What are the responsibilities of geneticists?

Still works. Just replace “philosophy” with “genetics”

Janet Stemwedel has published an essay in Scientific American. It’s good. You should go read it. It’s also on a subject that I, someone who teaches genetics to college students, worry about. All you have to do is look at racists on the internet, or any of those gomers of the “Intellectual Dark Web”, and you’ll find them chattering away about their version of genetics, citing genetics papers they’ve read or glanced at, but barely understand, and drawing sweeping, and unlikely, conclusions from, for instance, GWAS studies. We’re all so interested in what we can do that we aren’t cautious enough about saying what we can’t do, and what are the invalid interpretations that can trap people searching for genetic certainty in their genomes.

She has some strong suggestions.

For one thing, they [scientists] must be frank and vocal about the weakness of studies that purport to find correlations between race and differences in traits like intelligence or propensity violence. This includes methodological weaknesses like treating IQ as a good proxy for intelligence, or treating “race” as something with clear genetic grounding. A finding that particular genes or sets of genes are associated with a complex behavior does not demonstrate a causal relation or rule out the importance of environmental factors—and indeed, the assumption that genes and environment vary independently is usually false. An average difference in a trait associated with a set of genes between two populations does not rule out that the individual variations within those populations may be greater than the average difference between populations. All of which is to say it’s hard to draw conclusions that are strong, clear and well-supported from much of this work. To the extent that race science is just bad science, scientists have a duty to call it out, rather than letting it stand unchallenged.

I’ve been thinking that I ought to incorporate one of Richard Lewontin’s books into my genetics class — something like It Ain’t Necessarily So : The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, maybe. The catch is that in a traditional genetics course, we have an obligation to teach the core concepts, and taking time to teach about how genetics is misused is sometimes premature.

For another thing, scientists must do some soul-searching about why they are so motivated to look for evidence that traits like intelligence or propensity to violence are written in our genes, or that they would be different for people in different racial groups. Of all the bits of truth they could discover about our complex world, why this focus? Could it be that scientists are following their preexisting hunches, biases that come from being humans living in a culture built around those biases—or that funders are seeking scientific validation for their biases? Any scientist who dismisses this possibility has forgotten that objectivity requires the communal project of scrutinizing scientific conclusions to find how they might be mistaken.

I’ve got a few awful books on my bookshelf, often written by evolutionary psychologists, that make me wonder about the mental state of the authors. They have some grand theory about human behavior that I know can’t possibly be backed up by significant genetics research, but apparently the public wants that nice pat answer to explain why everything is the way it is.

Also, a lot of those kinds of books seem to be written by professors of marketing. Seriously, if you see a book that purports to be about biology, and the author is employed in a business school, don’t waste your time. Which leads into Stemwedel’s next point…

There’s a further question scientists ought to ask themselves when reflecting on why they study the scientific questions they do: What will the knowledge I’m building be good for? How could it be put to use? Do scientists imagine that a finding of genetic differences in intelligence among racial groups would be used to drive more school funding to Black and brown communities, or as a justification to focus school funding on white communities? Or that a finding of genetic differences in propensity for violence among racial groups would be used to do anything but double down on current overpolicing of communities of color?

In the case of James Watson, for example, I think he’s made a career of trying to buttress evidence that he is an intrinsically superior person. They didn’t call him Lucky Jim for nothing — he stumbled into a major discovery, and I wonder if he wonders what might have made him so fortunate. It can’t possibly be that anyone with the right training could have done it, so he finds a refuge in the fact that he’s Scots-Irish. Others know that the status quo has treated them well, so they want to perpetuate what is currently a racist society for the benefit of themselves and their children. Others, I think, are so steeped in a culture of racial bias that they don’t even think about it — black people must be inferior, so let’s search for a rationalization for holding what is an odious belief.

It’s probably a messy mix of all of those things, and more. I’m pretty sure that if genetics has broad fuzzy edges that psychology is probably even worse.


  1. PaulBC says

    They didn’t call him Lucky Jim for nothing — he stumbled into a major discovery, and I wonder if he wonders what might have made him so fortunate. It can’t possibly be that anyone with the right training could have done it, so he finds a refuge in the fact that he’s Scots-Irish.

    What I don’t get is why, once you acknowledge that you won some kind of lottery, that it makes a difference whether it is a lottery of genetics, of upbringing, or of circumstance.

  2. dstatton says

    Whenever I see something about IQ being a proxy for intelligence, I think of the horrid Bell Curve.

  3. PaulBC says

    dstatton@2 I recently listened to an audiobook of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man including commentary written after Herrnstein and Murray’s book. I thought it held up extremely well considering how long ago he wrote it. One point he emphasizes is that “G” is an entirely synthetic measure based on factor analysis.

    Whatever the cause of “innate” differences in any ability, the root problem (and I think this is in line with Gould) is using these measures to divert the lion’s share of resources to an elite, believed capable of excelling in that area, and abandoning everyone else. According to Gould, Binet’s initial motivation for IQ was to identify those who needed the most help so that educational resources could be directed to them. This is almost never the intent of those promoting genetic determinism, nor the policy outcome in practice.

    BTW, I have no problem with providing opportunities to “gifted” kids, though they need to be identified using unbiased methods. Elite training is, however, a small part of the mission of public education, which is to produce a citizenry capable of making sound decisions. Learning to read, acquiring logic and quantitative reasoning ability, paying attention to evidence, and maintaining a healthy skepticism including about your own ability to reason is something nearly anyone can be trained to do.

    Finding a genetic explanation for some ability is simply the laziest way possible of screening large groups of people and denying them opportunities.

  4. pick says


    Yes, Gould’s book was definitive for me. If there is anything genetic, it is this driving need to rank people according to some made up measure, always done by those who consider themselves to be the “pinnacle of evolution”. Very teleological in as much as there is no pinnacle to evolution – some of us think of themselves as closer to divine perfection than others I suppose.

  5. daved says

    You can get a hefty dose of this “genetics rules all” stuff by reading some older science fiction. Heinlein, for example, was very much a proponent of “it’s all in the genes.”. Like in “Beyond this Horizon,” where society is busily trying to conserve all the “good genes” that allow them to be rid of things like tooth decay. Or his Howard Families, whose members live well over a century because their parents and grandparents all came from long-lived families and were encouraged to marry and have children. I can’t help wondering how widespread the influence of this kind of thinking was.

  6. says

    the public wants that nice pat answer to explain why everything is the way it is.

    D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson told us 100 years ago:
    “Everything is the way it is because it got that way.”

  7. PaulBC says

    daved@5 OMG, yes I was about to go off on a rant (and stopped myself) about the “Golden Age” and John W Fucking Campbell. Even “classics” like The Little Black Bag (which I enjoyed as a kid) by Cyril Kornbluth (or the Marching Morons) have this false narrative that those of “superior” intellect (you know, the kind of people who read science fiction) will diverge and the rest of society (those breeding “mundanes”) will degenerate. The proposed solution is usually some combination of eugenics and genocide.

    There is no evidence that this ever happened, though human experience has gone through many technological phases that may have changed the adaptive value of different traits. In any case, if you don’t want people to be stupid, you should educate them, not pick out the smart ones and kill off the rest.

    I was trying to make it through a book of short stories written in honor of Poul Anderson (who I’m sure I had confused with Frederick Pohl) and it struck me that the real problem with a certain category of science fiction authors is that they are know-it-alls, not just that they know everything about science or about fiction-writing, but like they know everything about Sumerian history and the cultural origin of the Full English Breakfast. Like, shut the fuck up. You don’t know all the crap you think you do.

    They’re not all like that. One thing I love about Philip K Dick is his compassion. He also used golden age tropes, but he had a penchant for ne’er-do-wells. He wasn’t trying to make the world safe for ubermensch fanboys.

    Where was I? Triggered, yeah. OK, I am done now.

  8. iiandyiiii says

    I kind of approach the issue from the opposite point of view — a clear reading of history, and a clear understanding of the most up to date science on genetics, demonstrates that differences in outcomes between groups are entirely based on history and socio-cultural factors, not “group genetics” (which, as noted, don’t even really exist in the way the white supremacists think it does). So I think the more we find out, the more this will be confirmed, and thus more and more research into the genetics of intelligence and other characteristics is a positive good.

  9. says

    It runs both ways. When I studied the effects of lead poisoning it included that housing discrimination, redlining, and segregation forced the urban Black population into older areas with heavy lead contamination. As a consequence, a large proportion of the urban Black population suffered the consequences of lead poisoning which include IQ loss and deterioration of the inhibition areas of the brain. Thus much of what racists stereotyped about Black behavior such as violence, low intelligence, and drug use were direct consequences of lead poisoning but literally nobody, Black or White, wanted to recognize this. White people didn’t want to pay to clean up the environment to benefit Black people and the Black population did not want to admit that the reality behind racial stereotypes even existed. Genetics gave a pseudo-scientific explanation for ignoring lead poisoning. Still does.

  10. unclefrogy says

    in the common uneducated in the reality of genetics and inheritance population the would be racists. they seem to tend to think that “races ” are similar to “species” in the expression of traits and characteristics. they think that all of that is separable by some arbitrary external characteristics and grasp on anything to rationalize their beliefs.
    I have been thinking lately that some think we are kind of like lions vs tigers vs leopards in our distinctions when in reality we are just alley cat with all of the variations mixed up by chance

  11. silvrhalide says

    Lucky Jim indeed.
    Lucky that Rosalind Franklin had her lab down the hall from his.
    Lucky he had his career in the era that he did and wasn’t shown the door from Cold Spring Harbor sooner than he was.
    and who could forget this
    His comments were originally made at an event celebrating the contributions of women and girls in science. Tone deaf much, Tim Hunt?

    “In the case of James Watson, for example, I think he’s made a career of trying to buttress evidence that he is an intrinsically superior person. They didn’t call him Lucky Jim for nothing — he stumbled into a major discovery, and I wonder if he wonders what might have made him so fortunate. It can’t possibly be that anyone with the right training could have done it, so he finds a refuge in the fact that he’s Scots-Irish.”

    Or maybe it’s because he knows he cribbed heavily from others (if not outright stole ideas and work from others), never credited those same others and knows he doesn’t have the goods, have what it takes. The people who do? They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones giving a helping hand up to others.

    The whispering network was warning women about Watson for decades before CSH decided to sit up and take notice of the thing that was in front of their collective face all along.