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They're coming for behaviour genetics
So far as I’m aware, all the major controversies surrounding genes and intelligence since 1990 have concerned either race differences or dysgenics. In other words: those who’ve limited themselves purely to discussing individual differences have largely avoided scandal. The last three decades could thus be seen as the era behaviour genetics entered the mainstream.
Steve Pinker’s book The Blank Slate, which expertly debunked the myth that genes don’t matter for intelligence (and other psychological traits), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize – arguably the second most prestigious prize in writing. What’s more, both twin and genome-wide association studies studies of intelligence were routinely published in leading journals like Nature Genetics. It was in era in which you could mention in polite company that, actually sir, intelligence is a heritable trait.
That era may be coming to an end.
The first inkling that behaviour genetics might be going the same way as race differences came in 2018, with the publication of Blueprint by Robert Plomin. While the book was warmly received in many quarters, it prompted an unexpectedly hostile review in Nature. I say ‘unexpectedly’ because Plomin has published dozens of papers in Nature journals, and his book had nothing to do with race. In any case, the reviewer claims that Blueprint is “filled with retrograde ideas about genes”, and in the final sentence goes so far as to say, “Plomin has made it pretty clear what kind of world he wants. I oppose him.”
Opposition to behaviour genetics ramped up further when Paige Harden’s book The Genetic Lottery was published last year. Unlike Plomin, who keeps his political cards close to his chest, Harden is an out-and-out progressive. Back in 2017, she co-authored an article in Vox denouncing Charles Murray for “peddling junk science about race and IQ”. (See here for a rebuttal.) And she denounced him once again in The Genetic Lottery. She also denounced the “racist” Arthur Jensen, and dedicated an entire chapter to what she calls “Anti-Eugenic Science and Policy”.
However, these attempts to mollify her progressive readers were not enough to save Harden from some equally hostile reviews. Marcus Feldman and Jessica Riskin’s 5,000 word review in the New York Review of Books was particularly unkind.
“Biological essentialism aimed at demonstrating an innate hierarchy of intelligence,” the authors write, “is going strong after more than two centuries of empirical failure”. They allege that, although Harden “repudiates Jensen’s overt racism,” she “resurrects the misconceived science underlying it”. In particular, she “reproduces the old statistical illogic of eugenics” and “revives central features of the earlier, now-discredited biological theories of intelligence”.
According to Feldman and Riskin, “Harden tacitly—and sometimes not so tacitly—endorses the founding axiom of scientific racism since its inception in the eighteenth century”. And her “protestations that she’s an egalitarian hides a stealthy affirmation of the old, tenacious view that races and classes are natural kinds.” The authors make it sound like The Genetic Lottery was ghost-written by a hereditarian. This is despite the fact that Harden claims, falsely I might add, “there is zero evidence that genetics explains racial differences in outcomes like education”.
Attacks on behaviour genetics have intensified in just the last month, following the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York. As I noted previously, the perpetrator of that mass shooting published a manifesto, which cited various papers from the field of behaviour genetics. This, in turn, prompted two viral Twitter threads suggesting that such papers “should not be published” and that “the current anti-eugenics discourse is not effective”.
It also led to a remarkable hit piece in the Daily Beast calling for nothing less than the “deplatforming” of behaviour genetics. According to the author, “The slow response to The Bell Curve has helped similar work live on today in the hands of others, like psychologist Stuart Ritchie … and behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden”. He focusses particular ire on the latter, who has supposedly helped to legitimise “crypto-race science”. Describing behaviour genetics as “ethically abhorrent”, the author says that publishers “should refuse to participate” and must recognise the field is “actively harming people”.
After amassing legions of evidence from twin studies, family studies and now genome-wide association studies, how has behaviour genetics found itself in this position? One factor is obviously the Great Awokening, which has empowered all manner of ideological science deniers. Another is the problem of “missing heritability” – the fact that h-squared estimates derived from SNP data are generally lower than those derived from twin and family studies.
But I would suggest there’s a more general problem. Anyone who takes the ideological objections to group differences research to their logical conclusions will end up opposing individual differences research as well.
And as a matter of fact, some behaviour geneticists (including some I’ve mentioned in this article) have spent years endorsing the ideological objections to group differences research. I tried to illustrate this point in a satirical article titled ‘Behaviour Genetics Must Fall’. To quote myself:
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?
In other words, if you grant that scientific claims can be “racist” then you’ve opened the door to your scientific claims being called “racist”. And if you concede that “genes contribute to group differences in intelligence” implies some groups are “inferior”, then you can’t deny that “genes contribute to individual differences in intelligence” implies some individuals are “inferior”. Either statements about genes and intelligence are scientific, regardless of whether they pertain to groups or individuals, or they’re not.
In The Genetic Lottery, Harden tries to have her cake and eat it. On the one hand, she denounces Murray and Jensen, while insisting there’s “zero evidence” for hereditarianism. But on the other, she claims that “people’s moral commitments are on shaky ground if they depend on exact genetic sameness across human populations”. And she tells us not to “flinch from considering what seems like the worst-case scenario: What if, next year, there suddenly emerged scientific evidence showing that European-ancestry populations evolved in ways that made them genetically more prone, on average, to develop cognitive abilities of the sort that earn high test scores in school?”
(Incidentally, both Murray and Jensen have made very similar statements, and neither has ever suggested that race differences justify racism. This indicates that, from an epistemological standpoint, Harden is actually closer to Murray and Jensen than to those progressives who believe that hereditarianism is, by definition, racist. For example, there’s the “anti-racist” activist Ibram X. Kendi, who defines a “biological anti-racist” as someone who believes “the races are meaningfully the same in their biology and there are no genetic racial differences”.)
Harden’s position seems to be: hereditarianism isn’t racist; it’s just that anyone who’s ever argued for it is. This inconsistency illustrates the bind that she and her progressive colleagues have gotten themselves into. To deflect criticism and make safe their research funding, they’ve been telling activists what they want to hear: “Murray and Jensen are terrible, and our work has nothing to do with them”. Meanwhile, they’ve been continuing the same basic research tradition – gathering more and more evidence that genes matter for social inequality.
Drawing a distinction between “good” research on individual differences and “bad” research on race differences hasn’t worked. It’s time to abandon the idea that scientific claims can be “racist”, or that they’re really claims about “inferiority”, and just look at the data dispassionately.
Image: Charles Wellington Furse, Sir Francis Galton, 1903
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