The "Chopstick" Gene

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Geneticists use the story of the “chopstick gene” to show the dangers that arise when mistaken genetic markers are used to “prove” that genes explain human conduct. The fairy tale, which was developed by scientists at the National Cancer Institute, features a “well-meaning” geneticist who wonders why some groups of people use chopsticks, and others do not. He surveys students and asks them how often they use chopsticks, tests their DNA, and looks for a common gene that will explain the predilection to use chopsticks. He fines the gene and calls it the “successful use of selected hand instruments”(SUSHI) gene. He publishes the results of his study. Two years later, he realizes that the SUSHI gene is more common in Asian populations than in other groups. The gene had nothing to do with why people use chopsticks; they use chopsticks for cultural reasons.

Angelina Saini, author of “Superior” explains how the chopsticks fairy tale has actually occurred in science research. Researchers use science to support a racist hypothesis when the primary determinant is culture. For example, people tend to believe that east Asians are smarter than white Americans. This myth persists even though, in 1991, James Flynn found that East Asians have the same average IQ as white Americans. Yet, Asian Americans score higher on the SAT and are more likely to have managerial, technical or professional jobs than white Americans. The reasons are culture, the product of supportive parents, and a strong work ethic.

Researchers use science to support a racist hypothesis when the primary determinant is culture.

Satoshi Kanazawa, who writes on evolutionary psychology, wondered on a Psychology Today blog why people think black women are less attractive than other women. Without pausing to consider whether “people” consider black women to be attractive or whether there is any scientific evidence that black people are intellectually inferior to other races, he mused: “Black women are on average much heavier than nonblack women. However, this is not the reason black women are less physically attractive than nonblack women. Black women have lower average level of physical attractiveness net of BMI [body mass index]. Nor can the race difference in intelligence (and the positive association between intelligence and physical attractiveness) account for the race difference in physical attractiveness among women. He hypothesized online that their level of testosterone was higher than women of other races. Psychology Today deleted his post and his university banned him from posting blogs for a year.

Sociologist Karen Fields calls this racecraft, a spin on the word witchcraft: It uses the same “circular reasoning, prevalence of confirming rituals, barriers to disconfirming factual evidence, and self-fulfilling prophecies” as does superstition. Saini says:” It almost doesn’t matter what anyone says because race feels as real to us as magic feels real to those who believe in it.”

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