From Nature (theoretically, a science journal):
25 SEPTEMBER 2018
Nathaniel Comfort questions a psychologist’s troubling claims about genes and behaviour.
by Nathaniel Comfort
Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are by Robert Plomin, Allen Lane (2018)
It’s never a good time for another bout of genetic determinism, but it’s hard to imagine a worse one than this. Social inequality gapes, exacerbated by climate change, driving hostility towards immigrants and flares of militant racism. At such a juncture, yet another expression of the discredited, simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature seems particularly insidious.
And yet, here we are again with Blueprint, by educational psychologist Robert Plomin. Although Plomin frequently uses more civil, progressive language than did his predecessors, the book’s message is vintage genetic determinism: “DNA isn’t all that matters but it matters more than everything else put together”. “Nice parents have nice children because they are all nice genetically.” And it’s not just any nucleic acid that matters; it is human chromosomal DNA. Sorry, microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts, developmental biologists: you’re not part of Plomin’s picture.
Crude hereditarianism often re-emerges after major advances in biological knowledge: Darwinism begat eugenics; Mendelism begat worse eugenics. The flowering of medical genetics in the 1950s led to the notorious, now-debunked idea that men with an extra Y chromosome (XYY genotype) were prone to violence. Hereditarian books such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) and Nicholas Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance (see N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014) exploited their respective scientific and cultural moments, leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda. Although Blueprint is cut from different ideological cloth, the consequences could be just as grave.
The scientific advance this time is the genome-wide association study (GWAS). Invented in 1996, GWAS has gained massively in predictive power with the advent of ‘polygenic scores’, a statistical tool that in recent years has lured social scientists to the genome, with the promise of genetic explanations for complex traits, such as voting behaviour or investment strategies. As Plomin notes, it was something they had been trying to do for a long time.
Plomin’s predecessors tried to get monogenic risk scores. … No one is so foolish as to believe in a single gene for learning disability any more.
Actually, from Wikipedia:
Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is a genetic disorder. … Fragile X syndrome is typically due to an expansion of the CGG triplet repeat within the Fragile X mental retardation 1 (FMR1) gene on the X chromosome.
What people don’t believe in (at least not all that much) anymore is a single gene that has a massive effect for learning ability. It’s easy to break intelligence, it’s hard to build intelligence.
.. As population geneticist Richard Lewontin pointed out in a scathing critique of Jensen’s approach in 1970, in times of plenty, height is highly heritable; in a famine, much less so (R. C. Lewontin Bull. Atom. Sci. 26, 2–8; 1970).
Womp womp, hereditarians, womp womp!
To paraphrase Lewontin in his 1970 critique of Jensen’s argument, Plomin has made it pretty clear what kind of world he wants.
I oppose him.
Now, that’s Science!
written by Gregory Cochran
A review of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are by Robert Plomin. MIT Press (November 2018) 280 pages.