On Genes as Inherent Merit

On Genes as Inherent Merit

The anonymous @SilverVVulpes replied to my previous blog post on Twitter with this thought:

I’d be interested in any philosopher of science that argues genes=inherent merit instead of luck. Position confuses the hell out of me.”

@SilverVVulpes describes himself as “hereditarian left” in his Twitter bio, which would confuse the hell out of a lot of people, since anyone interested in studying heredity is presumed to be aligned with the (alt)right. I get this reaction a lot, particularly when interacting with people in other social sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science). Someone once asked me, in all seriousness, what I thought of Hamilton, in this tone that expected that I would be brimming with objections. Seeing Hamilton was pretty much the highlight of my year, and I was seriously confused by the question, until I realized that, in the questioner’s mind, “not liking Hamilton” and “doing research related to genes and intelligence” are both tribal signifiers of being right-wing.

In case it wasn’t clear from my earlier post, I don’t think that research on genetics and heredity directly lends support to any easily identifiable set of government policies or any one political ideology (or any particular reaction to Lin-Manuel Miranda). That’s not to say that genetic research isn’t or couldn’t be policy relevant. But, the connections are more complicated, more dependent on one’s a priori values and ideology, and more philosophically interesting than most people assume.

So, to address @SilverVVulpes’ question: where does the intuition that ‘genes==inherent merit’ come from? It’s definitely in circulation, and I don’t think it’s coming from a well-reasoned philosophy of science position.

This is my working hypothesis: racist and classist ideologues, both past and present, have used and interpreted behavioral genetic research in a particular and insidious way. And, most people engaged in debates about behavioral genetics – even people quite critical of doing genetic research at all – have implicitly adopted this (mis)interpretation of what genetic research means.

At the outset, I think it’s important to stress that racism doesn’t need genetic research. Ideologies that value one group of people over another group of people didn’t emerge in response to discoveries about DNA or based on results of twin studies. We didn’t have utopic, radically egalitarian societies that were spoiled when Mendel/Galton/Pearson/Fisher/Watson/Dobzhansky came along. Racism and white supremacy have been central features of American society since its inception. White supremacy was literally written into the Constitution.

I also think it’s important to stress that contemporary behavioral genetic research is — with very, very few exceptions — almost entirely focused on explaining individual differences within ancestrally homogeneous groups. Race has a lot to do with how behavioral genetic research is perceived, but almost nothing to do with what behavioral geneticists are actually studying. There are good methodological reasons for this. Twin studies are, of course, using twins, who almost always self-identify as the same race. And genome-wide association studies (GWASs) typically use a very large group of people who all have the same self-identified race (usually White), and then rigorously control for genetic ancestry differences even within that already homogeneous group. I challenge anyone to read the methods section of a contemporary GWAS and persist in thinking that this line of research is really about race differences.

Despite all this, racists keep looking for “evidence” to support racism. The embrace of genetic research by racists reached its apotheosis, of course, in Nazism and the eugenics movements in the U.S. After all, eugenics means “good genes”– ascribing value and merit to genes themselves. Daniel Kevles’ In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity should be required reading for anyone interested in both the history of genetic science and in how this research has been (mis)used in the United States. This history makes clear that the eugenic idea of conceptualizing heredity in terms of inherent superiority was woven into the fabric of early genetic science (Galton and Pearson were not, by any stretch, egalitarians) and an idea that was deliberately propagated. The idea that genetic influence on intelligence should be interpreted to mean that some people are inherently superior to other people is itself a racist invention.

Fast-forward to 2017, and nearly everyone, even people who think that they are radical egalitarians who reject racism and white supremacy and eugenic ideology in all its forms, has internalized this “genes == inherent superiority” equation so completely that it’s nearly impossible to have any conversation about genetic research that’s not tainted by it. On both the right and the left, people assume that if you say, “Gene sequence differences between people statistically account for variation in abstract reasoning ability,” what you really mean is “Some people are inherently superior to other people.” Where people disagree, mostly, is in whether they think this conclusion is totally fine or absolutely repugnant. (For the record, and this should go without saying, but unfortunately needs to be said — I fall in the latter camp.) But very few people try to peel apart those ideas. (A recent exception is this series of blog posts by Fredrik deBoer.) The space between, which says, “Gene sequence differences between people statistically account for variation in abstract reasoning ability” but also says “This observation has no bearing on how we evaluate the inherent value or worth of people” is astoundingly small.

To get a sense of this, let’s take a look at examples where writers have equated the statement, “genes influence intelligence,” with the claim that “some people are innately superior/inferior.” Notably, these are all commentators who would likely consider themselves egalitarian/progressive/left-leaning. As in my previous post, the example of Charles Murray is useful simply because so much has been written about him:

  • “In 2012, Murray extended his bigotry to poor whites in Coming Apart, arguing that poor and working-class white people’s increasing impoverishment is a consequence of cultural and genetic degradation
  • “…white nationalist Charles Murray, who has taken to campuses to espouse the genetic superiority of white males.”
  • [Charles Murray uses] racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.”


I could go on. The use of the terms superiority and inferiority is incredibly pervasive in popular discussions about genetic research related to intelligence. And it’s clear why – white supremacy is an ideology that is fundamentally about grading humans on an inferior to superior scale, and white supremacists do talk about genetic research on those terms.

But must genetic research necessarily be interpreted in terms of superiority and inferiority? Absolutely not. To get a flavor of other possible interpretations, we can just look at how people describe genetic research on nearly any other human trait.

Take, for example, weight. Here, is a New York Times article that quotes one researcher as saying, “It is more likely that people inherit a collection of genes, each of which predisposes them to a small weight gain in the right environment.” Substitute “slight increase in intelligence” for “small weight gain” in that sentence and – voila! You have the mainstream scientific consensus on genetic influences on IQ. But no one is writing furious think pieces in reaction to scientists working to understand genetic differences in obesity. According to the New York Times, the implications of this line of genetic research is … people shouldn’t blame themselves for a lack of self-control if they are heavy, and a “one size fits all” approach to weight loss won’t be effective.

As another example, think about depression. The headline of one New York Times article is “Hunting the Genetic Signs of Postpartum Depression with an iPhone App.” Pause for a moment and consider how differently the article would be received if the headline were “Hunting the Genetic Signs of Intelligence with an iPhone App.” Yet the research they describe – a genome-wide association study – is exactly the same methodology used in recent genetic research on intelligence and educational attainment. The science isn’t any different, but there’s no talk of identifying superior or inferior mothers. Rather, the research is justified as addressing the needs of “mothers and medical providers clamoring for answers about postpartum depression.”

I’m not the first to comment on the bizarre disconnect between how we talk about genetic research on intelligence and how we talk about genetic research on literally anything else. Here’s Scott Alexander in 2015 making the same observation:

Sometimes I see depressed patients whose families really don’t get it. They say “Sure, my daughter feels down, but she needs to realize that’s no excuse for shirking her responsibilities. She needs to just pick herself up and get on with her life.” On the other hand, most depressed people say that their depression is more fundamental than that, not a thing that can be overcome by willpower, certainly not a thing you can just ‘shake off’. Once again, the compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate is that depression is something like biological, and cannot easily be overcome with willpower and hard work…

The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic. Attributing them to who works harder and who’s “really trying” can stigmatize people who end up with bad outcomes and is generally viewed as Not A Nice Thing To Do.

And the weird thing, the thing I’ve never understood, is that intellectual achievement is the one domain that breaks this pattern. Here it’s would-be hard-headed conservatives arguing that intellectual greatness comes from genetics and the accidents of birth and demanding we “accept” this “unpleasant truth”. And it’s would-be compassionate progressives who are insisting that no, it depends on who works harder, claiming anybody can be brilliant if they really try, warning us not to “stigmatize” the less intelligent as “genetically inferior”.”

I don’t think that the “X is heritable and so, therefore, can’t be helped” interpretation is necessarily any more rigorous that the “X is heritable and so people with X are inherently inferior/superior to other people” interpretation. But the comparison does reveal something about the fluidity and inconsistency of our popular models of what it means for something to be influenced by genes. And just because racists past and present have embraced and propagated one interpretation of genetic research doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to follow suit.

Putting this all together, I have five modest proposals:

  1. The idea that some people are inferior to other people is abhorrent.
  2. The mainstream scientific consensus is that genetic differences between people (within ancestrally homogeneous populations) do predict individual differences in traits and outcomes (e.g., abstract reasoning, conscientiousness, academic achievement, job performance) that are highly valued in our post-industrial, capitalist society.
  3. Acknowledging the evidence for #2 is perfectly compatible with belief #1.
  4. The belief that one can and should assign merit and superiority on the basis of people’s genes grew out of racist and classist ideologies that were already sorting people as inferior and superior.
  5. Instead of accepting the eugenic interpretation of what genetic research means, and then pushing back against the research itself, people – especially people with egalitarian and progressive values — should stop implicitly assuming that genes==inherent merit.


The danger of denying scientific evidence, rather than thinking critically about how that evidence should be interpreted and used in light of one’s fundamental values, was articulated by Turkheimer two decades ago:

In order to oppose racist or determinist accounts of behavior, is it necessary to believe that there is simply no such thing as human ability, or that abilities are in no way transmitted between generations along genetic pathways? Assertions like these strain credulity, and play into the hands of a radical right that stigmatizes its opponents (in words, as is always the case, strikingly similar to those used by the radical left) as gullible or dishonest fools whose political doctrines blind them to the obvious scientific facts.” 

So, if one rejects eugenics, and endorses egalitarian values, but also acknowledges the role of heredity in explaining individual differences in cognitive ability and educational attainment, what are the implications of genetic science for social justice? Now, that is an interesting question.

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