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Sorting Out Our Values
by Rick Heller / November 5, 2021

Third Factor Reads: The Genetic Lottery · Innate · The Cult of Smart

How should we think about genetic inequity in social and educational policy? Rick Heller reviews three recent books on the subject with an eye to making society fair where inborn endowment is not.

Siblings often bear a striking physical likeness, at least some of which must be credited to genes. Physicians inquire about family history as some medical conditions are common among relatives. Research indicates that individual differences in intelligence are in part due to genes. But when it comes to making educational policy, says Kathryn Paige Harden in her new book, The Genetic Lottery, there is “tacit collusion” to ignore genetics.

Harden is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. She’s left-of-center and her book comes on the heels of two other books by progressives, Innate by neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell and The Cult of Smart by Fredrick deBoer. Their publication may indicate the emergence of what some are calling a “hereditarian Left.” Harden’s book focuses on the genetics of educational achievement. Mitchell’s details how the imprecision in genetic processes makes even identical twins differ somewhat. DeBoer, who is not a scientist but focused on educational assessment in his PhD thesis, provides a look at how talent plays out in schools.

An Awkward Silence on Genetic Differences Among Individuals

According to Harden, the tacit collusion not to speak of genetics is well-intended. It’s driven by fear of inadvertently aiding those who argue for the existence of racial differences in the genes that underlie intellectual ability. Although Harden, Mitchell, and deBoer believe that individuals differ in their genetic endowments, they all reject the idea of group differences. Instead, environmental deprivation—including exposure to lead and other neurotoxins—is a key element in the systemic racism that may hinder people in some groups from achieving their potential. Some progressives are leery of even acknowledging differences among individuals, given the murder by the Nazis of those deemed feeble-minded, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s approval of their involuntary sterilization. But as Harden writes, “Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”

The heart of The Genetic Lottery is Harden’s discussion of Genome-Wide Association Studies, referred to as GWAS. For any particular human characteristic, a GWAS produces a formula to calculate a numerical score based on a person’s DNA results. This score is referred to as the individual’s polygenic index for that trait. Although Harden refers to IQ at times and seems to regard it as a legitimate though imperfect metric, the measure used by the GWAS studies she highlights is the polygenic index for educational attainment. The reason is that when people submit their DNA for analysis, they often answer a question about highest grade completed. Studies of educational attainment now involve the DNA of more than a million subjects. The results show that rather than a few genes being responsible for educational success, a large number of genes each make a small contribution. To clarify, when we speak about people’s genes differing, we speak loosely. There are meaningful differences between the genomes of humans and the genomes of bananas, but all humans have in essence the same genes. Those genes, however, come in different variants, as the reproduction of DNA from one generation to the next allows mutations to creep in—and some variants seem to work more efficiently than others.

Experts have neglected to study whether the phenomenon of highly verbal parents having highly verbal children is due more to their genes than to their chattiness. Asking parents to read more to their children may seem harmless, but placing more demands on highly stressed working parents could be counterproductive.

Educational attainment is not entirely due to genes, of course. A girl growing up in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is unlikely to achieve the same educational success as her cousin who’s been evacuated to the United States. Nevertheless, the polygenic index for educational attainment among European-descended Americans, though a work in progress, is already as good a predictor as the tendency of the children of the rich to graduate from college at elevated rates. In its present state, the polygenic index for educational attainment is too rough to make decisions about individuals, if it were even desirable to do so. Its proper use is to support statistical research in developing social policy.

Consider the example of the “word gap,” the finding that children from less affluent backgrounds hear 30 million fewer words spoken by caregivers. The gap is correlated with slower vocabulary development. Touted by the Clinton Foundation and then-President Obama, this finding has inspired a trendy intervention to expose children to more speech. Experts, however, have neglected to study whether the phenomenon of highly verbal parents having highly verbal children is due more to their genes than to their chattiness, as Harden notes in the book. Asking parents to read more to their children may seem harmless, but the jury is still out on this intervention, and placing more demands on highly stressed working parents could be counterproductive. There’s a history of trendy interventions that fail to deliver, Harden says. One can quibble with the estimates of how much genes contribute to any particular outcome, but if you ignore genetics, you are in effect assuming no contribution at all. Incorporating genetics into educational research would help isolate interventions that truly work.

Harden seems to place the search for truth ahead of the search for justice, since knowing what is just depends on knowing what is true.

That may seem like the perspective of a penny-pinching conservative, but where Harden’s progressivism emerges is in her argument that if educational achievement is significantly due to genes, this factor is a matter of luck—or what could be called unearned genetic privilege. An equal-opportunity society would be just if everyone were lined up at the same starting line. But if some people have advantages—not only because of their socioeconomic backgrounds but also due to the genes they were born with—then fairness calls for society to even that out.

Harden’s writing is personable, and she builds on the metaphor of genes as recipes in a lovely way, extending it to GWAS as a kind of compilation of restaurant reviews. She’s an academic who, to employ Jonathan Haidt’s framework, seems to place the search for truth ahead of the search for justice, since knowing what is just depends on knowing what is true.

Why Even Identical Twins Differ

Kevin Mitchell’s 2018 book, Innate, could almost be called The Fetal Development Lottery.

A neuroscientist and geneticist at Trinity College Dublin, Mitchell focuses on the border between nature and nurture: how brain circuits form as the fetus and then child grows. His book is not especially political, but it’s clear that his instincts are progressive. And he comes down on the side of many human traits being predominantly innate.

Here it’s important to clarify that the word “traits” refers to a person’s inclinations and potential, not how they are actualized in society. Parents can force a child who’s a natural lefty to use the right hand. Governments can punish homosexual behavior. A child with a musical bent can be pushed to go to law school.

Furthermore, “innate” should not be taken as a synonym for “genetic.” The genetic code, Mitchell says, is a set of instructions, but there’s imprecision in how the instructions get applied. This randomness occurs at the molecular level and accounts for differences even among identical twins. Monozygotic twins, who develop from the same egg, often differ as to whether they are left or right-handed, and heterosexual or homosexual. Even if you could clone yourself, the clone would come out a bit different from you.

In analyzing human traits, scientists distinguish between genetic and environmental components, and regarding the environment, between “shared” and “non-shared.” Shared environment refers to the experiences that siblings share growing up in the same home. Studies find that parenting within the normal range—that is, excluding major child abuse—is not that determinative. Indeed, once they’ve left the nest, adoptive siblings share few psychological traits.

The major environmental factor, it turns out, is not parenting but everything else— teachers, peers, and random accidents, both on the macro and micro level. These accidents affect how our brains get wired up. The upshot is that the space for social interventions that affect a child’s traits is narrow: after all, if the parents who spend so much time with a child have only a small effect, how much smaller would be that of any teacher or social worker?

Regarding individual differences in intelligence, Mitchell concludes: “[T]here is no denying that innate differences in intelligence, or intellectual potential, exist. This is no longer a subject that can be argued about in the abstract, or even one that is situated purely on psychological or sociological ground—we now have many insights into the genetic, developmental, and neural mechanisms underlying such differences.”

But measured differences in intelligence between population groups are unlikely to be genetic in origin. Mitchell notes that back in the 1970s, the average IQ score in Ireland was 15 points lower than in the United Kingdom. Now they are on a par with the UK, likely due to improvements in nutrition and health.

Punching More Winning Tickets to the Good Life

Mitchell’s book is harder going than Harden’s on a topic that’s more of a second-order effect, so readers approaching the subject would be well-advised to start with The Genetic Lottery and proceed to Innate if they want to deepen their understanding. DeBoer’s book is the least technical, and while informed by science, is focused on the enterprise of education.

DeBoer earned a PhD in English, writes a well-read Substack newsletter, and damaged his reputation by making a false accusation for which he later apologized. In his 2020 book, The Cult of Smart, he argues that students differ in their innate talents and against the idea of meritocracy. DeBoer has taught in public schools and at the university level. In a public school where he taught, he says the reigning ideology was “that every student was constrained in their lives only by their will, that if they worked hard and never gave up on their dreams, they could do and have anything.” It’s a feel-good message that’s popular across the political spectrum. On the Left, it fits with egalitarian notions and the idea of raising a child’s self-esteem. On the Right, it forms the basis of the idea that if a person is poor, it’s due to their own failings. DeBoer says that’s wrong, and not just because of systemic oppression.

Rather, deBoer writes, people differ in their innate talents, citing Harden among others. Blindness to difference in talent has a number of negative consequences. One is to promote the idea that everyone should go to college when some students are not suited for it. Many who are pushed toward college fail to graduate, leaving without a degree but with mounds of student debt. DeBoer describes a student he taught at the University of Rhode Island who was failing; when questioned, the student made clear he did not want to be at the college. Asked why he was enrolled at the college without wanting to be there, the student answered, “What else am I supposed to do?” DeBoer believes American society is failing to provide a clear path to a good life for students who are not academically inclined.

DeBoer describes a university student who was failing; when questioned, the student made clear he did not want to be at the college. Asked why he was enrolled at the college without wanting to be there, the student answered, “What else am I supposed to do?”

Another negative consequence of the denial of differences among students is to distort school evaluation. Highly ranked schools may appear to be doing an excellent job and others may appear to be failing. What may be happening, however, is that the “successful” schools have a more select student body to begin with. Teachers at “failing” schools may not be as lousy as they’re made out to be. To determine what works, you first must know the students you’re working with.

Is meritocracy doomed to be unfair? DeBoer thinks so. He baldly writes, “Often derided as a caricature of progressive opinion, a goal of equality of outcomes actually serves everyone in society, not merely those lucky enough to possess skills and abilities considered valuable by society.” Indeed, he concludes by condemning “the cult of smart”—that is, what he considers to be an inordinate respect for intelligence in capitalist society.

This is where his argument goes off the rails. DeBoer impresses me as an educational researcher, but he is no economist (nor am I). It’s not economic theory so much as economic history that militates against equality of outcomes. A Marxist, deBoer pooh-poohs the failure of Soviet communism and falls back on an old Marxist argument that socialist revolutions should first have taken place in advanced economies rather than in backward peasant societies such as Russia. I see that as a huge hand wave. The Soviet Union failed as an economic enterprise and not because of Russia’s backwardness. Indeed, the Soviet economy did fairly well in its early years when it could play catch-up with the democracies but faltered after 1970. Berliner’s The Innovation Decision in Soviet Industry showed that the minor rewards given to Soviet innovators were not strong enough to ward off stasis. A fully equal-outcome society would be one in which a manager is not rewarded for employing talented people or penalized for placing people in jobs beyond their competence. It would replace meritocracy with mediocracy.

Finding the Sweet Spot Between Opportunity and Outcomes

Taken together, what’s to be gleaned from these three books? Reading them shifts me a bit to the left with regard to “equal opportunity.” I am persuaded by Harden’s point that equal opportunity is not enough when people start at different places.

What an understanding of genetic luck does is undermine the case that an extraordinarily high income is the just deserts of business leaders and that taxing them heavily is immoral.

Yet if by some miracle a political movement took power that mandated equal outcomes, it’s hard to imagine that many people wouldn’t take the opportunity to slack off. Sharing the wealth could lead to shared poverty. The challenge is to find a sweet spot between equal opportunity and equal outcomes to produce a society that is both quite wealthy and quite fair.

If we depart from equal opportunity, where should that shift take place? Do we assign people to jobs based not on their skills but their hardship? Harden writes, “Recognizing the role of luck, both genetic and environmental, in shaping the development of socially valued skills and behaviors does not mean we should abandon using selection criteria for desirable social roles and opportunities.” She wants pilots, doctors, certain engineers, and others whose failures could lead to grievous bodily harm to be hired according to ability, but the same strict criteria might not be necessary to place, say, French literature professors. More to the point, the take-home pay of experts need not be so much greater than that of others who work as hard. Many advanced countries do fine with less of a gap in pay between the top brass and the average worker. And there’s plenty of room to raise taxes on high earners without destroying their incentive to perform. What an understanding of genetic luck does is undermine the case that an extraordinarily high income is the just deserts of business leaders and that taxing them heavily is immoral.

There’s been complacency about relocating low-skilled jobs overseas, especially to China, with the supposition that all young Americans will go to college and work in high value-added fields like software development. That’s not for everyone.

The other big takeaway from these books is the desirability of preserving jobs at home for those with lower skills. There’s been complacency about relocating low-skilled jobs overseas, especially to China, with the supposition that all young Americans will go to college and work in high value-added fields like software development. That’s not for everyone. Germany, which is no one’s idea of a backward country, has a strong vocational education system for those who don’t go to college. Vocational skills can become obsolescent, but that makes the case for lifelong training.

Harden raises the question, without entirely answering it, of whether we should invest more in students of ability, to help them excel, or in less talented students, to narrow the differences. If wealth were something that simply existed, and the only issue was how to slice up the pie, it would make sense to invest in the ungifted, and let the gifted fend for themselves. But there are problems in the world, like climate change and antibiotic resistance, that require people of ingenuity to address. We can’t only focus on equity.

Harden has written an excellent and courageous book. Mitchell’s book is a solid explication for those who wish to go further. DeBoer’s is less authoritative, but nevertheless courageous and worth chewing on. I’m encouraged to see progressive thinkers taking seriously how we can produce a better world within the limits of human nature.

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