The pioneers of social genetics were racists and eugenicists: should we give up on the science they founded altogether?
Kathryn Paige Harden is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, will be published by Princeton University Press in Fall 2021.
Edited by Pam Weintraub
‘What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?’ Dylan Farrow asked the readers of The New York Times, before giving her account of Allen molesting her when she was seven years old. She challenged the continued acclaim for Allen’s movies: ‘Imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen … Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?’
Farrow’s essay, published in 2014, presaged the #MeToo era, when sexual offences committed by film and entertainment stars such as Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK and others burst into larger public awareness. The grossness of their crimes, combined with the celebratedness of their art, prompted vociferous debate. In the words of the television critic Emily Nussbaum: ‘What should we do with the art of terrible men?’
What’s your favourite Ronald Fisher paper? Before you answer, you should know: Fisher, a British statistician and geneticist, served on the Committee for Legalising Eugenic Sterilisation, and advocated for the involuntary sterilisation of the ‘feeble-minded’. In 1948, he wrote a letter of support for a German colleague, Otmar von Verschuer, a Nazi scientist who received human body parts from twins murdered by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. It’s clear from the letter that the atrocities of the Nazi regime hadn’t dampened Fisher’s enthusiasm for eugenics:
I have no doubt also that the [Nazi] Party sincerely wished to benefit the German racial stock, especially by the elimination of manifest defectives, such as those deficient mentally, and I do not doubt that von Verschuer gave, as I should have done, his support to such a movement. [emphasis mine]
Now what’s your favourite Ronald Fisher paper?
Mine is ‘The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance’ (1918). In it, Fisher proposed that human characteristics are influenced by many different genetic factors, each of which has a small effect. He was right about that, even as he was so terribly wrong about the evils of Nazism. The grossness of Fisher’s eugenic beliefs, combined with the brilliance of his scientific observations, raises the question: what do we do with the science of terrible men?
This question is personal. My research is in the area of social science genetics, which aims to use information about people’s DNA in order to understand why their lives turn out differently. Every day, every paper, every calculation of my professional life (and, indeed, of any working scientist who uses basic statistical concepts such as variance) has been spent using scientific tools created by the same people who worked to bring violence and suffering to vulnerable people’s lives.
For decades, the primary tool of social science genetics was the twin study, which compares identical twins to fraternal twins in order to make inferences about how much of the variation between people is due to the genetic differences between them. Twin studies, however, make some simplifying assumptions, such as the assumption that identical twins are not treated more similarly than fraternal twins just because their parents know they are identical. Despite being debated ad nauseam for decades, these assumptions are still controversial.
More recently, then, researchers have begun to rely more on a method called the genome-wide association study (GWAS), which directly measures part of a person’s DNA sequence. A GWAS aims to identify specific bits of DNA that are associated with being higher or lower on some characteristic you can measure about a person (such as their height). For the most part, GWASs have been largely limited to people whose recent genetic ancestors all lived on the European continent and who therefore are very likely to identify as white according to the social rules by which racial identity is assigned.
Some researchers use the tools of twin studies and GWAS to study how genetic differences are related to physical health outcomes, such as cataracts or cancer. Others study mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia or anorexia nervosa. In contrast, my lab – like other groups doing work in social science genetics – uses these methods to study inequalities between people in outcomes that are socially valued and often moralised. I have written, for instance, about why teenagers who score higher on intelligence tests tend to have sex later, why teenagers who delay having sex tend to be less likely to commit crimes, how teenagers with certain DNA patterns are more likely to get assigned to certain mathematics classes, and whether we can identify DNA patterns associated with being arrested or convicted of a crime…