There’s this new book on behavioral genetics out, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, by Kathryn Paige Harden. I am not going to read it. I’ll never read it. If I were sent a free copy, I’d just throw it in the trash.
I know! I sound like I’m pre-judging it! But I can’t help it, everything I’ve read about it makes it clear that Harden has Steve Pinker disease. That’s the habit of creating a false dichotomy and stuffing any hint of leftist ideology into the extreme, just so you can easily dismiss it, and making those damned progressives the enemy of science, no matter what their views. Pinker did that with his terrible “blank slate” nonsense (no, no one believes that human beings are born with a complete absence of predispositions, or that genes don’t influence behavior). Why should I read something that has declared people like me to be bad by stuffing words in our mouths?
For a perfect example of this bullshit, here’s a profile in the New Yorker.
Can Progressives Be Convinced That Genetics Matters?
The behavior geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden is waging a two-front campaign: on her left are those who assume that genes are irrelevant, on her right those who insist that they’re everything.
Well fuck you too, New Yorker. I’m a fairly typical progressive, you don’t have to work at all hard to convince me that genetics matters. It does. But hey, sure, claim that I think genes are irrelevant, so you can claim that sweet centrist middle ground. Who are you arguing with, anyway?
To be fair, I’d also point out that on the far right, even among the most ridiculous bigots, they don’t believe that genes are everything. They’d also tell you that money matters.
Here’s the real difference:
Ask me if genetics matters, and I’d say yes, but that the interactions between genes and environment are so deeply intertwined that you can’t separate them out, and I don’t know precisely how genetics matters, and neither do you.
Ask someone on Harden’s side the same question, and they’ll say yes (Agreement! Consensus!), but that they think they know how, or are at least working on figuring out all the answers, which will show that vague properties like “educational attainment” have a robust genetic component. And I will argue that no, they aren’t even close.
I will roll my eyes especially hard when they try to tell me they’re figuring it out with GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Studies), twin studies, and polygenic scores, and that they affirm long-held assumptions by the privileged white class in our country. Yeah, no. Here’s a good article that, unlike the New Yorker, isn’t fawning over her fuzzy genetic determinism.
Rather than admit that these studies feed fascistic and racist ideas, she attempts to “both-sides” the issues, focusing on leftists, for whom she appears to have some disdain, fancying herself as some kind of sensible centrist, by contrast. Case in point is her interpretation of a study related to bias towards genetic determinists:
“… a scientist who reported genetic influence on intelligence was also perceived as less objective, more motivated to prove a particular hypothesis, and more likely to hold non-egalitarian beliefs that predated their scientific research career…people who described themselves as politically liberal were particularly likely to doubt the scientist’s objectivity when she reported genetic influences on intelligence.”
Her point here is to paint the left as hopelessly biased on this subject, but despite Harden’s dubious effort to paint herself as a leftist, many individuals touting genetic determinist views also harbor racist and classist views that are hardly egalitarian. There are obvious reasons for this and it doesn’t take a leftist to distrust their motives, nor should one expect leftists to embrace a sugar-coated version of genetic determinism.
Isn’t it curious how these gene-crazy people always try to find ways to demonize the people who aren’t racist/fascist/bigots? It would be nice if they were even more fastidious about the racists who do so love their work.
And there’s the science behind their claims. There is a place for GWAS studies. If you’re using them as a tool to trace lineages, fine. If you’re using them to identify candidate genes that you’ll then analyze with experimental work, great. If you instead are using them to label some marker as a potential causal agent for some complex behavioral phenomenon, no thank you very much go away now.
The actual science is far less impressive, and for those not familiar, it essentially relies on establishing genetic “correlations,” without defining what or how these genes might influence a particular trait. The principle behind the studies is not much different than what commercial genealogy sites like Ancestry.com do, but instead of establishing ethnicity or ancestry, they correlate the genetic variants that are more common in one group than another for a particular behavioral trait, or just about anything that can be designated on a questionnaire. Then they score the total number of these correlated variants a person has for a “polygenic score,” the idea being that a higher score makes it more likely you will have the trait. This is based on the hypothesis that traits are “polygenic,” consisting of hundreds or thousands of genetic variants. It is a probabilistic assessment, with no definitive set of genetic variants that would confer a trait or explanation of how any of these variants would contribute to the trait, nor explain why many with high scores do not have the trait and many with low scores do.
In truth, applying a polygenic score for a trait isn’t a whole lot different than commercial genealogy sites assessing whether someone has genetic variation that is more common for, say, Italian or Korean people. The difference is that Ancestry.com is not absurdly claiming that these genetic variations are causing Italians to like pizza or Koreans to use chopsticks. That, however, is essentially what behavioral geneticists are trying to claim, but instead of pizza or chopsticks, Harden is focused largely on so-called “educational attainment.”
Everything is polygenic. The relationships between different genes are also certainly non-linear, so you can’t just add up slight effects to claim the whole of the outcome is predictable or important. You definitely can’t talk about causality (oh, and Harden backs up frantically every time anyone mentions the “causal” word, with good reason.)
Thus, we have the circular argument that keeps the field of behavioral genetics alive: The heritability of a trait seen in twin studies proves there is a genetic basis for that trait, and the fact that we are not able to confirm twin studies via genetic studies shows only that we haven’t found the genes we expected yet, but we know must exist because of twin studies. Such circular assumptions are then presented as established science. For example, Harden claims as fact that behavioral traits are “polygenic”:
“Schizophrenia and autism and depression and obesity and educational attainment are not associated with one gene. They are not associated with even a dozen different SNPs. They are polygenic – associated with thousands upon thousands of SNP’s [genetic variants] scattered all throughout a person’s genome.”
These contradictory assumptions leave us with a “polygenic” model with thousands of genetic variants adding up to a tiny bit of heritability, and unidentified “rare variants,” to be found at a later date, accounting for the remaining huge chunks of missing heritability. This is simply wishful thinking.
Nonetheless, Harden embraces the idea that these genetic studies will someday close the gap on this missing heritability, touting a recent study for educational attainment in which she claims, “You can account for 13% of the variance.” Although this is not anywhere near what one would expect from twin studies, on the surface it is significantly better than the usual 2 to 3% that such studies generally yield. It is a bit of sleight hand, however, for Harden to tout this figure, when she also touts within family studies (comparing the genetics of siblings and their parents and then assessing their educational attainment polygenic score), as a way to strip down to the actual causal genes, and such a study was conducted and brought this figure back down to 2 or 3%. Such decreases are merely a flesh wound for Harden, though, who notes that, “… the heritability of educational attainment is still not zero.”
Here’s the thing, though. I’m going to be hearing about this book for years to come, all from the alt-right and right-wing losers who promote the kind of racial determinism underlying its theme, and what I will see from us horrible lefties is dismissal and rightful recognition that it doesn’t demonstrate what it claims…which will lead to people like Harden or Charles Murray or Steve Sailer claiming that we’re the bad guys, and siding with Harden. Yet Harden will insist that her sympathies are with progressives and social justice, and oh no, she doesn’t see anything wrong with her most ardent supporters finding affirmation of their racist views in her book.
Hey, has she done an interview with Joe Rogan or Jordan Peterson or Bret Weinstein/Heather Heying yet? They’re going to love her.