were pregnant were tested for the “bad father” gene, I could hypothesis that they would have a certain limbic area with increased neuronal firing. Then I could run an experiment and test that theory and then write to the Times and ask them to publish the article. It’s that simple.

In order to move forward from these myths, we need the public to have larger confidence in understanding scientific materials and take everything they read with a grain of salt. The socio-biological argument is often used against what society sees as the norm, and is twisted to be harmful for women, people of different sexual orientation, or people of different racial backgrounds. Shame on you Times for not being more diligent with with your research.

Josephine Tsui writes for She’s a jack of all trades as she use to dissect sheeps brains, did open brain surgeries on rates and removed the brains of snails. She’s also published in agricultural research in the field of international development to ensure that women are food secure.

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