Discover more from Noah’s Newsletter
Behaviour Genetics Must Fall
Over the years, many courageous scientists, philosophers and science journalists have rightly denounced the practice of race science – that is, of attempting to show that one group is genetically inferior to another.
In his 2003 book Freedom Evolves, the philosopher Dan Dennett referred to “some awful racist hypothesis about European genetic superiority”. In a 2005 article, the psychologist Robert Sternberg noted, “Deciding to show that one group is genetically inferior on an index is a value judgment as to what is worth showing”. In a 2016 article, the education researcher David Gillborn referred to “a world where speculation about the supposed inherent intellectual inferiority of whole population subgroups can be defended in the name of science.” In a 2016 article, the philosopher Janet Kourany noted, “For centuries scientists have claimed that women are intellectually inferior to men and blacks are inferior to whites.” In a 2018 article, the journalist Ezra Klein considered whether “the disparities we see in American life are the result of an intrinsic inferiority on the part of black Americans”. And of course, the journalist Angela Saini titled her 2019 book Superior: The Return of Race Science.
Some have protested that scientific claims should be distinguished from claims about human worth, but this is most likely a cover for their own bigotry. We shouldn’t let race scientists hide behind fancy words and inscrutable scientific jargon. We should call them out! This is why it’s absolutely right that the commentators above used the language of ‘inferiority’ and ‘superiority’. After all, that’s precisely what race scientists are trying to show. Arcane distinctions between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ (which, by the way, go back to the race philosopher David Hume) mean nothing when we’re dealing with people’s lives.
However, there’s a problem with simple denunciations of race science, which is that they don’t go far enough. Yes, we should call out the race scientists. But we should also call out the behaviour geneticists, the twin studies researchers, the GWAS practitioners, and anyone else trying to show that one individual is genetically inferior to another. Tell me: what else is “IQ has non-zero heritability” but the assertion that some individuals are genetically deficient in IQ?
For the last few years, behaviour geneticists have had a free pass to publish all manner of bigoted claims, which are only dressed up in the language of science. Supposedly reputable journals like Nature Genetics and Molecular Psychiatry regularly publish articles that literally imply some individuals are genetically inferior. Even Wikipedia says that IQ has a genetic basis. Why should we put up with this? We don’t put up with it when the “scientific” claims in question are designed to show racial inferiority. And we shouldn’t have any more truck with those who aim to show individual inferiority.
Behaviour geneticists might say they are engaged in a purely scientific enterprise, but that’s exactly what race scientists claim! There’s little more to behaviour genetics than the attempt to establish a hierarchy of individuals, with those who have “better” traits at the top, and those who have “worse” traits at the bottom. This isn’t science. It’s prejudice. And note that the individuals who inevitably end up at the top of this hierarchy are drawn from exactly the same backgrounds as the researchers themselves: academia, science, statistics. Don’t try to convince me we’re dealing with something objective.
Thanks to academic journals that should know better, as well as unscrupulous media outlets that just want to generate clicks, behaviour genetics has gained a veneer of respectability. But this is all the more reason for us to challenge it! Race science, thankfully, has been confined to the fringes of academia (though troubling examples sometimes find their way into mainstream journals). It’s about time we did the same to behaviour genetics. We should say “No!” to those who would use science to justify social inequality and class privilege.
Throughout history, people in positions of power – from the aristocrats of England to the robber barons of America – have argued they deserved their positions because of inherent qualities they possessed. But we know this is a lie. Social advantages aren’t the result of individual nature; they’re a product of society. And we can choose to have a society where everyone’s equal. When the Eton and Oxford-educated Boris Johnson said, “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85”, he was implying that some people are intrinsically more likely to succeed. This is heritability 101. Why don’t behaviour geneticists just sign up to be Tory speechwriters?
You show me someone claiming that IQ is heritable, and I’ll show you someone trying to blame low-IQ people for their problems. Just like race scientists, the practitioners of behaviour genetics want us to believe they’re driven by a simple quest for truth. As to what really motivates their claims, I suspect – at the end of the day – they just don’t like low-IQ people very much.
So where does this leave us? We must continue to challenge race science by refuting its bogus claims, and – if necessary – shouting down its proponents. But our work doesn’t stop there. We must take the fight to behaviour genetics too. A subject that seeks to demonstrate the genetic inferiority of certain individuals has no place in twenty-first century scholarship. The truth, I’m sorry to tell you, is that scientific elitism never went away. They just hid it behind an h-squared value.
Please note: this article is satire, and does not reflect my actual views. Here’s a list of quotes I compiled on the ethics of dealing with genes and human differences. And here’s a paper I wrote which argues that stifling debate around race, genes and IQ can do harm.
Image: Charles Wellington Furse, Sir Francis Galton, 1903
I’ve written four more short posts since last time. The first argues that the UEFA decision shows the government is making things up as it goes along. The second asks whether we should ban cars, given that they too impose externalities on other people. The third notes that the Singaporean government has announced the country must learn to live with COVID-19. The fourth notes that infections are rising in Scotland but hospitalisations remain low.
Thanks for reading. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with your friends. And please consider subscribing if you haven’t done so already.