I’m really tempted to do an old school fisking of this piece arguing that the real war on science is being waged by liberals and the left, but I just don’t have the time. Briefly: like so many other conservative criticisms of “the Left,” John Tierney’s piece conflates all manner of groups that have broad internal divisions, in a way that leads to fundamentally flawed analysis. The idea, for example, that liberals and leftists broadly reject genetically modified foods shows complete ignorance of the left-of-center. More importantly, the idea that conservatives don’t have much control over scientific research is demonstrably, objectively untrue, particularly when it comes to climate change, and that question is genuinely one of the most important facing the entire human race. The Trump administration is nominating a real-deal climate change denier to head the EPA. I mean, come on.
Like I said: I wish I could really dig in to the piece at length. Let me make a limited point about the left-of-center’s relationship to human genetics, though.
Echoing a familiar complaint, Tierny writes, “resistance in academia to studying the genetic underpinnings of human behavior… has cut off many social scientists from the recent revolutions in genetics and neuroscience.” He goes on to complain that study of genetic impacts on human outcomes has been rendered difficult in the contemporary academy, which creates a gulf between the social sciences and the natural sciences when it comes to studying the human animal.
Well, look. There is indeed a lot of blank slate thinking on the broad left. Sometimes this goes to the extreme of arguments that are straightforwardly incompatible with the facts, like the presumption that genetics plays no role in human behavior. And too often arguments that reached correct conclusions but which had dubious or dishonest methodologies are still embraced, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. But let’s be 100% clear: people are sensitive about the study of human genetics because the study of human genetics has been repeatedly used to advance bigoted goals. Blank slate-ism is a historically contingent manner of thinking, and the history that has produced it is a history of racism, sexism, and justifications for inequality. And when you tie your complaint about blank slate-thinking to straightforwardly bigoted arguments – as Tierney does in endorsing Nicolas Wade’s book – then of course people are going to reflexively assume the worst of the legitimate points you’re packaging along with racism and sexism.
I am not qualified to offer particularly informed discussion of behavioral genetics. I read and interact with the published literature on this stuff on an informed but generally amateur level. With that important caveat, here are some things I believe:
- That genetics plays a significant role in a variety of human outcomes
- That biological parentage has a demonstrable impact on a given student’s academic tendencies
- That parenting style plays a limited role in a child’s personality, and that some portion of our personalities is genetic in its origin.
Here are some things that I don’t believe and that I consider straightforwardly bigoted:
- That different races have inherent advantages or disadvantages in intelligence, however you want to define it
- That there are consistent gender differences in academic potential, whether generally or in specific fields like math or science
- That some racial groups are inherently predisposed to aggression or passivity
- That belief in “human biodiversity,” to use a euphemism popular with race science types, can ever be compatible with a just society.
To me, the gulf between the first set of beliefs and the second seems huge and obvious. In particular, the difference between discussion of parentage – the two people whose DNA combined in fertilization to make another human – and discussion of race and gender – vast, diverse groupings that are often arbitrary, perceptions of which are influenced by all manner of social, cultural, and historical presumptions – seems clear to me. I leave it to others who are more informed to spell out all the dynamics here, empirical, scientific, political, historical. I do find it frustrating when people presume that belief in the former set leads necessarily to the latter. But I get it. I get it because the history is so awful and the stakes are so high. How could I not get it?
If people who, like me, want to have productive conversations within the left about the fact that genetics play a role in many aspects of human behavior and human outcomes, we have to recognize that there are perfectly good reasons that people are sensitive on this topic. We have to be frank about the ways that genetics have been used to justify bigotry and inequality. We have to be adamant that racism and sexism have no place in academic research or public policy. And we have to demonstrate that it’s fully possible, even easy, to discuss human genetics without endorsing bigoted opinions.
These conversations can be frustrating. It’s touchy. It can be difficult to even broach the topic without people getting defensive, assuming that any discussion of human genetics has to end up in eugenics and race science. But there’s a history here, an ugly history, one that’s had real and pernicious impacts on real people. So it’s our job to make the case, to heal these rifts, and to be relentless in rejecting bigoted arguments that are sometimes lumped into these conversations. It’s our job. It’s not the job of marginalized people or those who speak for them to get on board. We have to do this work.
And if you’re a conservative who wants to help in that effort maybe you could start by not advancing bigoted horseshit in the name of genetics research.