Genetics, Science / Tech

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 untethered ourselves from myth and fable, and comprehend the world in a way that our ancestors were unable to fathom. We haven’t solved every mystery, of course, but that only means that what resides ahead of us is a treasure trove of discovery and insight. We should be excited and we should be fearless in our quest to understand everything we can about our world. Yet, some have reservations. These concerns arise from how other, less enlightened, members of our species might use knowledge for reprehensible purposes. They rightly worry about the plight of less fortunate members of our world, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, members of imperiled minority groups, and those who have faced decade after decade of loathsome treatment. Their humanity compels them to care, and I share their all of their concerns.

Yet, I would humbly suggest that you are, inadvertently, rigging the deck in favor of the very ill-motived people you intend to guard against. Recently some colleagues and I, for instance, have been openly debating a rather fraught subject; the source of achievement gaps in modern society. Our partners in the debate have publicly and privately expressed concern about the irresponsibility of making certain arguments about the sources of an achievement gap. Our colleagues worry that members of the public who harbor animus toward minority individuals will seize upon any foothold that they can to justify their inhumanity. The problem is, our colleagues don’t realize just how correct they are. Those bent on discrimination will use any bit of knowledge to their advantage; knowledge that is real or imagined. This is, in fact, the crux of the issue; the hate and bias that you worry about will not be ameliorated by painting a certain picture of the world. I wish it were that easy. Hate runs deeper than that.

We need a strategy that insulates us from hate, no matter what empirical research uncovers about the world. Part of this strategy involves a system of laws that disavows systemic bias against individuals because of some trait that they embody. Do we really need to know the underlying causes of sexual orientation to make a case for the moral worth of all humans? No, we do not. Realizing this frees us to understand what the causes of sexual orientation are, promulgate them openly in the way that the ethical cannon of science demands of us, and still denounce the mistreatment of individuals because of their orientation. I implore you not to cede any ground to those misguided souls in society. We do not need specific versions of empirical realities to exist in order to realize that we’re all capable of suffering, that the properties of our central nervous system equip us to feel sorrow and anguish. We already have every reason we ever needed to advocate fairness and decency. My hero Charles Darwin, by all accounts a good and decent man, stole from us the idea that we are products of special creation, made in the image of a loving god. We were clumsily assembled piecemeal by an emotionless process of selection. And yet, our worth—the worth of all human beings—is not diminished one iota because of it.

We should be united in the idea that nothing in science will overturn the imperative to treat all individuals as sentient creatures capable of feeling great happiness, and also great suffering. We do not need the natural world to exist in a certain way in order to ensure the moral worth of all creatures who inhabit it. To suggest otherwise is so very dangerous. I urge you not to take that risk.

Warmest regards and best wishes,

Brian Boutwell

Filed under: Genetics, Science / Tech


Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. His research interests include the biological evolution of human traits, genetic and environmental underpinnings of human violence, and general intelligence. His published articles have appeared in PLOS One, Behavior Genetics, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Psychiatric Research, Criminology, and Social Science and Medicine as well as others. He was also a coeditor of The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality (Sage).


  1. “We need a strategy that insulates us from hate, no matter what empirical research uncovers about the world.”

    The idea that we should be insulated from hate is a ruse. Everybody hates, but only certain kinds of hate are wrong. Generally hate coming from whites is objectionable. Hate coming from minorities is fine. Hating all those who do not agree with equality is also fine.

    Being insulated from hate is actually exceptionally dangerous. During World War II the allies hated the Japanese and German people. The allied military nuked the Japanese people and bombed the German people. Today this would be a violation of their civil rights and a war crime. Under today’s rules the allies could not defeat Japan and Germany.

    Today the West cannot defeat terrorism when the solution is so obvious: Ban Islam. That would be a violation of their civil rights, but so what. It would solve the problem. Instead, we ban hate. Welcome to more terrorism.

    • So hate from minorities against innocent whites is “fine”?

      Battering an innocent white kid because of colonialism or an innocent Jewish kid because of Zionism is “fine”?

      What you are advocating is a BRONZE-AGE morality, one that the Biblical prophet Ezekiel rejected as he proclaimed that children do not have to suffer for their father’s sins.

    • simalex says

      “Generally hate coming from whites is objectionable. Hate coming from minorities is fine”

      this is a loathsome worldview.

  2. DiscoveredJoys says

    I understand the entreaty, sympathise even, yet it reminded me of the Non-overlapping magisteria idea of science vs religion. Each to their own magisteria. The criticism was that in practice religion is not divorced from scientific matters or the material world.

    So extend the argument to science being insulated from the hate, a New Noma. Once again the criticism is that in practice science cannot be not insulated from religious matters or cultural norms. Sorry.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      Ignore the double negative, if you would, please.

  3. Daniel Burston says

    I think Brian Boutwell is right on target. As human beings, we have a moral obligation to treat every other human being with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation. As scientists, we have an obligation to try to discover the truth about the nature and causes of human sexualities, regardless of the the political “spin” others may put on our findings. The irrational politicization of scientific finds is not just something that happens on the Right. It happens on the Left as well, and when it does many social justice warriors succumb to and/or promote a dangerous kind of “group think” that is positively Orwellian.

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      “As human beings, we have a moral obligation to treat every other human being with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

      I’ll agree – but this view has not been common across all cultures past and present. Some scientists believe that ‘morals’ are just social memes rather than absolutes. Are some social memes more or less harmful than others? Yes, I think so. But science and economics isn’t good enough yet to give a definitive answer, and may never be. Sam Harris wrote “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values” but lots of people thought he hadn’t justified the view enough to be compelling. Maybe one day.

  4. The evidence that we live in a society driven by reason is very thin. 72% of Americans claim they believe in angels. Faith, authority, and tribal identity continue to provide most people’s epistemological foundations. (This includes not just traditional religions but faith in scientism and new age communitarianism.) Such people can be easily swayed by demogogues appealing to this faith who promise the impossible and demonize rival tribes. Magnify all this by a corrupt and corrupting media and you have a recipe for the self-destruction of Western democracies, which we are witnessing with our very eyes. Shielding ourselves from discomfiting lines of thought is small beer.

  5. kurtzs says

    The source of human values is evolutionary, including the cultural inputs in our histories. To claim that there is a “moral obligation to…” is anthropogenic, and futures differ: Sharia Laws do not agree with Judeo-Christian values, for example.

    From a planetary point of view, humans are a plague species, having quadrupled in the lifetime of some living individuals who have hit the century mark. In the process, we have begun a Sixth Extinction of other species. (most insects, bacteria, viruses…excepted) To call our species sacred is our Achilles heel; it is the product of superstition and myth. Served us well until we became too successful biologically. See the review of Rees’ book:

    • Michael says

      I ask this of all anti-humanists who suggest that humans represent a “plague” (and then usually recommend a drastic reduction in human population). That is, do you volunteer to go first? That is, to the suicide cliff.

      • kurtzs says

        Ever hear of a sterility virus? One effective only on the superstitious might leave a rational species as the remainder, with a far more probabilistic way of governance than our current idiocy. Ever hear of the Four Horsemen? Nature will cull us the hard way. As to suicide, that’s for those who don’t enjoy life. I’m a sustainable hedonist!

    • Kurt says

      Re:From a planetary point of view, humans are a plague species.

      Absurd. Without people, the point of the planet would be what? It’s preservation or destruction would matter how? How about the point of the universe? The very idea of a plague is a human construct.

      • kurtzs says

        Nature is *not* a human construct. Plagues existed before humans, and will afterwards barring total planetary destruction.

        Suggest you google “Anthropocene”, and ask yourself why only human values matter!

  6. Santoculto says

    ”less enlightened, members of our species might use knowledge for reprehensible purposes”

    Who who who

  7. Santoculto says

    ”Our colleagues worry that members of the public who harbor animus toward minority individuals will seize upon any foothold that they can to justify their inhumanity.”

    Provocative versus reactive actions.

    Many of this loved ”minority individuals” are PROVOCATIVE, ”they” cause more problems than solve them.

    Indeed, a reactionary person don’t look so bad at all.

    ”Inhumanity” can be reactive or provocative, but the most malignant of all is always bad-intentioned provocative actions, basically a predator or a parasite.

  8. reid says

    The issue is not merely ‘hate’ — it’s narrative collapse. All of us belong to tribes that tell stories about history and the ways the world works. To the degree that these stories are legitimized as events unfold, the myths and authorities of our tribes are legitimized, and to the degree that the narratives are discredited, so are they.

    The stories that one tribe has been telling about ‘achievement gaps’ for the last half-century are beginning to wear thin. Those who believe these myths can sense that their tribe’s legitimacy is fading to new challenges. It’s not simply a ‘fear of hate’ that must be overcome — it’s the collapse of a system of meaning generated by this tribe’s narratives, and along with it their ability to confidently speak about the world.

    Every ancient tribe defeated in battle was forced to reckon with their gods abandoning them. This story is not a new one. But I do not envy any in their place.

  9. Lyle Young says

    I am not a colleague in the academy and so I don’t handle theoretical expositions very well unless they are followed by “For instance,…” that would put some meat on those words. Many elevated arguments fall apart when such an attempt is made and that is why they are so needed.

  10. Michael says

    I posted this comment on the the primary article to which this one refers.

    Here’s the comment, which refers to the research regarding IQ and heritability, in particular the putative racial IQ gap:

    While the hereditarian explanation for intelligence as measured by IQ tests may very well be true (Intelligence is roughly 60% heritable), the question that comes to mind is this: What is the obsession with this line of research? Why pursue it? What is the actual scientific or social value of such findings, one way or another?
    In the end, I see no way around the likelihood that if the hereditarian explanation gained favor, it would be used politically as a justification for cutting social spending on the relatively low-IQ groups.

    What other function does this line of inquiry serve? I don’t see it.

    • reid says

      >In the end, I see no way around the likelihood that if the hereditarian explanation gained favor, it would be used politically as a justification for cutting social spending on the relatively low-IQ groups.

      I think it’s more likely that ‘soft eugenics’ would gain popular favor, and enhancing the genetic basis of intelligence for one’s child will become de rigeur (for *all* people). With genetic editing, the possibility of eliminating much of these gaps opens up. One great fear is that it opens up only, or disproportionately for the rich, but we’re not that far along yet.

      • Michael says

        Yes, this is better known as “liberal eugenics,” Liberal eugenics as it has been called, will be private, controlled by parents, and not mandated by the state. Liberal eugenics stresses individual, private choice rather than the fantasies of racial or other supremacists. Private or liberal eugenics, advocates argue, will help parents create children free of genetic disease and possessing the traits for greater success and happiness.

        Liberal eugenics is part of the trans humanist project. I believe it will proceed apace regardless of the outcome of this debate. And, you are right, the chances that it will be differentially available to potential parents along income lines is great. Thus, it will likely exacerbate the already widening gap between rich and poor.

    • Myron Gaines says

      What’s wrong with stopping social spending on futile causes?

      • Michael says

        “What’s wrong with stopping social spending futile causes?”

        Nothing, theoretically. But imagine the riots that would likely ensue. They would make Evergreen State protestors look like a Church choir by comparison.

        • Myron Gaines says

          Yeah, it will make the Bell Curve War look civil and polite in comparison.

          But nobody says we have to stop helping lower IQ groups altogether. In fact, I think we should help Blacks and Hispanics become the best they can be. As a group, their ceiling will be lower than that of Whites, but that’s no reason to abandon them. They can be productive citizens that fulfill many needed economic niches in society.

          • Michael says

            As it is, we are handing them doctoral degrees for dissertations titled “Whiteness Is Genocide,” and the like. They become professional protesters posing as intellectuals. They parade their “credentials” on their Twitter handles, using “Dr.” this and that, while every other Ph.D. knows better than to hand-wave and demand deference. In these cases, the Ph.D. has been rendered utterly meaningless. This isn’t about to end anytime soon. Expect its acceleration to the point that the identity itself will be the only academic “credential” considered in hiring. We are close to that already.

        • SantOCulto says

          Evergreen protestors show us that

          Intelligence is not IQ

          Quantitative eugenics will not finally “eliminate” this stupid and dangerous people.

          Many them don’t lack IQ, they lack RATIONALITY.

    • Gerhard says

      You say that “if the hereditarian explanation gained favor, it would be used politically as a justification for cutting social spending on the relatively low-IQ groups”. Are you serious? Starting in the 1960s, intellectuals kept pounding the point that social disadvantages have nothing to do with genes, until most people (or at least the more gullible) actually believed it. 30 years ahead, in the 90s, when everyone had imbibed this dogma, America experienced a massive anti-welfare movement, at the same time when mud-slinging intellectuals were waging their war against Herrnstein & Murray. What had happened? People saw that some sections of society were still “disadvantaged” although environmental disadvantages had been dismantled to a large extent. They had also been told that disadvantages cannot be blamed on genes. Guess what they did? They blamed the victims, concluding that poverty is poor people’s own fault and that poor people don’t deserve assistance! Scientists know only genes and environment as causes of individual variation. For common people, the fundamental distinction is between causes and “own fault”. What this implies is that revealing true causes, whether genetic or whatever, usually leads to the most benign outcomes.

  11. kurtzs says

    Those not understanding that ecology and biology are the ultimate parameters of systemic value on earth are doomed to repeat Easter Island.

  12. Myron Gaines says

    As my friends (on Twitter and IRL) know, I am an American of Indian origin. Despite what you may expect, I’m also a hereditarian.

    I think too many people involved in this debate don’t see the current dysfunctions of the environmentalist regime.

    Is it right to castigate Blacks when they inevitably fail to match Whites even with equal investment in their public schooling? Or to make increasingly dubious accusations of “systemic racism” against Whites?

    Is it right to think Greeks or South Italians will ever be as productive as Germans or Britons, and then get angry when they fail to live up to that impossible standard?

    Is it right to think Russia or India can solve their intractable problems of corruption and clientelism, and become as transparent and honorable as Scandinavia?

    I think the sooner we accept human biodiversity, the faster we can start coming up with new solutions for all parts of society. We could use standardized exams as hiring tools without worrying about nonsense like “disparate impact.” We could create more Gurgaons throughout India to minimize the issue of government…and thus, corruption.

    • Jimmy Bobbins says

      Myron: not only are you messing up cause and effect (not taking into account the detrimental effects that belonging to a particular socioeconomic status has on MANY spheres on life, which CAN’T be solved by just adjusting -to some extent, which may o may not be done “successfully”- one of the many variables that come into play, i. e. education), but also you’re assuming some kind of homogeneity among those groups, which in fact doesn’t exist (a “group” is a mere analytical construct, to which we measure such variables as IQ… the biggest issue with that is that you cannot draw a limit on a group so as to have the right amount of individuals satisfying all conditions).
      Homogeneity is an assumption. It’d be just like assuming you’re as alike as a whole bunch of indians just because of your origins, therefore imputing traits that are (allegedly, and this must be proven systematically right) associated with such a group: c’est-à-dire your “indianness” (if such a thing exists!).
      Are you an indian? Are you a northamerican? What should we do with you and your relatives? I’m not trying to appeal to a “consequentialist” argument, I just pretend to show you how difficult it is to suscribe a person within a given group.
      To state that environmental approach is wrong doesn’t mean we can wickedly disregard scientific method and take hereditarian approach as automatically true. We are still binded to academic rigor. Everything we say, we must say it clearly and straightforwardly. And so variables must be defined and assumptions must be explicitly stated.

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  14. To be frank, I think this article is silly at best, and its implications are what seem more likely dangerous to me (I explain why here:

    In short: this “we already know better” attitude convinces no one who disagrees. It is philosophically bankrupt. I am consistently disappointed by the classical liberal voices–with whom I agree about many things in terms of conclusions (specifically about liberty, rights, open dialogue, and so on)–inasmuch as they insist, mostly implicitly, upon a non-metaphysical establishment of inviolable goodness. It amounts to little more than, when pressed as to why we ought to do the things they say, a sputtering of, “B-b-because… feelings!”

    With all due respect to Dr. Boutwell, I think we need to do better than this.

    • LukeReeshus says

      With all due respect to Dr. Boutwell, I think we need to do better than this.

      Meaning what, exactly? Because from what I glean about social activists who sneer at classical liberalism, their “better” solution involves promoting divisive and incoherent identity politics.

      • Hi Luke,

        It’s probable that my terse comment was misleading. To be clear, I have far more in common with the average classical liberal than I do with any social activist/justice warrior that I’ve met. But I think the first principles of both classical liberalism and the contemporary ideological movements towards totalitarianism are the same. Consequently, the arguments Boutwell is raising cannot be defended against any form of such ideologies (social justice and ethnonationalist alike), as classical liberalism in an empiriometric epistemological tradition rests on no more solid foundation for its philosophy of culture than do its opponents.

        Essentially, therefore, the argument becomes one of “My opinion is better than your opinion even though I unequivocally denounce any means of rational proof for that claim.”

        In other words, if we’re going to say that equality is good, we can’t just say, “because it is.” This is where I think we need to do better.

        Dr. Krampus

        • LukeReeshus says

          First, thanks for the thoughtful reply. Second, have you read Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism? In it, he argues quite persuasively that totalitarian ideologies are a reaction to liberalism, which he defines as “the tolerant idea that every sphere of human activity—science, technology, politics, religion, and private life—should operate independently of the others, without trying to yoke everything together under a single guiding hand.”

          Now, I’m not sure there is any “rational proof” with which we can claim such an idea is philosophically “better” than a totalitarian alternative. Berman admits as much when he writes of “liberalism not as a rigid doctrine but as a state of mind, a way of thinking about life and reality.”

          However, the pragmatic case for structuring societies according to that idea is quite strong. They are generally more peaceful, both internally and externally, and their citizens get to do more interesting things. People tend to forget that though, because—here’s the real problem—liberalism is not as psychologically satisfying as immersive, all-encompassing ideologies. It will thus always be vulnerable.

          But hey, if you can come up with some “first principles” that ground it more stably, I say more power to you.

          • Luke,
            Always glad to have civil discourse.

            I’ve not read Berman’s book; but I think, based on what you are saying, that the appeal to pragmatism, while attractive, will not really hold up against totalitarian ideologies. People do yearn for that deeper psychological satisfaction, including a cohesion of the spheres of human activity. Liberalism’s tendency to segment our lives is problematic, and allows these radical ideologies to grow like so many noxious weeds in the interstices.

            I can’t really point towards a ready-made solution, unfortunately, because I think the answers are only now beginning to emerge in a philosophical project (Peircean semiotics) which will likely take decades or more to unfold. To affect a cohesive manner of living–personal and political, scientific and religious, and so on–requires a shift not just in public discourse, but a fundamental alteration in our collective epistemology and metaphysics. Liberalism is grounded on beliefs about the human person which I think are radically flawed, but also today implicitly accepted as true by most people living in the Western world. This makes it a very difficult issue to address; but nevertheless a critical one.

            Dr. Krampus

  15. You cannot ‘truly understand the world’ if you ‘untether yourself from myth and fable’. Ignore the collected ancient wisdom of the people of the past at your peril. Pure empiricism is cancer.

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