Genetics Generalities

In a letter written to German socialists toward the end of his life, Karl Marx warned of the futility of trying to make everyone economically equal. “One worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor. . . one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on.” Vengeful socialists wanted to root out economic inequality wherever they saw it, yet new sources of inequality kept popping up, as life circumstances varied from person to person despite equal incomes. It is why Marx suggested they focus less on attaining perfect economic equality and more on creating a society that transcended the need to own things altogether.

Marx’s message fell on deaf ears and still does. For more than a century, reformers have tried to factor out differences in education, living arrangements, family upbringing, and so on, to reach economic equality. The latest salvo comes in the form of Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality. A psychology professor at the University of Texas, Dr. Harden wants to factor out genetics as a source of economic inequality. Noting that genes play a role in shaping people’s talents, abilities, and, yes, intelligence, and therefore in their educational prospects—and future salaries—Dr. Harden wants to correct for these genetic variations. For instance, giving people access to education, even free education, is not enough, she says. Some people are smarter than others because of their genes, and they will use that education to make more money, which she thinks is unfair. Somehow intelligence, a product of the genetic lottery, must be factored out of the equation.

I wanted to like this book. Dr. Harden is a brave soul to write about genes and intelligence in an era when just mentioning the issue carries the risk of being called a racist. Few have done so since Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book The Bell Curve (1994). Also, Dr. Harden seems like an interesting person. While she admits to swinging left, her grandparents were both Pentecostal Christians, she grew up in Tennessee, and in her book, she often quotes from the Bible. Yet while the book starts out well, her arguments grow increasingly irritating, and by the end downright maddening.

Somewhat defensively, Dr. Harden begins by explaining what she is not, thereby staking out a middle position between the political right and left. On the right, she says, are the ideological descendants of early 20th century eugenicists who said genes determine intelligence and success. These people believe the unequal distribution of favorable genes makes fixing economic inequality impossible; it is simply nature’s way. Dr. Harden puts Charles Murray in this category. On the left, she says, are those who fear how eugenicists once used the link between genes and intelligence to sanction inequality and discrimination. They refuse to admit of any such link. Dr. Harden puts Ibram Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, in this category for going a step farther and arguing, “There are no genetic racial differences.” In fact, Dr. Harden says, there are.

My irritation with Dr. Harden starts here. I do not know if Charles Murray believes that genetics invalidates all efforts to correct for economic inequality. I didn’t read his book. But I do know that most political conservatives today do not subscribe to this view. In college education, for example, they vigorously support helping disadvantaged African-Americans with extra tutors, extra teaching materials, extra help, extra support for historically Black colleges—whatever it takes to remediate against years of past discrimination and help them pass an exam—but in the end they must pass that exam. They must earn that credential, in part for safety reasons—as when credentialing a pilot or an engineer who builds bridges—but also out of fairness. In other words, many conservatives support “equality of opportunity.” They just don’t support “equality of outcome,” that is, quotas. True, for Dr. Harden, equality of opportunity is not enough. Yet she wrongly portrays conservatives as not even believing in that.

While mostly critical of the political right, Dr. Harden’s position ironically poses a greater threat to the political left. She believes the biological concept of race is racist. She views race as a social construct—similar to how many progressives today view gender. This is a valid position, yet it risks political catastrophe for progressives. Already the notion that gender is a social construct has turned some feminists (and women voters more generally) against progressivism. They believe women form a distinct biological group that biological men cannot participate in. To assert that race is also a social construct—that is, to allow white Europeans to identify themselves as Black or Native American, something that has already happened at several universities—risks further dividing the identity politics movement. It pits those who believe being black is an experience that whites cannot participate in against those who support a more fluid understanding of race. Identity politics needs firm and fixed racial categories to thrive, and Dr. Harden undercuts them.

Dr. Harden proceeds to defend her middling position. Here she gets quite technical, but she presents the necessary genetics concepts with clarity. She argues that individual differences and racial differences are not the same thing. Individual differences in intelligence within a specific ancestral cohort, such as among white Europeans, can be comprehended through genetics, she says. Yet such genetic research cannot be generalized to cover other ancestral populations or be used to make comparisons between ancestral populations. At the very least, there is too much genetic diversity within ancestral (i.e., racial) populations to draw any conclusions.

For instance, some African groups differ from each other genetically more than Europeans differ from East Asians, and yet everyone of African descent in the U.S. is folded into the same category of “Black.” “Black” is a social construct, she explains, and not a self-contained genetic unit. Indeed, over 90 percent of Black Americans have some European ancestry. Gene mixing among ancestral populations renders any kind of comparison between races on the matter of intelligence a waste of time, she says. Environmental influences such as poverty, crime, and public health hazards are more relevant than some genetically determined intelligence when trying to explain racial disparities in education and material success.

Dr. Harden makes another important point. Not only is there much genetic mixing between ancestral groups, but also the groups themselves express genetic variants at different rates. Even then, a variant in one group may not be relevant in another. For example, the genetic mutation that causes over 70 percent of cystic fibrosis cases in European ancestry populations is responsible for less than 30 percent of cases in African ancestry groups. As in cystic fibrosis, most of the genetics research on cancer, diabetes, and heart attacks has been conducted on Whites—a European ancestral group—on the erroneous assumption that the findings apply to all ancestral groups. Such bias may contribute to health disparities between ancestral groups. This is a valuable insight.

Dr. Harden plays the old game of abstracting something from real life, measuring it, and giving it a number, implying that complex human experiences can be reduced to mathematical form, before suddenly reversing the process, endowing those numeric symbols with power, and declaring them to be capable of predicting the human experiences that gave rise to them

But then Dr. Harden’s book gets more irritating. The reader quickly senses that her object is political, not scientific. Dr. Harden wants there to be just enough of a genetic basis for intelligence to convince smart and successful people that they are merely lucky in life, thereby making them less smug in their smartness, but not enough of a genetic basis to keep society from trying to correct for the genetic lottery through social programs.

Dr. Harden works toward this end through finesse and sleight of hand. Rather than declare a firm link between genes and intelligence, she hedges and says the two phenomena can be linked “probabilistically.” Rather than say definitively that genes cause intelligence, she says, well, there is “thick causation” and “thin causation.” In “thick causation” a factor definitely causes something—as when chromosome 21 trisomy causes Down’s syndrome. In “thin causation,” the link may exist, might exist, could exist, has a probability of existing, the chances of which are somewhere between zero and one. For Dr. Harden, the link between genes and intelligence exemplifies “thin causation.” The reader starts to wonder if this is science or simply metaphor and rhetoric.

Then Dr. Harden plays the old game of abstracting something from real life, measuring it, and giving it a number, implying that complex human experiences can be reduced to mathematical form, before suddenly reversing the process, endowing those numeric symbols with power, and declaring them to be capable of predicting the human experiences that gave rise to them. I don’t blame her for her strategy. Americans love figures. It is easiest of all to convince them with figures. Dr. Harden takes elements of the genome, correlates them with some behavioral characteristic of people, and expresses those elements numerically in a table (called a GWAS). She also abstracts from genes associated with a complex behavioral pattern, such as smartness or depression, and gives that behavior a number (called a polygenic index). Then she uses the GWAS number to construct another polygenic index number. And so on. The numbers impress.

Yet not only are these numbers abstractions, but the more you think about them the more difficulties they raise than they dispose of. For what is abstract intelligence to begin with, meaning intelligence disconnected from particular human beings and measured? Intelligence in a particular person, in a particular situation, at a particular time I can understand. It involves concrete acts. Any person knows when another person is being intelligent. But which person contains the most “abstract intelligence” and in what proportions? Saying someone is smart because of the “abstract intelligence” residing in him or her is like saying water drowns me because of its “aquosity.” It is either re-stating an individual and concrete fact in a vaguer and more general form, or it is nonsense. There is no way to measure abstract intelligence except by the concrete cases it professes to explain. “Why did the man behave like that?” answer, “Because he has abstract intelligence.” “How do you know this man has abstract intelligence?” “Because he behaved like that.” There is no other way.

Dr. Harden strategically sprinkles her narrative with personal anecdotes about family members and friends. She denudes the human experience of the force of personality by giving it a number; then, having used convenient modes of generalization that by no means express actual facts, she tells stories about real people that include actual facts. The reader suspects another tactic in play. Maybe Dr. Harden is trying to “humanize” her numbers and abstractions and sway the reader into believing in them by positioning them next to descriptions of real people.

What do we get from all this effort? Self-evident truisms that never needed the abstraction process to be realized, such as when Dr. Harden concludes, “When people inherit different genes, their lives turn out differently.” Sometimes we get flimsy examples of “thin causation,” as when Dr. Harden relates genetic differences to homelessness. Here, genes lead to an event, which leads to another event, which leads to another, and suddenly you’re homeless; thus bad genes lead to homelessness, Dr. Harden concludes. Sorry, but this cascade of events linked through some kind of causative chain, with genes “thinly” setting the process in motion and leading toward some predestined end, strains the imagination.

Perhaps sensing this, Dr. Harden uses the rhetorical device of analogy to strengthen her argument for thin causation, by relating the path from genes to homelessness to the path from genes to speech problems. While the outcomes of the two paths are unrelated, in the reader’s mind they somehow become so. The reader isn’t sure—one path makes sense, so why not the other? The reader’s resistance starts to break down. It is how Dr. Harden’s arguments often work: they penetrate and convince the reader by using just enough numbers to sound scientific, just enough abstractions to sound masterly, just enough inferences to sound reasonable, and just enough personal anecdotes to sound down-home American.

Dr. Harden’s tables and figures cast such a hypnotic spell that the reader must sometimes cleave to personal experience and common sense to resist. At one point, while struggling in her net, I reached in my mind for the old Myers-Briggs personality test that yields sixteen different personality types, many of which rely on different types of intelligence. All of these personality types can make a lot of money or can enjoy access to services that money can buy—Dr. Harden’s endpoint for judging all equity. Even the mediocre within these sixteen types can make decent money. Yet intelligence as traditionally understood is only relevant for some of the personality types—for example, less so among “campaigners” (i.e., politicians) and “entertainers”—thereby undercutting Dr. Harden’s syllogism that passes from genes to intelligence to higher education to financial success. Indeed, rather than routes to financial success, superior intelligence and a college education are often routes to financial debt. Almost a third of college degree programs in the U.S.—for instance, in philosophy, psychology, and gender studies—leave their graduates worse off financially, not better. These graduates may have won the genetic lottery for intelligence, but they have certainly lost the equity wars.

The most maddening part of Dr. Harden’s book comes at the end where she suggests policies based on her findings. Here the abstraction process catches up with her; her ideas lack granularity and knowledge of real-life specifics. In the name of equity, for example, she criticizes mortgage lenders who use algorithms to predict the likelihood of customers repaying their loans. Would she get rid of such algorithms? Has she never heard of the subprime mortgage crisis that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, which followed a decade of mortgages being given out to practically everyone? She suggests schools should maximize the learning experience of their students. Has she never heard of the teachers’ unions that put teachers’ needs ahead of students’ needs, or of the thousands of low-income African-American parents desperate to get their children into charter schools, but which Dr. Harden’s white progressive allies block at every turn? She criticizes colleges that deny admission to poor people on the grounds that poor people are less likely to graduate from college. Who does that? She bemoans the health disparities between racial groups. Yet what would she say about the inequities surrounding the COVID vaccine, where African-Americans are less vaccinated than Whites not because they lack access to health services, but because a third of African-Americans distrust the medical establishment and do not want the vaccine? Does she support elite white progressives trying to force low-income Blacks into getting a medical procedure against their will? Haven’t we seen this picture before? I think it’s called racism.

Marx was right. The quest for equity is like one of those brain-racking puzzles where moving one piece means another piece always gets stuck. No matter how hard you try, you can’t win. Even forcing each person to earn the same salary still results in some kind of inequality. There’s always a confounding factor, such as genetics, that cannot be corrected for. Yet worse is to look at the puzzle from a distance and tell others, “I can do that. It’s easy.” And so long as you speak in useless generalities, it seems to be the case. This captures the essence of Dr. Harden’s book.