In this article, Erik Parens urges me and other scientists working in the field of social genomics to “curb [our] optimism” regarding how genetic discoveries could be used to advance progressive and egalitarian social goals. In my view, however, it is Parens and other critics of social genomics who need to curb their optimism, in two ways.
First, Parens is overly optimistic that social science can ever hope to be successful without genetics. In reality, social scientists have failed, time and time again, to produce interventions that bring about lasting improvements in people’s lives. There are many reasons for that failure. But one reason is that many scientists continue to engage in what the sociologist Jeremy Freese has called a “tacit collusion” to avoid reckoning, in their research designs and in their causal inferences, with the fact that people are genetically different from one another.
All interventions and policies are built on a model of how the world works: “If I change x, then y will happen.” A model of the world that pretends all people are genetically the same, or that the only thing people inherit from their parents is their environment, is a wrong model of how the world works. The more often our models of the world are wrong, the more often we will continue to fail in designing interventions and policies that do what they intend to do. The goal of integrating genetics into the social sciences is not to design boutique educational interventions tailored for children’s genotypes. It is to help rescue us from our current situation, where most educational interventions tested don’t work for anyone. This track record of failure plays directly into the hands of a right-wing that touts the ineffectiveness of intervention as evidence for its false narrative of genetic determinism.
Second, Parens and other critics are overly optimistic that their strategy of disapproval, discouragement, and disavowal of genetic research will be effective in neutralizing the pernicious ideologies of the far-right. What is the evidence that this strategy actually works? Herrnstein and Murray published “The Bell Curve” when I was 12 years old; Murray published “Human Diversity” when I was 37 years old; and in all that time, the predominant response from the political left has remained pretty much exactly the same – emphasize people’s genetic sameness, question the wisdom of doing genetic research at all, urge caution. Yet, the far-right is ascendant. In my view, the left’s response to genetic science simply preaches to its own choir. Meanwhile, this strategy of minimization allows right-wing ideologues to offer to “red-pill” people with the “forbidden knowledge” of genetic results.
What the left hasn’t done (yet) is formulate a messaging strategy that (a) reconciles the existence of human genetic differences with people’s moral and political commitments to human equality, and (b) is readily comprehensible outside the confines of the ivory tower. Reminding people that genes are a source of luck in their lives has the potential to be that message. Parens characterizes me as making a “generous hearted but large leap” to expect that portraying genes as luck will change people’s minds, but economic research suggests that reminding people of the role of luck in their lives does, in fact, make them more supportive of redistribution.
Overall, this article portrays me and others working in this space as “soft-pedaling” the dangers of social genomics being appropriated by the far right. But I am fully cognizant of the dangers. Parens is the one who is soft-pedaling. He is soft-pedaling the enormous damage done to progress in psychology, sociology, and other social sciences – fields that are tasked with improving people’s lives – by their refusal to engage with genetics. And, he is soft-pedaling the danger of simply continuing the left’s decades-old, easily-“red-pilled” rhetorical strategy at a time with right-wing ideologies are on the rise globally.