Should genetics make us socialists?
The Genetic Lottery, by University of Texas psychologist Kathryn Paige Harden, is a good book with an unconvincing central ethical argument. This is not a contradiction: conveying a flawed thesis clearly and completely is valuable, and the books are worth more than the merit of their main arguments. The Genetic Lottery is warmly written, it lucidly explains recent advances in human genetics, and urges the political left to take these advances seriously. While few of the book’s arguments are new, and many have been advanced by those Harden demonizes as “eugenics” and “scientists of the race,” The Genetic Lottery will almost certainly have a greater influence on mainstream discourse than older work thanks to the liberal kindness of Harden. fides.
The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA is Important for Social Equality, by Kathryn Paige Harden. Princeton University Press, 312 pages, $ 29.95.
It is not, however, an impartial book or even a very charitable one. Readers should approach with skepticism his almost Manichean presentation of “eugenic” versus “anti-eugenic” accounts of human genetic variation, especially when he deals with “bad guys” such as Charles Murray, whom he invariably caricatures.
The genetic lottery has two main objectives. The first is to convince readers, especially readers on the left, to take genetic differences seriously. These differences, according to Harden, are causally linked to social inequalities, and policies that ignore them risk being costly, unnecessary and ineffective. The second objective is to persuade readers that these genetic differences are the result of chance and therefore that the resulting social disparities are somehow unjust or undeserved. Influenced by philosopher John Rawls, Harden argues that “society should be structured to work for the benefit of those less advantaged in the genetic lottery”.
The book successfully achieves its first objective. Harden is an excellent guide through recent genetic literature. Readers who are confused by jargon such as “polygenic risk score”, “GWAS” or “population stratification” will benefit from reading it. The key points are these. Almost all human differences in traits and behavioral tendencies, from cognitive ability to persistence, are at least partially caused by genes (i.e., they are hereditary). However, most are not caused by one or two genetic variants, which means that there is no single “gene” for most traits.
Instead, the differences are caused by thousands of genetic variants working together. Traditionally, such complexity has made it difficult to study the genetic causes of human variation, but with new and powerful techniques, researchers can now create “polygenic indices”, or scores from collections of hundreds to thousands. of variants, which successfully predict the variation of traits. (such as cognitive ability) and life outcomes (such as education level and income). It is therefore no longer reasonable to claim that genes are not linked to important social outcomes. As Harden writes, “the inescapable conclusion is that genetic differences between people cause social inequalities”. But many still avoid this reality and castigate those who recognize it as classists, biological determinists or racists.
Harden’s rejection of this kind of trendy genetic denial is welcome. Unfortunately, she flatters the left by regularly denouncing the intellectuals on her right as “eugenics”. At one point, for example, she says that according to Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the co-authors of The Bell Curve, “to get a better score on IQ tests is to be better; to be white is to be superior; to be superior is to be superior. Compare this paraphrase to Murray’s actual words from his recent book Human Diversity: “I reject claims that groups of people, whether of genders, races or classes, can be ranked higher than inferior. I reject claims that the differences between groups have any bearing on human worth or dignity. It is perfectly reasonable, of course, to disagree with Murray’s policies, but it is a lie to imply that he is a white supremacist.
Harden does a great job exposing science, but his success in making his moral point is much more limited. She rightly claims that a person’s genes are not acquired, but she misleadingly jumps from that statement to the statement that “appreciating the role of genetic luck in people’s educational and financial success undermines the blame that is cast on people for not ‘accomplishing’ enough and might, in fact, strengthen the case for a redistribution of resources to achieve greater equality. In short, she argues that our understanding of genetic influence on life outcomes should avoid or at least significantly dilute our concept of merit. And once we get rid of the fiction that the good looking, the athletic, or the smart deserve their monetary and social rewards, we can more effectively advocate for redistributive and equity-based social policy.
I can’t do justice to all the intricacies of this argument, which inevitably touches on free will and other abstruse metaphysical questions, but I think it’s worth pointing out that it rests on an important elision. Consider these two statements:
(1) “F. Scott Fitzgerald did not deserve to be a smart, vocal writer.”
(2) “F. Scott Fitzgerald did not deserve to be paid thousands of dollars for his stories.
It is undoubtedly true that one does not “deserve” the accidents of one’s existence. It does not follow, however, that one is never entitled to enjoy the fruits of the traits and skills with which one is born. Fitzgerald was paid handsomely not because he deserved to be a gifted writer, but because he was a gifted writer, which meant people were willing to pay to read what he wrote. In any social system in which people are allowed to enter into free trade with each other, the inevitable result, given an unequal distribution of natural and acquired talents, is an unequal distribution of resources.
This would be true even in a society where everyone started out with exactly the same resources. People would be more willing to buy stories from good writers than from bad writers and so, over time, good writers would end up with more money. The only alternative would be an ongoing series of coercive interventions to take the resources of successful people and redistribute them to those who fail. Such interventions are not necessarily illegitimate, but it is important to recognize the compromise. If we abandon the concept of merit and actively allocate resources more equitably, as Harden advocates, this will require a meaningful compendium of human freedom.
I also find Harden’s assertion that “society should be structured to work for the benefit of those less advantaged in the genetic lottery” unappealing. To be fair, when she thinks of the “less fortunate,” she probably thinks of a nice person who is just plain unintelligent, unattractive, or indolent. But sociopaths, murderers, torturers, sadists and other depraved criminals are also losers in the genetic lottery. Does the company really have to be structured to work for the benefit of Ted Bundy or Ed Gein? Harden would obviously say no, but what is his basic distinction between the lazy and the depraved? Why should we design society to help a person who is unintelligent or unproductive but not a person who wants to torture other people? She might have a good answer, but I couldn’t find it in her book.
The genetic lottery is correct that people do not deserve things in a cosmic sense, but it is incorrect that this vitiates the practicality of the term. Moreover, it seems doubtful to me that the arbitrariness of our genes has anything important to say to us about social justice. I can sympathize with men who complain that they don’t have LeBron James’ natural athleticism and with women who complain that they don’t have Adele’s natural voice. But I don’t think such reflections are morally uplifting.
Bo Winegard is a behavior scientist and essayist who received his PhD from Florida State University in 2018. Follow him on Twitter: @ EPoe187.
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Original author: Bo Winegard
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