The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
This audiobook narrated by Katherine Fenton makes a provocative and timely case for how the science of genetics can help create a more just and equal society
In recent years, scientists like Kathryn Paige Harden have shown that DNA makes us different, in our personalities and in our health - and in ways that matter for educational and economic success in our current society.
In The Genetic Lottery, Harden introduces listeners to the latest genetic science, dismantling dangerous ideas about racial superiority and challenging us to grapple with what equality really means in a world where people are born different. Weaving together personal stories with scientific evidence, Harden shows why our refusal to recognize the power of DNA perpetuates the myth of meritocracy, and argues that we must acknowledge the role of genetic luck if we are ever to create a fair society.
Reclaiming genetic science from the legacy of eugenics, this groundbreaking book offers a bold new vision of society where everyone thrives, regardless of how one fares in the genetic lottery.
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|Listening Length||10 hours and 4 minutes|
|Author||Kathryn Paige Harden|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||September 21, 2021|
|Publisher||Princeton University Press|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #6,648 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#5 in Genetics (Audible Books & Originals)
#13 in Social Public Policy
#20 in Genetics (Books)
Top reviews from the United States
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In Plomin’s case, his fanaticism for polygenic scores could be written off as wishful thinking for a man at the end of his career, touting a perceived future of ever improving polygenic prediction. Harden, on the other hand, has had a few years to see the hype dwindle, with study after study noting the limitations of such scores.
Harden’s primary focus is what is referred to as “educational attainment,” basically a simple measurement of how far someone goes in school, viewing it as a trait with some genetic basis. In truth, this “trait” is a bit of subterfuge, serving as a proxy for intelligence, while avoiding some of the controversy surrounding genetic studies of IQ (and their association with books like Charles Murray’s, “The Bell Curve”).
Harden's writing style at times involves condescending oversimplification through analogy: “If a gene is a recipe, then your genome - all the DNA contained in all of your cells - is a large collection of recipes, an enormous cookbook.” This quaint presentation of the subject suggests that she is targeting a lay audience, but I question whether those not already familiar with this kind of research would find this book engaging and these analogies do not appear to clarify the subject in a more comprehensible manner.
Books of this nature generally have the same two issues to tackle and Harden’s is no exception. The first is to sell the scientific evidence related to claims of a genetic basis for educational attainment and other behavioral traits. The second relates to the ethical and practical implications of this research. I will address her treatment of both issues here, beginning with the latter.
As Harden notes: “When people hear ‘genes’ or ‘intelligence’ - particularly in the United States - they cannot help but hear ‘race.’” I’m not sure this is what comes to mind for me, but it’s certainly true for many of those touting these types of genetic studies, often using them as fodder for eugenic, classist and racist ideas, thinly disguised as science. Harden addresses the historical relationship between behavioral genetics and eugenics head on, but this leaves her trying to push largely hypothetical “benefits” of genetic studies, with a reframing of the ideas as egalitarian.
“What I am aiming to do in this book is re-envision the relationship between genetic science and equality… Can we imagine a new synthesis? And can this new synthesis broaden our understanding of what equality looks like and how to achieve it?”
I think that this falls flat and demonstrates a naive understanding of just what she is up against. Rather than admit that these studies feed fascistic and racist ideas, she attempts to “both-sides” the issues, focusing on leftists, for whom she appears to have some disdain, fancying herself as some kind of sensible centrist, by contrast. Case in point is her interpretation of a study related to bias towards genetic determinists:
“... a scientist who reported genetic influence on intelligence was also perceived as less objective, more motivated to prove a particular hypothesis, and more likely to hold non-egalitarian beliefs that predated their scientific research career…people who described themselves as politically liberal were particularly likely to doubt the scientist’s objectivity when she reported genetic influences on intelligence.”
Her point here is to paint the left as hopelessly biased on this subject, but despite Harden’s dubious effort to paint herself as a leftist, many individuals touting genetic determinist views also harbor racist and classist views that are hardly egalitarian. There are obvious reasons for this and it doesn’t take a leftist to distrust their motives, nor should one expect leftists to embrace a sugar-coated version of genetic determinism.
As Harden acknowledges, the field of behavioral genetics was largely founded on the backs of racist eugenicists such as Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. We still see this today, perhaps in a more attenuated form, both from scientific poseurs like Charles Murray, as well as renowned scientists, such as James Watson. Imagine expecting them to “re-envision” their view of the world. This demonstrates a real inability to read the room and, if there was any doubt about that, we already have race-oriented “scientists” embracing aspects of Harden’s book.
Nonetheless, what matters in the end is the validity of the science and the book is written under the presumption that the science is settled. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Books of this nature can’t rely solely on actual scientific evidence, because there isn’t much there. Their acceptance relies on decades of hyperbole, ingraining the psyche of society, at large. Even those having little familiarity with the subject have been exposed to enough headlines in news media suggesting genes have been “found” for intelligence, schizophrenia, personality traits or your favorite flavor of ice cream. This is bolstered by futuristic books and movies, presenting a mythology, dystopic or otherwise, of genetic deification.
The actual science is far less impressive, and for those not familiar, it essentially relies on establishing genetic “correlations,” without defining what or how these genes might influence a particular trait. The principle behind the studies is not much different than what commercial genealogy sites like Ancestry.com do, but instead of establishing ethnicity or ancestry, they correlate the genetic variants that are more common in one group than another for a particular behavioral trait, or just about anything that can be designated on a questionnaire. Then they score the total number of these correlated variants a person has for a “polygenic score,” the idea being that a higher score makes it more likely you will have the trait. This is based on the hypothesis that traits are “polygenic,” consisting of hundreds or thousands of genetic variants. It is a probabilistic assessment, with no definitive set of genetic variants that would confer a trait or explanation of how any of these variants would contribute to the trait, nor explain why many with high scores do not have the trait and many with low scores do.
In truth, applying a polygenic score for a trait isn’t a whole lot different than commercial genealogy sites assessing whether someone has genetic variation that is more common for, say, Italian or Korean people. The difference is that Ancestry.com is not absurdly claiming that these genetic variations are causing Italians to like pizza or Koreans to use chopsticks. That, however, is essentially what behavioral geneticists are trying to claim, but instead of pizza or chopsticks, Harden is focused largely on so-called “educational attainment.”
Much of the genetic variation we find in people is due to genetic drift, where populations in historically isolated parts of the world randomly acquire different genetic variants over generations, that will be more common among people in a particular region. These genetic variations generally have little or no known functional difference, but can serve as genealogy identifiers. Geography is probably the most important aspect in looking at ancestry, although individuals of different ethnicity, living in the same region might also acquire common, distinguishing variants due to marrying within their own group (a form of assortative mating). In either case, these phenomena create what is called “population stratification” and allow you to distinguish populations via their genetics.
It’s not difficult to see how a trait like educational attainment would be subject to population stratification. People of one social class will marry others in the same class and highly educated individuals will tend to marry others in that social class and push their children in that direction for successive generations. Harden is arguing that these people have, at least in part, won the genetic lottery and that the genes they have in common confer some abilities that allow them to achieve higher education over those who are more, say, blue collar. To assume this up front, in my view, is an aristocratic way of thinking.
The problem here is that you add nothing to the argument by pedantically looking at the genetic variants that are found in different social classes. Of course you will find genetic variants that are more or less frequent due to long-standing population stratification, but are you really doing anything more than correlating Italians to pizza and Koreans to chopsticks? I contend that you are not and Harden and others in the field, all highly educated, and mostly from privileged backgrounds, should be wary of doing such self-affirming research on educational attainment. Believing that people within these privileged classes have actual genetic variants that allow them to be “... smart and curious and hard-working,” in some way that confers educational attainment is blind to both common sense and the obvious realities of the society we (and the UK, where many of these studies arise) live in. Although Harden does acknowledge some of the factors leading to this kind of confounding in genetic studies, she tries to make the case that these factors can be weeded out, leaving us with only the good stuff.
There are a number of problems with this claim. The first is that the claimed high heritability of a trait like “educational attainment,” like other behavioral traits, was divined by twin studies, which Harden defends, but these studies are simply not confirmed by actual genetic studies, which find miniscule heritability by comparison. This leaves behavioral geneticists to flailingly suggest that there is “missing heritability” still to be found. Harden attempts to explain this as being due to “...particularly rare genetic variants which might have especially large effects.” In other words, the genetic variants that aren’t common enough to be picked up in a GWAS genetic study just happen to have all the missing heritability. There is no evidence to support this and, frankly, it smacks of desperation.
Thus, we have the circular argument that keeps the field of behavioral genetics alive: The heritability of a trait seen in twin studies proves there is a genetic basis for that trait, and the fact that we are not able to confirm twin studies via genetic studies shows only that we haven’t found the genes we expected yet, but we know must exist because of twin studies. Such circular assumptions are then presented as established science. For example, Harden claims as fact that behavioral traits are “polygenic”:
“Schizophrenia and autism and depression and obesity and educational attainment are not associated with one gene. They are not associated with even a dozen different SNPs. They are polygenic - associated with thousands upon thousands of SNP’s [genetic variants] scattered all throughout a person’s genome.”
These contradictory assumptions leave us with a “polygenic” model with thousands of genetic variants adding up to a tiny bit of heritability, and unidentified “rare variants,” to be found at a later date, accounting for the remaining huge chunks of missing heritability. This is simply wishful thinking.
Nonetheless, Harden embraces the idea that these genetic studies will someday close the gap on this missing heritability, touting a recent study for educational attainment in which she claims, “You can account for 13% of the variance.” Although this is not anywhere near what one would expect from twin studies, on the surface it is significantly better than the usual 2 to 3% that such studies generally yield. It is a bit of sleight of hand, however, for Harden to tout this figure, when she also touts within family studies (comparing the genetics of siblings and their parents and then assessing their educational attainment polygenic score), as a way to strip down to the actual causal genes, and such a study was conducted and brought this figure back down to 2 or 3%. Such decreases are merely a flesh wound for Harden, though, who notes that, “... the heritability of educational attainment is still not zero.”
However, that’s not really certain, for a couple of reasons. The first is that when you are at such a low percentage, you could be merely talking about statistical aberrations. As one recent study describing such “measurement errors” notes: “We find that sibling models, in general, fail to uncover direct genetic effects… Our findings suggest that interpreting results from sibling analysis aimed at uncovering direct genetic effects should be treated with caution.”
Secondly, we have no idea what most of the genes in question actually do, so even if you argue that these genetic variants are causal, you haven’t ruled out physical causation to explain this small percentage. Traits that Harden herself notes such as “pretty, tall, skinny, light-colored,” which would hardly convey a meritorious advantage towards educational attainment might be all that we are really seeing. Perhaps that is the true “genetic lottery.” Thus, arguably, when talking about miniscule results like this, you might, indeed, truly be at zero genetic influence, leaving her entire book promoting a faulty premise.
Moreover, there is another significant problem with these genetic studies and the derived polygenic scores: They are largely useless outside of the ancestry group being studied, which is usually those of white European ancestry. Harden addresses this to an extent:
“I anticipate that scientists will have developed a polygenic score that is as strongly related statistically to academic achievement in Black students as it is in White students.”
There are a number of difficulties with this statement. The first is that it is probably not going to be the case. The polygenic score for educational “achievement” relies on population stratification that has probably not had as much time to develop in the West for those of African ancestry. Moreover, there is an assumption underlying that, which is that what would constitute genetics of educational attainment would involve entirely different genes for Black students than those used to assess White students. This should reinforce the fact that these scores are based largely on population stratification, and should make it clear that the genetic variants have no real function. There is simply no reason to believe that a collection of genetic variants would be entirely different from one ancestral group to another and still confer the same behavioral trait. Despite her attempt at logical extension, you can’t just make this assumption because you believe it to be true for a person’s height or milk production in cows (which have their own problems).
If this isn’t obvious for a singularly numeric trait like educational attainment, consider a trait that is not as easily quantifiable, like schizophrenia. Like educational attainment, a polygenic score for schizophrenia based on a white European population, would not be useful for an African American population. So again you would be forced to surmise that Black and White people who get schizophrenia have an entirely different collection of genetic variants that "cause" schizophrenia. Yet, schizophrenia has about the same prevalence in African Americans and those of White European descent, and it presents in the same manner. This is not consistent with separate genetic mechanisms and should lead to the conclusion that genetics are not the primary mechanism behind it. The same could be said for depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders or just about any behavioral trait. No one is claiming a significant difference in the presentation of these traits or the general prevalence in different ancestral populations, which one would expect from separate polygenic influences.
Another obvious concern with such separate but equal polygenic mechanisms, is that it will fuel the very racists Harden denounces. Harden is careful to make the distinction between ancestry and race and, while the distinction is important, for those engaging in “race science,” referring to individuals as African ancestry is hardly going to dissuade them from extending this to racist conclusions.
It’s also worth pointing out that, like most books related to this subject, Harden presents, at best, a sophomoric understanding of human psychology. There is no theory or dynamic formulation to be found. There is no debate to be had, other than statistical sophistry, to argue that schizophrenia, depression, educational achievement, or other traits are “partly genetic.” With that called into question, you are left with little else, but “bluster and bluff and empty show.” It’s shocking that the bulk of resources for psychology research are being poured into this pedantic shell game. It has contributed nothing to the field after decades of this research, has historically caused a lot of harm, and probably will continue to do so. Harden cannot hope to “re-envision” the field, because it has no validity and too many of those who embrace it have dubious motives. Her book, like those preceding it, props up a field that is apparently too big to fail.
The first half of the book was a bit difficult for me because too much talk about biology and genetics just goes over my head. Despite my lack of comprehension of the topic, the author was able to get the main points across, and she uses epic 90s movie references throughout, which is a great way to teach people. In the second half of the book, she dives into how our views on genetics affect the legal system, moral responsibility, education, job opportunities, and other systemic issues. By the time Kathryn got to the social issues, I couldn’t stop reading the book. I can’t wait for it to launch and for others to learn more about the reality of the genetic lottery so we can work towards more equality rather than basing someone’s value on things outside of their control.
In sum, I’m glad to have read this book, but I’m left wishing for maybe one more draft shepherded by a ruthless and knowledgeable editor. There are many really good arguments to be found here, but they are often put in the wrong spot in the text, or repetitively scattered around. I doubt that either committed racists or diehard leftists will read the book (but will no doubt feel free to criticize it), while specialists already have formed an opinion. The author should be applauded for a courageous and important effort, which will probably become a benchmark in the history of behavioral genetics.
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She wrote about some research that she had done herself about what she called "general executive function" (which was extremely heritable) and also about whether or not the earlier teenagers had sex led to increased risk of emotional traumas and a plethora of other negative (social) outcomes. That was interesting and impressive research. I knew that the DNA one shares with one's sister or brother is on average 50%, but was surprised that it can vary as much as 37-63%. (I wonder whether it theoretically couldn't be 0-100% and that the amount of DNA that one shares is distributed under a Gaussian curve?) I might try and convince my brother to take a DNA-test from 23andMe to see how much DNA we share and whether there might be chromosomes, where we are either twins or foreigners to each other. She wrote about the possibility of using genetic data as a way of looking at where siblings were "twins" and where they were more like "adoptees" living in the same family for studying the importance of environment versus genetic inheritance. Either she wrote too little about it, I was too tired or too dumb to quite understand how that research could be done, but it sounded like an interesting and promising line of investigation within genetics.
But, I also have my reservations about her book and line of thought. They are:
1. I think that she’s unjust to the likes of Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray and Robert Plomin. I've read some of their work, and the malicious and nefarious persons one gets the impression of when one reads her book, is not fair. The way she uses and defines the word eugenist, they would be eugenists. They are not. If one should characterize them politically, Herrnstein would be a conservative, Murray I believe has called himself a libertarian at one point, and Robert Plomin wrote in his latest book Blueprint about his ideal of a "just" society instead of a meritocratic society that would place him within easy reach of herself, Arthur Jensen’s politics I’m oblivious of, but James Flynn, who is as liberal as Harden, I’ve heard saying that Arthur Jensen wasn’t any racist. I suspect she is somewhat blind to this because of her somewhat hardened us-liberal, political stance.
2. I am fully onboard when she bemoans the fact that there seems to be a "tacit collusion" within the social sciences not to mention or draw upon genetic research and findings from twin and adoption studies. Once I loved sociology and now I just find it embarrassing and disheartening when scientific institutions, media and politicians discuss and want to do something about the results from the latest study showing "X", but where they have never asked the question or checked whether or not it was explained by twin, adoption or genetic studies. It is truly a scandalous waste of people’s time and resources. Sometimes one wonders if it's a fact that people in fact already know, but everybody plays along. As Leonard Cohen sang "Everybody knows..."
3. I appreciate that she wants to include genetics in order to see what social/environmental interventions truly make a difference. I do not share her optimism, though, about all the positive environmental effects that are waiting to be discovered once the educational sciences include genetics. I'm more gloomy on that prospect. If there were any such wondrous possibilities looming, they would have been discovered, I suspect, by now, also without the help of genetics. When it comes to increasing children's intelligence, the best results have been to adopt them, but short of adoption the results are pauper. And a nationwide or global adoption program is not exactly going to be the prize winner in a humanist competition. As some of the scientists whom she is eager to distance herself from, I predict that she will also be disappointed with time, or maybe she will prove unable to update her priors that much.
4. Her phrasing of an "Anti-eugenic science and policy" is not impressive. I felt she created a straw man and used eugenics in her own idiosyncratic way, reducing the scope of what is meant by eugenics. I also don't think that a policy like "anti-X" will turn out to be viable in the long run. So when she speaks about her stance as "Anti-eugenics" and then has her own reduced understanding of what is meant by the term, then it's kind of confusing. In the book - or maybe it was in an article in the New Yorker covering her book (I can highly recommend the article as it gave me a much better understanding of the cultural context for her book) they used the term "hereditarian left" - I like that term a lot better than anti-eugenic. Peter Singer wrote about a darwinian left decades ago, and in a sense it's the same today. I remember Steven Pinker also wrote about the possibility of a Darwinian left in the Blank Slate.
5. Finally, I take issue with the fact that she just uses the Rawlsian theory of justice to discuss what would be the right thing to do. I like Rawls's idea about "a veil of ignorance" etc, but as she doesn't discuss Nozick’s rejoinders in "Anarchy, State and Utopia" then it is not that interesting. She doesn't seem well orientated into economic and political thinking. I suspect she runs with left leaning economical thinkers the likes of Marx, Piketty, Galbraith, Keynes etc, while the likes of Hayek, Friedman and Sowell, she hasn't read. If one has also read the later names, then the question of fairness, justice, inequality becomes more difficult as they are intrinsically linked to the question of welfare, prosperity, progress, individual rights and freedom. Kathryn Paige Harden considers society behind a veil of ignorance and she sees the injustices, the poor, and feels empathy for the homeless people living today. But, shouldn’t her empathy, her caring and concern not just encompass the people living today, but also people living in the future? If she started reflecting upon her ethical obligations toward (poor) people living in the future, I think she would find her own political and ethical stand questionable or untenable.