All posts filed under: Genetics

No Voice at VOX: Sense and Nonsense about Discussing IQ and Race

Sam Harris, a noted commentator, recently had a podcast discussion with Charles Murray about the reaction to the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994. It is an informative, respectful discussion and I urge you to listen to it. Shortly after this podcast, the popular online news site VOX.com, ran a piece with the headline: “Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ—Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.” The piece mostly restates old arguments that continue to misrepresent what The Bell Curve actually said about race and genetics. It is based on a selective reading of the research literature and the assertion of facts that are not supported by a weight-of-evidence. There is nothing new or original in the arguments and these arguments have been challenged many times by other experts in the field. Nonetheless, VOX gave new life to the false narrative that Murray is “peddling junk science” about average IQ score differences among racial/ethnic groups being genetic and therefore some groups are genetically inferior. 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 …

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 …

A Tale of Two Bell Curves

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic” ~ John F. Kennedy 1962 To paraphrase Mark Twain, an infamous book is one that people castigate but do not read. Perhaps no modern work better fits this description than The Bell Curve by political scientist Charles Murray and the late psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein. Published in 1994, the book is a sprawling (872 pages) but surprisingly entertaining analysis of the increasing importance of cognitive ability in the United States. It also included two chapters that addressed well-known racial differences in IQ scores (chapters 13-14). After a few cautious and thoughtful reviews, the book was excoriated by academics and popular science writers alike. A kind of grotesque mythology grew around it. It was depicted as a tome of racial antipathy; a thinly veiled expression of its authors’ bigotry; an epic scientific fraud, full of slipshod scholarship and outright lies. As hostile reviews piled up, the real Bell Curve, a sober and judiciously argued …

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 …

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 …