'I expected people to agree with me. And I expected people to disagree with me. What I didn't expect was for people to agree with me, for me to agree with them, for me to quote them, and then for those people to write as if they were disagreeing with me. It's really disorienting.'
This isn't from the Intelligence Squared podcast, 'The Genetic Lottery – DNA demystified with Kathryn Paige Harden' which aired in December 2021, but rather from a piece that Professor Harden wrote a month later, responding to a long critical review of her book, 'The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality' (see BioNews 1117) by Professor Graham Coop and Professor Molly Przeworski, both very informed academics. 'We are unconvinced', Professor Coop tweet-summarised, 'by the book's centering of genetics in debates about social and economic inequities; rather, it seems to us to follow a long tradition of selling human genetics as a solution to societal problems.'
If nothing else this highlights the confusing, sometimes confused, and undoubtedly highly charged world of human behaviour genetics and politics. The Intelligence Squared podcast is a gentler affair, but by way of contrast if nothing else, none-the-worse for that. Over the course of just under an hour, Professor Harden is given the opportunity to explain some of her motivations and key points.
'Why did you want to write this book', asked interviewer Helen Lewis. Firstly, 'The DNA revolution is here', replied Professor Harden, 'it's going to influence people's lives... sort of regardless of what they do... so I think it's important for people to understand what are scientists doing with that information, how do we link genetics not just to things like height or disease but to things like intelligence or personality or how far children go in school. So part of my goal in writing this book was to explain the science and clear up a lot of myths and misunderstandings.'
Secondly, it was to challenge what Professor Harden sees as the dominant story that is told about genetics and genetic differences, how it is seen to 'naturalises inequality... that genetics is an enemy of equality.' 'I personally don't see it that way', she said.
What Professor Harden wants to do is explore how equality does and could work in a world of genetic differences. In summary, 'I thought it was important to describe how I, as someone who is committed to equality, but also has spent a lot of time thinking about the science and its limitations, think of these things going together.'
As Lewis goes on to note, it is not just intelligence but also differences in things like grit (determination) that Professor Harden and others see as being influenced by genetic differences. It is not hard to see why some people's instinct is to recoil from this, especially given Professor Harden's response to Lewis' probing on this point: 'if those genes shape our biology in such a way that we are more likely to be persistent or are more likely to delay gratification... then that line between agency and credit and desert, what we deserve,... starts to get muddled to the point of disappearing.' For her critics such as Professor Coop, this is the path back to the 'long tradition of selling human genetics as a solution to societal problems.'
Professor Harden expands on what she means by the disappearance of agency, credit and desert, and responds to Professors Coop and Przeworski in particular, at the end of this piece. It is well worth a read. At one level this is a long-standing and important debate about causality. But at another level, for Professor Harden this is a bridge to thinking about what we could achieve through policy interventions. In particular, she wants us to consider the merits of equity as compared with equality, especially equality of opportunity.
For Professor Harden, given the reality and importance of genetic differences, policies based on equality of opportunity may simply entrench inequality. If genetic differences are not considered, explicitly and transparently, we often simply get the Matthew Effect: 'For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.'
The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 embodies the equity perspective, argues Professor Harden. It takes account of difference and mandates modifications to create more of a level playing field. Professor Harden argues that we need to extend this way of doing things from physical differences to psychological differences, and we need to consider genetic differences in doing this.
The final third of the podcast explores these issues. Professor Harden is clear that she is not calling for a genetically based 'personalised education', or similar things in other areas. What remains unclear to me, or put another way, what I remain unconvinced about, is just what, specifically, genetic knowledge adds to the equity perspective that isn't already given by the phenotypic presentation of difference, whatever the complex causes of that difference. Nevertheless, the concluding section, like the rest of the podcast, is a fascinating listen.