Genetic Promissory Note with a Moral Twist

A Rapid Book Review[1] of The Genetic Lottery by Kathryn Paige Harden (Princeton University Press)

We all know that our DNA makes us different and unique. To what extent, how, and whether we can understand how our genetic differences shape differences in social and behavioral outcomes has long been debated. [Post posting read–that is a terrible sentence.] The field known as behavior genetics has used family, twin, and adoption studies, and more recently measured genetic differences, to show that our genetic differences are correlated with social and behavioral outcomes that matter to us. The idea that ‘our genes’ shape our social and behavioral outcomes, including educational attainment, dates back at least 50 years.

In her forthcoming work, K. Paige Harden, a now-renowned behavior geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin, draws on these findings to a make a stronger (more controversial) case. Skirting important methodological issues, Harden argues that these studies identify genetic causes of our life outcomes, such as educational attainment, income, wealth, and ‘externalizing’ behaviors (crime, substance use, risky sex). Further, she claims that social science research and policy must incorporate a consideration of genetic differences into our theories, models, and policies if we are to truly understand inequality and reduce it. By positioning herself as distinct from those who are infamous for promoting genetic determinist claims, especially with direct or indirect implications for genetic racial differences in outcomes like IQ, Harden frames herself as a scientific realist with progressive aims. Yet, as I will quickly argue here, the reasonable, progressive story she presents only works by ignoring or downplaying important scientific details. 

Having just finished reading her book, I feel compelled to write something in response, in part because Harden’s writing is engaging, disarming, and persuasive and likely appeals to the segment of the public who hear of the irrational academics who deny biology (e.g., recognition of the reality of biological sex in gender studies) along with those who wish to position themselves against those Galtonian types and Bell Curve supporters of the world, whose works are fodder for white supremacist groups, according to Harden. (She makes several claims that white supremacists are avid consumers of the scientific products of these scholars; I have no idea if that is true). In large part, Harden’s book continues her (and others’) appeal to use genetics because those other (‘bad’) guys will use it anyway and not to good ends. Yet, Harden’s clear prose and ostensibly lucid arguments obscure substantial scientific complexities and unknowns, and contains some leaps in logic and reasoning. With few minutes I have, here are my thoughts hastily written. 

If you are looking for a detailed overview or a description of the biological and methods of contemporary social science genomics (sociogenomics) work, including GWAS, polygenic score studies, sibling difference studies, and the like, look elsewhere. Introducing readers to the science of sociogenomics is not the aim of this book. Indeed, for readers like myself with extensive familiarity with sociogenomics, including Harden’s prior works, this book’s primary new contribution is its (a) depiction of her conception of causality, and (b) a glimpse into her personal life through stories. For those not reading her recent work in which she pitches many of these same arguments (including a 2021 Annual Review of Psychology piece, for the interested reader with less time), Harden does flesh out the arguments that she presents in recent work elsewhere, captured in the summary of the primary aim of her book:

“I am going to argue that [the data showing the] relationship between measured genes and educational outcomes, is also critically important, both empirically and morally, to understanding social inequality. Like being born to a rich or poor family, being born with a certain set of genetic variants is a lottery of birth…. And, like social class, the outcome of the genetic lottery is a systemic force that matters for who gets more, and who gets less, of nearly everything we care about in society” (14-15). 

Harden argues, incorrectly in my view, that the genetic influences on social outcomes, like educational attainment, are not given due attention in social science and policies in part due to our sordid legacy of eugenics, which she immediately addresses head on and from which she distances herself. As a result of this history, in Harden’s view, mainstream social science is ‘biophobic left’, such that it theorizes ‘genetic sameness’ out of fear of what studying genetics might reveal about ourselves and how this may be put to use (in the service of bolstering the status quo and social hierarchies). I will note, and do so more below, I do not think this is a proper characterization of the position of most who critique behavior genetics.

On the other side, Harden argues that there are others who support genetics research on social outcomes, include a eugenics right, which has and will put this to use in the service of inferiorizing racial/ethnic and other disadvantaged groups. Harden positions herself as occupying the rational (ostensibly non-ideological) middle: In contrast to this ‘eugenics view’, Harden states that “[w]hat I am aiming to do in this book is to re-envision the relationship between genetic science and equality.” She asks, “[c]an we peel apart human behavioral genetics … from the racist, classist, and eugenicist ideologies it has been entwined with for decades? Can we imagine a new synthesis? And can this synthesis broaden our understanding of what equality looks like and how to achieve it?” (p18-9).

To this she answers not just ‘yes we can’, but ‘we must’. Indeed, in a surprisingly aggressive section of the book, which departs someone from her tone elsewhere, she argues that to do social research without considering genetic differences between individuals is the moral equivalent not of jaywalking but bank robbery(!!). Specifically, Harden writes about an asserted (but not demonstrated) “tacit collusion in social science to ignore genetic differences between people.” She states such ‘tacit collusion’ (which I dispute exists, more on that below), “is not wrong in the way that jaywalking is wrong…. It’s wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It’s stealing.” 

Yikes. For the non-criminology readers, robbery isn’t ‘stealing’. Robbery is the use of force or threat of the use of force to take something from others; in bank robbery, this would be money. Perhaps if she mentioned this offhand or in a talk, I may let it go, but in a book this was clearly a thoughtful, albeit absurd and unjustified in my view, moral comparison. How does she get here? And, are her arguments sound? [Foreshadowing: no idea and no.]

The journey is interesting, especially with the relatable personal examples, but the logic and evidence presented is partial and tendentious. Harden battles with straw men, overlooks nuance and contrary or complicating evidence, and deftly avoids several of the longstanding critiques of behavior genetics, which now apply to sociogenomics: these include the population specificity and, therefore, incomparability of heritability studies across groups (defined, for example, by social class), the social construction of the outcomes, and downward causation, as well as a host of methodological issues, including assumptions and limitations, in current GWAS and other sociogenomics studies.

 I do think there is much to discuss on these issues (in fact, I’m writing a book about it myself), but charitable engagement with different views and thorough engagement with existing scientific evidence and theory is not found in this book, in my reading. She’s selling a view, in part by curiously denigrating her opponents while ignoring their critiques. I’ll briefly break down the arguments into their two parts to reveal the shortcomings. 

First, Harden’s portrayal of the genetic-resistant, even biophobic, mainstream social science is misguided, in my view. Few to zero social scientists believe endorse a ‘genetic sameness’ or ‘blank slatist’ view of the world, where individuals are genetically the same, and no scholar I’ve ever met. While her book is thin on citations, for a university press book, these sections are particularly sparse in terms of actual references. Rather than scholars, Harden references speeches and claims made by non-scientist, then president Bill Clinton on the Human Genome Project in support of her arguments for the mainstream social scientist view of ‘genetic sameness’. This straw man depiction allows Harden to dismiss social scientific critiques as being ideological rather than scientific—and no doubt some are ideological. But others are scientific. These are curiously ignored or quickly dismissed without engagement. 

Harden also repeats the longstanding argument that social science genomics continues to be relegated to the margins of academia and ignored by social scientists. Yet, here too, the evidence is missing, and I disagree. Harden has received considerable public and private funding, including prestigious fellowship, like several of her sociogenomics and behavior genetic colleagues. She, like those colleagues, publishes in high prestige general science outlets and social science outlets. Sociogenomics work receives public and media fanfare that I would argue is significantly greater than that of most social scientific work. The claim that the public and academics are tacitly colluding to ignore genetics is surely questionable (and requires supportive evidence) given that Harden herself has graced the pages of the NYT and New Yorker, as well as the Guardian, the Atlantic, and others, with these same arguments—with much fanfare–in addition to publishing these ideas in prestigious social science journals. Given sociogenomicists’ success in funding, publication, awards, and popularity—where exactly is the ‘tacit collusion’ to ignore this work? As Aaron Panofsky has argued, this claim that behavior genetics scholars scholars are outsiders fighting a reality-resistant academia is central to the identity of this field. Yet, at present, I keep coming back to ‘who does she think believes ‘genes don’t matter” because she doesn’t cite these people; (some personal correspondences where no one says ‘genes don’t matter’ are discussed). I think Harden’s creating an oversimplified, inaccurate portrait of critics on the political left is a result of her misunderstanding our critiques (which I turn to next).

Harden takes great pains to distance herself from the ‘eugenics’ or ‘Galtonian’ scholars, such as Robert Plomin, and the late Herrnstein as well as Charles Murray (of the Bell Curve infamy). Although at times I found myself concerned that she was exaggerating their differences, it seems clear that Harden truly believes that studying social science genetics is not just consistent with supporting egalitarianism, but it is necessary to creating a better society. Yet, why this is the case is never clearly articulated, in my reading. Importantly, in making this case for its importance (and the moral imperative that social scientists include genetics), Harden skips over some important methodological details and less supportive studies that would cast some doubt about her claims. 

For example, Harden notes that education polygenic scores explain from 10-14% in educational attainment (without noting this is basically net of only age and sex and 10 or so ancestry PCs). While mentioning that these findings ‘hold up’ when using sibling studies, which control for the potential environmental confounding variables by examining differences between siblings who share such environments, she never acknowledge that the variance explained/effect size drops in these sibling studies from 10-14% to <3%. Nor does she note that the variance explain dives when well-known, easily measurable variables like parental income and educational attainment, are included. Throughout she grapples with ‘genetics of educational attainment’ which, she claims, causally explains more than 10% of differences in educational attainment rather than the more realistic (net of relevant controls) relatively <3%.

This matters for her thesis. Given that ‘genetics’ explains less than 3% of the variance in educational attainment net of environmental confounds, it is (a) unlikely that it will explain away *larger* social environmental influences, such that we are being morally bankrupt (or rather bank robbers) for not included genetic measures in social scientific models, and (b) unlikely to significantly shape public policies in a way that would radically change things. That is not to say it can’t; some social scientific variables that are considered important explain less than 3% of the variance in outcomes. Yet, we have some idea what these variables are and what they do. This is not the case with current sociogenomics studies.

Harden also ignores concerns about what these GWAS results indicate. She barely mentions, more as a quick aside, that GWASs do not measure genes or causal variants, and that efforts at biological annotation (i.e., linking these measured genetic variants with genes, much less causal variants) remains an exercise in educated guesswork. She asserts that, for example, the ‘genes relevant to educational attainment are found in the brain’, while also recognizing elsewhere that because we, for example, treat taller, more attractive people better, they have advantages in educational and labor market outcomes which would, in her view, be appropriately deemed a genetic cause. That we still don’t know what most genes do is fully ignored in this book. The charge that scholars that fail to consider genetic influences are morally equivalent to bank robbers against this backdrop seems silly at best.

Ignoring Downward Causation

Harden devotes a section to causation to bolster her (quite controversial) claim that heritability studies identify genetic causes of individual differences. Curiously, she does not sufficiently engage with the work of her mentor who has written several pieces articulating why heritability studies are not about cause, (personally, I agree with her mentor Turkheimer on this one). Even more surprisingly, she uses the hypothetical from Sandy Jencks explaining how putative genetic causes reflect social causation and thus heritability studies cannot be used to inform us about biological causes. In Jencks’ well-known hypothetical, under an arbitrary social policy that banned red-haired people from getting an education, genetic differences related to (causing) red hair would appear as genetic causes of educational attainment, despite the cause actually being the social policy proscribing education for those individuals. This is really important to understand, as I believe this is a key source of differences in approach between scholars such as Harden and myself, and why behavior geneticists like Harden are speaking at not with behavior genetic critics.

The red hair example seems, on the one hand, preposterous because we obviously would never exclude people based on their hair color….but then you remember we excluded people on the basis of skin color and sex not very long ago. But, today, you say, this wouldn’t happen in western industrialized countries, even if in other parts of the world some biological characteristics (e.g., sex) do restrict people from education. What I and others have argued, and Harden does not fully account for, is the fact that our genes, and thus the effects of our genetic differences, always operate in context, and an unequal one at that. And, genetic studies—even sibling difference studies—do not control fully for context. As Harden recognizes, people who are more attractive tend to be treated better in a variety of social environments, including educational ones. But does anyone—besides Harden—really think we want to focus on genetic differences related to greater attractiveness as causing higher education? Whether or not this is properly treated as a ‘cause’ of educational attainment, how in the world is this useful to help (a) advance knowledge or (b) ameliorate inequality in a world where we can easily see who is more conventionally attractive and measure any privileges they may experience from it (see Monk, Esposito, & Lee 2021). Second, again, we do not know what most genes do (and, as Harden doesn’t really explain well, we don’t measure genes in GWASs, we measure variants). 

I, and others, have a serious problem with studies of the ‘genetic potential for educational attainment’ because they confuse downward causation with upward causation by viewing genes as the primary cause of action. The effect will be—as Harden admits openly—that social policies that give meaning to genetic differences that are otherwise not involved in the biology of educational attainment, will be conceptualized as ‘genetics of potential’ or ‘innate differences’, when they may result from social and physical arrangements. To use but one real world (non-red haired exclusion policy) example, many kids have a lot of energy and struggle with the artificial nature of the classrooms that require us to stay still and be quiet, much more so than the careers that we may choose and the lives we craft around them (e.g., use lunch break to go on a run)–because everyone must go to school, usually not of their choosing, but we have agency in the choice of our jobs (within huge constraints, of course). Yet, in a school district where recess and exercise is shortened or not daily (as I experienced in my third grade class when I struggled to ‘not talk so much’, where we had recess only on Mondays and I ended up in the principle’s office for talking too much), or in all schools where physical activity and movement breaks are arbitrarily restricted, those kids who have a higher metabolism or more energy—in many ways and contexts a positive trait—will be penalized, stigmatized (maybe as ADHD, when they just need to move more), and struggle. Do these kids have a lesser ‘genetic potential for educational attainment’? I would say no. Harden’s view would say yes. 

Aha, but you may argue, Harden thinks we need to understand these differences, identify these ‘high energy genes’, and accommodate those individuals!! That all sounds well and good, but a closer look suggests otherwise. Talk to a first-grade teacher (such as my sister), and you will find that within the first few days of class she can often readily identify the students who have excess energy and could benefit from (my words) ‘a good running’ (such as my own son). Second, recall the effects of these genetic variants are MINISCULE. There is no ‘high energy gene’ that we can find and figure out what it does, and again, we can usually already identify the high energy kids with ease by watching them for a day or two.

What Harden fails to acknowledge and grapple with is the fact that most teachers can readily identify students who struggle, and many teachers can understand the source of their struggles (focus versus logic, versus application of concepts, versus problem solving). In a recent piece, Morris et al. (2020) examined whether ‘education-related genetics’ could actually provide more useful information than well-established, easily measurable variables such as prior GPA, parental educational, current performance in shaping policies or programs to enhance educational attainment. They concluded, quite clearly, that genetics does not really move us forward in policy or programs or understanding.

Harden suggests that by incorporating genetics, we will have better interventions and waste less money, but how is that supposed to work? We have already identified low hanging fruit, in terms of large effect size genes for monogenic disorders. The genetic influences on educational attainment are nothing like that, instead characterized by thousands of variants associated with educational attainment for reasons we do not know and probably, for most, will never really understand (at least in the next several decades, if ever). Given that Harden agrees that genetic engineering is unwise, what, exactly, does she think this offers us? She doesn’t tell us in this book.

In sum, because my time is running out, Harden’s book is interesting, if oversimplified and unsatisfying. She exhorts us to incorporate genetics for a more egalitarian society, but does not tell us how this would enhance understanding or make society more equal. And, she rightly notes that resources are not unlimited, which is why I question our application of millions of public funding to the understanding of genetic influences on educational attainment when the payoff is unspecified.

Harden thinks the worst-case scenario is that we are going to find that some people are just ‘better at educational attainment’ which could be used to justify the status quo, which is why we have to study it with an egalitarian approach. I disagree. We already know some people are better at educational attainment, just like some people are better at golf, playing musical instruments, learning foreign languages, and dancing (not me). We aren’t all the same. However, education is not like height or deafness, two examples she uses frequently as analogies. Educational attainment is not a ‘biological trait’, except in the banal sense that everything we do is biological because we are biological creatures. Given the state of knowledge, we already know that genetic effects are far too complicated to link to such a distant, complex, socially constructed outcome like educational attainment. Instead, in my view, the realistic worst-case, is, as we have seen for the candidate gene era and candidate gene interaction era before it, that we throw tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of scientists hours chasing a chimera of actionable or useful genetic influences for social disparities. I’d rather throw that money at social interventions that may not work well, but they might help a few. Harden disagrees, which she is free to do, but I won’t call her a bank robber [the moral equivalent of] for thinking differently.

Back Cover Description of ‘The Genetic Lottery’

A provocative and timely case for how the science of genetics can help create a more just and equal society

In recent years, scientists like Kathryn Paige Harden have shown that DNA makes us different, in our personalities and in our health—and in ways that matter for educational and economic success in our current society.

In The Genetic Lottery, Harden introduces readers to the latest genetic science, dismantling dangerous ideas about racial superiority and challenging us to grapple with what equality really means in a world where people are born different. Weaving together personal stories with scientific evidence, Harden shows why our refusal to recognize the power of DNA perpetuates the myth of meritocracy, and argues that we must acknowledge the role of genetic luck if we are ever to create a fair society.

Reclaiming genetic science from the legacy of eugenics, this groundbreaking book offers a bold new vision of society where everyone thrives, regardless of how one fares in the genetic lottery.

[1] Because I’m busy, like everyone else, but I also have things I want to say about things, I allow myself ‘fun writing’ on topics that I feel compelled to write about, without encroaching upon my family/leisure time and/or my work time. So, I am giving myself 30 minutes write this review. These are quick thoughts written hastily because I want to and I can. I ran out of time to think of a catchy title, so this one, which is disappointing, will have to do.