Three-year-old twins Estaban and Salome Hernandez at home with their parents Fabio and Mabel, 15 March 2020. The Hernandez family were awaiting the result of the Washington DC school lottery which determines which school they will attend. Photo by Michael S Williamson/Washington Post/Getty


The genes we’re dealt

The new field of social genomics can be used by progressives to combat racial inequality or by conservatives to excuse it

by Erik Parens + BIO

Three-year-old twins Estaban and Salome Hernandez at home with their parents Fabio and Mabel, 15 March 2020. The Hernandez family were awaiting the result of the Washington DC school lottery which determines which school they will attend. Photo by Michael S Williamson/Washington Post/Getty

Over the past decade, economists, sociologists and psychologists have begun collaborating with geneticists to investigate how genomic differences among human beings are linked to differences in their behaviours and social outcomes. The insights sought are wide-ranging: why do some of us have a greater sense of subjective wellbeing than others? Why do some go further in school than others? When it comes to income, why do some people earn more and others less?

As surprising as it might be to readers familiar with the history of often-ugly efforts to investigate complex behaviours and outcomes through genetics, some prominent members of this new cohort of researchers are optimistic that their work will advance progressive political agendas. According to the progressive authors of a recent European Commission report, insights from what I call ‘social genomics’ are ‘fully compatible with agendas that aim to combat inequalities and that embrace diversity.’

Indeed, findings from social genomics are compatible with what we in the United States consider Left-leaning agendas to combat inequalities. They are, however, equally compatible with what we think of as Right-leaning agendas that accept – or make peace with – inequalities. Moreover, such findings are as compatible with a Right-leaning version of ‘embracing diversity’ as they are with a Left-leaning one. This should move Left-leaning social genomicists to curb their optimism about the potential of their research to advance their political agendas.

Long before anyone understood why some twins look nearly identical and others look no more similar than other pairs of siblings, and even before anyone understood the molecular structure of genes, psychologists and social scientists such as Francis Galton turned to inherited differences to explain why human beings behave in different ways and come to occupy different positions in society. It was Galton who, in 1883, coined the term ‘eugenics’ to name the idea that healthy societies should encourage those of ‘good stock’ to breed, and should prevent those of bad stock from doing the same.

Not until the 1960s, however, did a group of psychologists and geneticists, engaged in a field they called ‘behaviour genetics’, begin to systematically exploit basic facts about genetic inheritance to try to explain why human beings behave differently. They used simple study designs that compared identical and fraternal twins, or children raised by their biological parents versus those raised by adoptive parents, and demonstrated that genetic differences offered part of the explanation for observed differences.

One of the most significant achievements here was to overturn the psychoanalytic idea that conditions such as schizophrenia were caused by adverse environments – in particular, by withholding and cold mothers. These researchers put insights from genetics to the thoroughly salutary purpose of showing that it was not only cruel, but scientifically unjustified to blame mothers (and fathers) for their children’s conditions.

looking to genetic variants for insight about complex behaviours is like looking to the composition of rocks to understand plate tectonics

However, those same insights and methods were used to explore other traits, including performance on standardised intelligence tests. Among the champions of this research were the political scientist Charles Murray and the psychologist Richard Herrnstein, who wrote The Bell Curve (1994) under the influence of one of the stupidest and most racist of assumptions: that, with the passage of the civil rights laws in the 1960s, the environments of Black and white Americans were about as equal as they could be. Based on that assumption, Murray and Herrnstein suggested that genetic differences could explain why the median test score for white test-takers was higher than for Black ones.

It’s important, however, to distinguish between Murray and Herrnstein’s racist assumption, on the one hand, and their Right-leaning political beliefs, on the other. When we do, it becomes clear that cleansing such research of racism doesn’t cleanse it of its potential to be used by people who hold basic Right-leaning political beliefs. Think what you will of such beliefs, it would be an intellectual and tactical mistake to dismiss them as incoherent or inherently racist.

People who lean Right are fiercely committed to the idea of what Murray’s current employer, the American Enterprise Institute, calls ‘free enterprise’. In accordance with this idea – which has been around since the American founding, and which enjoyed renewed devotion in the US with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 – individuals are entitled to what they achieve with their natural or ‘God-given’ talents. Inequalities in outcomes might be unfortunate, but they aren’t unfair. In the Right-leaning view, the way to improve lives is to get the government out of the way, and to let individuals exert their own wills, playing the genetic hand they were dealt.

Left-leaning thinkers such as Lyndon B Johnson, whose ‘war on poverty’ Reagan was reacting against, of course hold a radically different set of beliefs. In their view, justice requires that the government take steps to reduce social inequalities. The Left-leaning vision emphasises the extent to which where we end up in the social hierarchy is the result of our social histories and our draws in the genetic lottery – and thus the extent to which we are not entitled to where we end up. In this view, inequalities in social outcomes are not only unfortunate, but also unfair.

A cornerstone of social genomics research is the creation of what are called ‘polygenic scores’. Although the amount of computational power needed to pool and analyse the relevant genomic data is unfathomably large, the basic idea is easy to fathom. First, social scientists and geneticists collaborate to identify hundreds or thousands of genetic variants, across the genome, correlated with a given trait, behaviour or outcome. Although the inferred effect of each of those genetic variants is miniscule by itself, the second step is for researchers to add up those many tiny effects to create a polygenic score. This strategy for making predictions about future traits or outcomes is also the cornerstone of ‘precision medicine’, which aspires to tailor medical treatments to individuals’ genomes.

Some well-informed observers think that this new strategy is just the latest in the history of efforts to analyse complex phenomena at the wrong level. To paraphrase the psychologist Eric Turkheimer, looking to genetic variants for insight about complex behaviours and social outcomes is like looking to the chemical composition of rocks to understand plate tectonics. And even those who are most enthusiastic about the eventual utility of these scores are acutely aware that previous efforts to use insights from molecular genetics have been hugely disappointing.

Time will tell whether the sceptics or enthusiasts will be closer to the truth

To their credit, social genomicists have taken the unprecedented and time-intensive step of creating Frequently Asked Questions documents, which accompany their publications and explain, with remarkable frankness, what they have and have not discovered, and what their findings do and do not mean. They are unfailingly clear about the fact that, when they add up the tiny genetic effects, the aggregate is small compared with, say, the total effect of the environment. They are relentless in their rejection of genetic determinism, and vigorous in their reiteration that environments play a huge role in explaining the outcomes they study.

Time will tell whether the sceptics or enthusiasts will be closer to the truth in their estimation of the scientific value of these scores. For this essay, though, I am focused on how such findings could be used, if they became as useful as the enthusiasts envision.

No social genomicist seems more optimistic about the Left-leaning political potential of this work than the psychologist Kathryn Paige Harden. In a New York Times opinion piece, ‘Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education’ (2018), Harden described the largest-yet social genomics study, by James Lee and his colleagues, which analysed DNA samples from 1.1 million people of European ancestries. More specifically, the researchers analysed correlations between individuals’ genomic differences and how many years of school they finished. Based on those analyses, the researchers could assign to each individual’s DNA sample a polygenic score.

Those researchers reported that, whereas just more than 10 per cent of people with a low polygenic score completed college, 55 per cent of people with a high polygenic score did. Like other social genomicists, Harden grasps the racist and classist history and implications of such work. But she is also distressed by what she sees as the pervasive and mistaken view on the political Left that social genomics is ‘inimical to the goal of social equality’.

Harden specifies two reasons why people with a Left-leaning political agenda should embrace social genomics. One is that controlling for genetic differences will throw into sharper focus ‘the causal effects of the environment’. She is pained by the human and economic costs when, in their efforts to improve environmental interventions, traditional social scientists fail to control for genetic differences. And she is hopeful that, specifically in the context of education, factoring genes into their analyses will enable social scientists to better alter environments to enable all students to flourish, in accordance with their genetic endowments. In the grandest version of this vision, offered by the psychologist Kathryn Asbury and the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin in their book G Is for Genes (2013), we would have ‘precision education’, where educational interventions are tailored to children’s genomes.

Given that we currently fail to provide huge numbers of children with anything close to adequate educational settings, much less with interventions tailored to their genetic endowments, it’s not obvious where the political will would come from to implement such environmental changes. But we have to grant that, if such programmes were in principle possible, progressives would have reason to get on board with them. After all, in this vision, polygenic scores would be just a new way to achieve the familiar goal of tailoring educational interventions to fit the unique needs and strengths of each child.

Recognising that none of us merits our genes is perfectly compatible with both Left- and Right-leaning agendas

According to Harden, the more fundamental reason why progressives should embrace social genomics is that it can help to transform how we, as a society, think about public policy altogether. Specifically, Harden suggests that, insofar as this research shows that genes help to explain educational success, and insofar as none of us merits or deserves our genes, we can see more vividly than ever the extent to which none of us merits our success.

So, from the fact that genes help to explain unmerited differences in observed outcomes, Harden makes the generous-hearted but large leap to an ethical and political conclusion. She refers to the Lee study on educational attainment to make her point:

By showing us the links between genes and educational success, this new study reminds us that everyone should share in our national prosperity, regardless of which genetic variants he or she happens to inherit.

The authors of the European Commission report that I mentioned at the start make the nearly identical point (and cite Harden’s article) when they write: ‘the realisation that success in life partly depends on a random draw from the genetic lottery can strengthen arguments in favour of solidarity and redistribution.’

The problem is that recognising that none of us merits or deserves our genes ­– or, for that matter, our families or neighbourhoods or the time we live in – is perfectly compatible with both Left- and Right-leaning political agendas. Yes, people who lean Left contemplate the fact that none of us merits our genes and thus, in an important respect, is not entitled to what we accumulate. They believe that the resulting unequal distribution of goods calls for solidarity and redistribution.

But someone who leans Right also understands perfectly well the sense in which the unequal distribution of goods depends on unmerited, natural or God-given talents. In his recent book Human Diversity (2020), Murray, who avers that ‘life is an IQ test’, says explicitly that ‘merit [has] nothing to do with’ how much ‘general intelligence’ one has. Rather, he says, how much one has of what it takes to perform well in life ‘is a matter of luck’. Those who lean Right think that we’re entitled to what we win when we play the genetic hand we were dealt, and thus deserve the space we end up occupying in the social hierarchy. They are at peace with the thought that, while unequal outcomes might be unfortunate, they are not unfair.

To see how the same set of findings can be recruited to advance a Left- and Right-leaning political agenda, it’s helpful to consider a paper that draws on the same data set as Lee and his colleagues in the educational-attainment study. In this paper, Daniel Belsky and his colleagues investigated correlations between genomic differences and levels of socioeconomic success. One of their innovations was to separate participants from the original educational-attainment study into three groups: those who started out with low socioeconomic status (SES), those who started out with middle SES, and those who started out with high SES.

The figure below represents the central finding of this analysis. (The title of the figure ‘Add Health’ refers to one of the five studies they drew on for their analysis.) The three panels of the figure refer to analyses for those who started out at low, middle and high SES. Each dot represents 50 people. The vertical axis is an index of how much socioeconomic success those people achieved, and the horizontal axis is an index of their polygenic score.

According to the team’s analysis of the data, higher polygenic scores appear to contribute to explaining socioeconomic success across all three groups. But what the figure makes equally obvious is that success achieved by those with the same polygenic score depends on their environments. People with low polygenic scores who grow up in high SES environments enjoy greater socioeconomic success than people with the very same scores who grow up in low SES environments. News flash: in our society, wealthy people with low ‘genetic potential’ for success often do better than poor people with high ‘genetic potential’. (I put the term ‘genetic potential’ in scare quotes because its meaning is contested. There is, however, no concise way for Left- or Right-leaning observers to discuss the data without using that term or a synonym, such as ‘genetic talent’ or ‘natural talent’.)

Left-leaning social genomicists focus on the talent-wasted message. Right-leaning ones focus on the talent-rewarded message

So, these data are wholly compatible with the Left-leaning assumption that impoverished environments make it impossible for huge numbers of people to fulfil their ‘genetic potential’. Or, as two members of the new cohort of social genomicists Nicholas Papageorge and Kevin Thom put it, these data show that huge amounts of genetic talent is being ‘wasted’.

Here’s the rub. People with a Right-leaning political agenda can focus on a different feature of the same set of data. Specifically, they can focus on the dark-blue diamonds on the horizontal axes of those panels, which represent the median polygenic score for each SES group. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the median of the distribution for the scores of the three groups is slightly different. The median polygenic score of people in the low-SES group is slightly lower than (to the left of) the median score of people in the middle-SES group, which is lower than the median score of people in the high-SES group.

When the Belsky paper that included that figure was published, Stephen Hsu, the former senior vice president for research and innovation at Michigan State University, gleefully Tweeted: ‘Game over! … Higher SES families have higher polygenic scores on average.’ Different from the Left-leaning social genomicists who focused on the feature of the data that supports their talent-wasted message, Hsu focused on the feature of the data that is compatible with what we might call the talent-rewarded message. Findings from the Belsky study are consistent with the idea that, on average, people with more ‘genetic potential’ or ‘natural talent’ are entitled to more socioeconomic success. And those facts are wholly consistent with the Right-leaning political belief that although the unequal distribution of genetic potential might be unfortunate for those with poor draws in the genetic lottery, it’s not unfair.

Beyond being compatible with a Right-leaning agenda that accepts social inequalities, findings from social genomics are, more specifically, compatible with a Right-leaning interpretation of what it means to, in the language of the European Commission report, ‘embrace diversity’.

To see how such data are thoroughly compatible with a Right-leaning conception of embracing diversity, there’s no better place to look than Murray’s recent book Human Diversity. In his final chapter, Murray exhorts readers to recognise that all human beings have equal moral worth, and to accept that we all have unequal genetic potential or natural talent. Ignoring differences in genetic potential, he argues, harms those forced to take on social roles that don’t suit them. Doing astrophysics will suit the potential of some but not others, and the same goes for digging ditches. In his view, requiring people with different potentials to receive the same education would be wasteful and inhumane. Instead of ignoring or denying those natural differences, he argues, we need to celebrate them.

Some of what he says actually resembles closely what we Left-leaning advocates for the rights of people with disabilities have been saying for at least 40 years: all of us are thrown into the world with different forms of embodiment and with different natural talents. To paraphrase the disability studies pioneer and bioethicist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in a recent essay, people can flourish in all sorts of bodies. Or, as she could have put it, people can flourish with all sorts of genomes. And in the philosopher Eva Feder Kittay’s essay ‘We Have Seen the Mutants – and They Are Us’ (2020), she gets at that same idea: we are all genetic ‘mutants’, but given the right environments, we can all flourish in our own way. Surely, to recognise this one important similarity doesn’t reduce the profound difference between Murray’s version of embracing diversity and a Left-leaning version.

To understand Murray, it’s useful to distinguish between two elements in his new book: the racist assumption that the contemporary environment doesn’t hurt people of colour, and the coherent, Right-leaning belief that governments are impotent to address social outcomes. (When I say that Murray brings a racist assumption to his analysis, I am referring to his wantonly benighted interpretation of the history of the US, which maintains his social privilege and disadvantages others – Black people in particular. Please notice that I am calling Murray’s assumption racist; I am not calling him a racist. Too often, calling other people racist is a way to indulge in the fantasy that we – any of us – have escaped being racists. As Ibram X Kendi points out in How to Be an Antiracist (2019), that fantasy is counterproductive and can be dangerous.)

For Murray, embracing diversity includes entertaining the hypothesis that Black people have less ‘genetic potential’

Murray’s racist assumption about the nature of the social environment was on display in his and Herrnstein’s book, The Bell Curve. As I mentioned above, in that book they sought to explain why there was an educational-attainment gap between Black and white Americans. Back in 1994, he and Herrnstein allowed that racism was ‘still a factor in American life’. But they suggested that ‘[after] more than a generation of preferential social policies’, and federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), the environments of Black and white Americans were sufficiently equal that, if one wanted to explain the Black-white education gap, intellectual integrity drove one to consider genetic differences as the explanation. The policy implication in The Bell Curve was that governments needed to stop investing equal amounts of money in giving the same education to people with diverse genetic potentials.

In his new book, Murray grants, for example, that the Jim Crow laws created barriers to the success of former enslaved people and their descendants. And he allows that, after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, extralegal means of enforcing segregation – what he calls ‘hard custom’ – continued to create barriers ‘to some degree’. And he even allows that what he calls ‘soft custom’ – such as hostility in the workplace – can be a barrier to success. The good news, according to Murray, is that once explicitly racist laws were removed, and once hard custom surrounding legal segregation was removed, it wouldn’t take long for the hostility of soft custom to die. He suggests that ‘the half-life of [soft custom] is often a matter of years, sometimes a decade or so, but seldom many decades’.

Perhaps you are asking: has Murray considered the possibility that the contemporary environment for Black people is affected by more than the ‘soft’ hostility in the workplace that he grants might still exist in some places? Has he considered the environment that was created by the sinful catastrophe of nearly 250 years of slavery, by what the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones calls ‘the 100-year period of racial apartheid and racial terrorism known as Jim Crow’, and by what the writer Michelle Alexander calls ‘the New Jim Crow’ of mass incarceration? Is he familiar with the idea of structural racism?

Yes, he’s familiar with the idea that the environments of Black and white Americans are unequal. He’s familiar with what he calls the ‘background radiation hypothesis’. But he rejects it as implausible. As he puts it: ‘Everyday experience suggests that the environment confronting blacks in different sectors of American life is not uniformly hostile.’ Actually, when it comes to hostility, what appears to worry him is that it’s increasingly directed against people with socioeconomic privilege. He writes: ‘I am generally sceptical of claims about the power of privilege. Growing up in an upper-middle-class or wealthy home has a variety of potential downsides.’ For Murray, embracing diversity includes entertaining the hypothesis that, on average, Black people have less ‘genetic potential’ for educational attainment than white people.

Left-leaning social genomicists might seek some comfort in noticing that when Murray uses their findings to invoke his version of embracing diversity, he is relying on a fundamental and racist mistake about the facts. After all, mistaken facts can be exposed and, presumably, gotten past. Such comfort, however, would be illusory. That’s because, apart from racism and factual mistakes about the past or present, findings from social genomics can be recruited by people who have the Right-leaning belief that humans are entitled to what they get, and the equally deep belief that governments are largely unable to shape those lives for the better.

Murray’s personal experience and empirical research have persuaded him that the impacts of most government programmes are small and/or transient, at best. And, alas, most government social programmes – including what was to be one of the most powerful weapons in the war on poverty, Head Start for children – don’t seem to have impacts as large or long-lasting as their creators envision. For we who take unjust structures or systems to be at the root of inequalities, the failure of individual programmes to make impacts as large or long-lasting as we would hope is deeply disappointing, but not shocking. Individual programmes alone can’t make structural changes.

Genes alone will never tell us why we are the way that we are, or why we end up where we do

But for people who lean Right, the same facts fit hand-in-glove with their foundational belief that instead of investing our hopes in the federal government, we should invest them in families and local communities. Moreover, those facts fit perfectly with the foundational Right-leaning belief that it’s how individuals choose to play the genetic hands they’re dealt that mostly explains differences in social outcomes. Murray takes that belief to racist and classist places, but others don’t. It isn’t inherently racist or classist to emphasise the idea that human beings can and should aspire to take charge of their own lives, or that they’re entitled to what they win with the genetic hand they’re dealt.

Which political agenda one uses such findings to advance will depend to a large extent on prior philosophical and political beliefs. If we haven’t already noticed the strategic ways that we ourselves use facts and reasons to advance whatever conclusions we have already reached, there’s a vast social psychology literature that documents just that.

Social genomicists are the first to acknowledge that, because genes operate in infinitely complex biopsychosocial systems, genes alone will never tell us why we are the way that we are, or why we end up where we do. But for those who have the privilege to seek to understand such things, studying the role of genes in that mindbogglingly complex story can be deeply interesting. A commitment to scientific freedom means that, in the absence of clear and present social danger, social genomicists have the legal right to pursue ideas that they find inherently interesting.

It’s important, however, to distinguish between the inherent interest of social genomics and its instrumental value. It would be wonderful if, as Left-leaning social genomicists such as Harden hope, their research could enable social scientists to control for genetic differences and thereby do better social science research, leading to more effective social programmes. But even if that vision materialises, Left-leaning social genomicists must face the fact that their big politically relevant insight – that what we achieve is due in part to our draw in the genetic lottery – can readily be recruited by those leaning Right. Today, more than ever, it’s a mistake to soft-pedal that danger, and more important than ever to curb optimism about the political benefits this research will yield.