Guest Editorial in Billings Gazette here
A group of scholars in the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Women and Crime (DWC), of which I am a member, have recently emailed to the listserv a statement signed by other DWC members, which expresses several grievances, among them the publication of my recent article ‘Scrutinizing the Equality Act’ in Feminist Criminology.
Here, I limit my response to those that address my paper as ‘TERF hatred’ and the publication of my paper by the journal as the promulgation of objectionable transphobia.
First, I reject charges that my article is ‘transphobic’, ‘hateful’, and ‘unfriendly to queer people’. Critics, including signatories, have repeatedly called my work ‘hateful’, ‘transphobic’, ‘horrible’, and so on. They are free to make such claims, and as I noted in the paper and in response to several tweets, I remain open to a discussion of these issues. I welcome debate; indeed, stimulating discussion was the purpose of my article.
Second, I find it disturbing that people fail to see (or comment on) the inconsistencies between levelling charges of harm, hurt, queer and trans exclusivity, and other such accusations at my work, myself, and Feminist Criminology while making obviously hurtful charges at same. This is particularly odious given the blatant misrepresentation (or misunderstanding) of my arguments. I can only speculate as to their reasons for non-engagement with the substance, but their actions suggest they prefer condemnation and name-calling over rational debate and critique. Given the lack of engagement, I can only make conjectures about their objections, but the most obvious seems to be that they do not think sex exists as a material reality and, therefore, issues related to sex and the needs of female people, including discussion of sexism, are verboten. I expect people on the political right to deny the persistence of sexism, but a denial of sex and sexism from the Division of Women and Crime is alarming.
If the name-calling was meant to change my position or deter me from expressing my concerns, I am sorry to inform that such tactics are unlikely to be successful. I am persuaded by logic and evidence not name-calling and slander. Whether they have deterred others from speaking out or engaging with the issues discussed in my article remains to be seen. I hope not. But I remain resolute that we feminists have a responsibility to consider how sweeping legislation that would prioritize unchallengeable gender-self-ID over biological sex would affect females. This does not imply a prioritization of females or a lack of concern, much less hatred, for transgender people.
In a society where you have to show formal government ID to *buy a beer*, the idea that any male person can gain access to female provisions, including rape crisis centers, prisons, shelters, and other spaces and events, simply by uttering the magic words “I identify as a woman” – no sincerity required – is absurd and displays a callous disregard for the well-being of females and ostensibly a misunderstanding of the rationale of sex-separated spaces. IF ANYONE CAN OPT IN TO PROTECTED SPACES ON A SAY-SO, THEY ARE NO LONGER PROTECTED SPACES, SO WHAT IS THE POINT?!! (Yes, I’m yelling that one, because I’d really like an answer.)
I was prepared for a heated discussion, but I must admit my deep disappointment with my DWC colleagues who make no attempt to engage in a dialogue, to acknowledge the substance of my critique, including my recognition of the need to protect transgender persons, and instead engage instead in gossip, name-calling letters, and attacks on the editorial team who bravely published my piece without endorsing it. Condemning the editorial team for a) publishing an article that went through peer review and/or b) not accepting (‘desk rejecting’) a response to said article, is unprofessional. Personally, I have had several responses desk rejected at various journals, so I understand the disappointment of rejection. However, having a response rejected does not justify an attack of an editorial team. Nor does the rejection preclude their posting a response to many preprint outlets or blogs, as I and others have done to articles in the past, while they attempt publication in other outlets.
I entered this debate, like others, given a sense of political urgency after the House passage of the Equality Act, in its problematic form, and the upcoming election. I believed that a discussion among criminologists, many of whom are intimately familiar with the disturbingly high rates of victimization and trauma in women in prison, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, and other sex-separated spaces from male violence (often sexual violence), would be beneficial. That a discussion that considers how a fundamental shift from sex-based to gender-identity based rights could affect females is off-limits in the division of WOMEN and crime, is quite simply not a state of affairs I find acceptable nor am I willing to accept. Once again, quoting Kathleen Stock, I object to letting “even small numbers of females be the automatic collateral in sweeping social changes such as those proposed”, without any discussion or consideration for their needs. In sum, their unwillingness to engage with the substance of my arguments is disappointing because I have always acknowledged that my knowledge is partial like everyone else’s.
Best wishes to all of my colleagues, including those condemning my article, during this difficult time. I remain hopeful that we can, in some not-so-distant future, recognize that we can disagree without malice, debate without slander, and find strength in our commonalities and stimulation from our differences and work together to make the world a safer, better place for all people.
**Apologies in advance for typos. Written in a hurry because first week of classes.
California’s SB132 would drastically alter current arrangements to allow people to choose whether they are housed in the men’s or women’s prison. There are no doubt good intentions behind this bill, including its aim to protect transgender individuals from assault and abuse in prison. In current form, the bill displays a blatant disregard for the reality of male violence against women.
SB132’s problems are threefold. First, the bill prioritizes gender self-identification over (biological) sex, ignoring the reality of differentially sexed (male and female) bodies. This despite the fact that international standards, such as the UN’s Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, prescribe sex separated facilities. Transwomen are not (biological) females (or they wouldn’t be trans); therefore, SB132 violates international standards for the separation of male and female prisoners.
Notably, SB132’s replacement of gender with sex is neither defended in statute nor justifiable in light of continued male violence and sexual harassment of females, which is facilitated not only by their greater size and strength (attributable to sex, not gender) as well as male socialization. Research shows that transwomen offend at a rate that is statistically indistinguishable from (non-trans) men; both offend at a rate much higher than that of non-trans women.
Second, SB132 creates a clash of rights unnecessarily. Housing in the women’s estate is not an answer to the problems that transwomen face—which include abuse and violence. Importantly, a 2019 study by UC Irvine researchers found that most transwomen in prison prefer to be housed in the men’s estate. SB132 would do nothing to increase the safety, respect, or dignity for those nearly 65% of transwomen who would remain in the men’s estate. At the same time, SB132 would undermine the safety, dignity, and well-being of females housed in the women’s estate by allowing males into a female population with high rates of male victimization.
Many incarcerated women have been targeted by male physical and sexual abuse, and evidence suggests that at least one in five suffer from PTSD—a rate that is eight-fold higher than the general population rate. Yet, SB132 would require females to be housed with transwomen–85% of whom retain male genitalia and many of whom have lived most of their lives as men.
Notably, SB132 has no gatekeeping whatsoever, so that any male (not just sincere transwomen) could self-ID into the women’s estate simply by saying “I feel like a woman”. It’s one thing (and a good one at that) to prohibit the firing of people for being transgender. It is another thing entirely to say that females have to share jail or prison cells with any male who is willing to say “I identify as a woman” to gain access to the women’s estate.
This reliance on gender self-ID without any gatekeeping is the most egregious problem with SB132. What this means is that any male can opt to be housed in the female estate. Even males convicted of serial rape of women can simply say they ‘identify’ as women and they would be treated in every way as if they were female under this bill. That’s not simply misguided, that’s absolutely absurd and displays a callous disregard for the well-being of imprisoned females.
Some may suggest that men would never say they identify as a woman. They would be wrong. Indeed, the very scenario described above played out in England in 2018. Karen White, a born male, was incarcerated for charges of sexually assaulting women. Under UK’s gender self-ID policies (which they have since changed), White identified into the women’s estate despite their history of assault. Once there, White proceeded to sexually assault two incarcerated women, charges for which White was later convicted. Although the White incident is particularly egregious, it is neither a lone aberration nor should we expect it to be, as predatory men will go to extraordinary lengths to prey on women.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the current form of SB132; namely, policies that can protect transwomen without undermining the privacy, safety, and dignity of females from predatory males. Italy and the UK (the latter after several negative incidents and an admitted failure to strike a balance between sex and gender identity rights), have established separate transgender prison units. This can be modeled after the LA County jail’s K6G unit, which houses transwomen and gay males separate from the general population. There is evidence this is an effective compromise, which protects individuals at risk in sex-separated general population without undermining the privacy or safety of another vulnerable group—females.
Albeit with the laudable aim of protecting transgender people, California’s SB132 would undermine the safety of both females and transwomen in the women’s estate without addressing the problems that transwomen in the men’s estate continue to face. SB132 would not only produce some obvious absurdities (requiring female officers to treat male genitalia based on a feminine gender identity), but more importantly undermines the rights of female people, threatening the well-being of females and transwomen in the process. After all, if male predators can opt into the women’s estate on just their say-so, the safety of everyone in the women’s estate is undermined.
Good intentions–protecting transwomen–are not enough. All too often, legislation has unintended negative consequences disproportionately affecting already marginalized groups. In this case, the negative consequences for females are foreseeable and should be recognized. SB132 is a terrible bill. We deserve better. It should be opposed.
*I will note that I submitted this piece–not my best work (written in a hurry)–to the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times, and the Orange County Registrar. None were interested, which is reasonable. However, none, to my knowledge, have written about these issues with SB132.
On April 15, the ACLU filed a legal challenge to Idaho’s HB500, named the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act’. This bill is the first of its kind, which seeks to maintain the sex separation of sport. Criticized as the discriminatory, hurtful, and anti-transgender, the ACLU suggested that this bill ‘bans trans girls from sports,” by “addressing a problem that does not exist.” Idaho ACLU Legal Director Ritchie Eppink noted that “we have been fighting this hateful, unconstitutional legislation since it was introduced.” They have been fighting it, but is it hateful, discriminatory, and anti-trans? No. Does it address a real problem? Yes.
Sports are separated by sex because of male-female biological differences of which we are all aware. Starting before puberty and accelerating thereafter, males are stronger, faster, and bigger than females, on average, and it is not close. Furthermore, this sex-difference isn’t about socialization or effort; it is about biology. Male physiology (muscle mass, greater hemoglobin, bone strength, hip shape, lower fat composition) is exceptionally advantageous for sport. For example, as Coleman and Shreve demonstrated, 400-meter Olympic champion Allyson Felix has her lifetime best time (49.26 seconds) beaten by more than 15,000 boys and men every year. The most lauded women’s sports team of this decade, the US Women’s National Soccer Team, was defeated by the FC Dallas boys age 15 and under team 5-2 before going on to win the Women’s World Cup later that year. If sports were not sex separated, there would be almost no female college athletes, no female professional athletes, and zero female Olympic athletes for the vast majority of sports (e.g., track, swimming, tennis, basketball, soccer, cycling, hockey, and so on). For female athletes to gain benefits from competitive sport, including the possibility of being on teams and winning occasionally, sports must be sex separated. This is not debatable.
Enter gender. In recent years, we have seen various countries and US jurisdictions pass or tacitly allow gender self-identification as a replacement for sex in a variety of arenas including sports. Many of these bills and efforts no doubt have good intentions, but they are misguided. Gender (identity) is not a synonym for sex. People who are transgender experience a ‘sex-gender mismatch’, but they still have a sex and it is on that basis that they are transgender. People should not be discriminated against on the basis of gender and transgender people deserve full human rights. There is, however no ‘human right’ to opposite-sex provisions. In other words, maintaining sex-based rights, including sex separated sports, is not discriminatory against people of the opposite sex (including transgender people).
To be clear, being transgender, non-binary, or agender should not be a basis for discriminatory treatment on the basis of gender, but sex-based rights are based on sex not gender. Females are not disadvantaged versus males in sport because of their gender—being feminine (some aren’t)—or because of their gender identity—they feel female (some don’t, they just are), but because of their sex. Allowing born males (trans girls or trans women) into girls’ and women’s sports makes no sense because gender is irrelevant to sport.
Finally, the ACLU and others have framed HB500 as a violation of civil liberties, but this too is misguided as we routinely verify individual attributes for a variety of purposes. In the same way that it is not a violation of civil liberties to check people’s eligibility for the Paralympic Games; verify age for age-group categories or buying alcohol, it is not a violation of civil liberties to verify sex for the purposes of maintaining the integrity of female sports. And, this does not require ‘invasive genital examinations’; in the exceptionally rare case this is in question, a cheek swab or bit of spittle will be sufficient for a genetic test.
Thus, although cast as ‘hateful’, Idaho’s HB500 is only ‘hateful’ if you think the sex-separation of sport is hateful (and, if so, then why aren’t you calling for unisex sports?). Furthermore, the ACLU claims HB500 bans trans girls from sport; that’s false. It bans born males from competitive female athletics, which is, in my view, justifiable policy based on the latest scientific evidence about male advantages in sport. Trans girls are still free to participate in unisex and friendly competitions.
I support Idaho HB500. Maybe you do not, but at the least, I urge you to consider on what basis it is ‘hateful’ to eliminate females’ sex-separated sports because trans people experience hardships. This is both unjustifiable and unnecessary. We can create third gender neutral (unisex) competitions; moreover, many non-elite unisex competitions exist along with many other fulfilling activities for people. There is no right to compete in categories that one does not fit based on self-identification Females’ sex-based rights matter, and for sports at least, gender is irrelevant.
*This appeared in response to coverage of an NRA campus visit by the UW student newspaper The Daily, see here for link.
Recently, the UW campus group, “The Young Americans for Freedom,” invited a representative of the NRA’s lobbying firm to campus to give a talk opposing gun control, which was documented in the Daily. I write as a criminologist, who supports gun reform, and wants to add nuance (and correct) some misleading claims presented by the NRA and noted in the Daily as well as a general observation.
First, let’s just be really clear: NO ONE wants to take away “your guns,” unless your past behavior (criminal record; domestic violence; severe mental illness diagnosis) suggests that it is in the best interests of society (societal safety—including our freedom to not be shot or threatened by dangerous persons with guns), or “your guns” include those that have no reasonable purpose in sport, hunting, or self-defense. The notorious AR-15 is a case in point; this gun has no reasonable use in society.
Currently, the NRA is galvanizing its base with claims that the government wants to take away your guns. With the above exceptions, this is not accurate. And, this overstated claim has the effect of impairing reasonable discussions about gun reforms planting the seed in people’s heads that any efforts to reform the system of gun ownership in the US will produce an outright ban on guns. It won’t, ever. If someone says that, you can be sure they are out of touch with the reality of gun reform issues.
Second, the “facts” presented by the NRA in their seminar (as documented in the Daily) are both misguided and misleading. First, the widely repeated “fact” from Gary Kleck’s small surveys that gun use in self-protection (defensive gun use) dwarfs gun crimes does not hold up to scrutiny. Conservative estimates suggest that gun crimes outnumber defensive gun use by at least 3 to 1. Second, the “more guns, less crime” findings by John Lott were subject to further examination by a scientific committee who could find no “credible evidence” of a link between more guns and less crime using these data. No surprise that the NRA didn’t share that information. However, we can look at other countries where guns are regulated much more stringently and see quite clear evidence that fewer guns and more stringent regulation equals less gun violence. Following the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, when their conservative government reacted quickly and instituted significant gun reforms (including the banning of all semi- and automatic weapons), they have had zero mass shootings and a decline in gun homicides. And, in a thought experiment, without access to guns, how successful would the Parkland, Fla murderer have been with knives, a crossbow, or even a slingshot?
One area where the evidence is clear is that in US states where guns are more tightly regulated, women are significantly less likely to be killed (in general and by a firearm). Moreover, the best evidence suggests that suicides would decline significantly were we to institute gun reforms (and more deaths are due to gun suicides than gun homicides). The irony in all of this is that given that people who reside in a home with guns are 3-4 times more likely to be a victim of gun violence, gun reforms may actually disproportionately benefit some of the people who resist the reforms the most.
I’d like to end with a brief note about freedom given the focus of the UW club. Some people want the freedom to buy and own guns without restriction and feel the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to do so. Others disagree, pointing to the ‘militia’ aspect of the 2nd Amendment, as well as the fact in this country no right is all-encompassing. The state can take away the right to life, with the death penalty; the right to vote is taken away from people who commit certain crimes (a topic for another day); and so on. Coming together to form a society means we give up a portion of our liberty to do whatever we want when we want it, for the greater good. At present, many of us are trying to push forward reasonable gun reforms that give people freedom to not fear that they will be shot in school; freedom from being threatened by a supposedly ‘good guy with a gun’ at a bar; freedom to eat, work, and play in areas without guns, because guns are killing machines, that have some uses, but not in schools, most workplaces, or restaurants. Given the horrendous deaths that occur sporadically by mass shooters and more predictably among impoverished inner-city areas, can we not at least treat guns with the same respect as we treat cars? If training, licensing, education, and insurance are deemed necessary for cars—driving machines—surely we can ask the same of our killing machines. The best evidence suggests that we would all be safer from gun violence and feel safer, and given that a majority of Americans support reforms, it seems long past time to make us safer from guns through reforms.
This, my second, blog post is my response to the recent Walsh and Yun (2017) paper “Examining the race, poverty, and crime nexus adding Asian Americans and biosocial processes” forthcoming in the Journal of Criminal Justice. No one asked me to write this, but I have things I want to say in response to this piece, which is, in my view, misguided and disjointed at best. In their article, WY repeat the tired, familiar trope of Asian Americans as the “model minority” to undergird their argument that African American cultural deficiencies and lifestyle choices are the source of elevated rates of black poverty and crime. In addition to dismissing significant differences in the historical experiences of Asian Americans and African Americans, WY sweepingly discount, if not dismiss, the existence of contemporary anti-black racism in the USA with feeble assertions about the success of some black Americans (we had a black president elected twice!; we have a holiday for MLK, Jr. “the only individual of any race so honored”!), as sufficient evidence to prove that we live in a post-racial world. In the second half of their paper, WY point to biosocial science (as others have done before) as a more scientific approach offering way out of this murky, biased social scientific haze. This section, which echoes many calls made by other ‘biosocial criminologists’, largely summarizes research on various biological pathways, seemingly oblivious to the contextual nature of the familial “abuses” they identify as causal triggers.
Despite the problems of this article, and there are many, this effort, which “[ignores] criminological orthodoxy” in attempt to “spoil the politically correct mantra that black crime results from white racism,” can be a useful reminder that the established, empirically supported models that frame scholarship on race and crime are neither universally accepted or understood, even among criminologists. Responding to pieces that challenge the orthodoxy (albeit while ignoring key facts and important scholarship) provides an opportunity for clarification. As a scholar of race and crime, this is my contribution to such a clarification. As a busy and important person, (okay, just busy), I am allowing myself 3 hours to devote to this response (so if anyone actually reads this, judge it on its terms) because I want to and I can. In this case, I believe a hasty response is better than no response at all.
This post is organized as follows (and, as usual with my writing will probably be longer than necessary to make the point). First, I will summarize my interpretation of the Walsh and Yun (2017; hereafter WY) piece. This is followed by a more detailed, critical look at some of the points WY make to support their claims, particularly those that I believe are essential to their claims and/or are deficient in particularly significant ways. Finally, I conclude as briefly as my writing allows.
I. Summarizing WY’s piece:
In my interpretation, WY seek two ends in this paper: a) debunking the notion that “[elevated] black crime [compared to whites] results from white racism,” pointing instead to culture and individual choices, and b) then (curiously) suggesting that the biosocial approach offers a way forward. If you find yourself perplexed at the two different aims and how they work together (agency and biological forces?), you are not alone. I found both the logic and flow of the arguments in this paper to be a bit disjointed and, in some cases, contradictory, especially the linkages between the sections of the paper. I discuss each in turn.
Part 1: It can’t be racism:
1) Mainstream explanations for African American crime—don’t forget choice!!: In this first section, WY make several critical claims about mainstream explanations for black-white racial disparities in crime, narrowly emphasizing Unnever and Gabbidon’s (2011) theory of African American offending (as if it is the only theoretical explanation of racism and crime). Reinterpreting Unnever & Gabbidon’s theory “through a different lens,” WY argue that the “criminalblackman” stereotype is grounded in the reality of higher “violence” among African Americans (pointing to racial disparities in homicide). They maintain that the allegedly causal linkages between experiencing racial discrimination and higher rates of offending are instead the result of African American’s “stultifying surrender to the cult of victimhood that sabotages self-reliance and excuses failure” (citing McWhorter 2000). Next, and without transition, WY link the “criminalblackman label” (Russell’s (2009/1998) theoretical concept) to the idea that being a “bad-ass” is actually valued by inner city young men (citing Anderson 1999), implicating culture.
WY conclude this section a bit abruptly, in my view, but here is what I think they are trying to say: scholarship shies away from cultural arguments because such explanations are a seen as “blaming the victim.” Instead, structural arguments are proffered, but such explanations “do not explain why these behaviors [crime] are structural rather than the products of human choice” (p.2). Uniquely citing Robert Sampson as “the dean of social ecology theory,” WY emphasize that we should not ignore human agency and individual choice, citing one of Sampson’s[i] statements that culture and structure are mutual creations. WY maintain culture and structure create each other, and human agency cannot be ignored, thus structure cannot determine culture (and crime) because we are free agents who make choices. How this all works together isn’t particularly clear, but as we shall see later, that is fine because the agency argument is inconsistent with the biosocial one.
2) The lower rate of offending among Asian Americans debunks the racial discrimination—higher crime thesis (this is presented as if this was a new idea![ii] or perhaps one that had not been given enough attention. Neither are true.). According to WY, Asian Americans have experienced discrimination, negative stereotypes, and hyper-ghettoization and have lower rates of crime than whites. Their misguided homogenization of the oppressive experiences of Asian and African Americans (themselves composed of groups and individuals with a multitude of diverse experiences) is used to minimize the role that racism plays in life chances, and, thus, falsify theories that link racial discrimination to increased offending and/or hyper-ghettoization to increased offending.
3) Racism is pretty much a thing of the past. Seriously, that is the point of this section, with powerful (sarcasm) statements such as: “Of course, anti-black racism is by no means dead, but we have a national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, the only individual of any race so honored, and blacks win mayoral races across the U.S. in cities where they are a minority of candidates (Thernstrom & Thernstrom 2009)” (emphasis added). WY plainly argue that anti-black racism is (basically) a relic of an earlier age, and they dismiss scholarship documenting ongoing racism as output from “those with a vested interest in keeping racism alive.”
Following several paragraphs that can be ignored without missing a beat, WY conclude by arguing that based on the interracial official crime statistics for rape, robbery, homicide, and assault, Feagin’s oft-quoted statement about the prevalence of anti-black actions should be changed to the following:
“Being white in U.S. society means always having to be prepared for antiwhite actions by blacks” (p.3).
And, there you have it folks. Their “different lens.” I don’t think anything needs to be added to that. They conclude this section writing: “We cannot soberly and honestly assess racial crime differences as long as academics continue to make patently false, wildly exaggerated, and incendiary statements.” I concur; the irony is astounding.
4) It’s not poverty, its culture: Here WY argue, again falsely conflating anti-Asian racism with anti-black racism, it’s not poverty causing crime, it’s culture because Asians also experience discrimination, and they aren’t poor. Using impeccable logic, WY assert that if discrimination caused differences in poverty levels, then we would have to conclude that whites favor Asians, “which of course no one would believe” (p.3-4).[iii] So, WY deduce: it’s black culture and lifestyle choices that cause black poverty and black crime.
5) Education and poverty: WY dogmatically assert that black culture devalues education (selectively citing passages from prominent African American scholars Elijah Anderson and Orlando Patterson in decontextualized ways), and this cultural devaluation produces lower/worse educational outcomes among black Americans compared to whites. Conversely, Asian Americans value education highly and have better STEM outcomes that whites.
No effort is made to link this to any explanation of crime; rather, this section was just to further cement the notion of a deficient black culture with decontextualized facts and citations. WY thus further blame blacks for their position in society by juxtaposing black educational outcomes with those of Asian Americans, as if all else was equal.
Part 2: “Biosocial Lens”
6) In a quite disjointed fashion, WY shift to a biosocial lens arguing: “Theories that rely on social class and poverty to explain crime cannot explain variance in criminal behavior within social class” (p.4)—as if no theories have been offered to explain within-class variations in offending. They continue by noting that structural and cultural effects are not invariant; therefore: “Clearly, we have to go beyond raw demographics to explain why some people become criminal while other demographically similarly situated people do not.” WY fully ignore social theories of within-group differences in offending that seek to explain individual differences (e.g., Burt et al. 2012; Kaufman et al. 2008; Simons et al. 2003; Simons & Burt 2011; Unnever et al. 2009; Unnever & Gabbidon 2011) because why spoil a politically incorrect story?
In this section, WY continue a biosocial criminology tradition of highlighting “the” biosocial approach’s gift to the social sciences: the techniques of the “more robust natural science.” Notably, in this half of the paper, the emphasis on human agency disappears. Human choice is apparently only relevant when talking about structural effects. This is replaced with compilations (largely summaries, but informative ones) of research pointing to potential or recently empirically-validated biological pathways from exposure to childhood abuse, neglect, toxic exposures to various outcomes (some related to crime). WY aver: “Growing up in our inner cities often exposes black children to single parenthood, violence, parental abuse, neglect, and substance abuse. These children bear no blame for the conditions in which they find themselves, but as a result of cultural transmission and biological changes to the HPA axis and the ANS wrought by these conditions, grow up to perpetuate them” (emphasis added). Unfortunately, WY previously dismissed social-structural theories of these “tangle of pathologies” that explain how and why social arrangements shape contexts and pressures that increase the risk of black children’s exposure to these adverse conditions and experiences. Given this, they leave themselves in a peculiar position of pointing to culture and human agency as causes of (deterministic) biological processes. That is a first, I think.
Although, I should note that if their second section on biological processes is reframed as an explication of how structural-cultural processes get under the skin to have lasting effects on development, including criminal behaviors, elucidating how “human agency” and “lifestyle choices” are misguided explanations for racial disparities in social behavior and demographic outcomes, then this section, as a summary of what is out there (albeit a bit oversimplified), might be valuable. Obviously, such was not the intent of WY.
II. My Specific Critiques of WY paper
As should be manifest by now, even though I have done little but summary, I think this paper suffers from a host of problems in the way of evidence and logic. Rather than quibble with every point, which I want to but that would not be efficient or effective, I highlight four main ways this paper nosedives, which were suggested in the above.
1. Racial discrimination persists. I honestly cannot believe that in this day, post-Trump election, that a serious scholar could question the existence of anti-black racism in American today. One might conclude that either they are not serious scholars, or they are not serious. (Are we being punk’d?) To argue that racism is a relic of the past, WY dismiss a wealth of diverse sociological research on the topic of “white racism,” at both the interpersonal and the structural level (as a racialized social system; Bonilla-Silva 1996). WY downplay (really basically ignore) the significance of the structured nature of white advantages rooted in historical (material and ideological) struggles. Their broad brush depiction of white racism as practice of the past, with contemporary forms as being invented by “those with a vested interest in keeping racism talk alive,” is not only ignorant and fallacious, but offensive. This section is basically a farce and becomes even more so in the end when WY reverse Feagin’s claim about the prevalence of antiblack actions by whites. I don’t have the time to say more, but for some (of many) excellent discussions of racism and our racialized social system see: Bonilla-Silva 2001; 2017; Essed 1991; Feagin 1991; 2014; Omi & Winant 1986.
2. Racial discrimination/racism is not uniform across racial-ethnic minority groups. Despite WY’s claims (echoing others over the years), racism against Asian Americans is not tantamount to that against African Americans. To be fair, WY mention that “unlike blacks the Chinese came to the United States voluntarily,” but summarily downplay that stark difference by noting that the employment conditions of the Chinese “often amounted to what Kitano and Daniels (1995:22) called a ‘new system of slavery.’”
The repeated false conflation of the Asian and African American experience of oppression, which includes the overworn trope of the “model minority” in contradistinction to black Americans, is neither novel nor productive, and WY’s brief discussion of this is banefully ignorant of social scientific scholarship in this area. As Wu documents in her (excellent) book The Color of Success (2014) before the 1940s and 1950s, whites considered Asian Americans as unfit for citizenship and unassimilable, “marking them as definitively not-white, and systematically shutting them out of civic participation…” (p.2; emphasis in original). However, Wu documents how, in seemingly an astonishing public transformation, the “model minority” narrative was invented in response to geopolitical dilemmas, among them the Cold War and civil rights movement:
“A host of stakeholders resolved this dilemma by the mid-1960s with the invention of a new stereotype of Asian Americans as the model minority—a racial group distinct from the white majority, but lauded as well assimilated, upwardly mobile, politically non-threatening, and definitively not-black.” (p.2, emphasis in original).
To be sure, like Wu, I do not wish to diminish the efforts of Asian Americans, but focusing narrowly on their actions is but one (and some argue small) piece of their story of upward mobility. Instead of a shift in “lifestyle choices,” socio-historical scholarship suggests that it was a transformation in the public image of Asian Americans from disgusting and unassimilable (not white) to law-abiding, hard-working, compliant, and the like (not black) that opened doors for Asian Americans to climb the social ladder. Thus, while WY credit this shift to hard work and a cultural emphasis on education among Asian Americans, research suggests that the upward mobility observed among Asian Americans between 1950 to the 1970s was due to this shift in treatment that this change in public image fostered: a decline in racism against Asian Americans (Hilger 2016).
To be sure, this social scholarship was available to WY, but it didn’t fit their politically and (factually) incorrect story that the experiences of Asian and African Americans are, for all intents and purposes, tantamount. This undergirds “their alternative view” that at the root of racial disparities in offending is not white racism/structure but black culture and poor lifestyle choices.
Futhermore, clearly misunderstanding (or forgetting) the tenets of labeling theory and excellent criminological and historical work on the criminalization of blackness, as a means of racial control, and the roots of the “criminalblackman” stereotype in white racism (e.g., Alexander 2010; Russell-Brown 2009; Muhammad 2010), WY note: “Despite these hardships and negative stereotypes, the Chinese have never had a reputation for being criminally inclined” (p.2). That is, in part, exactly the point. Labeling theory, generally, and research on racial threat and criminal justice control, which focuses on the criminalization of blackness and the equating of blackness with criminality, specifically, theorize that this criminalblackman stereotype will increase crime and criminality, all else equal, and distort official rates of offending, due to the increased surveillance and greater punishment accorded to black law violators as a result of the belief that they pose a greater danger to society (Tonry 1995; Spohn 2015). There is so much to discuss here but so little time, so I will move on. Ultimately, and unfortunately, social scholarship documenting the ways in which powerful individuals/stakeholders can project various political agendas onto a socially-constructed cultural narratives is ignored, like much other relevant scholarship.
Additionally, WY attempt to debunk prominent macro-level theories that focus on the hyper-ghettoization of African Americans as a causal factor in elevated rates of offending, by noting that the hyper-ghettoization of Asian Americans has been used to explain their lower crime rates. Therefore, according to WY, hyper-ghettoization cannot explain crime. Viewed in isolation, that argument might be reasonable or persuasive, but only if it is removed from the entire theoretical apparatus in which it is situated, including historical and current struggles (such as the deterioration of community bonds to the high rates of incarceration of African American males and so on). These various issues/influences are all intertwined in complex ways, and the idea that voluminous amounts of social scientific research on race, racism, and crime can be swiftly dismissed by a cursory comparison of Asian Americans and African Americans is astonishing. WY must adhere to that same worldview as Wright and Morgan (2014) that most social scientists are so blinded by their liberal worldviews, hampered by their allegiance to the methods and assumptions of that inferior branch of social “science,” and fettered by their fear of being labeled racist, that the biased, “politically correct” knowledge they create can be dismissed with quick and weak arguments. Such sweeping dismissals of the “standard social science model” as well as dogmatic overreactions to findings ostensibly contradicting theoretical explanations is rather unproductive, and in this case, quite preposterous.
To be sure, I am not suggesting that the Asian American experience (historically or at present) has not involved considerable oppression and discrimination. It has, and that is not up for debate. Rather, I am stating clearly (following many others) that the Asian American experience and the African American experience are not interchangeable but are quite different in many significant ways due numerous factors, including the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the criminalization of black Americans, all of which shape structure, culture, and social behavior in profound and complex ways that must be considered when theorizing about criminal behavior.
3. “Biosocial Approach”: In the second half of the paper, as noted, WY present a “biosocial approach” as an alternative to mainstream social scientific criminology, one which “can lead to a criminology that is rooted more in science and empirical observations” and which can aid our understanding of within-class differences in criminal outcomes. In making their case, WY state: “Clearly, we have to go beyond raw demographics to explain why some people become criminal while other demographically similarly situated people do not” (p.4). No problem, here, but recourse to biological mechanisms is not necessary to explain differences in offending within various groups; many micro-level theories, some cited above, (especially combined with theories including resilience processes) explicate within-group differences in “positive” or “negative” outcomes.
Next WY state: “Too many black children are born into fatherless homes in neighborhoods riddled with violence and poverty for which the children bear no responsibility.” I concur, too many black children (and children of all races and ethnicities) are born into harsh, unpredictable conditions not of their own making that impede their health and life chances. (Although I will quibble that good evidence suggests that rather than needing a mother and father, children need a loving family (regardless of gender) who have the time, energy, and resources to provide warmth, nurturance, and predictability for healthy development, but that is just a queer digression.) Finally, WY conclude, more debatably, “and the conditions in which these children grow up require a biosocial analysis of how the environment penetrates the person down to the molecular level.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t follow their logic. To be sure, analyzing the biological mechanisms through which environmental exposures is one level of analysis that, in my view, has value. But, incorporating biological pathways at the current state of knowledge (and likely ever) is neither necessary nor sufficient to understand within-class differences in outcomes (or within-race differences). Rather it is one layer of information, but one that is certainly not more valuable than the socio-environmental layers. That a biosocial analysis (which focuses on biological pathways) is necessary to understand racial disparities (or more valuable than social explanations) seems particularly misguided, in my view, given the fact that social interventions to prevent or reduce minority groups’ exposures to harsh, noxious, and unpredictable environments seem preferable than pharmacological interventions (if possible at some future date) to undo or offset biological adaptations to such conditions. But, I am getting ahead of myself. I shall quickly look at a few ideas WY consider:
Epigenetic processes: WY focus on DNA methylation, which is the most well-understood and well-researched form of epigenetic regulation. As WY note, research reveals that the effect of methylation, especially when it occurs in the promoter region of a gene, is typically to reduce gene expression. In other words, DNA methylation serves as a dimmer switch for genes (by blocking DNA transcription enzymes; Ng & Bird 1999). Importantly, research suggests that DNA methylation patterns are dynamic and responsive to the environment, especially during sensitive periods, and can have long-term impacts on development (Meaney 2010; Slavich & Cole 2013). In other words, research suggests that DNA methylation is a key biological (genomic) mechanism mediating the effects of social conditions on development (e.g., Feinberg 2007; Hochberg et al. 2011).
Just to repeat clearly, because I am fond of repetition, DNA methylation has been identified as a key mechanism through which socio-environmental forces have enduring effects on development (McGowan & Roth 2015; Syzf & Bick 2013). In recent years, researchers have generated a small but steadily growing body of evidence connecting social adversity to DNA methylation patterns and adverse health outcomes, including depression, antisocial behavior, and the like (e.g., Beach et al. 2016; Essex et al. 2013; van der Knaap et al. 2015). Moreover research has also identified epigenetic markers of exposure to social disadvantage, including SES and racial discrimination (Essex et al. 2013; Simons et al. 2016).
Evidence over the past decade suggests that a social epigenetic approach will provide a new layer of information, not an alternative explanation to that offered by social theories. Importantly, some epigenetic marks appear to be intergenerationally transmitted (see Kuzawa and Sweet 2009 for a discussion involving race and health disparities), meaning that, for example, stressful experiences including those accompanying slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and ongoing racial discrimination may induce epigenetic changes (adaptations) that are transferred to future generations, in ways that may influence biopsychosocial development. Among humans, Kuzawa and Sweet (2009: 7) note:
“Indirect evidence for maternal-fetal transfer of epigenetically based alterations in stress (HPA) reactivity has been documented in humans. In holocaust survivors, severity of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms—which influences maternal cortisol production during pregnancy—predict levels of cortisol excretion in postnatal offspring, and Manhattan women who were pregnant during the 9/11 attacks gave birth to offspring who show evidence for alterations in HPA activity in childhood (Yehuda and Bierer, 2008).”
Recent evidence accumulating over the past several years suggests that it is hardly a stretch expect that historical and contemporary traumatic racialized experiences, including ongoing vicariously experienced incidents involving police (and citizen) shootings of unarmed black men (Trayvon Martin and so many others), influence epigenetic alterations or patterns that influence development, such that at the present day individuals are “marked” (in potentially insignificant, but also potentially significant ways) by experiences of racial oppression (in the same manner that impoverished individuals may be shaped by harsh conditions accompanying low SES in the USA). Of course, this area of research is incredibly new and there is so much we still do not know[iv]; yet, all the new evidence emerging further underscores the fallacy of the (long dead in most circles) independent “culture of poverty and crime” explanations for racial disparities in social outcomes.[v]
Perhaps more importantly, across all of the biosocial factors WY examine, there is a need for social scientific models to elucidate the social factors that shape biological adaptations, such as DNA methylation. This is why recent calls from NIH and other scientific bodies have highlighted the need for social and genomic scientists to work together to develop holistic models linking various levels.
Summarizing the point of the above, WY’s focus on epigenetics, allostasis, telomere length, cortisol, sex hormones, and the like is both curious and explanatorily evasive because research on each of these points to the central role of environmental (including social, structural) influences. Rather than replacing a social scientific model linking our racialized social system to social behavior, a focus on such biological processes are more likely to provide evidence supporting it, including by identifying “hard” (biological) pathways for racism’s enduring effects. The more we learn, the more we see that human psychophysiological development is profoundly shaped by the social-environmental conditions of experience, and given the role of structural arrangements in shaping exposures to stressful, oppressive, and noxious conditions, the unique oppressive experiences of African Americans undoubtedly influence life chances through biological adaptations in a manifold of ways.
4) Crime is a social construct: In discussions of race and demographic outcomes, scholarship invariably notes that race is a social construct (WY is an exception in this paper, but they have discussed this in earlier pieces). Yet, crime, including violence, is a social construction that involves not only arbitrariness and vagueness but also is, as we all know, itself shaped by structure (including racism) and historical context. I will make three points, none novel, but all worthy of remembering:
i) Crime is racialized; race (especially blackness) is criminalized. Approaching the race and crime question without serious consideration of this reality will distort any explanation.
ii) Crime is not a biologically-given construct. Any biosocial explanation of “crime” must recognize that what counts as “crime” or even “violence” is not given in nature. Physically and psychologically injurious acts (“violence”) can be lauded (in war, on football fields, in the boardroom), can be excused (“justified” killings by self-defense or official agents of government), or can be punished. There is no inner biological reflection or any clear phenotype of “illegal violence” or “crime” that does not rely on historical, situational, individual and other social influences. Hence, any “bio” explanation of “crime” must inherently be incomplete because crime is not bio; crime and illegal violence are not given in nature.
iii) Crime is invariably measured/theorized as “street crime” not the universe of illegal acts. Should we capture that universe (corporate crime, governmental crime), and the harm entailed, race and crime statistics probably look quite different.
Conclusion: The criminological study of race and crime over the past several decades has moved from an uneasy state of “controversy and silence” to a fertile terrain for new developments and considerable knowledge growth. Although much remains to be learned and much more (most) remains to be done, a complex, diverse set of studies has evidenced the manifold ways that white racism—from the structural level to its interpersonal instantiations—increases the risk of African American offending, in large part, through its associations with life chances (education, employment, health, and the like) and worldviews, including individual schemas and shared cognitive landscapes. Moreover, more recent years have seen the potential, and in some areas hard evidence, for biological pathways through which racism influences development, including physiological and psychosocial outcomes. We have also witnessed enhanced recognition amongst many social scholars of the potential for biopsychosocial work to advance knowledge on the lasting effects of living and developing in a racialized social system such as ours. Thus, at the present time with the current knowledge base, it is rather astonishing that a paper such as this would make its way to publication. On the other hand, as we all know science (and publication) does not exist a part from social context and political agendas but is itself part and parcel of this racialized social system.
(Really, I am concluding this, promise.) In this post, I have tried to make sense of WY’s paper, attempting to avoid the trappings of their one-sided agenda and dogmatic rejections of a diverse body of research documenting the complex relationship between race/ethnicity and crime, while resisting the almost paralyzing recourse to the “hard sciences” as a way out of a “period of controversy and silence” long past. Now, more than ever, we have the evidence, tools, and motivation to further explore the nuances of living in our racialized social system and, especially, the deleterious effects on oppressed groups. I will end by fully endorse WY’s concluding remarks with a few corrections:
“We agree with LaFree and Russell (1993. p. 279) who argue that the crime/race connection should be studied honestly and courageously because ‘no group has suffered more than African-Americans by our failure to understand and control street crime.’ The corollary of this is that no other group can benefit more from a candid examination of race and crime. This will not, and cannot begin to happen, until we stop misidentifying causes,” [exhuming long-buried arguments, such as the “culture of poverty” thesis and reiterating misguided notions about the “model minority”.]
Anti-black racism persists, and scientists are not immune.
References (not cited in WY’s article):
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.
Beach, SRH, M-K Lei, GH Brody, S Kim, AW Barton, MV Dogan, & RA Philibert. 2016. Parenting, socioeconomic status risk, and later young adult health: Exploration of opposing indirect effects via DNA methylation. Child Development 87: 111-21.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2017. Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Rowman & Littlefield.
Brody, Gene H., Yi-Fu Chen, Velma Murry, Xiaojia Ge, Ronald Simons, Frederick Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. Perceived Discrimination and the Adjustment of African American Youths: A Five-Year Longitudinal Analysis with Contextual Moderation Effects. Child Development 77:1170–89.
Burt, Callie H., Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick X. Gibbons. 2012. Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience. American Sociological Review 77:648-677.
Essed, Philomena. 1991. Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. Sage.
Essex, MJ, WT Boyce, C Hertzman, LL Lam, JM Armstrong, S Neumann, & MS Kobor. 2013. Epigenetic vestiges of early developmental adversity: Childhood stress exposure and DNA methylation in adolescence. Child Development 84: 58–75.
Feagin, Joe R. 1991. The continuing significance of race: Antiblack discrimination in public places.” American Sociological Review 56: 101-116.
Feagin, Joe R. 2014. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. Routledge.
Feinberg, AP. 2007. Phenotype plasticity and the epigenetics of human disease. Nature 447: 433-40.
Hilger, Nathaniel G. 2016. Upward Mobility and Discrimination: The Case of Asian Americans. No. w22748. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.
Hochberg, Z, R Feil, M Constancia, M Fraga, C Junien, J-C Carel, et al. 2011. Child health, developmental plasticity, and epigenetic programming. Endocrine Reviews 32: 1-66.
Kaufman, Joanne M., Cesar J. Rebellon, Sherod Thaxton, and Robert Agnew. 2008. A General Strain Theory of Racial Differences in Criminal Offending. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 41: 421-37.
Kuzawa, Christopher W., & Elizabeth Sweet. 2009. Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health. American Journal of Human Biology 21:2-15.
McGowan, PO, & TL Roth. 2015. Epigenetic pathways through which experience becomes linked with biology. Development and Psychopathology 27: 637-48.
Meaney, MJ. 2010. Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene x environment interactions. Child Development 81: 41-79.
Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. 2010. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Harvard University Press.
Ng, HH, & A Bird. 1999. DNA methylation and chromatin modification. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development 9: 158-63.
Omi, Michael, & Howard Winant. 2014. Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge.
Russell-Brown, Katheryn. 2009. The Color of Crime, 2nd Ed. New York University Press.
Simons, Ronald L. and Callie Harbin Burt. 2011. Learning to Be Bad: Adverse Social Conditions, Social Schemas, and Crime. Criminology 49:553–98.
Simons, Ronald L., Yi-Fu Chen, Eric Stewart, and Gene Brody. 2003. Incidents of Discrimination and Risk for Delinquency: A Longitudinal Test of Strain Theory with an African American Sample. Justice Quarterly 20:827–54.
Simons, RL, MK Lei, SRH Beach, CE Cutrona, RA Philibert. 2016. Methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene mediates the effect of adversity on negative schemas and depression. Developmental Psychopathology, Advance online publication.
Slavich, GM, & SW Cole. 2013. The emerging field of human social genomics. Clinical Psychological Science 1:331-48.
Spohn, Cassia. 2015. Race, Crime, and Punishment in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Crime and Justice 44: 49-77.
Szyf, M., & J. Bick. 2013. DNA methylation: A mechanism for embedding early life experiences in the genome. Child Development 84: 49-57.
Tonry, Michael. 1995. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Unnever, James, Francis Cullen, Scott Mathers, Timothy McClure, and Marisa Allison. 2009. Racial Discrimination and Hirschi’s Criminological Classic: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge. Justice Quarterly 26:377–409.
van der Knaap, LJ, JM Schaefer, IHA Franken, FC Verhulst, FVA van Oort, & H Riese. 2014. Catechol-O-methyltransferase gene methylation and substance use in adolescents: The TRAILS study. Genes, Brain, and Behavior 13: 618-625.
Walsh, Anthony, & Ilhong Yun. 2017. Examining the race, poverty, and crime nexus adding Asian Americans and biosocial processes. Journal of Criminal Justice: advance online publication.
Wu, Ellen D. 2014. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton University Press.
Young, Vernetta. 2006. Demythologizing the ‘Criminalblackman’: The Carnival Mirror. Pp.54-66 in The Many Colors of Crime, edited by R.D. Peterson, L.J. Krivo, & J. Hagan. New York: New York University Press.
[i] Pointing to Sampson to support their claim about missing agency in the structural-cultural arguments about race and crime is super ironic (or ignorant) given that Sampson & Wilson (who they cited earlier) provided one of the seminal pieces linking racial stratification (structure) to cultural adaptations shaping black-white disparities in crime, often viewed as the piece that ended the “period of controversy and silence” around race and crime.
[ii] Notably, WY did not cite William Petersen, a UC Berkeley sociologists whose 1966 NYT piece encouraged comparisons between Japanese-Americans and African Americans and strengthened stereotypes of Asian Americans as the model minority in contrast to African Americans, nor any of the numerous responses to this comparison that have unmasked the hollowness of such comparisons in the more than 50 years since Petersen popularized this juxtaposition.
[iii] WY assert: “To be consistent with structural arguments for black crime, proponents of such views would have to attribute Asian successes to pro-Asian bias on the part of whites to their own detriment, or to return to cultural or genetic arguments to explain Asian advantage vis-a-vis whites and blacks. They are not likely to do so because that would entail group comparisons along these lines, which they find invidious.”
[iv] As WY note, the potential of the epigenetics field has not yet been matched by the reality of research given its complexities; yet, that is not reason to deny that epigenetic research provides a plausible biological mechanism linking racist and other social experiences to development in lasting and potentially reversible ways (with supportive preliminary evidence).
[v] To be clear, WY are not completely silent about the social inputs into the biological pathways on which they address. Rather, WY focus on parental abuse and neglect and its lasting effects. Given their earlier arguments, they seem to imply that such parental treatment—no fault of the child—they assure, is due to not only to culture and structure but to human agency. However, the very first epigenetic example they provide reveals, at least among rodents who clearly have less complex lives especially in the social realm, that female rat pups who were licked and groomed in early life go on to become licking and grooming mothers. As noted, cross-fostering studies show that this is not learned or genetically transmitted, rather the experience of licking and grooming in the early life of rat pups produces a cascade of epigenetic changes which shape development and later parenting, presumably for adaptive reasons. This implies, at least extrapolating from the simpler life of the rat pups, that parenting practices are powerfully shaped by familial experiences, and likely among humans, ongoing experiences in development that provide cues about the nature of the world and the people in it. This example completely undermines their arguments about culture and agency.
Recently, Eric Turkheimer, a foremost behavioral geneticist, wrote a blog about the debate in Criminology around heritability studies, primarily focusing on arguments in our original article (see here and our rejoinder). While I am under no illusion that people will actually read this response/blog, I wanted to respond to Turkheimer’s critique because, like other (pro-BG) responses to our critique, it is grounded in a misunderstanding or mischaracterization of our argument.[a] Like Barnes et al., Wright et al., and Moffitt and Beckley before him, Turkheimer seems unwilling to engage with the substance (explicit focus) of our critique, but rather chooses to interpret it (wrongly) as anti-genetic and “anti-BG.”[b] I feel compelled to address these misguided responses to (critiques of) our critique.
To foreshadow the discussion below, drawing on Turkheimer’s quotes, including his critique, I maintain that Turkheimer agrees with the substance of our critique, with discord only appearing if our arguments are mischaracterized (overgeneralized to topics that they were avowedly not addressing, e.g., the broader field of behavior genetics, the use of twin and adoption studies for non-heritability purposes), and that we cited him correctly.
I respond to each of Turkheimer’s points below. The responses are numbered to correspond to the numbered points he raised in his blog.
(1) Like Wright et al. and Barnes et al., Turkheimer balks at our call for an end to heritability studies as (“sounding a lot like”) scientific censorship. This is both unnecessarily polemical and a rather weak response to a scientific argument, given that this is the way science proceeds when advances uproot the flaws (or lack of utility) of certain scientific practices. This is a gradual process whereby (some) scientists begin to realize the flaws of a paradigm or practice (e.g., the geocentric theory of the universe or phrenology) and bring it to attention and the topic of debate. Ours was an attempt to inform criminologists, who have neither the background in biology nor the time or interest to keep pace with the incredible advances in the life sciences in recent years, about the flaws of the heritability study and to make a case for superannuating (or hastening the decline of) the practice of estimating h2 as well as recognizing the flawed nature of its existing estimates. This is in the spirit of advancing science. As Popper (1962) articulated (and we cited this in our paper) “our knowledge grows only through the correction of our mistakes.”
(2) Turkheimer states: “If noting else, the generic citations of Rutter and Turkheimer as a kind of appeal to authority is a lousy way to argue. What did I say, exactly, and why is what I said relevant to the current argument.” We cited Turkheimer and Rutter not as an appeal to authority but as foremost experts in the field. Barnes et al. responded to our initial critique with the intimation that we were merely extreme environmentalists who were uninformed about biology (presumably in contrast to them), and that, as such, our criticisms should be ignored because we did not have expertise in the areas (aka, we didn’t know what we were talking about.)[c] Rather than as an “appeal to authority” as a means of arguing, we cited Rutter and Turkheimer as experts in the area who also thought that heritability studies had little (to nothing) to contribute to science at the present state of knowledge.
But, what did Turkheimer say?[d] In the paper, we pointed the reader to two pages in two articles that contained the discussion supporting our interpretation of his statements indicating that heritability studies, at present, lack utility and should come to the end. Here are the quotes:
Turkheimer (2011: 598)
“Whether this exercise [heritability studies, which he often refers to as variance partitioning because that is what it is] has any scientific content has been the subject of debate for more than a century, and here is a summary of why I think it does not: it is not about cause. Practitioners of the art wanted it to be about cause, in the sense that the relative magnitudes of the various components were supposed to tell us something about the importance of genetic and environmental causes underlying a trait, but they do not…In the real world of humans, in a given context everything is heritable to some extent and environmental to some other extent, but the magnitudes of the proportions are variable from situation to situation, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the causal properties of genes and environment for the trait in question, unless one is interested in the pointless null hypothesis that one of the components is zero….Plomin and Daniels [1987!!] marked the beginning of the end of variance partitioning as a useful endeavor in human developmental science.”
“The laws of behavior genetics are not actual laws, and calling them that may have led to some misunderstandings of what was originally intended. In particular, although the First Law of Behavior Genetics has sometimes been considered an endorsement of a hereditarian view of behavior (e.g., Pinker 2003), the universality of heritability is best interpreted as a reductio ad absurdum of these very distinctions—as a way of observing that the endeavor of figuring out how genetic or environmental a trait is, let alone declaring that it is exclusively one or the other, is pointless. (p.532; emphases added).
“The prospect of this outcome has haunted the nature-nurture debate from its inception, as both sides of the old debate were led to a dead end of thinking that the point of the debate was to evaluate the separate effects of genes and environment. It became clear long ago that neither genes nor environment could be discounted for anything important… Genetically informed research designs can partially, imperfectly, control for the genetic and shared environmental confounds that otherwise cloud causal interpretation of associations like these, and they have been extraordinarily successful at doing so. The quantification of heritability itself is unimportant in such analyses…” (p. 535, emphases added).
We could also point to Johnson, Turkheimer, Gottesman, & Bouchard (2009). In the abstract (p. 217): “We see little need for further studies of the heritability of individual traits in behavioral science…”
Furthermore, noting clearly that “heritability studies are no longer important,” Johnson, Turkheimer, Gottesman, & Bouchard (2009) stated: “To understand why heritability estimates are no longer important, it is necessary to understand that they are completely dependent on the specifics of the samples and environmental conditions from which they are taken…This means that little can be gleaned from any particular heritability estimate and there is little need for further twin studies investigating the presence and magnitude of genetic influences on behavior.” (pp. 217-218, emphasis added).
These are some of the things that Turkheimer said that led us to cite him as calling for an end to heritability studies. And, there are more. Although we wish we had the space to include these quotations, we believe that Turkheimer’s words are consistent with our citing him as an insider in the area who also thinks the studies lack utility at the present state of knowledge.
(3) Turkheimer states: “One ongoing problem I have with a lot of recent anti-BG writing is the whole idea of a “heritability study”. Evan Charney is another person who trades in this idea. A heritability study isn’t a thing. A [sic] heritability is a descriptive statistic, an effect size, not a kind of study. It is kind of like writing a critique of social psychology and railing against “F-ratio studies.”
First, we point out that Turkheimer (like Barnes et al., Wright et al., and Moffitt and Beckley before him) wrongly lumps our study into a body of “anti-BG” writing. We are clear[e] that our critique is narrowly focused on “heritability studies,” and this necessitated and justified our using the term “heritability study” to describe the studies at the focus of our critique.
Second, I wish to clarify what we mean by heritability studies, although I remain rather astonished that this seems to be a point of confusion. What we refer to as heritability studies are those studies whose aims are to come up with a numerical estimate of heritability (h2), which we defined: “Heritability was defined by Wahlsten (1990: 244) as “the proportion of variance in a measure of behaviour or other phenotype in a breeding population that is attributable to genetic variation” and by Plomin et al. (2012: 87) as “the proportion of phenotypic variance that is accounted for by genetic differences among individuals.” (Burt & Simons 2014: 227).
We selected the name “heritability studies” for these studies, following Charney (2012), because we are narrowly focused on studies whose focus is on partitioning variance between “genetics” and “environments”. Heritability studies are not tantamount to twin and adoption studies because studies of twin and adoption samples can be used for other purposes other than to estimate h2. Our critique, as we note in the paper, is not on these other uses of twin (or adoption) studies. (Thus, for example, Moffitt and Beckley’s point that MZ studies of twin discordance can be used to enhance our understanding of criminal behavior is entirely beside the point of our critique. In fact, I think that in some situations MZ studies of twin discordance offer great promise for shedding light on environmental influences on phenotype variance.)
Turkheimer argues that the “heritability study isn’t a thing. A heritability is a descriptive statistic, an effect size, not a kind of study.” Sure it is a kind of study. A heritability study is exactly how we (and Charney) have described above. What’s not to understand? The heritability estimate is a (time, population) specific effect size, and the study that estimates heritability is a heritability study. This is pretty straightforward. Critiquing studies that merely attempt to estimate h2 is not at all like “writing a critique of social psychology and railing against ‘F-ratio studies’. Social psychological studies that use F-statistics do not have the goal of estimating the F-statistic and they do not present the resulting F-statistic in the abstract as the key finding from the study. No, such studies have the goal of examining whether relationships exist, and they certainly don’t report F-statistics as the key finding of the study. If they did, then they could be appropriately called F-statistic studies. Similar to our use of heritability study, scientists refer to studies that assess the dimensionality of various measures as “factor analytic studies.. Heritability studies are absolutely a thing (as Turkheimer notes in his point 4) like factor analytic studies.
(4) But, Turkheimer does in fact understand what we call heritability studies: “What Burt and Simons think they mean by a “heritability study” is a study that has no point other than estimating the heritability of something. My friend Ron Yeo used to refer to these as h-squared-equals studies. On this point they can cite me, and the 2011 paper they cite is a reasonable source. The heritability of criminality doesn’t mean that it has somehow turned out to be “biological” and whether the estimated value in some twin study is .3 or .65 makes very little difference and doesn’t tend to replicate anyway”
Yes, what we “think we mean” is, in fact, actually what we mean (thanks).[f] And, with this, we would point out that Turkheimer does acknowledge that heritability studies (h2-equals studies) are, in fact, a thing.
This is exactly how we cited Turkheimer and this is exactly our argument. As we noted, there had been a profusion of heritability studies (Turkheimer’s seemingly preferred appellation, “h-squared equals studies”) in criminology over the past several years, and these were the studies we were calling for an end to.
(5) Turkheimer: “Barnes et al are right: I do twin studies for a living, and it would be mighty hypocritical of me to declare that they are useless in general. As a BG person who has spent a lot of time criticizing the heritability concept, I have made it a discipline to never suggest that my doubts about numerical heritabilities should lead to a general dismissal of genetic effects on behavior or the behavior genetic enterprise generally.”
With his statements on point 4, it appears that we did cite Turkheimer appropriately, and he does agree that we should stop estimating heritability studies at the present state of knowledge. Yet, like other BG proponents, he wants to overgeneralize our argument rather than conceding his agreement, twisting it into something it is not (or he is just making irrelevant points that genetic effects aren’t zero, something our paper did not question). This critique is not anti-BG, and nowhere do we dismiss either genetic effects or behavior genetics generally. (We repeat this point several times throughout the papers). We are not broadly criticizing quantitative genetics, nor are we endorsing it, we wanted to call an end to these “h-squared-equals studies,” which were being estimated and published on nearly every outcome without an end in sight.
To be clear, studies that employ the twin design for reasons that are not for the purposes of estimating heritability are not the focus of our critique, which, again, is why we employed the term heritability study (not twin studies).
(6) Turkheimer though takes us to task for not doing something that was irrelevant to our paper: “Where in the remainder of their articles is a concession that genetic pathways rule out certain interpretations of the data, an acknowledgement that criminology has to take genetics into account when it is interpreting its findings? Like every anti-BG paper I have ever read, they spend the rest of their paper finding something to attack in every single genetically oriented paper they can find. Twin study? EEA. Adoption study? Prenatal effects. If all of non-experimental social science were held to this standard it would just go away.” Again, this is beside the point. Our goal was squarely on heritability studies, and “finding something to attack in nearly every single genetically-oriented paper we could find”? Weak sauce, as we were focused on criticizing heritability studies and, yes, our focus was identifying their problems. It was simply out of the scope of our paper to concede that genetic pathways rule out certain interpretations of data. We also did not talk about the effects of labeling by the criminal justice system on interpretations of the effects incarceration on the likelihood of recidivism. Both are out of scope.
(7) Turkheimer states that he thinks that studies of twins can be used effectively for purposes other than heritability. Off topic, but good to know. (Such was clear from his papers we cited.)
(8) Turkheimer asks: “Now the question is whether the studies that Burt and Simons list are h2-equals-studies or more interesting genetically informed social science. I’m not going to take the time to go through them one at a time, but the several I looked at were bivariate “quasi-causal” (as we call them in our lab) studies.”
I can answer this. The studies we identified (per reviewer requests to point to studies) all involved an “h2-equal” as the sole goal if not a primary goal of the paper.
(9) Turkheimer stated: “Moffitt and Beckley wrote a nice reply about epigenetics and I won’t go into depth about it. I think that people who think that epigenetic explanations of behavioral differences are important should go ahead and do the research and show it. I doubt very much that a demonstration of meaningful epigenetic effects would meet with any opposition in the behavior genetic community. Epigenetics of behavior is behavior genetics. Epigenetics and classical genetics aren’t at odds on a biological level, and there is no reason they should be at odds in social science.”
I have so many thoughts on this point that I’m actually not even sure where to begin, so I shall go in chronological order.
As I noted above, I found Moffitt and Beckley’s response to be both misguided and off topic. For example, they summarized our argument as follows: “In their original article, Burt and Simons (2014) argued that heritability studies should be abandoned because twin and adoption research is a fatally flawed paradigm. They pointed optimistically to epigenetics research as the way forward.” And, later, they summarized our argument as: “recommending…that criminologists should embrace epigenetics and abandon twin studies.” In short, not exactly. For the former, we focused on ending heritability studies because these studies are flawed conceptually and biologically, and we pointed to epigenetics research as demonstrating the biological fallacy of separate G vs. E influences, and how this new paradigm (postgenomic paradigm) might influence future biologically-informed social scientific work on crime. “Twin and adoption research” are not a “fatally flawed paradigm” because they are not a paradigm. Finally, to repeat (perhaps ad nauseam), we at no point called for an end to the use of studies with samples of twins.
Unfortunately, in our view, rather than engage with our critique, Beckley and Moffitt’s response piece was largely off topic to the debate about the utility of heritability studies. (E.g., Burt and Simons (2014) also suggested that the twin design is irreparably flawed. However, one of the most exciting future uses of twin data for criminology is the study of discordant twins…”). We did not discuss the use of twin sample and methods in general, which is why the value of MZ twin discordance studies is irrelevant. They then proceed to discuss the debates and difficulties in engaging in epigenetics research, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but again irrelevant to our point. Moreover, at points it seems as though they are arguing that the difficulties (and challenges) of doing social scientific research that accords with current biological knowledge justifies or neutralizes studies that are mired in outdated (biological) knowledge. (Would they have us continue develop knowledge based on the model of the earth as flat following scientific evidence overturning this model because of the difficulties and complexities involved in changing paradigms?)
Neither Turkheimer nor Beckley and Moffitt speak to our primary argument about the flawed conceptual (biological) model of heritability studies nor its lack of utility at the present state of knowledge. And, Turkheimer’s point that epigenetics is behavioral genetics is immaterial. Our critique was avowedly not anti-BG. However, Turkheimer’s statement that “Epigenetics and classical genetics aren’t at odds on a biological level,” is simply not correct, see Meloni (2014a; 2014b) and Charney (2012a) clear and detailed refutations of this statement.
I must also register my surprise that a behavioral geneticist is taking social scientists who see epigenetic findings as relevant and promising to task “for not doing the research and showing it.” Missing heritability? And, this from the scholar who states: “Complex human behaviour emerges out of a hyper-complex developmental network into which individual genes and individual environmental events are inputs. The systematic causal effects of any of those inputs are lost in the developmental complexity of the network. Causal explanations of complex differences among humans are therefore not going to be found in individual genes or environments any more than explanations of plate tectonics can be found in the chemical composition of individual rocks” (Turkheimer 2011: 600). But, the nascent field of epigenetics needs to step up and show their results if they want to be in the discussion (?). Even so, there is, in fact, significant evidence demonstrating the effects of epigenetic differences on behavior (see my discussion here, drawing on a number of various sources, e.g., Landecker & Panofsky 2013; Weaver et al. 2006). To be sure, at this point much of this evidence is confined to non-human animals, yet, this is changing. Scholars are doing this work on humans, and evidence is beginning to accrue that “shows it” (the effects of epigenetic variation on behavioral variation).
(10) (Again, the tired tendency to paint us as anti-BG rather than focusing on the substance of our more focused critique). Turkheimer says we are wrong about GCTA studies. We present evidence; where is his? I have yet to come across one GCTA study that even remotely resembles the high heritabilities found in twin studies of complex social phenotypes. That is our argument. I am more than willing to revise my thinking in light of new evidence, but Turkheimer does not provide any (neither did Wright et al. who did not respond to our response to their use of GCTA studies of height as support for the validity of twin studies of social phenotypes).
Turkheimer concludes with the following: “So in conclusion: if you want to cite me as a critic of some general version of BG, the citation should be limited to the idea that numerical heritabilities aren’t very important per se, and that studies that do nothing other than estimate them are no longer very important. The next sentence should be something about how I do maintain that nonzero heritability is important methodologically, and that there are many scientifically useful things to do with twins other than just estimating heritabilities. Better yet, be very specific about what it is I am supposed to have said when you cite me.”
Again, it seems that we are in total agreement. We did not and have not discussed Turkheimer as a general critic of BG, and cited him as indicating that numerical heritabilities are not very important. We were not able due to space limitations to include all the quotes from Turkheimer, but we did point the reader to the sources and pages where his criticisms of heritability studies were found.
After reading Turkheimer’s blog, I cannot seem but feel he wants to have it both ways. He recognizes and publicly states that heritability studies are not useful, and, yet, wants us to refrain from pointing that out because doing so is somehow anti-BG, anti-genetic, and anti-science and is tantamount to indicting all of genetically-informed social science as balderdash (and thus, makes the critique out of touch with scientific reality). Perhaps, before one can criticize heritability studies, one must first establish a record of supporting genetic effects and the BG enterprise (only insiders can criticize the method?)
In sum, Turkheimer’s critique of our critique is not without substance; yet, as with Barnes et al., Wright et. al., and Beckley and Moffitt, Turkheimer creates a general anti-BG argument out of our narrowly constructed heritability study critique. Rather than conceding that we are in agreement, which it does appear we are, Turkheimer makes our argument anti-BG and us anti-genetic. I find this both highly perplexing and frustrating as it seems to muddy the waters unnecessarily and confuse issues and models that are separate and distinct.
[a] I would like to note that I engaged in a series of pleasant emails with Turkheimer after he sent me a link to his blog, and it seemed that we shared some common ground and were both willing to (re)consider our ideas in light of new information.
[b] For example, Wright et al. (2015) stated: “Consider, too, the linguistic gymnastics used by Burt and Simons (2014, 2015) to claim that nothing positive ‘at the present time’ has come out of behavioral genetic research.” Speaking of impressive gymnastics, this entirely twists our argument to try to feebly come up with the value of heritability studies based on “behavioral genetic findings” and “biosocial data”. We stated that at the present state of knowledge heritability studies lack utility. We have yet to see a response (on point) to this critique.
[c] We should note that none of the authors to who responded to our critique in Criminology (JC Barnes, JP Wright, B. Boutwell, J.A. Schwartz, EJ Connolly, JL Nedelec, K.M. Beaver) have any degrees in the biological sciences.
[d] I will note that we had wished to include quotes from both Turkheimer and Rutter, but we were under strict page limitations. We asked if we could have extra space to include quotes from these to scholars, but this was not allowed.
[e] We noted clearly in our rejoinder, for example: “When it suits their purpose, Barnes et al. and Wright et al. wrongly broaden our critique to behavioral genetics and/or biosocial research generally. We have clearly noted throughout that the heritability study method, including its fallacious technical and conceptual assumptions, is the focus of our critique, not behavioral genetics or biosocial work in general.”
[f] Aside, we find our heritability study label much more interpretable and useful than Turkheimer’s seemingly preferred label “h-squared-equals studies” coined by his friend. This slight difference in conceptualization (or non-recognition of our conceptualization) can greatly impair communication and progress. Point of illustration, this occurs on occasion when my son is either trying be difficult so as not to engage with me or refusing to recognize my clear reference to something because I am not employing his (constantly changing) conceptual framework. In response to my request for him to (please) pick up your airplanes and put them away, he continues resting in his chair and responds, “there are no airplanes on the floor.” I point to the ones right in front of him. “Nope, Mommy, those are rocket ships.”
Burt, Callie H., & Simons, Ronald L. (2014). Pulling back the curtain on heritability studies: Biosocial criminology in the postgenomic era. Criminology, 52, 223-262.
Burt , Callie H., & Simons, Ronald L. (2015). Heritability studies in the postgenomic era: The ‘fatal flaw’ is conceptual. Criminology 53: 101-112.
Charney, Evan. (2012). Behavior genetics and postgenomics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 35:331–410.
Johnson, Wendy, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, & Thomas J. Bouchard. (2009). Beyond heritability: Twin studies in behavioral research. Current Directions in Psychological Science 18: 217-220.
Landecker, Hannah, & Aaron Panofksy. (2013). From social structure to gene regulation and back: A critical introduction to environmental epigenetics and society. Annual Review of Sociology 39:333–57.
Moffitt, Terrie E., & Amber Beckley. (2014). Abandon twin research? Embrace epigenetic research? Premature advice for criminologists. Criminology 53: 121-126.
Turkheimer, Eric. (2011). Commentary: Variation and causation in the environment and genome. International Journal of Epidemiology 40:598–601.
Turkheimer, Eric. (2014). A phenotype null hypothesis for the genetics of personality. Annual Review of Psychology 65: 515-540.
Wright, John Paul, J. C. Barnes, Brian B. Boutwell, Joseph A. Schwartz, Eric J. Connolly, Joseph L. Nedelec, & Kevin M. Beaver. (2015). Mathematical proof is not minutiae and irreducible complexity is not a theory: A final response to Burt and Simons and a call to criminologists. Criminology 53:113–20.