When will this genetic determinism dinosaur die already?


Robert Plomin, a psychologist, has a new book out, and it looks like he intentionally picked the title to a) make him look stupid, b) align with the alt-right, or c) stir up controversy for sales, because jeez, it’s possibly one of the most backward, unaware, ignorant titles yet: Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. What do you do with a book that has a title that is so wrong?

I guess you ask Nathaniel Comfort to review it.

And yet, here we are again with Blueprint, by educational psychologist Robert Plomin. Although Plomin frequently uses more civil, progressive language than did his predecessors, the book’s message is vintage genetic determinism: “DNA isn’t all that matters but it matters more than everything else put together”. “Nice parents have nice children because they are all nice genetically.” And it’s not just any nucleic acid that matters; it is human chromosomal DNA. Sorry, microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts, developmental biologists: you’re not part of Plomin’s picture.

Crude hereditarianism often re-emerges after major advances in biological knowledge: Darwinism begat eugenics; Mendelism begat worse eugenics. The flowering of medical genetics in the 1950s led to the notorious, now-debunked idea that men with an extra Y chromosome (XYY genotype) were prone to violence. Hereditarian books such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) and Nicholas Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance (see N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014) exploited their respective scientific and cultural moments, leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda. Although Blueprint is cut from different ideological cloth, the consequences could be just as grave.

It seems that Plomin believes GATTACA was a documentary for a utopia. You might be wondering what the consequences could be.

Ultimately, if unintentionally, Blueprint is a road map for regressive social policy. Nothing here seems overtly hostile, to schoolchildren or anyone else. But Plomin’s argument provides live ammunition for those who would abandon proven methods of improving academic achievement among socio-economically deprived children. His utopia is a forensic world, dictated by polygenic algorithms and the whims of those who know how to use them. People would be defined at birth by their DNA. Expectations would be set, and opportunities, resources and experiences would be doled out — and withheld — a priori, before anyone has had a chance to show their mettle.

To paraphrase Lewontin in his 1970 critique of Jensen’s argument, Plomin has made it pretty clear what kind of world he wants.

I oppose him.

An argument from consequences is a fallacy, but the real meat of the review is that Plomin’s evidence is bad, that he consistently misinterprets it, and that he’s ignorant of the broader scope of factors affecting intelligence. It’s also bad science in that he clearly has a desired outcome and is selectively picking his evidence to validate it.

When someone abuses science to justify maintaining their privilege, that’s a dystopian future for the rest of us, and I’ll oppose it too.

Comments

  1. monad says

    Come on, it’s a fine title. DNA plays a tremendous role in defining who we are, and the complex details are worth many books. The biochemical pathways that create our molecules, the differentiation of cells into tissue and limbs, the shape and development of our body, all come about in some form from that blueprint. It makes us different from all other species, and it’s only relatively small differences between humans that don’t depend on it.

    Yes, since it’s apparently about the latter, it’s a garbage book. But that’s not the title’s fault. ;)

  2. petesh says

    In response to the post title: When society evolves enough. A very large object splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico (&/or other contemporaneous events, taking the long view) might help, of course.

    Re the book title: (c) and it seems we fell for it.

    @1: It might have been a fine title in about 1953. Of course it would have been worse if it referred to Genes (even altruistic ones) but no one would write a best-seller like that, would they?

  3. thirdmill301 says

    I have four siblings. Since the five of us share the same two parents, presumably our DNA is nearly identical. Yet we could not be more different. Some of us are smarter, some have better character, some of us have a better work ethic, some of us have different religious and political views. If not for the fact that we look alike, you’d never guess we’re related.

    How would DNA determinism explain that?

  4. daemonios says

    @1 monad:
    Usually a blueprint is a schematic for something, e.g. a building or machine. If you look at the blueprint, you can typically know pretty much what the depicted object looks like and how it works. I’m not a biologist, but I think DNA doesn’t really work that way. Even identical twins, who share the exact same genetic information, can look and behave very differently, not to mention have wildly different tastes, emotions, etc. In that sense, no, DNA does not “make us who we are” as the title claims.

  5. unclefrogy says

    I think it could be said that the ideas about life and DNA advocated by this book are based on the ideas that we are a distinct thing when it would be much more accurate to say that we are an event in time as is everything else that we can observe.
    our DNA is more like a hand copied musical score with the inevitable copyist and legibility mistakes played on various instruments of unverified quality and played by musicians of differing ability in none perfect environments that are changing over time. not some simple set of rules that make rich white people the inevitable masters of the world. and superior to all the rest of the peasants.
    Is this guy a friend of Jordan Peterson?
    uncle frogy

  6. vucodlak says

    Sorta related:
    Last night, I had the misfortune of watching the first episode of the newest ‘cops are superheroes with the most dangerous job on Earth and anyone who so much as questions them is a complete monster’ show from Dick Wolf, FBI. They used “a new DNA technology” on a bit of a blood, and after a minute the machine spit out… a near-perfect picture of the person the blood came from. Seriously.

    I’ve flunked nearly every biology class I’ve taken, and I still called bullshit on that.

  7. monad says

    @4: The identical twins will both look nearly the same in the sense of having about the same organs and general proportions, and probably behave similar in the sense of grasping objects, learning to crawl and then walk, trying out language and so on. The joke was that DNA is a blueprint that makes us who we are as far as Homo sapiens, but not at all for making us individuals. It evidently wasn’t well-delivered though.

  8. chrislawson says

    thirdmill301@3 —

    If you are all siblings from the same two parents, then you would expect to share ~50% of your genes with each of your other siblings. Of course, that doesn’t account for mitochondria (100% shared from your mother) or epigenetics (hard to estimate the amount of sharing).

  9. chrislawson says

    The “blueprint” analogy works fine on the level of DNA to protein transcription. The coding sequence of the DNA does lead directly to a set amino acid sequence in a protein with incredible accuracy (<1 error per 10,000-100,000 base pairs), just like a blueprint tells a (mindless) builder where to put the walls and doors. But it falls down on any level beyond that because it ignores regulatory sequences, interactions between genes, and developmental processes. And that’s before we even get into environmental influences…

    The “blueprint” seems to have been replaced with a “recipe” metaphor, which is also pretty misleading IMHO.

  10. says

    For an idea of the sort of dystopian future this proposes read Isaac Asimov’s 1957 novella; “Profession”. In a world where education is costly children are routinely brain-scanned, first to teach them to read and later to rewire their brains for a particular profession the scan deems them suitable for. Their is no choice of profession and much like our underfunded education system the quality of your job depends in the quality of the education tapes used to program you. Those whose brains are considered unsuitable are consigned to special institutions called “Homes for the Feeble-Minded”. The twist in the tale is that these “feeble-minded” individuals are those selected for a more “old-fashioned” style of education as the future leaders at the cutting edge of whatever profession they aim for. The story is not based on shoddy thinking about DNA but the critique of shoddy thinking about IQ is fairly obvious.

  11. chrislawson says

    garydargan@10–

    That’s odd, because Asimov was a member of and very vocal advocate for Mensa. I’m not entirely sure he was criticising IQ tests in that story. Maybe he was criticising IQ misuse, but Mensa’s very existence is predicated on shonky thinking on the subject. Ironic, that. A society for the smartest people in a population…who don’t understand the flaws in their key membership criterion.

  12. chrislawson says

    Ha. I just looked up Mensa on Wikipedia to check what I’d written and it gets even worse.

    It’s worth a read to see how the founders of Mensa felt about how it went. But something that nobody seems to have pointed out: it’s called Mensa from the Latin mensa for table, to represent “the round-table nature of the organization”. And yet their logo has an M shape made from a table….that is very, very square. Geniuses, I tell you!

  13. A. Noyd says

    unclefrogy (#5)

    our DNA is more like a hand copied musical score with the inevitable copyist and legibility mistakes

    I’d say it’s more like a hand-copied text description of such a score.

  14. chris61 says

    An argument from consequences is a fallacy

    That’s really all you needed to say about this review, PZ.

  15. kmrobertson says

    chrislawson @12

    It’s actually even funnier than that. When they first started the organization it’s name was “Mens”, which is Latin for “mind”. When someone finally realized the denotation and connotation of “mens club” the quickly added the “a” to make it Latin for “table” to make it supposedly more inclusive and egalitarian. Obviously these folks weren’t as intelligent as they thought.

    I learned this on an episode of QI with Stephen Fry as the host. Don’t remember the season or episode, though. I might actually qualify for Mensa, but never tried to join; I had a friend who took the test, qualified, and then she went to one or two meetings. She quit after that- she wasn’t very thrilled with either the club or its membership.

  16. thirdmill301 says

    I was a member of Mensa for 20 years. I was there when PZ spoke to the Mensa Atheists group in, I think, 2012 or thereabouts. As with any other club, you can find good people or bad people, and the club experience will largely be what you make of it. I met a lot of buttheads there, but I also met a lot of people I consider it a pleasure, and the annual gatherings are amazing.

    That said, IQ only measures one specific type of intelligence. I’m good at figuring out logic puzzles, math, doing sudoku, and pattern recognition. And those can be valuable skills to have. It is not so good at measuring emotional intelligence, social intelligence, or ethical intelligence, and being a smart person does not guarantee that someone is a decent human being. But so long as one enters into it with those understandings, and recognizes those limitations, overall I’d say nice things about the organization.

    I have to tell two funny stories. First, the best-attended seminar at any Mensa gathering I’ve ever been to — everyone wanted to attend — was on why smart people do stupid things and make bad choices. There is no correlation between intelligence and common sense. Second, I was at a gathering once in which a speaker asked the following question: If you could add yet another 20 points to your IQ, but the cost would be a disfiguring scar on your face, would you do it? The first person to respond was a woman who said, “If I added 20 points to my IQ, it would be 170 and I would have no one to talk to. I hardly have anyone to talk to now.”

  17. kmrobertson says

    thirdmill301 @18
    It was basically the local chapter of Mensa that turned her off and I realize you can’t make a blanket dismissal of an entire organization just because of a couple of buttheads at a single chapter. What you touched on in your second story is why she joined and I considered joining- the dearth of people we have to talk to. I’m not one to talk too much as it is, nor am I one who comments much. This is pretty much the first time I’ve commented here, and I’ve been reading this blog since it was exclusively at Science Blogs. I guess until now I didn’t feel I had anything important or profound enough to bring to the table, so to speak.

  18. maat says

    I do not disagree with you or Nathaniel Comfort, but I must ask: Have you read this book?

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