All posts filed under: Genetics

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 …

Narrow Roads of Bozo Land: How We Came to Be Governed by Online Mobs

We all know the routine: an academic publishes some data that are incompatible with left-wing ideology, or maybe even just makes a non-PC joke, as in the case of the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt. They are then targeted by an online mob, the university administrators side with the mob and the thought-criminal is duly defenestrated. The firing of James Damore shows that a similar routine operates in tech giants such as Google. It’s not the first time intellectuals have enforced extreme left-wing views — just think of the U.S.S.R. during Stalin’s reign. But one can at least understand such behavior because failure to implement political correctness on campus in 1930s Russia would lead to a 4 a.m. date in the Kurapaty forest with a leather-aproned N.K.V.D. executioner. But the situation is different in today’s universities, tech giants and government departments – the administrators aren’t going to be executed if they ignore a cis-heteronormative microaggression by one of their employees and the demands for PC enforcement aren’t coming from a paranoid tyrant and his pistol-wielding henchmen. …

A Striking Similarity: The Revolutionary Findings of Twin Studies

“I have looked at the data, and I’m collecting the data, and I’m still absolutely astounded. I still haven’t settled down and absorbed this kind of a finding yet. How long is it going to take me?” These words were uttered by Dr. Thomas J. Bouchard, research director of the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA), during a conversation with the Danish professor of psychiatry, Niels Juel-Nielsen, in May 1981. Bouchard was trying to come to terms with the revolutionary implications of his own research into identical and fraternal twins reared apart. 16 years earlier, Juel-Nielsen had published the book Individual and Environment—a study of 12 Danish identical twin pairs reared apart. Prior to 1981, this was one of only three studies of separated twins: the others were a 1937 American study of 19 twin pairs, and a British study conducted by James Shields in 1962 of 44 twin pairs. An archived recording of their remarkable exchange was rediscovered in 2011 by the twin researcher Dr. Nancy L. Segal. In her 2012 book Born Together—Reared …

The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement

Editor’s note: this is a companion piece to The Neuroscience of Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Haier. I first met Richard Haier at the annual conference of the International Society of Intelligence Researchers (ISIR) in Montreal last July. I told him I was hoping to write a book about the public policy implications of the growing weight of evidence that intelligence is genetically based and he said he had already written a book in which he touched on that subject. He then gave me a copy of The Neuroscience of Intelligence. Not only is Haier’s book an excellent summary of the progress we have made to date in understanding the science of intelligence, it also looks ahead to a future in which various technologies arising out of our improved understanding may be developed to enhance IQ and considers some of the ethical questions that gives rise to. Haier makes no bones about his own enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement. “Higher intelligence is better than lower intelligence; no one seriously disagrees,” he writes in Chapter Five. “All …