Taboo genetic truths

By Razib Khan | October 3, 2013 11:59 am

Have no fear

There has been a lot of attention to Erika Check Hayden’s piece Ethics: Taboo genetics, at least judging by people commenting on my Facebook feed. In some ways this is not an incredibly empirically grounded argument, because the biological basis of complex traits is going to be rather difficult to untangle on a gene-by-gene basis. In other words, this isn’t a clear and present “concern.” The heritability of many behavioral traits has long been known. This is not revolutionary, though for cultural reasons may well educated people are totally surprised when confronted with data that many traits, such as intelligence and personality, have robust heritabilities* (the proportion of trait variation explained by variation in genes across the population). The literature reviewed in The Nurture Assumption makes clear that a surprising proportion of contribution any parents make to their offspring is through their genetic composition, and not their modeled example. You wouldn’t know this if you read someone like Brian Palmer of Slate, who seems to be getting paid to reaffirm the biases of the current age among the smart set (pretty much every single one of his pieces that touch upon genetics is larded with phrases which could have been written by a software program designed to sooth the concerns of the cultural Zeitgeist). But the new genomics is confirming the broad outlines of the findings from behavior genetics. There’s nothing really to see there. The bigger issue of any interest is normative; the values we hold dear as a culture.

For example:

Chabris says that the work can actually contribute to greater social mobility — for instance, by helping to identify preschoolers who could be helped by more intensive early childhood education. “The fact that people in the past interpreted the results in a certain way doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be studied,” he says. But not everyone buys that potential misuses of the information can be divorced from gathering it. Anthropologist Anne Buchanan at Pennsylvania State University in University Park wrote on the blog The Mermaid’s Tale that rather than being purely academic and detached, such studies are “dangerously immoral”.

Of course John Horgan reiterates his call for race and IQ research to be banned. To some extent this reminds me of Patricia Churchland’s account of being verbally attacked by an anthropologist in an elevator as a “reductionist.” These are matters of morality, and reflect quasi-religious sensibilities. The science is secondary.

But there’s a major problem when you have norms and facts operating at cross-purposes: the facts are ultimately always there, invariant, and true. Banning research is totally a short-term step, because it isn’t as if the United States, with its particular set of values, has a monopoly on research. Patricia Churchland’s work which reduces human consciousness to a totally natural process would not get funded in Saudi Arabia, or by the Vatican, but that’s irrelevant because it will get funded in the Western world. Similarly, the cultural Left taboos which are very strong in Western academia are far weaker in Asia. Assuming that economic development proceeds apace, someone will do the research, and it will be published. If the facts of the world are as you’d always assumed, you have nothing really to fear.

* I think human psychology is complicated enough though that on some level people do understand the importance of genes. Look at who they choose to reproduce with.

  • TheBrett

    The full Buchanan response is even more foolish:

    We’d like to suggest that studies of the genetics of intelligence are not just convenient abstract amorality. They are dangerously immoral. Just as GWAS of diseases like cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes, that take the focus off lifestyle which clearly has a large effect on risk of disease, emphasis on the genetics of intelligence takes the responsibility from society to ensure that each child meets his or her intellectual potential.

    The loaded assumption there is particularly galling – that something “clearly has a large effect” even if there is potentially evidence saying that it doesn’t.

  • Peter

    I’d be interested in your take on this PNAS paper which says that heritability may be overestimated in many cases due to epistatic interactions between genes.

    Do you think this is likely, and what would your reaction be if it turns out that behavioural traits are much less heritable than currently thought?

  • Chad

    I continue to wonder who decided that Brian Palmer was qualified to speak on anything?

  • Matt Baen

    “But there’s a major problem when you have norms and facts operating at cross-purposes: the facts are ultimately always there, invariant, and true. ”

    The phenomena are, but not necessarily our beliefs about them. Whether models, statistical analyses, or data points, those may be in error. In some cases there may be quite a lag until beliefs even roughly approximate the phenomena they are about; incorrect beliefs may stand for decades or even centuries. I don’t think I’m being a pedant to insist on such a distinction.

    (Note: Yes, I have a new handle for Disqus. I’ve never used my real name.)

  • Neuroconservative

    Some topics are so taboo, that the true implications are literally unthinkable, even to purported experts:

  • Earl Wajenberg

    This may be stating the obvious, but nurture over nature is a key part of the whole Enlightenment social project. Before that, the assumption was the reverse – nature over nurture – and used to justify aristocracies. Aristocrats deserved their privileges because they were, by blood, better people. (Their actual track records complicated this idea.) Conservative groups have hung on to this idea ever since, in varying degrees of intensity and clarity. The standard Enlightenment position is the opposite – only nurture matters, as long as you are a reasonably standard-issue human. Even if they know very little history, the backers of the Enlightenment project – i.e. liberals – are quickly suspicious of any endorsement of the idea that character is genetic. They smell the risk of classism and racism, and with some justification. The movie “Gattaca” was an SF meditation on such issues.

  • ruth

    A bit off topic, and late too, but I’d still like to point out you’re oversimplifying a teeny bit on the heritability quotient.

    The HQ for IQ is actually an upper bound of true heritability. This is because it includes some environmental variation, namely pre-natal environment (heavily influenced by factors such as alcohol, drugs, time from last pregnancy, high anxiety) and some postnatal environment (environment before adoption, in most studies of adotive kids meaning either dysfunctional or institutional carers). Both kinds of influences tend to be very negative in adopted children, otherwise they wouldn’t get adopted. The HQ also underestimates potential environmental influence post-adoption because adopting families in developed countries don’t really vary all that much.

    Lastly, being a measure of variance, the HQ says nothing at all about how much a good environment can, on average, lift very low IQs (the Flynn effect says more about that, and about its limits). Adopted children might have an average IQ of 120 and their genetic mothers of 80 and still the correlation in the rank position could be 100%.
    Consider the case of India supposed to have a national IQ of 80 or thereabouts according to people like Lynn, but still Indian children excel at British schools (and even Pakistani children have now caught up with white british kids). Also, girls far surpass boys at British schools today, clearly because of some cultural/environmental factor. There’s no doubt that some people are genetically highly gifted, and others aren’t, and some of the prenatal environmental influences I enumerated are of course themselves partly genetically mediated.
    But for practical purposes, the Heritability Quotient is not all that important for society at the moment when other factors are so prominently at work in the low end of the distrubution.
    And no, I am not for banning research on race and IQ, and I am also against affirmative action and other “diversity” policies, but pro massively improving US inner city school curricula which as far as I know are a disgrace, and pro banning lots of stuff from the media that studies show have a detrimental effect on behavior.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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