In 1995, the education scholar Betty Hart and the psychologist Todd Risley published an electric study that jolted the world of early-childhood education: They found that, by age three, poorer children heard an astounding 30 million fewer words than well-off ones.
The “word gap” that Hart and Risley purported to expose in their monograph “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” tripped alarms among the progressive cognoscenti. Academics cited the paper’s findings more than 11,000 times. The Clinton Foundation launched a “Too Small to Fail” campaign dedicated to the proposition that “simple actions by parents and caregivers—describing objects seen during a bus ride, asking questions, singing songs, reading aloud, telling stories—can significantly improve babies’ brain development and help build their vocabulary.” The Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy announced to great fanfare the rollout of a project aimed at “educating parents about the importance of talking to one’s baby.” Georgia state officials deployed the “Talk With Me Baby” project which encouraged new parents to supply “language nutrition” to their kids. And Bloomberg Philanthropies unveiled its Providence Talks program, which furnished “word pedometers” to help parents track their verbal output to their offspring.
These interventions predictably drew scorn from conservative observers, most of whom ridiculed the notion that federal, state, and nonprofit money was necessary to encourage parents to converse with their children. Others criticized the study itself, which derived from an analysis of only 42 families in the Midwestern United States and repeatedly proved unreplicable.
But in The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, an elegant, heterodox exploration of heredity and egalitarianism, Kathryn Paige Harden, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Texas, offers a much more fundamental—and persuasive—critique of the word-gap reaction and similarly muddled thinking and planning among those who misdiagnose the root causes of inequality and, accordingly, prescribe the wrong cure.
“The premise of the word-gap intervention is terribly shaky,” Harden contends. What if affluent children develop robust vocabularies not because their parents spoke to them frequently but because they inherited genes from those parents who, too, were predisposed to acquire fuller lexicons? “Before we spend literally millions of dollars on interventions designed to change a parental behavior in hopes of improving child outcomes,” Harden suggests, “it would be prudent to at least check to see that the correlation [persists] when we control for the fact that parents and children share genes.” More generally, Harden contends that “the widespread tendency to ignore the existence of genetic differences between people has hobbled scientific progress in psychology, education, and other branches of the social sciences.”
This criticism is commonplace among center-right scholars and policymakers who’ve long fallen on the nature side of the nature–nurture divide. But what’s surprising about Harden’s adoption of a genetics-first approach is her position on the ideological spectrum: She and a coterie of like-minded young social-science researchers are proud progressives. They seek to use the tools of genetics to further educational and economic egalitarianism. They’ve absorbed the slings and arrows of fellow travelers on the left who are adamantly opposed to hereditary explanations of individual differences. And while their proposed solutions occasionally fall short, their emergence augurs well for the future of human-development research and public-policy debate across the spectrum, especially as a torrent of new genetic data is expected to flood the field in coming years.
“I will argue,” Harden proclaims at the outset of The Genetic Lottery, “that the science of human individual differences is entirely compatible with a full-throated egalitarianism.” She and her colleagues on the left have over the past few years unapologetically embraced the study of genetics not in spite of its implications for human equality (or inequality) but because of them. “Genetic differences between us matter for our lives,” Harden contends. “They cause differences in things we care about. Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”
Harden sets out to understand how genetics shape us physically and psychologically, to document how the academy and the marketplace reward certain genetically shaped traits, and to reimagine how we might transform them to include the winners and the losers of the genetic lottery. She adopts a flexible approach that places research on heredity in its appropriate context, using restaurants as a helpful metaphor. Many different factors influence an eatery’s success: cuisine, preparation, presentation, ambience, service. But it’s possible to draw lessons from a data-driven analysis of how restaurants in a given city flourish (e.g., by quantifying their Yelp reviews) on the basis of the ingredients they use in their food. Those ingredients, of course, do not drive the entirety of a bistro’s favorable notices, but they can certainly help explain its success and can provide valuable guidance to a restauranteur looking to open a new watering hole in the area.
So, too, do genes furnish crucial guidance in understanding how humans develop in many areas. With this in mind, Harden cites decades of research examining the differences in outcomes between identical and fraternal twins across seven different metrics: personality, cognitive abilities, education, employment, social hazards to health, mental disorders, and interpersonal relationships. That research concluded that all seven metrics “are substantially heritable, with about one-quarter to one-half of the variation due to differences in inherited DNA sequence.” Her extensive genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have confirmed that even non-cognitive skills, such as motivation, perseverance, personability, and self-restraint, are largely heritable and drive educational outcomes. For instance, those scoring high on a polygenic index of risky, impulsive behaviors were four times more likely to be convicted of a felony and three times more likely to be incarcerated.
Breaking ranks with other progressive social-science researchers, Harden also endorses the prominent use of IQ in assessing human development. IQ test results, she writes, “statistically predict things that we care about—including life itself” and therefore “cannot be wished away as unimportant.” She sharply criticizes social-justice guru
Ibram X. Kendi’s insistence that “the use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised.” (At times, however, she channels Kendi, as when she asserts that “creating a just social order requires anti-eugenics, not gene-blindness.”) Labeling willful genetic ignorance nothing short of “stealing,” Harden contends that “failing to take genetics seriously is a scientific practice that pervasively undermines our stated goal of understanding society so that we can improve it.”
And improving society is precisely what Harden strives to do. She invokes John Rawls’s famous declaration in A Theory of Justice: “The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust.…These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” She proposes dealing with these facts by recognizing fundamental human differences and correcting for them accordingly. For example, one of her GWAS studies found that students with relatively low educational polygenic indices fared as well in schools populated largely by students whose parents had high-school diplomas as did students with average educational polygenic scores in schools serving mostly kids of parents who did not complete high school. Holding genetic traits as a constant, we can more accurately and fairly identify what interventions successfully even things out and then apply them more broadly. Harden believes that this solution—imposing policies expressly designed to level the playing field among unequal players—can attract popular support. “People,” she contends, “are, in fact, more likely to support redistribution when they see inequalities as stemming from lucky factors over which people have no control than when they see inequalities as stemming from choice.”
Other researchers have followed Harden’s lead. Stanford’s Sam Trejo and Ben Domingue praised the “great promise” of polygenic indices because they “may be used as control variables in studies of environmental effects.” One of their studies found “strong evidence that genotype can predict educational attainment within families.” Princeton sociologist Dalton Conley lauded genetics for enabling “better-specified, less-biased parameter estimates” through which to examine external influences. Duke’s Daniel Belsky found in a 2016 study that “polygenic scores predicted adult economic outcomes even after accounting for educational attainments [and] their social-class origins” and “predicted behavior across the life course, from early acquisition of speech and reading skills through geographic mobility and mate choice and on to financial planning for retirement.”
For their scientific efforts, Harden and her ilk have been rewarded mostly with suspicion and disdain from their erstwhile colleagues on the academic left. “In my experience,” Harden writes, “many academics hold the conviction that discussing genetic causes of social inequalities is fundamentally a racist, classist, eugenic project.” Indeed, one prominent public-policy professor at Duke reacted to a genetic study Harden had emailed him by lamenting that “there will be no reason to pursue these types of research programs at all, and they can be rendered to the same location as Holocaust denial research.” Her fellow scholars-in-residence at the prestigious Russell Sage Foundation urged her to drop her genetic inquiry, and, according to the New Yorker, the organization would later disband its biosciences initiative entirely, fearful of any “research into the first-order effects of genes on behavior or social outcomes.” Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a quartet of UC Davis genetics researchers panned Harden’s work because it “presents our existing social hierarchy as the result of (genetically driven) success or failure at the individual level, neglecting the policies and practices that systematically benefit some types of people (such as employers, landlords, and creditors) at the expense of others (such as employees, tenants, and borrowers).”
To be sure, the policy solutions proposed by the hereditists of the left sometimes lack the rigor of their genetic analysis. For instance, Harden juxtaposes the “eugenic” approach of excluding genetically high-risk patients from insurance or health-care markets with the “genome-blind” policy that would prohibit insurers from using genetic information and with what she labels the “anti-eugenic” approach that would develop systems inclusive of everyone “regardless of the outcome of the genetic lottery.” Yet in practice, her anti-eugenic methodology collapses into the genome-blind one, simply adding a traditional Great Society–style entitlement program into the mix. (Harden and colleagues also earn demerits for unfairly targeting my American Enterprise Institute colleague Charles Murray, who has repeatedly and unambiguously denounced eugenicist thinking.)
More generally, they don’t fully differentiate between the types of egalitarian interventions that would redress inequality rooted in genetics from those aimed to correct environmental inequities. True, the word gap, for instance, may derive more from hereditary forces than external ones, and, yes, compelling parents with more limited vocabularies to track their word counts seems unlikely to improve outcomes for their children. But the new geneticists of the left fail to outline what interventions would be effective in bolstering the vocabularies of genetically limited children.
These lacunae, however, are excusable. Harden and company are scientists, not lawmakers, and the political class bears primary responsibility for fashioning policies that suit the genetic realities they uncover. More important, while conservatives may not espouse the specific (and often flawed) policy solutions that Harden and company do suggest, there remains much to admire in the book’s approach. At a time when many on the left eschew objectivity in favor of moral clarity, exalt “Science” while disdaining scientific findings that don’t validate their priors, and censor opinions that don’t conform to their worldview, the hereditists of the left have courageously and unflinchingly stood their ground. By grasping the third rail of contemporary social-science research, Harden and her colleagues have shocked the academy out of its hermeneutic complacency. We need more, not less, truth at the foundation of our public discourse.
Perhaps more pressing still, over the next few years, a blizzard of genetic research is expected to bombard the social sciences, with carefully controlled longitudinal studies examining hereditary differences among a much wider range of ethnic groups than ever before. For instance, Belsky points to work in progress from groups such as the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium and Sociogenome and reports that “the United Kingdom has developed a national biobank that now includes genetic data and a wealth of other information from half a million people.”
Absent some moderating force, what Harden labels the “upcoming avalanche of genomic data from multi-ancestry populations” will bury those on the left determined to ignore genetic disparities while potentially snowballing into an unstoppable force represented by the neo-eugenicist right. A robust geneticist left, however, can temper the coming storm and help those in the middle—committed to the discovery of scientific truth, opposed to eugenics, and dedicated to shaping a fair and just society—weather its effects. Those of us on the center-right can disagree with the policy suggestions of Harden and company, but we should welcome them to the debate.
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