As a child, Tom and Jerry was by far my favorite show. For reasons still unknown to me, I identified with Jerry, the rambunctious little mouse, who always found a way to balance his fear of Tom with an unabashed irreverence for the dominance nature conferred to cats. Jerry did this by simply outwitting him.
But research published last week in Nature suggests that science might now have a way to disrupt this cat-and-mouse game. Japanese researchers have used genetic engineering to produce mice with altered olfactory senses. This obscures their ability to pick up on cat odors that instinctively suggest danger, allowing these mice to cozy up comfortably with their newfound feline friends without trepidation.
This research is being reported as a remarkable step forward for neuroscience, and a possible entryway from which to understand how genetic predispositions bridge the relationship between nature and nurture. And - no surprise - journalists and researchers alike are now pontificating on this research's impact for other mammals, including humans.
This brings me back to a recent article from New Scientist looking at the biological and evolutionary factors predisposing humans towards racial bias and other forms of bigotry. The idea here is that humans are hardwired for group-based conflict; racism and other prejudices are not aberrant outcomes of our otherwise egalitarian sensibilities, but are rather a natural byproduct of our cognitive architecture, over which we have little control. The take-home from this article and the research supporting it is that just as mice are biologically primed to distrust cats, so too are humans primed to dislike those who seem different from them.
The troubling convergence between this research and the increasingly popular biospin on prejudice's cognitive and evolutionary roots is that bias is seen as a technological hurdle that science can help individuals surmount rather than an irrational group behavior that can only be resolved through a commitment to equitable social practices. Watching cats and mice snuggle might be cute. But biotechnology can do very little to address the deep institutional and social barriers that have been erected through centuries of group based domination.
Engineering fear out of mice is one thing. Getting people to give up the privileges that comes from bias is quite another.