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The Genetic Lottery, by University of Texas psychologist Kathryn Paige Harden, is a good book whose central ethical argument is unpersuasive. This is not a contradiction: Forwarding a flawed thesis clearly and comprehensively is valuable, and books are worth more than the merit of their chief arguments. The Genetic Lottery is warmly written, it lucidly explains recent advances in human genetics, and it urges the political Left to take those advances seriously. Although few of the book’s arguments are new, and many have been made by those whom Harden demonizes as “eugenicists” and “race scientists,” The Genetic Lottery will almost certainly have a greater influence on mainstream discourse than older works thanks to Harden’s liberal bona fides.
The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, by Kathryn Paige Harden. Princeton University Press, 312 pp., $29.95.
This is not, however, a dispassionate or even a very charitable book. Readers should approach its almost Manichaean presentation of “eugenic” versus “anti-eugenic” accounts of human genetic variation skeptically, especially when it discusses “villains” such as Charles Murray, whom it invariably caricatures.
The Genetic Lottery has two primary goals. The first is to convince readers, especially left-leaning readers, to take genetic differences seriously. These differences, Harden argues, are causally linked to social inequalities, and policies that fail to take them into account risk proving costly, wasteful, and ineffective. The second goal is to persuade readers that these genetic differences are the result of random chance and thus that the social disparities flowing from them are in some sense unjust or undeserved. Influenced by the philosopher John Rawls, Harden contends that “society should be structured to work to the advantage of people who were least advantaged in the genetic lottery.”
The book succeeds wonderfully at its first goal. Harden is a great guide through the recent genetics literature. Readers who are perplexed by jargon such as “polygenic risk score,” “GWAS,” or “population stratification” will profit from reading it. The key points are these. Almost all human differences in traits and behavioral tendencies, from cognitive ability to perseverance, are at least partially caused by genes (that is, they are heritable). However, most are not caused by one or two genetic variants, meaning that there is no single “gene” for most traits.
Instead, differences are caused by thousands of genetic variants working together. Traditionally, such complexity has made it difficult to study the genetic causes of human variation, but with new and powerful techniques, researchers can now create “polygenic indices,” or scores from collections of hundreds to thousands of variants, that successfully predict variation in traits (such as cognitive ability) and life outcomes (such as educational attainment and income). It is therefore no longer reasonable to argue that genes are unrelated to important social outcomes. As Harden writes, “The inescapable conclusion is that genetic differences between people cause social inequalities.” But many still avoid this reality and castigate those who acknowledge it as classists, biological determinists, or racists.
Harden’s rejection of this kind of fashionable genetic denialism is welcome. Unfortunately, she panders to the Left by routinely denouncing intellectuals to her right as “eugenicists.” At one point, for example, she claims that according to Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the co-authors of The Bell Curve, “to score higher on IQ tests is to be superior; to be White is to be superior; to be higher class is to be superior.” Compare this paraphrase to Murray’s actual words, from his recent book Human Diversity: “I reject claims that groups of people, be they sexes or races or classes, can be ranked from superior to inferior. I reject claims that differences among groups have any relevance to human worth or dignity.” It is perfectly reasonable, of course, to disagree with Murray’s politics, but it is mendacious to insinuate that he is a white supremacist.
Harden does an excellent job laying out the science, but her success in making her moral argument is much more limited. She claims, correctly, that one’s genes are unearned, but she fallaciously leaps from this claim to the assertion that “appreciating the role of genetic luck in people’s educational and financial success undercuts the blame that is heaped on people for not ‘achieving’ enough and might, in fact, bolster the case for redistributing resources to achieve greater equality.” In short, she argues that our understanding of the genetic influence on life outcomes should obviate or at least significantly dilute our concept of deservingness. And once we have dispensed with the fiction that the attractive, the athletic, or the intelligent deserve their monetary and social rewards, we can advocate more effectively for redistributive and equity-based social policy.
I cannot possibly do justice to all of the complexities of this argument, which inevitably touches upon free will and other abstruse metaphysical questions, but I do think it worth pointing out that it relies upon an important elision. Consider these two statements:
(1) “F. Scott Fitzgerald did not deserve to be an intelligent, verbally gifted writer.”
(2) “F. Scott Fitzgerald did not deserve to be paid thousands of dollars for his stories.”
It is inarguably true that one does not “deserve” the accidents of one’s existence. It does not follow, however, that one never has any right to enjoy the fruits of the traits and skills one is born with. Fitzgerald was handsomely paid not because he deserved to be a gifted writer but because he was a gifted writer, which meant that people were willing to pay to read what he wrote. In any social system in which people are allowed to enter into a free exchange with each other, the inevitable result, given an unequal allocation of natural and acquired talents, is an unequal distribution of resources.
This would be true even in a society in which everyone started with exactly the same resources. People would be more willing to buy the stories of good writers than of bad writers and so, over time, the good writers would end up with more money. The only alternative would be a continual series of coercive interventions to take resources from successful people to redistribute them to the unsuccessful. Such interventions are not necessarily illegitimate, but it is important to recognize the trade-off. If we jettison the concept of deservingness and actively spread resources more evenly, as Harden advocates, it will require a significant abridgment of human freedom.
I also find unappealing Harden’s claim that “society should be structured to work to the advantage of people who were least advantaged in the genetic lottery.” To be fair, when she thinks of the “least advantaged,” she is probably thinking of a kind person who is simply unintelligent, unattractive, or indolent. But sociopaths, murderers, torturers, sadists, and other depraved criminals are also losers in the genetic lottery. Should society really be structured to work to the advantage of Ted Bundy or Ed Gein? Harden would obviously say no, but what is her principled distinction between the lazy and the depraved? Why should we engineer society to help a person who is unintelligent or unproductive but not a person who wants to torture other people? Maybe she has a good answer, but I did not find it in her book.
The Genetic Lottery is correct that people do not deserve things in some cosmic sense of the word, but it is incorrect that this vitiates the practical sense of the word. Furthermore, it strikes me as doubtful that the arbitrariness of our genes has anything important to tell us about social justice. I can sympathize with men who lament that they do not have the natural athleticism of LeBron James and with women who lament that they do not have the natural singing voice of Adele. But I do not think such reflections are morally edifying.
Bo Winegard is a behavioral scientist and essayist who earned his PhD from Florida State University in 2018. Follow him on Twitter: @EPoe187.
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