Genes Believe in You

What they were looking for, if you go back in the record, was always that elusive direct genetic evidence. For decades researchers in behavioral genetics had performed kinship studies, research involving adoptees and identical twins, to determine the degree to which genes might influence behavioral traits such as intelligence, perseverance, extraversion, and more. Identical twins share more or less 100% of their DNA, with some complications, while ordinary siblings share an estimated 50% of their genetic code, with even more complications, and half-siblings share ~25%…. These estimates of genetic similarity allowed researchers to crudely match that estimated similarity with quantitative behavioral variables like IQ. Identical twins who were raised in different environments permitted a glimpse at how their nearly-identical DNA resulted in similarity under remarkably different circumstances, while the differences between adopted children and their siblings who were the biological progeny of the parents permitted similar questions through a different lens.

The findings were always the same: biological parentage, which is to say genetic parentage, was massively influential on human behavior, and consistently more influential than observable social and environmental factors like parenting. Identical twins shared remarkable similarity in all manner of variables, even when raised in profoundly different environments. By adulthood adopted children resembled their biological parents far more than their adoptive ones, and in many variables adopted siblings were found to be essentially no more similar to each other than any two random people - which, genetically, they were. There are many overviews of kinship research from completely mainstream publications that you can easily access which summarize these findings, findings that now stretch back more than a half-century.

All of this would appear to have merely lent additional credence to an entirely banal observation, which is that our genes influence absolutely every element of our selves. To assume that this included our behavioral selves would seem to me to be sensible rather than controversial. Our behavior is driven by our physiology, especially our brains, and as organs our brains are built according to the architecture described in our DNA, which passes to us from our parents and from far further back in our genealogy. Yet this simple observation about the world - that genes matter for our behavior - is not only not treated as banal but as a marker of irredeemable bigotry by many in liberal society. Even when care is taken to discuss the difference between a group genetic claim (such as genetic origins for racial or gender differences) and an individual genetic claim (the influence of parents’ genes on their progeny), any discussion of DNA and behavior is frequently greeted with extreme condemnation, especially discussion of how DNA influences academic ability.

Unsurprising, then, that the kinship studies were always subject to relentless criticism. Much of it was of the explicitly mysterian “maybe there are some things science shouldn’t investigate” flavor. But others were methodological arguments, of varying levels of seriousness - the data sets were frequently contaminated by twins who were partially reared together (a real problem), there were potential confounds from influence of the environment in utero (a semi-real problem), some claimed that parents treat twins so differently from the way they treat other children that it confounds everything (not remotely a real problem). Methodological disagreements are a ubiquitous aspect of social science; all studies have critics and all fields feature profound internal disagreements about the truth. But people with no larger interest in research methods have long been deeply invested in critiques of kinship studies, and issues that would be considered minor in most contexts are seen as damning. People have always badly wanted to find a reason to shut down this line of thinking. The most relentlessly cited complaint, and an eminently fair one, was that we just couldn’t look directly at the genome, and so we simply couldn’t make any responsible conclusions.

And then the first real genomic studies arrived. I believe this 2006 study was the big breakthrough, the first time genetic relatedness scores were successfully generated between siblings which could then be matched with degrees of similarity in different variables. And indeed those siblings which were more closely genetically related also had higher correlations in various behavioral factors, strongly suggesting a genetic influence on those variables. In the 15 years since, more and more major studies were published that sought to examine genetic influence on behavioral variables, through various specific experimental means. There were complications and early struggles, but over time they revealed such influence as techniques became more and more sophisticated. (Here, for example, is a writeup of a 2017 study from the notorious white supremacist journal The New York Times.) As Razib said, “Heritability was more than a statistical construct, it was a biophysical reality.” Perfectly mainstream scientific publications, some quite prestigious, have also discussed such research as a matter of mundane academic inquiry, rather than as somehow outside the bounds of propriety.

So this was what the critics were waiting for, right? After decades of complaints that kinship studies could not be trusted because they did not directly look at the genome, here now was research looking at hundreds of thousands of people through advanced No, of course not. The denialists barely break their stride. There was no period of adjustment, no soul-searching, no cease fire while more information was gathered. The denialists just doubled down, jerking their knees more reflexively, making their dismissals even more raw, continuing to grumble about eugenics and Nazis and Gattaca. The more evidence mounts, the more they work to exclude the case for genetic influence on behavioral traits from respectable society, rather than to critique its merits or wrestle with its implications. This is a conversation most people simply do not want to have, and in my experience, those are the conversations that prove to be the most vital and necessary in the long run.

When I published The Cult of Smart, I made it plain - first to my agent, then to publishers, then to the few members of the media who covered it - that I was not anything like an expert on genetic science, and that instead I was trying to work through the political, moral, and (especially) educational consequences of the scientific work performed by others, people like Paige. This shouldn’t be controversial; writers and journalists writing about scientific fields in which they do not claim expertise is both commonplace and necessary. For example, there are dozens of books written about climate change by those who are not climatologists, and nothing about this is represented as untoward or disordered. And yet again and again the fact that I was not an expert was specifically cited as the reason that my arguments (again, moral and political, not scientific) should not be entertained at all. I always find the same conclusion inescapable: that methodological critiques and gatekeeping over expertise are convenient excuses to prohibit discussion of topics many people find uncomfortable. Better to scaremonger until people keep their mouths shut.

And now Kathryn Paige Harden has shown up with a big-deal book and it’s been written up in one of a small handful of publications that still moves the needle.

Why does any of this matter? For a lot of reasons. In my book, I focused on a prominent one: the entire school reform movement has proceeded from the assumption that all students have equal ability to learn, that all students can be rendered into star students under the influence of quality teaching and schools. Based on this logic, hundreds of thousands of teachers have been paid more or less based on the performance of their students, thousands of teachers have been fired for failing to achieve results, and hundreds of schools have been shut down entirely. If the students under the care of these teachers and schools have profoundly different academic potentials, then all of this is an injustice. Broaden out, and the offense is even starker: the moral justification for our system is based on the notion that we more or less control our own life outcomes. The social contract depends on this notion of individual agency. If, on the other hand, our genomes deeply influence those outcomes in a way we can’t control, you’ve kicked the legs out from under the whole operation. This is why the hereditarian left is uniquely positioned to argue for a more egalitarian society: we offer a criticism of capitalism and meritocracy that disqualifies its most basic foundations, that destabilizes the entire notion of “just deserts.”

That’s why it matters. In case anyone asking why it matters is doing so in good faith.

Here are three statements I’m willing to make, of descending certainty - that is, the first is just true, the second is a seemingly obvious extrapolation from the first, and the third is a supposition about the nature of the second.

  1. People sort themselves into academic ability bands relative to peers at a very early age and at scale more or less remain in those bands throughout their academic lives. The star students in first grade are very likely to be the star students in college, again with exceptions but as a general rule with remarkable consistency. This general dynamic is observed across all manner of educational contexts and despite constant environmental changes over the course of life. I have made this case at great length here.

  2. The prior statement suggests that there is such a thing as innate academic ability, an intrinsic property of individuals that inclines them to be better or worse in school. To attribute that condition to pure environmentalism requires truly immense amounts of mental work, given how dramatically environments change over the course of life without attendant dramatic changes in student outcomes. But an assumption of some innate property of educational ability fits perfectly with the basic contours of static educational hierarchy.

  3. The most parsimonious explanation for such a quality as innate academic ability or tendency would be genes.

I’ve told this story before, but I feel moved to tell it again. In 2018 hundreds of verified users on Twitter and thousands of their unverified hangers-on started a meltdown about me. Their claim of injustice was that my book, recently under contract, was a pro-race science book. This claim was remarkable not just because it was false, but also because my book did not exist - I had not written it yet. They were making pronouncements with absolute confidence about the argumentative contents of a book that did not have contents. This was particularly strange because my elevator pitch to publishers literally began with the assertion that racial differences in education are not genetic - “someday we’ll close the racial and gender achievement gaps, but what will remain is even more insidious, the innate talent gap.” None of this stopped hundreds of journalists and academics, whose job it is to both collect and source information, from spreading this claim about my book with absolute confidence across thousands of tweets. When I searched for hours for the source of this idea I found that it came from a single unverified pseudonymous shitposting account with a Michael Cera avatar and a few hundred followers. That was the standard of information sufficient for people who now work at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post and Buzzfeed and many more, and at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, to assassinate my character and begin a campaign to get my book dropped by my publisher. To my knowledge not a single one, not one, has ever retracted the tweets or apologized, despite the fact that they have had over a year now to verify that the actual book is explicitly and unambiguously anti-race science.

This is the rhetorical environment in which Paige must now survive.

The rude thing is… I just don’t believe people, on this issue. When they say that they think all people have the same innate ability to perform well in school or on other cognitive tasks, that any difference is environmental, what I think inside is, I don’t believe that you believe that. When researchers in genetics and evolution who believe that the genome influences every aspect of our physiological selves say that they don’t believe that the genome has any influence on our behavioral selves, what I think inside is, I don’t believe you. I think people feel compelled to say this stuff because the idea of intrinsic differences in academic ability offend their sense of justice, and because the social and professional consequences of appearing to believe that idea are profound. But I think everyone who ever went to school as a kid knew in their heart back then that some kids were just smarter than others, and I think most people quietly believe that now. Like I said, it’s rude. But I can’t shake it.

What liberals don’t like, they mock. What they cannot refute, they ridicule.

Within 50 years, perhaps within 30, rich parents will routinely pay to have children whose genomes have been manipulated or selected for higher intelligence and other attractive qualities. I do not know what specific technologies will enable this to happen, but I do know that it will happen. And when the monetary elite uses genetic science to further strengthen the unearned dynastic advantages of their progeny, locking in the privileges that they already enjoy and pass down through inheritance, DNA, and our rotten system … what will the people attacking Paige have to say about it? What arguments will they be able to muster, against genetic engineering for those who can afford it, after decades of denying that genes matter in human behavior at all? What smarmy little jokes will the liberal gene denialists tell then? Saying “eugenics” won’t ward off that future. Saying “Gattaca” won’t ward off that future. Saying “Charles Murray” won’t ward off that future. Nothing can prevent a future in which our technological capacity to manipulate the genome has ever-increasing social consequences, almost certainly very bad ones.

The only thing you can do is to have an honest conversation about the fundamental fact of our species, that life is not fair, and a corollary of that fact, that we are not all equal in our abilities. You can then hope that the conversation sparks social action that mitigates, in whatever way possible, that ubiquitous unfairness. And starting that conversation is exactly what Paige Harden has gone and done.