The Genetics Profession Confronts its Troublesome Inheritance

On August 8, a remarkable letter appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Written by a group of five leading evolutionary geneticists and signed by another 135, it repudiated the main conclusions of Nicolas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Wade was for many years the main science reporter for the New York Times covering developments in genetics and biology. His book purported to summarize the main findings of the research he had been covering: that the European, African, and Asian races are genetically defined and that they have faced different evolutionary pressures that have given them what he claimed are different intellectual, behavioral, and civilizational capacities.

The book has been widely reviewed and, apart from a glowing endorsement from conservative policy writer Charles Murray, has received largely negative assessments. Wade’s main response has been that the commentators lack the stature and expertise to criticize his ideas. Thus, when the 135 scientists, many of whom Wade cites as his own authorities, blasted his argument as “incomplete and inaccurate” and with “no support from the field of population genetics,” his thesis had been dealt a mortal blow.

But to understand what makes the move of these geneticists so remarkable, you need some history and sociology of claims that genetic science explains racial differences in intellect and behavior.

In 1969, educational psychologist Arthur Jensen used ideas from the emerging field of behavior genetics in an article claiming that the IQ and educational achievement gaps between black and white children were due in large part to genetic differences between the races, and that educational efforts to close the gap must therefore fail. This was the era of intense conflicts over civil rights and President Johnson’s Great Society. Jensen’s writings sparked student protests and heated academic debates. Not surprisingly many education scholars, social scientists, and psychologists denounced Jensen’s work, but so too did many geneticists. In 1975, 1,390 members of the Genetics Society of America co-signed a statement that said “there is no convincing evidence as to whether there is or is not an appreciable genetic difference in intelligence between races” and over nine hundred had signed a stronger repudiation of Jensen’s work.

The IQ and race controversy was traumatic for researchers interested in genes and behavior. As debates raged about science, politics, and ethics of the research, the field fragmented into mutually distrusting groups and many geneticists completely abandoned behavior as a topic.

A quarter century later psychologist Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, an 845 page doorstop that made a very similar argument to Jensen’s: the lack of success of Latinos and African Americans relative to whites and Asians has a strong genetic basis. American inequality, they argued, is mostly genetic. This time, the response was very different. Social scientists and liberal pundits decried the work, criticizing the science and linking it to the history of scientific racism. However, biologists and geneticists largely ignored the debate. Those who tried to intervene, like Stephen J. Gould, were often perceived as politically, rather than scientifically, motivated. Geneticist David Botstein explained his peers’ silence: The Bell Curve “is so stupid that it is not rebuttable.” Members of the Human Genome Project’s (HGP) Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) division hoped to organize project leadership to publicly distance genetics from the book’s racial ideas. It took two years for an ELSI statement to be allowed to appear in a specialist genetics journal, but HGP leadership remained publicly quiet. Soon thereafter ELSI was reorganized and its public activism discouraged.

We tend to think of a scientist’s public responsibility as a matter of individual commitment. But it has much to do with the structure and culture of scientific communities. The IQ controversy from the 1970s had spurred changes driving geneticists’ disengaged approach to The Bell Curve in the 1990s. Conflicts fragmented the research community so geneticists rarely interacted with behavioral scientists and weren’t comfortable engaging their claims critically. Mistrust made it impossible to see public criticism as legitimately scientific rather than purely political. And the outsourcing of ethics to ELSI made it difficult for many geneticists to see the public interpretation of scientific controversies as their business.

The genetic evidence for racial behavioral differences hasn’t changed in the 45 years since Jensen wrote, but geneticists’ public responses have. The recent collective response to Wade’s book is heartening because it indicates that geneticists are coming to see that a new approach to the public interpretation of their science is needed. Because it aims to tell us about human similarities and differences, capacities and potential for change, there will always be a public politics to genetics. The difficult work of the public interpretation of contentious issues cannot be left to social scientists and ethicists (whose genetics credentials will be questioned) or to individual geneticists (whose motivations will be questioned). This group will take heat for their stand, but they cannot be doubted as scientists or marginalized as individuals. They will learn, I believe, that being political in this way—soundly criticizing public misappropriations of their research—can only be good for the long term legitimacy of genetics.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Aaron Panofsky

Aaron Panofsky is Associate Professor in Public Policy and the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA. His recent book, Misbehaving Science considers the scientific and political controversies surrounding behavior genetics.