The Culture War is Coming for Your Genes
The logo of Science for the People, a radical science movement, and The Genetic Lottery, by Kathryn Paige Harden

The Culture War is Coming for Your Genes

Damien Morris
Damien Morris
11 min read

In the opening pages of The Genetic Lottery, Dr Kathryn Paige Harden sets out her mission: “What I am aiming to do in this book is re-envision the relationship between genetic science and equality. … I will argue that the science of individual differences is compatible with full-throated egalitarianism.” In this respect, Harden’s book bears a striking resemblance to last year’s The Cult of Smart, in which Freddie deBoer argued that “Hereditarianism [is] the best hope of a twenty-first century left” and proposed that recognising genetically based differences in academic ability was “simply taking left-wing thought to its logical conclusion.” The critical difference is that Harden is a tenured professor in the genetics of human behaviour and she is lending the full weight of her scientific credentials to this moral and political crusade. This makes The Genetic Lottery a dangerous book that threatens to make our genetic advantages and disadvantages a new front in the culture wars.

Harden begins with an overview of the latest findings of behavioural genetics and explains how “genetic variation matters for understanding whether our children will succeed in school, will be financially secure, will commit a crime.” How much does genetic variation matter for these outcomes? The results are astonishing. Genetic differences between people account for around 40 percent of the variation we observe in the years of education they obtain and in their lifetime earnings. Differences in our DNA also account for around 50 percent of the variation in violent criminal behaviour. Equally sobering is the revelation that much of the remaining variation for these traits and outcomes is not explained by the family environment (“nurture” as we normally understand it) but from idiosyncratic environmental influences that make siblings in the same family different from each other. Results like these have been replicated repeatedly using different scientific methods and explode the blank slate narrative commonly peddled by activists and social scientists that the unequal outcomes we see around us are entirely the result of structural environmental advantages and disadvantages.

How, then, does Harden reconcile these results with her egalitarian political agenda? Not, to be sure, by promoting meritocracy. “Equal opportunity,” she writes, “will necessarily reproduce inequalities that are rooted in the arbitrariness of nature.” She therefore follows deBoer in explicitly disavowing meritocracy, approvingly citing a passage in which he writes: “Equality of opportunity is … a ruse, a dodge. It’s a way for progressive people to give their blessing to inequality.” Instead, Harden argues that it isour responsibility to arrange society so that it benefits all people, not just people with a certain set of genetic characteristics.” She invites us to radically expand our definition of “structural” sources of inequality to include social environments which allow “morally arbitrary” genetic differences to give rise to unequal socioeconomic outcomes. She even goes so far as to describe societies like ours that provide such social environments as “eugenic.”

That Harden is prepared to brandish such a morally loaded term in such a broad and unusual way should encourage her readers to reserve judgement when she uses the same label to attack her contemporary intellectual opponents. But this is just one of several ways that Harden adopts the language and tactics of the contemporary social justice movement with which she makes common cause. Contemporary “anti-fascists” and “anti-racists” have defined themselves in such a way that previously respectable people are captured as “fascists” and “racists” under unrecognizably expanded definitions of those terms. Similarly, Harden describes her own political project as “anti-eugenic,” conveniently implying that anyone who disagrees with her is a eugenicist and a proto-Nazi.

But Harden shares more with the social justice movement than these linguistic tropes; she shares a whole moral framework with them: the framework of equity. Equity, Harden explains, is about giving disadvantaged people tailored support that puts them on a similar footing to their more advantaged peers. It is explicitly a philosophy of positive discrimination that can be extended to every conceivable dimension of disadvantage—including genetic disadvantage. But the legitimacy of that ethical framework stands or falls on the basis of whether the inequalities between the rich and poor, the abled and disabled, and the winners and losers of the genetic lottery can rightly be considered unjust.

To her credit, Harden valiantly attempts to support this central claim. She enlists the political philosopher John Rawls, who wrote: “The natural distribution [of genetic endowments] is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts … what is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts [emphasis added]. But as several commentators have pointed out, Rawls’s conclusion in this famous passage is a non-sequitur. One cannot consider the redistribution of economic goods and opportunities as rectifying injustice if the unequal distribution of those goods and opportunities was not unjust in the first place. This is what philosophers call a category error.

DeBoer leans into this category error in a blog post summarising his book: “The ethical logic is simple: if you did not earn your abilities but were born with them …you have less natural right to what you have earned, and if you did not deserve your disadvantages but were rather curse[d] with them at birth … you have greater moral claim to deserving help” [emphasis added]. This is incoherent. If no-one deserves the genetic or environmental advantages they were born with, it does not follow that the less advantaged deserve a share of the benefits accruing to the more advantaged. DeBoer argues that “we must leave the idea of ‘deserves’ behind” and Harden writes numerous passages to the same effect. Yet both seem all too ready to re-enlist the idea of desert when arguing that the disadvantaged have a moral claim to the fruits of other people’s labours.

Harden and deBoer seem unable to entertain the prospect that people might seek to alleviate poverty, disability, and disease simply because they believe these things are bad rather than because they are unjust. Indeed, Harden’s conviction that all social ills should be seen through the lens of inequality leads to some amusing attempts to shoehorn the most straightforward compassionate interventions into this mould. For example, she describes eyeglasses as an “equity-promoting intervention,” and proposes elsewhere that we “equalize people with regard to their access to clean water.” But we don’t fluoridate drinking water, correct poor sight, or develop vaccines to narrow the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. We do so because we want to alleviate suffering and help people. Interventions like these will often weaken the link between genetics and social disparities by reducing the depths of disadvantage into which some people might otherwise fall if left unaided. But this is incidental to the principal goal, which is certainly not to break “the causal link between genetics and … inequality.”

In a similar vein, both authors hold an unusual view of how economic rewards and social status accrue to people in a free society like our own. Both repeatedly exhibit a kind of social animism in which “society” or “the system” is seen to bestow money and social status on people based on a false hierarchy of human worth. DeBoer describes our current society as “a system that doles out wealth and hardship based on academic ability,” while Harden writes, “Just as those who harm others are punished by the state, those who ‘succeed’ in school are rewarded by society.” But, of course, the financial rewards that accrue to people in a market economy do so because the goods and services they provide are deemed valuable by their fellows, and such esteem as they enjoy in a liberal society is freely conferred by the individuals that admire them.

We might question other people’s spending decisions and be mystified by the qualities they admire, but there is no Huxleyan World Controller sorting us into Alphas and Epsilons, no central authority decreeing which attributes deserve to be remunerated or applauded. If meritocracy is taken to mean a society in which a merit tsar enforces a particular hierarchy of human worth, then meritocracy should be resisted. But that’s not how most people define meritocracy and it’s not the kind of society we live in today. Our values are not imposed on us by a cabal of malevolent eugenicists or the apostles of some “Cult of Smart.” That both authors think society currently works this way should make us nervous about the alternatives they have in mind when, for instance, deBoer talks about “tear[ing] down the system we have inherited” or when Harden talks about “arranging society” along fundamentally different principles.

Which policy prescriptions, then, follow from these plans to reshape society? DeBoer at least is forthright about the radical implications of his philosophy, openly calling for a socialist revolution and announcing that “to truly reconcile our egalitarian impulses with the reality of genetic predisposition, we will have to remake society from top to bottom.” By contrast, Harden’s policy prescriptions will appear rather anodyne to many readers (for example, a universal, taxpayer-funded healthcare system and a stronger social safety net). But, taken to its logical conclusion, Harden’s philosophy would lead us into far more radical territory than the tepid reforms that she lists would suggest. And by failing to acknowledge the more radical implications of her ideas, Harden also fails to grapple with the dystopian prospects inherent in an egalitarian project which views differences in socially valued traits as unjust.

Despite mentioning Communism several times in passing, at no point does Harden acknowledge the obvious link between her own egalitarian ideology and the principles driving Communist regimes that slaughtered, impoverished, and immiserated millions of people over the course of the 20th century. She notes that those authoritarian regimes succeeded in weakening the link between genetics and success compared to liberal, free-market democracies. But unlike those regimes, which brought this about by stifling opportunities for talented individuals (“levelling down”), the equitable society she envisages would break the link by “levelling up” the disadvantaged. However, the Soviet central planners didn't intend to stifle opportunities and make their citizens less educated and less prosperous than their Western neighbours’. They, too, thought they were levelling up. But they lacked the omniscience required to see how all the possible counterfactuals would play out so they could determine the “right” limits to inequality that would still allow their citizens to flourish.

And of course, if instead of viewing disease, poverty, and disability as social ills to be overcome we instead see inequalities in health, wealth and ability as the evils to be conquered, it will become irresistibly tempting to address those inequalities via the swiftest route: to intentionally level down, eat the rich, cut down the tall poppies. This is the danger the West’s canonical critics of egalitarianism have always warned against— as showcased by the Handicapper General in Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron, THE MAJORITY’s totalitarian imposition of grey mediocrity in Jerome K Jerome’s The New Utopia, or the extirpation of elites proposed by the revolutionary socialists in Dostoyevsky’s The Devils: “Cicero will have his tongue cut out, Copernicus will have his eyes put out, Shakespeare will be stoned.”

But the most radical aspect of Harden’s philosophy is that it demands that we abandon our most cherished norms and values. Reconceiving justice purely in terms of social or redistributive justice, as she would have us do, requires that we abandon the traditional definition of justice we have used for millennia. For most people across most times, from ancient civilizations to contemporary secular democracies, justice has concerned the deliberate harmful treatment of some people by others: thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness. But in a curious moral inversion, the contemporary social justice movement has made justice about what society does to people. “People are not the problem to be fixed,” says Harden. “The problem to be fixed is society’s recalcitrant unwillingness to arrange itself in a way that allows them to participate.” In this strange reversal, the impersonal and spontaneous forces of society are imbued with moral agency, while the agency of individuals is radically diminished. Meanwhile, envy, previously a cardinal sin (thou shalt not covet), is transformed into the central principle of justice.

DeBoer, to his credit, parts ways with Harden at this point, erecting a makeshift philosophical firewall between personal responsibility for one’s socioeconomic outcomes and personal responsibility for one’s criminal acts. But guided rigidly by an alien moral compass, Harden can assert that refraining from criminal behaviour is just another “socially valued” trait like educational attainment rather than anything “inherently valuable.” She can take the side of Cain in the Biblical story: “Only one generation from creation, brothers were rewarded unequally for their labor, and the seething resentment provoked by that inequality led to humanity’s first murder.” And she can do all this while refusing to condemn deaf parents who deliberately disable their unborn children: “The legal and ethical issues raised by the question of whether Deaf parents should be permitted to pursue the birth of a deaf child—through selection of a sperm or egg donor, through selective abortion, or through pre-implantation genetic testing—are myriad and thorny, and I will not attempt to resolve them here.” In this topsy-turvy world, fair is foul and foul is fair.

* * *

The ethical challenge that each new generation faces is how to deal with the ubiquitous discrepancy between earthly reward and moral desert. In all times and in all places, people have looked around them and seen others who receive material rewards and public esteem far in excess of what their personal attributes and efforts seem to merit. They have likewise encountered talented, virtuous, hard-working people who succumbed to poverty or disgrace despite their noblest efforts. The injustice of it rankles and cries out for redress.

Our religious predecessors could meet this problem with stoic fatalism. On earth the rain may fall on the just and the unjust alike, but in heaven (or the other place) each will ultimately receive their reward. But in a secular age, this answer fails to satisfy us— and even the faithful, restless for worldly justice, long to see the kingdom of heaven built here on earth. Over the last three centuries of European thought, two answers to this timeless problem gained traction. The first is that we should try and align financial reward and social status better with true merit. The second is that no-one should be valued any more or less than anyone else. Meritocracy and egalitarianism were two radical modern solutions to the same problem. These two strands of idealistic thinking culminated in the two terrifying social experiments of the 20th century: the meritocratic experiment of eugenic National Socialism, which sought to elevate those with “superior” attributes while eradicating those with “inferior” characteristics; and the socialist experiments of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and the rest, which sought to eliminate the undeserved differences between rich and poor. Both experiments culminated in totalitarian nightmares of mass coercion and mass murder. Yet both committed their crimes in the name of justice and utopia. Camus neatly captured this bizarre moral inversion, describing “slave camps under the flag of freedom” and “massacres justified by philanthropy.”

The truth is we can never hope for a perfect alignment between moral desert and material reward because we each have competing definitions of what constitutes merit. Imposing any single conception of merit on the world amounts to tyranny as it means trampling on everyone else’s conception, and the Nazis’ hierarchy of human worth shows just how distorted that single reigning conception can be. Yet it is equally tyrannical to deny all conceptions of merit and forbid all hierarchies of value, as Communist dictatorships have repeatedly tried to do. The best we can hope for is a world in which each individual is free to use their own knowledge for their own purposes, where each can try to live according to their own conception of the good while respecting and navigating the values of others under the protection of the rule of law. This is the fragile settlement we have reached as a civilisation—one that we have defended at great cost and lovingly rebuilt each time revolutionaries thirsting for false utopias have tried to tear it down.

Camus provided the central clue as to how we arrived at the moral paradox of totalitarian utopias: “Philosophy ... can be used for anything, even for transforming murderers into judges.” When scientists write book-length philosophical treatises on the correct moral and political implications to draw from their findings, it is worth keeping Camus’s admonition in mind. Harden and deBoer believe their egalitarian philosophy paints a vision of a kinder, more prosperous future for us all. But when I picture their vision of the future what I see is a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

GeneticsScience / TechCulture WarsReview

Damien Morris

Damien Morris is the Director of the technological risk consultancy Futureproof and a PhD student in behavioural genetics at King’s College London.