Turkheimer's Projects: Genetics and Human Agency | Robert Plomin’s Use of My Ideas in “Blueprint”

I have been planning to spend a week or so blogging about Robert Plomin’s new book, “Blueprint.” The first post was going to be about the title, but that is going to have to wait for a day or two because I need to discuss something else first- the way that my ideas are discussed and attributed.

At the beginning of the book Plomin reports a little survey he conducted about how heritable a variety of behavioral traits are.  Unsurprisingly, they are all heritable, and Plomin is pleased to learn that people seem to know they are heritable.  He then says,

Heritability is so ubiquitous that this has been called the first law of behavioural genetics: All psychological traits show significant and substantial genetic influence. (p. 11)

“It has been called” that by me, but there is no mention of me in the text. He goes on to mention the First Law 10 times, still with no mention of my name. For example:

The first law of behavioural genetics is so well documented that what is interesting now is to use adoption and twin studies to go beyond estimating heritability. (23)

Or this one:

This first law of behavioural genetics is so well established that it is no longer interesting to show that some new trait is heritable, because all traits are heritable. (30)

He also mentions the second law in passing, again without reference. I guess I should say, in case someone is reading this who is unfamiliar with my work, that the “Three Laws of Behavior Genetics” is probably the one idea that is most closely associated with my name. I coined the First Law, the one that matters here, with Irving Gottesman in 1991. The law states pretty much what Plomin describes: all human differences are heritable. But crucially, the point of the law was different from what Robert suggests: I wasn’t making the case that genes are the ultimate force that explains everything, I was suggesting that if everything is heritable, maybe heritability is just an unsurprising part of the ordinary world, not a deep genetic insight into “what makes us human.” Much more on that later.

But anyway, it turns out that there is a footnote in the book attributing the source of the First Law of Behavior Genetics.  Here it is:

Neither the original 1991 citation or the better known 2000 “Three Laws of Behavior Genetics and What They Mean” paper are ever mentioned.  The naive reader would have absolutely no way of knowing that Plomin didn’t think up the idea in 2016.

Obviously this is completely unacceptable as a matter of basic scholarship, but it also characterizes the book in an important way. Without lifting them quite as obviously, Plomin uses several of my other ideas– in fact he uses almost all of my ideas– without attribution.  I’ll describe these issues in future posts (look up the gloomy prospect, for example), but I originally formulated these ideas in opposition to what Plomin and other mainstream behavior geneticists were saying at the time.  But instead of either rebutting them or admitting I was right, Plomin just absorbs them into his general narrative, as though it was what he thought all along.  The nineteen seventies word for what he does is, he co-opts them, without giving me credit.

I say this fully aware that it sounds kind of egotistical, and I know Plomin had many things on his mind when he wrote the book other than erasing me, but it’s true: Blueprint is Robert Plomin’s fantasy of what behavior genetics would look like if I had never existed. If the ironies of the Three Laws had never been spelled out, if the gloomy prospect had never been explored, if the nonshared environment had never gotten unpacked, if the common difficulties underlying environmental and genetic explanation had not been worked through, if the unlikelihood that individual genes would explain behavior had not been predicted, then it might still be possible to look at a bunch of .5 heritabilities and announce that “genes” are the magic explanation that makes humans what they are.

This is what makes the book simultaneously grandiose, boring and dangerous. Plomin endorses a hard-line hereditarianism, but doesn’t bother to actually defend his ideas from even the most obvious objections. Faced with arguments or data that might contradict him, he ignores them, demagogues them, or, as he mostly does with me, pretends that the inconvenient ideas were actually his all along.

More soon.

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