It’s no wonder that many people are wary of behavioral genetics. The field, which examines how the DNA we are born with influences our behavior, has been hijacked by eugenicists, white supremacists and mainstream fanatics as a way of reducing inequality for minorities, women, the poor and more than a century of other disadvantaged groups.
But anyone interested in egalitarian goals shouldn’t shy away from 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.
People – regardless of race or background – are genetically over 99% identical. But that remaining less than 1% explains meaningful differences between people. As Harden told Big Think:
“Many of the psychological, behavioral and physical differences between us are related to that little part of our genome that differs between us… Your risk for schizophrenia, your risk for depression, how far you go in school.”
Behavioral genetics is the study of these differences and how they predict life outcomes.
Importantly, however, your genes alone do not determine life outcomes. Even the strongest relationships between genes and psychology — such as those for intelligence and schizophrenia — explain only about 50% or less variance.
Instead, our genes are constantly interacting with our environment. In fact, epigenetic research shows that our genes can essentially be turned on or off by myriad factors, including malnutrition, environmental pollutants and psychological stress. And while genes create a framework that influences our physiology and psychology, the environment offers opportunities to learn, adapt and shape behavior.
Genetic research has been misunderstood and abused
There is a long history of people misusing genetic research to justify social inequalities.
Relying on beliefs about “hard heredity” — which (wrongly) assumes that genes determine outcomes regardless of environmental factors — some have used genetic research to argue that social inequality is due to immutable genetic differences. And because poverty and life outcomes are in every person’s genes, the logic is that social policy is meaningless.
Genetic research has even been used to justify eugenics: the belief that genetics indicates a natural human hierarchy that determines one’s social worth and status. Eugenicists have advocated sterilizing or otherwise attempting to eradicate individuals or entire cultural groups considered genetically inferior or “unfit” because of their genes.
Behavioral genetics can be a tool for positive change
In response to this historic abuse, many people and organizations with egalitarian values have chosen to ignore, degrade, or ban funding for research into genetic and biological differences.
dr. Harden takes the opposite view. Despite – or perhaps because of – this historic abuse, she argues that people interested in equality cannot ignore genetic differences. This would unquestionably allow for the misinterpretation and misuse of genetic research.
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Instead, genetics should be used as a tool for positive change and increasing equality.
Genetics is happiness, not value. First, Harden emphasizes that genetics is not a measure of human worth, but rather simply represents luck-based reasons why people differ. Any two parents can produce children with one of more than 70 trillion possible genetic combinations. No one has control over the DNA they were born with.
In addition, this genetic lottery affects inequalities ranging from health to education level. So, according to Harden, people who care about justice should care about genes.
“If we’re concerned about inequality associated with the birth of people, the kind of windfall that they have no control over, then 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 lead the building of better environments. In addition, identifying genetic differences helps ensure that meaningful differences are considered and can be used to ensure that everyone can maximize their life success.
Remember that genes alone do not determine the outcome of life, but instead interact with the environment; and the environment can change. Harden sets the example of vision. Low vision is largely caused by genes, but as a society we do not devalue people with poor eyesight or deny them meaningful pursuits in life. Instead, scientists developed glasses, policymakers and companies made them readily available, and our myopic friends have become some of the most successful people in the world.
Conversely, lucky genes—for example, for extreme athletic ability or excellent math skills—are only beneficial in environments that value them and allow them to thrive, such as areas with sports programs or areas where everyone has access to quality education.
In short, recognizing genetic differences can help society create more individualized, supportive environments.
†I think a lot of the power of genetics is in helping us understand the environment,” Harden told Big Think. “What are the social environments, the school contexts, the parenting environments that can turn genetic risk on or off? ?”
Policies and environments need to be aligned 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 limitations and in turn creates environments (with elevators, braille, etc.) that everyone can use, regardless of their physical differences.
The anti-eugenics framework for greater equality
Genome blindness – that is, ignoring genetic variation – ignores meaningful differences between people and how they experience life. This, in turn, can increase inequality.
As such, people who care about equality should be anti-eugenics, not anti-genetics. To improve equity, Harden says they should support research into improving and adapting school, home and community environments. They should 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 take both things seriously when making policy.”