September 29, 2021
Behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden’s book The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality has been much anticipated by scientists worried that the dumbing down of discourse in the name of diversity might eventually get their funding cut.
After years of trying out on the science conference circuit her arguments for why the Woke shouldn’t be so anti-genetics, The Genetic Lottery is finally here. It turns out to be an elaborately contrived triple-bank-shot attempt to head off growing Ibram X. Kendi-style science denialism by claiming that ignoring the influence of genetics upon human differences just enables the Real Bad Guys, led by archvillain Charles Murray, to easily dunk on the libs:
When social scientists routinely fail to integrate genetics into their models of human development, they leave space for a false narrative that portrays the insights of genetics as a Pandora’s box of “forbidden knowledge.”… Why would we want to hand people opposed to the goals of social equality a powerful rhetorical weapon, in the form of a widely prevalent and easily understood methodological flaw in social research?
You see, extremists like Murray are right about the science—well, except for the part about genetics probably contributing to the IQ gap between whites and blacks. That’s totally wrong. Totally.
Or at least it’s not proven yet.
Or, if Murray is right, that just means white Americans must pay more taxes to compensate for the genetics of blacks:
But, no matter how people differ genetically, no matter how those genetic differences between people are distributed across socially defined racial groups, no matter how strongly those genetic differences influence the development of human characteristics…we are still not absolved of the responsibility to arrange society to the benefit of all people, not just the tiny slice of global genetic diversity that is people of predominantly European ancestry.
Or something. The Genetic Lottery is all over the map. Some people try not to get canceled by adopting an obscure prose style. Harden, instead, artlessly expresses herself, and then goes back and says the opposite later.
In the best part of The Genetic Lottery, Harden argues that leftist social scientists should incorporate the new polygenic scores for predicting performance from DNA into their studies in order to find out what actually works to narrow gaps:
The fact that income, educational attainment, subjective well-being, psychiatric disease, neighborhood advantage, cognitive test performance, executive function, grit, motivation, and curiosity are all heritable…does mean that vast amounts of research in the social sciences…waste time and money…because their research designs depend on correlating some aspects of a person’s behavior or functioning with some aspect of the environment that is provided by a biological relative, such as a parent, without controlling for the fact that biological relatives can be expected to resemble each other just because they share genes.
Harden is likely overly optimistic about how many useful interventions could be discovered if social scientists got realistic about genetic confounding. But her proposal couldn’t hurt.
On the other hand, it’s not as if the lowbrow leftists like Ta-Nehisi Coates are losing politically and economically. We live in a time when Amy Harmon, The New York Times’ reporter in charge of sniffing out crimethinking scientists, got James D. Watson canceled.
My impression from The Genetic Lottery is that Harden follows sophisticated dissident media, such as these columns, more than a true believer is supposed to:
Today, the “race realist” and “human biodiversity” communities post copies of ‘Nature Genetics’ articles that they believe make the case that there are genetic differences between races that cause differences in intelligence scores, impulsive behavior, and economic success.
After all, we are more insightful and interesting than the purveyors of the conventional wisdom, so why wouldn’t an intelligent person want to expose herself to the best in debate?
Thus, much of what’s true in Harden’s fourth chapter, “Ancestry and Race,” appears to be borrowed from me, uncredited. For example:
The largest patterns of genetic similarities and dissimilarities among humans reflect the largest geographical barriers and boundaries—seas and oceans and deserts and continental divides.
“One-drop” social rules have guaranteed that Americans who identify as being White are very unlikely to have any genetic ancestry that is not European, so in this case self-reported race and genetic ancestry appear to converge.
I first pointed out two decades ago that the American one-drop rule for delineating blacks and whites has socially constructed the (non-Hispanic) American population in which there are, by Brazilian standards, surprisingly few people who are, say, 60–90 percent white and 10–40 percent black genetically. (But Harden is overstating my observation: In reality, there are millions of Americans who identify as white but who have some tiny amount of black ancestry.)
But then Harden goes off on an incoherent jag about how the concept of race is morally bad while the concept of ancestry is politically egalitarian:
…race (unlike ancestry) is an inherently hierarchical concept that serves to structure who has access to spaces and social power.
Uh…King Louis XIV had social power, such as his access to the palace of Versailles, not because he belonged to the white race, but because of his royal ancestry.
Harden reassures her readers that despite “the unceasing parade of books and articles about ‘innate’ racial differences”—as if New York publishers love nothing more than manuscripts on human biodiversity—“genetic research on social inequalities, both twin research and research with measured DNA, has focused almost entirely on understanding individual differences among people whose recent genetic ancestry is exclusively European and who are overwhelmingly likely to identify as White.”
It’s almost as if there’s little funding for research that might undermine today’s pieties. (She’s also ignoring transracial adoption studies.)
Humiliatingly, Harden also parrots the derisible race-does-not-exist dogma even though she knows better:
A closer look at the science of genetic ancestry makes it clear that “race does not stand up scientifically, period.” Genetic data has not “proved” the biological reality of race. Instead, in an ironic twist, understanding how racially defined racial groups differ in their genetic ancestry helps us to see why modern “race science” is actually pseudoscience.
She admits that because genes have been proven by twin and adoption studies as well as the new Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) to play a role in IQ and educational attainment,
It might seem only rational to infer that this means that one ancestry group has worse educational outcomes because whatever genetic variants cause better outcomes in education are rarer.
But, she thunders:
…in reality, you could have it exactly backwards, and the genes that matter for education could be more common in the ancestry group with worse educational outcomes.
Similarly, it is within the realm of conceivable possibility that pudgy South Asian also-rans actually have better Olympic distance running genes than do lean East African medalists. Still, sportswriter Damon Runyon had the final word on Harden’s argument:
The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.
She points out that GWAS work better within races than across races:
Looking across a diverse set of phenotypes ranging from HDL cholesterol to schizophrenia, polygenic scores based on analyses of European ancestry populations are less strongly related to phenotypes measured in other populations, particularly African ancestry groups.
For example, we now have a polygenic score for predicting the highest level of education attained. In the latest iteration announced this month, using a sample size of 3 million, those in the highest decile were nine times more likely to graduate from college than those in the lowest decile. It works pretty well for whites in the U.K., America, and New Zealand. It works less well for East Asians and worst of all for African-Americans.
Why don’t polygenic scores calculated from largely white samples work adequately for blacks? Evidently, racial differences in DNA are so important that geneticists will ultimately have to calculate a separate polygenic score algorithm for each continental-scale race. That’s especially true for sub-Saharans, who are the major race most genetically distinct from the rest of humanity due to their more than 60,000 years of evolving in virtual isolation.
Fortunately, racial admixture studies in which IQ is correlated with percentage of white ancestry would appear to offer a way forward right now. I’m familiar with two admixture studies over the past two years, both of which found small put important positive correlations among African-Americans between white ancestry and cognitive scores. But this type of analysis is still young, so we’ll see what eventually turns up. (Harden doesn’t mention admixture studies.)
Unfortunately, the scientific establishment is attempting to crack down on such research for fear of what it may find.
The Genetic Lottery reminded me that I’ve long been struck by how respectable it is to hate on Charles Murray, when Murray, as Frank Sinatra used to say about Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.
Seriously, Murray is obviously a superb individual. If you don’t recognize that and instead continue to think that it must be something wrong about Murray that causes you to be filled with hate toward him, you need to ask yourself: “Are we the baddies?”
In Harden’s case, she at least has a bit of an excuse for her Murray-phobia: She and Murray disagree over the meaning of “virtue.” Harden’s New Testament-inspired egalitarian utopianism, in the tradition of political philosopher John Rawls, sees no virtue or merit in a pilot (such as her father) having excellent pilot traits:
But even as we recognize that it is instrumentally useful to select pilots based on attributes such as good eyesight and spatial rotation skills, we can simultaneously recognize that those attributes, and the financial rewards that follow from having them, are not a sign of the pilot’s moral creditworthiness or virtue. Having those attributes, in combination, with living in a time and place where those skills can be put to economically valuable use in the form of flying planes, is like winning the Powerball.
Harden is proud of her book’s title:
A lottery is a perfect metaphor for describing genetic inheritance: the genome of every person is the outcome of nature’s Powerball.
But, except for the potential big payoff, lotteries are boring. In contrast, how a particular baby gets made is fascinating on multiple levels: scientific, sociological, romantic, and erotic. A less bad metaphor for how humans are conceived would be poker, a game that combines luck, strategy, and psychology. Murray, by the way, plays poker.
Moreover, Murray is an Aristotelian. The Greeks valued excellence not just for what it could do for the poor, but for its own sake.
This can lead to excessive Nietzscheanism. Yet, Harden’s Rawlsian conviction that society must be organized around helping the lowest potential people narrow gaps seems comparably unbalanced. The old Benthamite notion of the greatest good for the greatest number seems more sensible (but is out of fashion for its majoritarianism).
Harden propounds a sophomoric view that intelligence is “socially valued, not inherently valuable,” and follows that up with a conspiracy theory that early-20th-century eugenicists plotted to get us:
…to see intelligence (as measured on standardized IQ tests) and educational success, perhaps more than any other human phenotypes, in terms of a hierarchy of inferior and superior persons is not an accident. It is an idea that was deliberately crafted and disseminated
In truth, intelligence has been viewed as valuable for a lot longer than that. For instance, the most famous work of ancient philosophy, Plato’s Republic, is basically about why philosophers deserve to be kings.
More reasonably, the Greeks felt it smart to invest the most in the education of the highest potential students. Thus, it used to be seen as a good thing that Plato had Socrates for a teacher and Aristotle for a pupil. Similarly, society invested heavily in the young Harden’s potential, granting her a full ride to a private college due to her high test scores.
The ideology of The Genetic Lottery seems motivated in sizable measure by Harden’s maternal feelings for her two very different children. One of her children is healthy and bright, while the other, to whom Harden devotes more of her efforts, was born with a congenital defect:
Instead, I invest hours and hours more per week in the speech and language development of the child who struggles, because that additional training and investment is what he needs.
Harden’s is certainly an understandable attitude. For example, twin studies suggest that genes are powerful enough that moderate differences in parenting don’t matter all that much in the long run. Hence, her smart daughter will likely be fine. (On the other hand, those results are from before the arrival of Tiger Mothers made growing up in the West so much more competitive, so the future might not be like the past.)
But not everyone would necessarily agree with Harden’s choice to prioritize her son over her daughter. For example, when Harden’s intelligent young daughter matures into a mouthy adolescent, she may occasionally resent her mother investing more effort in her brother, as siblings often do.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to read The Genetic Lottery less as a work of science or of politics than as Harden’s apologia to her daughter.