Harden is a professor in psychology and behavior genetics at the University of Texas at Austin. She believes that we can use genetics to build more “accurate models” of people and how they fit into the world, the societies in which we live, to then shape the world more socially and help everyone get on in life. Doing so, she says, would allow science and technology, and our knowledge about life, to benefit everyone rather than just the fortunate few who have the best genes and grow up in the richest, best-served social environments.
Another reason people fear genetics, says Harden, is that it makes people think about who is responsible for change. “When people hear that educational achievement is ‘genetic’ or ‘influenced by genes,’ it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that there is nothing that can be done to change it, and if nothing can be done, then I’m off the hook, I’m not responsible,” says Harden.
And the argument goes that society isn’t responsible either. So, who is? The individual, their parents, or someone else. “A classic example is eyeglasses. This is from the 1970s economist Arthur Goldberger,” says Harden. “How weird would it be if we said, ‘Your poor eyesight is genetically influenced, so we as a society are not responsible for making sure you have glasses.’ That would be deeply strange. Who could argue with our learning more about genetics — that is, learning about us as individuals — with a view to helping us all? Except the field is far less black and white than that. Indeed, it is incredibly vibrant. That’s reflected in Harden’s book The Genetic Lottery, in which she builds an argument against “misinformation” and “sticky ideas” that have been “deliberately propagated across generations” in opposition to social change.
“In the 1960s, the psychologist Art Jensen said that we didn’t need to bother with the reforms of — what would become — the civil rights movement because, he said, there was no way we could boost the educational achievement of poor or Black children in the US. He tied in the idea of genetics to say, ‘Don’t bother with social policy because it’s useless.’”
Harden’s got more than historical arguments in her sights. She also takes on her contemporaries, such as Princeton anthropologist Agustin Fuentes. “A colleague who’s reviewing [Harden’s] book told me she had compared me to Stalin,” laughs Fuentes when we speak. “The good news is she’s not.”
But Fuentes says Harden has misrepresented his position over the question of whether, when and how society should intervene to help individuals with genetic variants that might make life hard(er) for them. It’s that question of responsibility again. Do we just blame it all on the mysteries of genetics and throw up our hands, or aim for other routes to equity in society? “For society to function effectively, looking at the entirety of human evolution, we know that equity is important in our social success, that’s how humans work, and so we have the moral and ethical obligation to make our societies work as best we can. But not to be egalitarian because humans vary, so understanding how we vary, including genetically, is important,” he says.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle