What the heck is sociogenomics?

I was asked recently about “sociogenomics,” and I had to stop and think because I was unfamiliar with the word. At a guess, I thought it would about looking for correlations between genes and socioeconomic groups, ethnicities, and races using tools like genome wide association studies and polygenic scores — you know, Bell Curve shit. To me, it sounded ominous and catastrophically bad, something that would shift into plain old eugenics and evolve into Nazi shit. But what do I know? I had to go look it up. I was just guessing.

Guess what? I guessed right.

Sociogenome is the comprehensive study of the role of genes and gene-environment (GxE) interaction on reproductive behaviour. Until now, social science research has focussed on socio-environmental explanations, largely neglecting the role of genes.

Drawing from recent unprecedented advances in molecular genetics we examine whether there is a genetic component to reproductive outcomes, including age at first birth, number of children and infertility and their interaction with the social environment.

Uh-oh. They’re just going to take modern genetic techniques and apply them to sociology. But these techniques will not give them the answers they want! They’ll reveal rough correlations, but they won’t untangle genetics and environmental factors — they can’t. This is a problem that has been pointed out to behavioral genetics researchers for years, and they just go sailing on ahead.

In the past decade and a half, sociologists and demographers have sought to integrate genetic data into their empirical analyses. To do so, they have drawn on recently developed high-throughput sequencing and genotyping technologies, which allow the entire genome to be mapped. They also follow in the line of a research specialty, behavioural genetics, which rose to prominence in the 1970s. This area, which focused notably on the genetic determination of intelligence, attracted severe criticisms, including among demographers (Jacquard, 1978; Vetta and Courgeau, 2003; Courgeau, 2017). However, these criticisms do not always seem to have been heard, and the emergence of new data and techniques has given rise to new problems, as indicated by calls for caution from learned societies in human genetics (Société française de génétique humaine, 2010; Risch, 2016; Société française de génétique humaine, 2018).

Let’s look at an example of a sociogenomics study that was summarized in Wired. It does not reassure me.

The UK BioBank is the single largest public genetic repository in the world, with samples of the genetic blueprints of half a million Brits standing by for scientific study. But when David Hill, a statistical geneticist at the University of Edinburgh, went poring through that data, he wasn’t looking for a cure for cancer or deeper insights into the biology of aging. Nothing like that. He was trying to figure out why some people make more money than others.

I hadn’t thought of that. They’re going to tap into modern behavioral databases, like all that information Facebook has about you, in addition to biological databases, and they’re going to try to weave the two of them into some kind of story. I’ve never been impressed by that.

Along with a team of European collaborators, Hill sifted through the UK Biobank data to find about 286,000 participants who had answered a survey question about household income. Using that information they conducted something called a Genome Wide Association Study, where they looked at 18 million places in the genome to see which ones matched up with higher paychecks. They uncovered about 30, which account for 7.4 percent of household income variation across the United Kingdom. (For some context, another way of viewing the results is to say that 92.6 percent of a person’s income is explained by factors other than genetics.) Hill noticed that many of the genetic differences overlapped with areas known to be associated with intelligence, based on some of his prior work, and when he mapped them out they were largely expressed in the brain.

His team then used these regions to compute a polygenic score, a genetic calculation that predicts a person’s odds of reaching a certain outcome—of, say, developing diabetes or earning six figures. It didn’t perform particularly well, correctly forecasting only 2.5 percent of the differences in income in an independent sample of Scots. “Your DNA will not print you money,” says Hill. But he’s relieved to have found some small effect. “If you’re born with a predisposi­tion for certain traits or abilities, and none of them counted in any way, shape, or form towards your income, then you’d have a profoundly unfair society, in my opinion,” he says.

Thanks, I hate it. So he started with the information about a quarter of a million people, went fishing for any correlation at all, and found a tiny percentage of the genetic variation might account for a tiny fraction of the variation in income, because of course they’re zeroing in on money. It looks like noise to me; I’d want to know haw they accounted for the fact that a great deal of wealth is inherited, so you’d expect to see some common traits threaded through lines of wealth. Trust fund babies are going to share genes with mommy and daddy, even if they have nothing to do with the source of their money.

Further, even their weak correlation hasn’t found a genetic basis for wealth. Genes aren’t pure entities that can be isolated in this way and tied to phenotype — everything is polygenic and pleiotropic, and absolutely dependent on the environment for their expression. No wonder I didn’t know what sociogenomics is — if I encountered it in a science journal, I’d glance at the abstract, gag, and turn the page.

Then I figured it out: sociogenomics is nothing but the new label slapped on Kathryn Paige Harden’s behavioral genetics, which I figured out a long time ago was garbage science. Here’s a solid critique of Harden’s ideas.

In her recent sociogenomics manifesto The Genetic Lottery, Kathryn Paige Harden sets out to rescue behavior genetics from the spectres of racism and eugenics. Sociogenomics, like behavior genetics, studies the possible role of genes in explaining complex human social behaviors. Critics have charged this area of study with fueling biological determinist theories of human social inequality.

Harden purports to offer a refreshing take on this old debate because she claims that such critics are blind to the role that genetics play in the very thing they aim to secure: social equality. She argues that, in fact, we must use genetic information to promote truly egalitarian social policy. Styling herself after 20th century anti-racist geneticists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Harden offers the new sociogenomics as an explicitly anti-eugenic synthesis of genetics and equality.

Harden is right that the legacies of eugenics haunt behavior genetics. The field’s findings have been used to argue that biological differences between social groups explain social inequality and to undermine the possibility of egalitarian interventions. Human behavior genetics and its successor, sociogenomics, have thrived on controversy about the alleged biological relationship between race and IQ and the alleged futility of educational interventions in closing achievement gaps. Harden’s particular focus—the notion that biology can explain population differences in educational attainment and cognitive performance—has been a pillar of eugenic discourse and white supremacist ideology. But Harden believes that it is possible to “[reclaim] genetic science from the legacy of eugenics, realigning it with egalitarian aims.” Harden’s “new synthesis,” she argues, is not only different from eugenics, but self-consciously anti-eugenic.

Harden draws an analogy between her critics’ “genome blindness” (her term for the failure to “see” genetic causes) and color blindness (the failure to “see” race). Just as color blindness undermines antiracism because it fails to grapple with the effects of racism, Harden argues that genome-blindness threatens egalitarian aims because it fails to grapple with genetic causes of inequality. But this analogy breaks down when the entanglement of behavior genetics with eugenics is taken seriously. Resisting eugenics depends on an understanding not of how genes work, but of how eugenics works. Anti-eugenic science demands an expansive and nuanced understanding of how eugenic thought developed. In this essay, we show that Harden’s account of eugenics seriously undermines her claim to rescue behavior genetics from its clutches.

Yeah. Harden is really unconvincing. Somehow, while claiming to be an anti-eugenicist, she embraces the modern genetic determinists and spurns the people who have been showing for decades that genes and environment are inseparable.

Harden’s failure to engage with critics of behavioral genetics, often from the political left, veers between simple omissions and outright misrepresentation. This treatment is in stark contrast to how she treats biological determinists on the political right. The work of Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, which claimed that differences in IQ scores between the rich and poor were genetic, and whose research aligns neatly with Harden’s, is described as mostly true and his political implications are lightly challenged. The most prominent critic of behavioral genetics, Richard Lewontin, gets much rougher treatment.

In one of the three cases in which Harden bothers to mention Lewontin’s decades-long engagement with behavioral genetics, she gets it wrong, claiming that Lewontin merely said that heritability is useless because it is specific to a particular population at a particular time. In reality, Lewontin showed why the statistical foundation of heritability analyses means it is unable to truly separate genetic and environmental effects. Contra Harden’s characterization of her opponents, Lewontin recognized genetic factors as a cause of phenotypes; however, he stressed their effects cannot be independent of environmental factors and the dynamics of development.

Called it. Told you this was going to be some Bell Curve shit.

What really clinches for me that this is something more than a few fringe scholars coming up with fancy titles for the junk science they are doing, though, is this surprise. Purdue is making a massive investment in creating a sociogenomics department from scratch.

Together the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Science at Purdue University seek applications for multiple scholars in Sociogenomics, including existing groups of investigators, to assemble a new world-leading cohort of approximately 15 faculty. The positions include tenure-track Assistant, Associate, and Professor ranks.

A relatively new field, Sociogenomics encompasses theoretical and methodological approaches across the social, behavioral, and genetic sciences including those with an emphasis on computation. It explores the roles of genetics in social and behavior outcomes, as well as how genetics interact with the environment and social forces. Purdue is strongly committed to establishing a pre-eminent center in this emerging area including hiring a substantive cohort of scholars. We are especially interested in fostering collaborative linkages across the core fields of this discipline, here at Purdue and more broadly. This search is open to leading scholars in any area relevant to the advancement of Sociogenomics, and we are especially interested in candidates who draw from and contribute to research in the social science disciplines, biological sciences, the computational and data sciences, statistics, or other related disciplines. We anticipate joint appointments across departments where appropriate, with tenure homes flexible and negotiated at the time of hire.

That is remarkable. Right now, universities everywhere are struggling, thanks to the pressures of the pandemic and political neglect, yet somehow, Purdue has magically come up with the money and the will to create 15 faculty positions in this “relatively new field.” This is not how it works. You start with a small team of qualified people in the area, see how successful they are at grants and papers, and how well the students respond to their courses. Then you build around that solid core and grow the department. Also, you typically start with some well-established discipline that you know has a good track record.

Just flash, boom, creating a substantial department out of whole cloth, hiring new people and assembling them into some kind of framework, is what you do when you’ve got some wealthy sugar daddy, a billionaire or two or some corporation that thinks there are profits to be made. And doing it with some vague discipline that is only a few years old — unthinkable. In the absence of a need, this has to be the product of someone with an agenda, probably an unsavory agenda, pushing buckets of money at a university that will happily accept it.

The thing is, ideas that promote the belief that the very rich have earned their money by virtue of their superior biology are ridiculously popular with the people who have an excess of money to donate.


  1. says

    Just flash, boom, creating a substantial department out of whole cloth, hiring new people and assembling them into some kind of framework, is what you do when you’ve got some wealthy sugar daddy…

    Yeah, that’s how we got “supply-side economics.”

  2. Matt G says

    How depressing that the name of a new “field” of science tells you everything you need to know about it. It’s like looking for something in the wrong place because the light’s better. At least astrobiology has a subject, even if they have an n equal to one.

  3. Allison says

    Is “astrobiology” the study of how astrology affects biological development?

    IMHO, that makes more sense than “sociogenomics.”

  4. EvoMonkey says

    That link about the new department at Purdue goes to a page with the title “Sociogenomics Cluster Hire at Purdue University” on the Behavioral Genetics Association website. They got that right – it’s a cluster!

  5. kome says

    There’s always money for white people to fund the science that inevitably only ever shows that white people are better than everyone else.

  6. says

    It looks like noise to me; I’d want to know haw they accounted for the fact that a great deal of wealth is inherited, so you’d expect to see some common traits threaded through lines of wealth.

    And I’m wondering if they accounted for the fact that wealth grows according to a power law distribution; the results are not proportional to the initial conditions (having money makes it easier to make money, in other words, the rich get richer).
    Yeah, sounds like junk science.

    Purdue has magically come up with the money and the will to create 15 faculty positions in this “relatively new field.

    Maybe they can figure out why the basketball team loses to a double-digit seed in the tournament every year.

  7. StevoR says

    @ 5. kome : Yeah, “funny” that.

    Title qu. : What the heck is sociogenomics?

    Answer : Racist bulldust.

    @2. Matt G : For now. Things can and likely will change fast even if only by finding microbes from Mars or Titan or Enceladus or the Cytherean clouds or elsewhere..

    FWIW there’s a case that the Viking test results were inconclusive rather than negative as it is now.

    @ 3. Allison : Presume you are being flip but just in case – no :

    Astrobiology is a scientific field within the life and environmental sciences that studies the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe through investigating its deterministic conditions and contingent events.[2] As a discipline, astrobiology is founded on the premise that life may exist beyond Earth.[3]

    Research in astrobiology comprises three main areas: the study of habitable environments in the Solar System and beyond, the search for planetary biosignatures of past or present extraterrestrial life, and the study of the origin and early evolution of life on Earth.

    Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology

  8. birgerjohansson says

    At the end of the 19th century a German researcher claimed the German race was the highest, and among the Germans, the Hohenzollern royal family! What a surprise…

  9. ardipithecus says

    The signal to noise ratio in sociogenomics appears to be on a par with MAGAhat demonstrations. I wonder why.

  10. wzrd1 says

    birgerjohansson, ah, but the British royal family is higherester or something.
    After all, 100% of the children of the monarch are wealthy, so therefor, good genes.

    Never fear, eventually they’ll get to retract a pile of papers on how genes for melanin give poor results economically.

  11. says

    Harden … claims that such critics are blind to the role that genetics play in the very thing they aim to secure: social equality. She argues that, in fact, we must use genetic information to promote truly egalitarian social policy.

    I’ve never heard anyone specify exactly — or even generally — HOW genetics or genetic information is actually used to “promote truly egalitarian social policy.” It seems to me that once you’ve bought into a belief that our genes make one group significantly different from another, you’re inevitably led to the conclusion that those groups are inherently unequal. So how can that lead to a more egalitarian anything? All I see it leading to, is simply giving up on any attempt to give everyone equal opportunity, equal education, equal anything else; and simply stop investing any social resources in those who allegedly won’t ever be able to make the most of them.

  12. says

    Oops, I hit “Post” too soon…

    This sounds like classic Orwellian doublethink, and I really hope someone shines a hot, bright, and very harsh light on Perdue’s thinking and rationale for creating what really looks like a glorified “race-science” department.

  13. says

    After all, 100% of the children of the monarchy are wealthy, so therefore, good genes.

    And we must make sure good genes only mix with good genes, because that can only mean — oh, wait…

  14. nomdeplume says

    So the new department’s aim is to promote prosperity gospel and to explain why the undeserving poor are undeserving? Or have I misunderstodd something?

  15. says

    No, no, no, you silly atheist, that’s religious essentialism, not genetic essentialism — TOTALLY DIFFERENT!

    Harden draws an analogy between her critics’ “genome blindness” (her term for the failure to “see” genetic causes)…

    That’s a very race-sciencey insult: pretending the genetically-determined differences between races are “obvious” and calling everyone who disagrees “blind.”

  16. Matt G says

    This is a classic case of assuming your conclusions and looking for data to fit them. At great expense.

    This ain’t science. Just like intelligent design creationism, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc.

  17. profpedant says

    Gene expression is heavily influenced by environmental conditions, as also are personalities. If someone wants to have a chance of sorting out genetic influences in how a person’s life goes you probably need to study a Large number of people from a Large number of cultures and environments, beginning several centuries after it has started being true that every human alive was lovingly raised, well-educated, healthy, economically secure, respected, and valued. Trying to do this with the current population only results in all sorts of bad information whose only use is to practice debunking stupid assumptions about some weird correlation. (The same with eugenics – trying to figure out ‘the best combinations of genes’ is a waste of effort if the people being studied have had a variety of ‘things that should not happen’ happen to them…a category which pretty much everyone is in at this point in history. None of our lives are the ‘best’ expression of our genes, we all fall at least a little short of our potential.)

  18. wzrd1 says

    ardipithecus @14, indeed, I love it when I set it up for someone to spike!

    The only time genetics matter to me is if it’s regarding a medical issue. Or in some cases, when preparing food for guests. I’d hate to prepare my favorite fava bean recipe to someone who had a G6PD deficiency!
    Got a really tasty recipe for falafel made with fava beans, rather than chickpeas. Old Saudi family recipe.

  19. StevoR says

    Good genes fro what? Whether genes aid or hinder really depedns so much upon the environment and wther those genes are sueful init or not. A money making gene willbe useless ina wrold whre money isn’t useful ie the post-apocalypse one we’re heading towards

  20. wzrd1 says

    Well, there are sets of “good genes” and odd admixtures or even SNP related significant medically important genes. They’re also rare and sociologically, negligible.
    As an example, I have a liver that seems to have supernatural abilities to rebound without reflection of function, despite even toxin overload, thermal stress that usually causes major dysfunction, stones obstructing things causing backups of bile and severe viral infections of COVID and early in life, Hep-A. The thermal issue was a heat stroke that damaged my heart and kidneys.
    Sociologically, not especially important, overall, medically, quite potentially useful if such extremes could be replicated and proved.
    And all, entirely not what these village idiots contend at all.

  21. birgerjohansson says

    Stephen Colbert:
    “Bail To The Chief”
    NY: 70 degrees with a chance of jail.