All posts filed under: Genetics

‘The Guarded Gate’ Review: Elites and Their Eugenics Projects

A review of The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants out of America by Daniel Okrent, Scribner, 496 pages (May, 2019). ….our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… —T. Roosevelt to C. B. Davenport, January 3, 1913 How are we to understand the widespread enthusiasm for eugenics in the U.S. a century ago? Some scholars like Nicholas Pastore have argued that hereditarianism in general and support for eugenics in particular is more commonly found on the political right, whereas others like John Tierney argue that eugenics is …

The Real Gender Gap in Heart Disease

Because I’m that guy, I took a poll at the recent family barbecue. “Heart disease—who has it worse? Men or women?” I asked. The answers came quickly. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law said, “Women.” My father-in-law, arms crossed, said confidently, “Men.” My mother-in-law remembered hearing about how heart disease affected women more than men during the February American Heart Association (AHA) “Go Red for Women” campaign. Apparently, the message wasn’t heard by the men at this family gathering. They were moved by stories of men—fathers, brothers, friends—they knew who died from heart disease. We are taught that facts should trump feelings, evidence should trump anecdotes, and at first glance it would appear the men are too in touch with their feelings. It is the mission of advocacy organizations like the AHA to raise awareness. Charts like this one are widely disseminated and used in countless presentations on the topic: The graph demonstrates that over the last few decades the number of women dying from heart disease has been significantly higher than men dying from heart disease. …

Selective Blank Slatism and Ideologically Motivated Misunderstandings

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. ~John B. Watson Blank slatism is the view, exemplified here with John B. Watson’s characteristic arrogance, that human nature is highly flexible and largely determined by environmental forces. Because almost all the available evidence suggests that blank slatism is incorrect, many scholars are puzzled that versions of this philosophy appear to remain popular in certain university departments and among the intelligentsia more broadly. Some critics of progressivism, such as the economist Thomas Sowell, have contended that political progressives are particularly likely to hold blank slate beliefs as a result of their tendency to attribute many social disparities to environmental and social causes and to de-emphasize genetic ones. Others—usually those favorably inclined to progressivism, like the Guardian‘s …

What Light Does ‘Three Identical Strangers’ Throw on the Nature/Nurture Debate?

The 2018 film, Three Identical Strangers, is gripping. It is both an exposé of a 1950s secret twin study (studies of triplets fall under the general heading of “twin or multiple birth studies”) and a heartbreaking portrayal of identical triplets, Robert, David and Eddy, who were separated at birth, then unknowingly placed under a microscope by psychologists intent upon learning how different family practices might yield different behavioral outcomes. This unthinkable episode in the history of twin research challenges not just established norms, but belief in the sacredness of family, and faith in the integrity of science. More needs to be researched and revealed about this dark study and I will be writing just such a book over the next year. And as one twin observed, “I wish someone would start a support group. This is all so crazy—no one, not even us twins understand the complexity.” Looking into the twins’ and triplets’ stolen childhoods and its profound effects on their lives will be a key goal. It is also vital to understand why identical …

Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control

Social justice activists have issued a challenge to “check your white privilege.” Inasmuch as I oppose the inherent racism ingrained in such expressions of Identity Politics, my initial replies were of a snarky nature, such as “It’s doing just fine, thank you.” But as I engaged the task more seriously it wasn’t my “white privilege” that I discovered so much as it was my good fortune. This led to my November 2017 column in Scientific American, in which I enumerated a few of the ways that luck has favored many people (myself included) that led to their success, much of which was not “earned” in the purist sense that conservatives conceive of it, in which the successful merited it and the unsuccessful deserved it. The deeper I looked into the matter of how lives turn out, in fact, the more I realized how much is out of our control. Let’s begin with a question: Why do some people succeed in life while others fail? Is it because they are naturally smarter and harder working, or …

I Am Not a Blank Page

As a young child, I remember being told “You can be anything you want to be if you’re prepared to work hard enough.” I remember feeling inspired by these words. It was empowering to believe that my destiny was mine to choose and that my fate rested in my own hands. But, at the same time, I also remember experiencing a strong sense of shame, because I felt I was failing at everything and letting down everyone who loved me. This was because I was underperforming significantly in grade school. In fact, I was far enough behind the pack that by the beginning of grade three, I was in danger of being streamed into the “basic” program. If my fate was truly in my own hands, as I wanted to believe it was, then my failure was my fault and mine alone. Presumably, I had the ability to turn things around, but I didn’t know how. My mother, on the advice of the school psychologist, paid a small fortune to have me undergo detailed and …

Do Parents Make a Difference? A Public Debate in London

On Monday in London’s Emmanuel Centre a debate took place that pitted two Quillette contributors—Robert Plomin and Stuart Ritchie—against two “experts” on child psychology—Susan Pawlby and Ann Pleshette Murphy. The motion was “Parenting doesn’t matter (or not as much as you think)” and we knew from the outset where people stood thanks to the format adopted by Intelligence Squared, the company that organized the debate. The ushers asked people to vote for or against the motion on their way in and then again at the end, the idea being that the “winners” would be the side that persuaded the most people to change their minds rather than the side that got the most votes. Which was just as well for Plomin and Ritchie since only 17 percent agreed with them at the beginning of the evening, with 66 percent against and 17 percent saying “Don’t Know.” Would they be able to level that up a bit over the course of the next 90 minutes? Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London, went …

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 …

Linda Gottfredson’s Scientific Keynote Cancelled: Why?

Linda Gottfredson, Professor Emerita at the University of Delaware, has been disinvited from giving a keynote talk at the International Association of Educational and Vocational Guidance meeting in Sweden this October. She had accepted the invitation a year ago. This disinvitation is disappointing. What was she going to talk about? Why was it cancelled? Who is Linda Gottfredson? Let’s start with Dr Gottfredson. She is a little unusual in being a renowned, award-winning scholar in two distinct fields: occupational or counseling psychology, and intelligence research. The title of her planned talk was “What should I do? Ethical challenges in helping youth navigate career choices in a world where family expectation, ingrained stereotypes, social engineers and genetic proclivities compete for influence.” I haven’t seen the talk, but the title indicates its likely content: young people must find their way into jobs, how should counseling specialists advise them, given all the sound and fury? Why was such an unremarkable keynote talk cancelled? The talk was dropped following four letters of complaint. Written no doubt by well-meaning scholars, the …

Forget Nature Versus Nurture. Nature Has Won

A review of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are by Robert Plomin. MIT  Press (November 2018) 280 pages. In Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are Robert Plomin makes the case that genetic differences cause most variation in psychological traits – things like personality and cognitive abilities. The way your parents raise you, the schools you attend – they don’t have much effect on those traits. Children are similar to their parents, but that similarity is due to shared genetics, rather than shared family environment. Obviously the thoughts in your head, the facts you know, are not the same as your great-great-grand-father’s – we learn those things. But how easily you learn those facts, how well you remember them, how optimistic or pessimistic you are – those are largely set by your genes. Almost every psychological trait has significant heritability, even political leanings. To a significant degree, you’re either born a little Liberal or else a little Conservative, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan. And to the extent that your personality is not set by your …