The Genetic Lottery

Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

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This sounded like a good book to read that would be out of my usual conservative/libertarian comfort zone. It turned out to be more irritating than illuminating, full of strawmen and facile/flawed arguments.

The "straw" thing outraged me enough to write about it in a separate post, published in my "default" blog feed.

The author, Kathryn Paige Harden, is a professor of clinical psychology at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. She is an active researcher in human genetics. I assume the science she explicates here is accurate. The problem she proposes to tackle is how the diversity arising from sexual dice-tossing can be dealt with if you are, as Harden claims to be, a "full-throated egalitarian" (not to be confused with a white-throated sparrow).

The argument here is pretty simple: Your genes are a matter of luck, and that luck can be good, bad, or indifferent. In any case, you can't be said to have "deserved" whatever benefits (or lack thereof) your genes have provided you in life. Harden concentrates on cognitive skills, and how they play out for one's educational attainment and eventual economic benefit.

Some argue that it's inherently evil to study the impact of genetics on (say) one's cognitive talent; Harden contends those folks are simply sticking their heads in the sand.

On the other hand, Harden disdains those nasty eugenicists who argue that genetics proves that some people are simply better than others.

She attempts to chart a middle course, one where genetic analysis can be used as a tool for good, mostly along the lines John Rawls outlined in A Theory of Justice, fifty years ago: design a society where inequalities of outcome are allowed if and only if such inequalities work to the relative advantage of the least well-off.

The flawed arguments start early. On page 5, she refers to a 2014 paper that claims "In the past forty years, the top 0.1 percent of Americans have seen their incomes increase by more than 400 percent, but men without a college degree haven't seen any increase in real wages since the 1960s." In case, you missed that, she repeats and italicizes: "The 1960s". And in case you missed that: "… in all that time, American men who didn't get past high school haven't gotten a raise."

This is a pretty obvious fallacy, one I assume Harden would have noticed if someone in her own field had committed it: populations are dynamic. The "American men without a college degree" in 1960 are not the same people as those in 2021. (Ditto for "the top 0.1 percent".) It's a mistake to speak of them as if they were a static group.

No question, we'd like to see people do well economically. But Harden's comment that these folks "haven't gotten a raise" is like observing that the average tree height in a forest hasn't changed in 50 years, and then claiming that implies trees in that forest aren't growing at all.

But Harden is correct on her overall (completely obvious) point: people can't be said to "deserve" their genetic inheritance. So? Harden sketches out what she calls her "anti-eugenic" prescriptions in a final chapter, making (I think) an implicit parallel with Ibram X. Kendi's "anti-racist" agenda. She contrasts her recommendations with "eugenic" policies (uniformly cartoonish) and "genome-blind" policies (derided, analogous to "color-blind" approaches to race). Basically, she advocates using genetic testing as a tool for Good, not Evil. (Gee, that was easy.) For example, identifying kids with low cognitive polygenetic indices at an early age who might need extra help. Again, being a good Rawlsian demands this. Other than dragging genetic tools into the argument, there's not that much new here.

Harden ignores the multiple rebuttals to Rawlsian concept of "justice" that have cropped up over the past decades. Here's an obvious one: it's true enough that you don't "deserve" the benefits you derive from your "good" genes. Guess what? Nobody else does either.

Here's Richard Epstein making a similar point in a Cafe Hayek Quotation of the Day from a few weeks back:

Even though talent, circumstance, and luck play a role in human behavior, we all are spared an enormous administrative burden if we mutually renounce any claim to these assets of others. A rule of self-ownership, far better than any of its alternatives, allows us to move on with the business of life. A rule of self-ownership selects the single person to be the owner of each person’s natural talent, and picks that person who in the vast majority of cases tends to value those assets the most: each obtains control over his or her own body. At least for adults (and there are, of course, qualifications for children), the rule offers the shortest path from initial entitlement to productive human activity.

Bottom line: I think Professor Harden should have stuck to the science.

Last Modified 2022-01-29 7:06 AM EDT