31 Search Results for: boutwell

Is Sociogenomics Racist?

The publication of Blueprint (2018) by the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin has revived the old debate about whether there’s something inherently racist or right-wing about looking for biological causes of human behavior. The subtitle of Plomin’s book—How DNA Makes Us Who We Are—makes it sound as if he’s a full-blooded hereditarian and that has led to a predictable outcry from long-standing opponents of this “dangerous” intersection where the natural sciences and the behavioral sciences meet. (To read an extract from Blueprint, click here.) To its opponents, sociogenomics—or social genomics—of which Plomin is a leading practitioner, sounds suspiciously like sociobiology. When the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson published a book of that name in 1975, it was greeted with passionate opposition by a group of left-wing scientists who had assembled under the banner of ‘Science for the People,’ originally an anti-Vietnam War protest group. The biologists in that organization, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends up until this point, formed the ‘Sociobology Study Group’ and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a …

Biosocial Criminology and the Lombrosian Paradox

Last October, Quillette published an article by Hal Conick, crisply abridging Robert Sapolsky’s biologically based argument for criminal justice reform. Sapolsky, a neurobiology professor at Stanford University, has spent his career researching a range of topics including neuronal degeneration, infraspecific dominance hierarchies, stress, and violence, especially in relation to the behaviour of primates.  Over the years, Sapolsky has found that much of the antisocial behaviour we see and criminalize in human beings manifests similarly, biologically speaking, in our hominid relatives. Coupled with his extensive training in neuroscience, Sapolsky has used the findings of this simian research to argue for shifts in criminal justice policy—from the current system, which relies on an esoteric conception of ‘free will’ that can be needlessly retributive, to a system emphasizing public safety. In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Sapolsky argues that “you can’t begin to understand things like aggression, competition, cooperation, and empathy without biology,” a caveat he quite rightly issues, “for the benefit of a certain breed of social scientist who …

Rethinking Gender, Sexuality, and Violence

Over the past two weeks, America has been rocked by the revelation that the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein has engaged in numerous instances of sexual harassment and possibly even sexual assault. In response, the actress Alyssa Milano began a social media campaign to raise awareness of these forms of abuse in the world at large, tweeting: While Milano may have had the admirable goal of drawing attention to a serious issue, the subsequent narrative that has been presented has not been entirely accurate, and a non-trivial amount of ugliness has also been unleashed. In the mainstream and on social media, we’ve been told that that all women live under constant threat and that all men are part of the problem.1 If a man had the audacity to say #MeToo and point out that he had also been a victim, he might have been ridiculed for being insensitive to women: One columnist admonished “nice guys” that they were most likely responsible for the bulk of the problem and bore the responsibility for fixing it.3 The …

A Risk Not Worth Taking: An Open Letter to My Colleagues in The Academy

Dear Colleagues: What an interesting world we inhabit in 2017. On one hand, there has never been a better time to be alive. Violence has been declining for some time, vaccines ward off previously intractable diseases, and basic human rights have continued to creep into parts of the world where they were previously absent. Yet, at the same time, we find ourselves increasingly polarized in certain respects. What we do as scholars invariably becomes injected into the heart of many of these key societal debates. Basic empirical questions—such as “is the world getting warmer, and if so, are we humans causing it to happen?” can ignite strong feelings and heated rancor. You don’t have to study climate to find yourself swept up in the fray, either. Almost no corner of science is fully immune from stoking a controversy. It is because of this reality, that I write to you. Never in the history of our species have we understood so much about the world we inhabit. I mean that we truly understand it. We have …

Getting Voxed: Charles Murray, Ideology, and the Debate on IQ

“The impulse to think that environmental sources of differences are less threatening than genetic ones is natural but illusory.” Charles Murray “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of the truth than lies.” Friedrich Nietzsche   Recently, the popular online political outlet Vox published an article in response to Charles Murray’s interview on Sam Harris’s “Waking Up”1 podcast that illustrates the insidious effect ideology can exert on science. The article, written by a group of esteemed scholars, Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, contended that Murray is still “peddling junk science” about race and intelligence, thereby duping otherwise critical scholars like Harris with pseudo-scholarship and sophistry. The article attempts a moderate, scientifically sound criticism of hereditarianism (i.e., the contention that at least part of the Black-White IQ gap is genetic). Unfortunately, the result is a tendentious and ideologically skewed attack on Murray that forwards cherry picked studies, ignores copious data, and dismisses the impressive explanatory power of hereditarianism with a wagging finger of moral disapproval. Turkheimer et al did not dispute many of the most important points discussed …

Epigenetics Has Become Dangerously Fashionable

For the past few years, social scientists have been buzzing over a particular topic in molecular biology—gene regulation. The hype has been building steam for some time, but recently, it rocketed to the forefront of public discussion due to a widely circulated piece in the New Yorker. Articles on the topic are almost always fascinating: They often give the impression that this particular area of biology stands poised to solve huge mysteries of human development. While that conclusion may be appropriate in fields like medicine and other related disciplines, a number of enthusiasts have openly speculated about its ability to also explain lingering social ills like poverty, crime, and obesity. The trouble is, this last bit isn’t really a feeling shared by many of the genetics experts. Social scientists’ excitement surrounds what we can refer to broadly as transgenerational epigenetics. To understand why social scientists have become enamored with it, we must first consider basic genetics. Many metaphors exist for describing and understanding the genome; they all capture the reality that genes provide the information …

Not Everything Is An Interaction

Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. Whether his famous equation of E=mc2 means much to you or not, I think we can all concur on the intellectual prowess—and stunning hair—of Einstein. But where did his brilliance come from? Environment? Perhaps his parents fed him lots of fish (it’s supposed to be brain food, after all). Genetics? Surely Albert hit some sort of genetic lottery—oh that we should all be so lucky. Or does the answer reside in some combination of the two? How very enlightened: both genes and environment interact and intertwine to yield everything from the genius of Einstein to the comedic talent of Lewis Black. Surely, you cannot tease their impact apart; DNA and experience are hopelessly interlocked. Except, they’re not. Believing that they are is wrong; it’s a misleading mental shortcut that has largely sown confusion in the public about human development, and thus it needs to be retired. Despite strong genetic influences on IQ (and there are strong genetic influences on IQ), we can’t calculate the proportion of credit for Einstein’s intellect that …

On Parenting and Parents

It’s been a little over a year since my first article on parenting appeared in the pages of Quillette. Soon after publication, the essay began receiving quite a bit of attention; both positive and negative. This is to be expected for a topic that is as personally relevant to people as this one. People either have children of their own, or know what it is like to be someone’s child. We all have skin in this part of the game. My argument in that essay was somewhat incendiary, as I was suggesting that little evidence exists for pervasive and long-lasting parenting influences on child development. I still maintain that position; not out of a personal bias, but simply because that is what the evidence demands of me. That said, this essay is about why parenting is arguably the single most important activity in which you will engage. This is true, not because you will mould your child’s intellect or personality like a potter. Rather, this is true because your child might write a similar essay about …

Sociology’s Stagnation

Emile Durkheim is the father of modern sociology; he is a titan. Over a century ago the great man issued an edict that would forever alter — or you could say, forever derail — the course of the discipline that he established. His proclamation, paraphrased loosely, was that any social occurrence was a product of other social occurrences that came before it. Society and culture were “prime movers”, an ultimate cause of things in the world that, for its own part, had no cause. Social facts orbited in their own solar system, untethered from the psychology and biology of individual humans. It’s almost as if this idea originated from a burning bush, high on some ancient mountain, as it would to this day steer the direction of much social science thought. Durkheim’s insight would be a hall pass for social scientists to spend decades ignoring certain uncomfortable realities. Let me try and give you an idea of just how fetid the waters really are. In 1990 (over two decades ago) the sociologist Pierre van den …

Is Crime Genetic? Scientists Don’t Know Because They’re Afraid to Ask

The U.S. has made unprecedented strides in the fight against crime. Both violent and non-violent crime are way down from their highs in decades past. This is great news, of course, but the success could easily lull us into a false sense of security, believing that we have the problem solved. Indeed, what if much of what we know about the causes of crime is either deeply flawed or flat out wrong? Imagine the trial of a new drug for an ailment that is as intractable as it is lethal. Researchers find 100 people with the disease and give the new drug to the first 50 patients who show up to the clinic. The next 50 trial participants are placed into a control group and given no treatment. The drug has a truly shimmering success rate. As you may have guessed, problems abound with this experimental design. For starters, because it isn’t randomized and because preexisting differences among the participants aren’t taken into account, the study can’t answer the question: Did the new drug cause …