No wonder many people are suspicious of behavioral genetics. The field, which examines how the DNA we are born with affects our behaviors, has been hijacked by eugenicists, white supremacists and ordinary fanatics as a way of justifying inequality for minorities, women, poor people and other disadvantaged groups for more than a century.
But anyone interested in egalitarian goals should not flee the field, argues psychologist Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden. Instead, they should embrace it as a tool to inform policies that promote equality.
What is behavioral genetics?
Each person is born with a set of genes inherited from their biological parents. These genes carry information that shapes each person’s characteristics, such as physical appearance, personality, and medical conditions.
Humans – regardless of race or origin – are more than 99% genetically identical. But this remainder of less than 1% is responsible for significant differences between people. As Harden told Big Think:
“A lot of the psychological, behavioral and physical differences between us are related to that small fraction of our genome that differs between us… Your risk of schizophrenia, your risk of depression, how far you go in school.”
Behavioral genetics is the study of these differences and how they predict life outcomes.
It is important to point out, however, that your genes alone do not determine life outcomes. Even the strongest relationships between genes and psychology — such as those for intelligence and schizophrenia — account for only about 50% or less of variation.
Instead, our genes constantly interact with our environment. Epigenetic research has even found that our genes can be turned on or off essentially by numerous factors, including malnutrition, environmental pollutants, and psychological stress. And while genes create a framework that influences our physiology and psychology, the environment provides opportunities to learn, adjust, and shape behaviors.
Genetic research has been misunderstood and misused
There is a long history of people abusing genetic research to justify social inequalities.
Relying on conceptions of “hard heredity” – which (incorrectly) assume that genes determine outcomes independently of environmental factors – some have used genetic research to argue that social inequality is due to immutable genetic differences. And since poverty and life outcomes are built into every person’s genes, the logic is that social policies are futile.
Genetic research has even been used to justify eugenics: the belief that genetics indicates a natural human hierarchy that determines a person’s worth and social standing. Eugenicists have advocated sterilization or the attempt to eradicate individuals or entire cultural groups deemed genetically inferior or “unfit” because of their genes.
Behavioral genetics can be a tool for positive change
In response to this historic misuse, many people and organizations with egalitarian values have chosen to ignore, degrade, or ban funding for research on genetic and biological differences.
Dr. Harden takes the opposite position. Despite – or perhaps because of – this historical misuse, she argues that people interested in equality cannot ignore genetic differences. Doing so would allow the misinterpretation and abuse of genetic research to go unchallenged.
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Instead, genetics should be used as a tool for positive change and increased equality.
Genetics is luck, not value. First, Harden points out, genetics is not a measure of human worth, but simply represents luck-based reasons why people differ. Any two parents can produce children with any one of more than 70 trillion possible genetic combinations. No person has control over the DNA they are born with.
Furthermore, this genetic lottery influences inequalities ranging from health to educational level. So, according to Harden, people who care about fairness should care about genes.
“If we care about inequality that is linked to people’s accidents of birth, the kind of fluke that they have no control over, we should be concerned about genetic inequality,” Harden told Big Think. “Because it is one of the main sources of inequality in this country.”
Genetics can guide the construction of better environments. Additionally, identifying genetic differences helps ensure that significant differences are considered and can be used to ensure that everyone can maximize their success in life.
Remember, genes alone do not determine life outcomes, but interact with the environment; and the environment can be changed. Harden provides the example of vision. Poor eyesight is largely caused by genes, but as a society we do not devalue those with poor eyesight or deny them meaningful life activities. Instead, scientists developed eyeglasses, policymakers and companies made them readily available, and our myopic friends became some of the most successful people in the world.
On the other hand, lucky genes — say, for extreme athleticism or excellent math ability — are only beneficial in environments that value them and allow them to flourish, such as areas with athletic programs or where everyone has access to a quality education.
In short, recognizing genetic differences can help society create more individualized and supportive environments.
“I think a lot of the power of genetics is as a tool to help us understand the environment,” Harden told Big Think. “What are the social environments, school contexts, parental environments that can activate or deactivate genetic risk?”
Policies and environments must be adapted to ensure that everyone – regardless of their genes – has the opportunity to do well and participate fully in society. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a successful example of this. The ADA recognizes that some people have physical disabilities and in turn creates environments (with elevators, Braille, etc.) that everyone can use, regardless of their physical differences.
The anti-eugenics framework for more equality
Genome blindness—that is, ignoring genetic variation—ignores significant differences between people and how they experience life. This, in turn, can exacerbate inequalities.
As such, people who care about equality should be anti-eugenics, not anti-genetics. To improve equity, Harden argues that they must support research on how to improve and adapt school, home and community environments. They must advocate for social policies that support everyone to maximize their potential.
By integrating science and values, we can create a more equal world.
“Science doesn’t fit neatly into ideology,” Harden told Big Think. “What we need to do is think about what our values are, what the science says, and then take those two things seriously when making policy.”