Substack cometh, and lo it is good. (Pricing)

The twilight of American behavior genetics

Many people, including some prominent scientists, have emailed me about the review of K. Paige Harden’s book The Genetic Lottery in The New York Review of BooksWhy Biology Is Not Destiny – In The Genetic Lottery, Kathryn Harden disguises her radically subjective view of biological essentialism as an objective fact. It’s a pretty intense review. I thought it was mostly unfair, but even I winced at the punches that it got in. Give the devil his due?

There are two authors, M.W. Feldman and Jessica Riskin. I don’t know Riskin, but Feldman is an extremely eminent population geneticist whose influence is felt in others fields. He was an early founder of the field of cultural evolution, writing Cultural Transmission and Evolution with L. L. Cavalli-Sforza. From what I know, Peter Richerson attended classes on the topic taught by Feldman in the 1980s, and Richerson was Robert Boyd’s advisor, who was Joe Henrich’s advisor.

Indirectly Feldman is arguably the father of much of contemporary cultural evolution and cliodynamics.

As for what’s unfair in the piece, I think the below passage illustrates the method well:

“This polygenic index will be normally distributed,” Harden continues, now disguising an assumption—that there are intrinsic cognitive and personality traits whose distribution in a population follows a bell-shaped curve, a founding axiom of eugenics—as an objective fact.

Eugenics aimed to be an applied branch of hereditary science, and before the emergence of Mendelism, it was driven by ‘biometric’ thinking about continuous quantitative traits (though Francis Galton himself believed in “sports” and other noncontinuous changes). So the connection between eugenics and the normal distribution does exist…but the fact is that the normal (Gaussian) distribution is ubiquitous in science, and emerges out of the central limit theorem. Anyone with a cursory background in quantitative sciences won’t really associate the normal distribution with eugenics. How exactly was Harden going to write a book on behavior genetics without mentioning the normal distribution?

There is a lot of that sort of guilt-by-association and verbal sleight of hand. I think most fair-minded scientists will see what they did, but that’s not how the typical reader of The New York Review of Books will read the piece. Rather, they’ll see one hard-hitting salvo after another from two Stanford academics, one of whom is one of the most accomplished population geneticists of our day. How are they going to know about the ubiquity of the normal distribution and its centrality to much of modern statistics? Instead, most readers will experience an incredibly erudite and magnificent demolition of The Genetic Lottery and its presuppositions and implications.

Just to show you what I mean, let’s look at this passage. I’m going to add numbers that will help in the exegesis:

Harden condemns Jensen’s racism and rejects his assertion that social interventions are futile, but she doesn’t question his basic claim that genetic differences produce an [1] innate hierarchy of scholastic achievement. She also doesn’t acknowledge his dependence on fraudulent data from a 1966 paper by the English psychologist and geneticist Cyril Burt purporting to compare identical twins raised together and apart [2]. And nowhere does she cite the Princeton psychologist Leon Kamin’s 1974 devastating debunking of Jensen and Burt or engage with the critical problems Kamin raised there regarding twin studies in general, because of the impossibility of isolating genetic factors from environmental ones [3].

First, [1], there’s nowhere in the book that I recall Harden talking about “innate hierarchy.” One can see why Feldman and Riskin use this term, but the concept is repeated so often in the review that I believe most readers will believe this is exactly what Harden talked about in the book. No, it’s their interpretation and imputation. But repeated enough the allusive imputation becomes the literal fact.

As for [2], the Cyril Burt controversy continues down to the last I checked. He may have committed fraud, or he may not have. Feldman and Riskin take it as a given that the initial accusations of fraud were correct and not disputed. The reader won’t know the controversy about the controversy. As for [3], the reader will be unaware that in the 1970’s Kamin actually floated the position that the heritability of intelligence was ~0, severely undermining his credibility as a sagacious researcher. Second, the implication that there is an impossibility of isolating genetic factors from environmental ones is coherent in light of all the complexities of…complex traits. But this applies to many behavioral and nonbehavioral traits that are polygenic. Should we entertain the possibility that we can’t adduce the genetic aspect of schizophrenia due to philosophical quibbles about causality? (it’s very heritable)

If you want to know more about behavior genetics and genomics, I recommend this interview I did with James Lee, or this one from the fall with Alexander Young. As for Harden and The Genetic Lottery, I’m glum about the prospects for any project like this in this country. Though Harden is a tenured academic and comes out of a pretty good lineage (her advisor is Eric Turkheimer), ever since the bizarre piece in The New Yorker her reputation in many biological academic circles has taken a hit. From everything I know, she is sincere, earnest and a legitimate political progressive/liberal. But you wouldn’t know that from what some people say, and the lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. In 2006 I interviewed the famed population geneticist James F. Crow, and he stated that he felt “strongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome.” Crow died in 2012 at the age of 96, and from what I can see this sort of stance is mostly held by older academics.

A different wind blows in the future. Harden has tenure, and a band of her fellow travelers will continue to exist in American academia, but more and more they will be pariahs. Why? I’m not progressive so that’s beyond my pay grade. But there are other countries out there, so there will be places this sort of research continues.

The truth is what it is. No matter what the flock says.

Addendum: Bert Hölldobler, a long-time collaborator of E. O. Wilson has written a defense of him. Richard Lewontin was a great population geneticist, but I think his biggest impact will turn out to be the style of intellectual pugilism he promoted. It’s normative now among many younger academics. Here’s a section that jumped out at me:

It was a point that Dick Lewontin himself acknowledged when he showed up at my office the next day, apparently eager to soften what he had said. Although I respected Lewontin as a scientist and colleague at Harvard, I did not appreciate his ideologically driven “sand box Marxism.” When I asked why he so blithely distorted some of Ed’s writings he responded: “Bert, you do not understand, it is a political battle in the United States. All means are justified to win this battle.”…

13 thoughts on “The twilight of American behavior genetics

  1. I find it very strange that Feldman and Riskinn, both distinguished professors at Stanford, seem entirely unaware that “openness to experience” is a validated and widely accepted personality dimension, one that appears in nearly every 1st year psychology textbook. They seem to know nothing about psychometrics and think psychological constructs are just obviously “subjective”, unlike macular degeneration. It is an incompetent review.

  2. That line about the normal distribution jumped out at me. Assuming that a psychological trait is normally distributed is a substantial assumption. Constructs are usually designed to satisfy this. We should be nervous about this. Asserting that the PGS is normally distributed is completely different. It cannot be massaged into normality, unlike the original construct. Once the construct is fixed, the shape of the PGS is a consequence, not additional opportunity for design. Its normality is not quite a mathematical necessity, but something to check.

    Do they understand this?
    Is this just an attempt to bring words into proximity, or are they fundamentally confused? From earlier in the paragraph: “which single-nucleotide polymorphisms to consider.” That has such an easy answer, I’d expect Harden to include it in the book, unlike many of the other issues.

  3. Didn’t Harden throw others (e.g. Charles Murray?) under the bus?

    I can’t say I am terribly surprised or sorry for her now that she is getting thrown under the bus. “I am a progressive too!” doesn’t seem to work unless you conform 100% (whatever that is).

    Just tell it like it is and don’t throw under the bus those who do so as well.

  4. Feldman is 80, why would he be trying to cancel a much younger person. Cancellations are a tactic used by the younger staff to clear out the old folks so as to make room for youngsters. Did Harden say something mean about Feldman or his work?

  5. Lewontin: “you do not understand, it is a political battle in the United States. All means are justified to win this battle.”

    I suppose those who crushed anyone who dared to oppose Lysenko would understand that sentiment.

    But I don’t.

  6. “… she is sincere, earnest and a legitimate political progressive/liberal.”

    Gornisht helfen, bubbe*. Leftists always go after other members of their cult. It consolidates their power and eliminates sources of arguments that outsiders could use against them.

    During the French Revolution, Journalist Mallet du Pan coined the adage “A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants” “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”

    The show trials of the 1930s were directed by Stalin against the Old Bolsheviks who had been Stalin’s comrades during the first desperate years of the revolution. Koestler’s novel “Darkness at Noon” dramatizes the plight of the Old Bolsheviks.

    Of course, Trotsky, the most brilliant member of the first Central Committee, and indispensable generalissimo of the Red Army during the Civil War, got an ice axe in the back of his head.

    *Yiddish: it won’t help you grandma. What the Jewish Vampire said to the woman who held up a cross to ward him off.

  7. I have some echo of Twinkie’s comment, in that Harden seems like a Progressive to me, and so I’m not sure whether it seems like a good thing that an ideological Progressive synthesis with the science (which she seems to aim to achieve) would be delayed or blocked by this sort of in fighting.

    (Progressive as in, if I were to define it all dictionary-like, ‘a person who believes in rationally guided, centrally managed social change towards some goal, for the better, which they would manage’. Exactly one of the sorts of people I would not trust with any technology or science or form of political power, let alone to guide this one.).

    @Douglas Knight: Assuming that a psychological trait is normally distributed is a substantial assumption. Constructs are usually designed to satisfy this.

    Could you explain some more of your thinking about this? Is this along the lines that, although an underlying trait may be normally distributed, individuals may be slotted from this a scale that is not normally distributed. (E.g. you could turn IQ from a normally distributed variable into a discrete uniform distribution by reparametrizing it as “Quintiles of the IQ distribution” etc.)?

    (For example, educational attainment, not really a psychological trait, as often measured, is not really normally distribution as I understand it. In either the mode that simply measures Less Than High School, High School, College, or educational years. Though the underlying associated genetic traits may be.)

  8. @Matt

    seems like a Progressive to me, and so I’m not sure whether it seems like a good thing that an ideological Progressive synthesis with the science (which she seems to aim to achieve)

    As is frequently the case in ideological, religious or political matters, there are only two sides: for or against.

  9. Wasn’t his style of arguing just to spitefully call people racist for their observations of differences in biology, because it violated his Marxist view of genetics?

  10. Agree with the above commentators. I have no sympathy for Harden. “Sincere, earnest and legitimate political progressives/liberals” shouldn’t be surprised when even more sincere, earnest and legitimate progressive/liberals throw them under the bus. Something something, as you sow, so you shall reap.

  11. Matt,

    Sure, you can transform the distribution into anything by defining it directly from quantiles. But that only comes up late in the game. Most constructs are defined by counting the answers from a questionnaire. If the questions have some independence, the results will be normal. This will encourage the tester to believe that it should be normal and to choose new questions to reinforce the normality. Sometimes testers will use item response theory to reduce the independence, but increase the normality.

Comments are closed.