If you read Nathaniel Comfort’s scathing review of Robert Plomin’s book, Blueprint, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. He was holding back, maintaining the decorum of the journal as best he could. He gives a more thorough criticism on his blog, Genotopia, and wow, it’s even more brutal. Sometimes a more thorough and nuanced analysis just leads to an even stronger condemnation.
…Plomin’s argument is socially dangerous. Sure, genes influence and shape complex behavior, but we have almost no idea how. At this point in time (late 2018), it’s the genetic contributions to complex behavior that are mostly random and unsystematic. Polygenic scores may suggest regions of the genome in which one might find causal genes, but we already know that the contribution of any one gene to complex behavior is minute. Thousands of genes are involved in personality traits and intelligence—and many of the same polymorphisms pop up in every polygenic study of complex behavior. Even if the polygenic scores were causal, it remains very much up in the air whether looking at the genes for complex behavior will ever really tell us very much about those behaviors.
In contrast—and contra Plomin—we have very good ideas about how environments shape behaviors. Taking educational attainment as an example (it’s a favorite of the PGS crowd—a proxy for IQ, whose reputation has become pretty tarnished in recent years), we know that kids do better in school when they have eaten breakfast. We know they do better if they aren’t abused. We know they do better when they have enriched environments, at home and in school.
We also know that DNA doesn’t act alone. Plomin neglects all post-transcriptional modification, epigenetics, microbiomics, and systems biology—sciences that show without a doubt that you can’t draw a straight line from genes to behavior. The more complex the trait in question, the more true that sentence becomes. And Plomin is talking about the most complex traits there are: human personality and intelligence.
Plomin’s argument is dangerous because it minimizes those absolutely robust findings. If you follow his advice, you go along with the Republicans and continue slowly strangling public education and vote for that euphemism for separate-but-equal education, “school choice.” You axe Head Start. You eliminate food stamps and school lunch programs. You go along with eliminating affirmative action programs, which are designed to remediate past social neglect; in other words, you vote to restore neglect of the under-privileged. Those kids with genetic gumption will rise out of their circumstances one way or another…like Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson or something, I guess. As for the rest, fuck ’em.
I can see how that wouldn’t get printed in Nature, but he’s exactly right on every single point. Plomin, no matter what his own political views, has written a garbage book that plays right into the hands of the right wing, from the title onwards. It’s shocking that Plomin is completely oblivious to how crude and wrong his understanding of modern genetics is…a lock of understanding that allowed him to write a whole book on his ignorance. It’s a bit like Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance — another instance of Dunning-Krueger fused with 19th century racism.
Hey, though, if you care about this stuff, and are interested in how good science can be communicated well, I have a treat for you: tomorrow, Tuesday, at 6:30 Eastern, you can tune in to an online discussion between Jennifer Raff and Carl Zimmer on Why You’re You: Explaining Heredity to a Confused Public.
Heredity, genetics and #SciComm, let's talk about it! Featuring @carlzimmer (who has a new book!) @JenniferRaff and @leHotz. Join us TOMORROW (10/9) at 6 p.m. at @nyu_journalism or online at 6:30 at https://t.co/dqGjQIOTRX and tweet your questions with the #kavliconvo hashtag! pic.twitter.com/5d9w937cet
— Dan Fagin (@danfagin) October 8, 2018
Note that this is not a debate — it’s a conversation between two well-informed individuals on good science, and how to explain it. I’ll be checking in!