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Cognitive manoeuvres

The Genetic Lottery is not the only book published this summer to tackle controversial topics in biology

Artillery Row Books

For anyone active on “science twitter” this last month, it will have been hard to avoid hearing about a new book by Kathryn Paige Harden, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. The argument of The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, which has provoked a furious response from some academics, is that genes influence intelligence, and that this has implications for our understanding of meritocracy and justice.

Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, Princeton University Press

There is no single gene for intelligence. Instead, as with many human traits, hundreds of thousands of variations across our genomes contribute minuscule effects, which interact in complex ways with our environment. It mostly isn’t possible to pinpoint how each genetic variant acts, or accurately predict individuals’ outcomes from their DNA there’s far too much uncertainty. Nevertheless, we can say that on a population level, genes have some effect, as well, of course, as our upbringing. 

Recent estimates suggest intelligence is roughly as heritable as obesity, and more heritable than depression or heart disease. Of course, intelligence isn’t everything as many are fond of saying, it’s not the same as wisdom and there are a whole suite of other factors like conscientiousness and motivation that are important for educational success. But Harden argues that some of these are somewhat heritable too, adding up to a picture of educational attainment determined by both nature and nurture.

Among many positive responses were a number of uncharitable readings

To some, the paragraphs above will read as a justification for inequality. However, this could not be further from Harden’s view. For her, the idea of innate differences in how easily people learn motivates a radical egalitarianism, borrowing from philosopher John Rawls’s veil of ignorance. “Your genotype, like the social class of your family, is an accident of birth over which you had no control,” she writes, and intelligence is “no more virtuous, no more inherently deserving of reward, than having 20/20 vision”. Over and above helping talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend college, for instance, she argues we should reconsider the fairness of college education being key to higher standards of living in the first place, if it can fundamentally never be equally attainable for everyone.

The Genetic Lottery caught the attention of academics and journalists when Harden was profiled last month in a flattering long article in the New Yorker titled “Can Progressives be Convinced that Genetics Matters?” Among many positive responses were a number of uncharitable readings. One neuroscientist, for instance, tweeted that the article was “pseudoscience” and “caustic to humanity”. A longer review by an editor at Slate describes Harden’s work as “the nice kind of calipers”, referencing the physical measurement of supposedly superior and inferior people something miles away from anything written in the book.

As well as knee-jerk hostility, something many responses have in common is what writer Freddie deBoer calls “lawyering” quibbling minor details to avoid addressing an argument head-on. One example: a geneticist complaining that the New Yorker profile did not go into sufficient detail on the technical meaning of “heritability” and by the way, did you know that the inventor of this measure was a eugenicist? A review by a sociologist nitpicks over the difference between “stealing” and “robbery” as mentioned in a single-sentence metaphor in The Genetic Lottery.

Often, critiques centre arguments that are in fact answered at length in the book, or simply put words in Harden’s mouth. What we rarely see is somebody willing to take the intellectually honest approach and explicitly oppose the core ideas: “I disagree, I think DNA does not cause any meaningful differences in life outcomes between people”, or “it is right if researchers face opprobrium for addressing this question”.

Intelligence is strongly culturally coded as a virtue

In an interview, Harden said she had prepared for criticisms based on scientific details, but instead, the substance of most criticisms seems to be “whose side are you on?” This stems not only from the historical association of intelligence research with eugenics, but also a feeling that to discuss differences between individuals is to belittle the impact of structural inequalities. Mentioning intelligence in the same sentence as genetics, or indeed simply the word “intelligence”, and more so “IQ”, seems to give a whiff of conservatism that puts some people’s backs up. Even many researchers in the field of intelligence avoid the “i-word” with euphemisms: the paper cited earlier for heritability estimates uses “higher cognitive function”.

Ask the average person whether intelligence is encoded in DNA and they’ll most likely say that yes, to some extent it is. As Harden points out, it is interesting that academics some of the people most likely to be beneficiaries of an unequal distribution of genetic propensity to learn are the ones most likely to deny that inequality. People dislike being asked to “check their privilege”. This must be especially true when that “privilege” is something that has attracted praise since earliest childhood, and something one has built one’s identity around.

In addition, because intelligence is so strongly culturally coded as a virtue, people who are smart may wish to avoid seeming arrogant by acknowledging that not everyone is equally so, or by implying they were “born with it”. It is for many of the same reasons that attractive people are most likely to insist everyone is beautiful in their own way.

Carole Hooven, Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us,  Henry Holt and Co.

The Genetic Lottery is not the only book published this summer to tackle controversial topics in biology. Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us is a politically dispassionate appraisal of testosterone’s responsibility for sex differences, from Harvard biologist Carole Hooven. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss known for his cross-cultural studies of relationship preferences in women and men discusses the evolutionary roots of sexual violence in When Men Behave Badly (UK: Bad Men).

Neither of these received the same level of attention as Harden’s book. But they are similar in coming to conclusions that despite sounding like truisms to most people are unpalatable to cultural elites. The accepted beliefs are that sexual violence is about “power, not sex”, and that differences between men and women are not in their physiology but how they identify. Again though, you won’t hear anyone making their position explicit: “I think the principles of evolution that hold true in other species do not apply to humans”. When stated like this, the idea is difficult to defend it is easier to simply avoid thinking too hard about topics outside one’s comfort zone. Smart, highly educated people may be especially good at this cognitive manoeuvre, with more confidence in their own reasoning and more ability to “lawyer” away opposing arguments.

David Buss, When Men Behave Badly, Little, Brown Spark

I brought my copy of The Genetic Lottery on a field trip with fellow biologists. Whenever somebody asked what I was reading, my heart would beat faster and I would feel guilty and nervous, knowing what impression it would make to be reading a book about genetic influences on educational attainment. One PhD student’s response to my explanation of the book’s thesis was that “it’s hard to avoid getting a bit eugenics-y with that”. I have no wish to criticise this particular person, who was merely making friendly conversation but the remark is illustrative of an atmosphere in which certain topics are marked off as no-go areas.

The purpose of academia is for complex issues of societal concern to be identified and grappled with by those with the most expert knowledge. Instead, the sophistry and moral purism exemplified here make it possible to paint an unflattering caricature of a cliquey and insular academic community, whose work serves to generate grants, publications and jobs, rather than providing a public good. If we want more intelligent conversations, we will need to wise up.

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