Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden, University of Texas, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times July 24th titled “Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education”. Although a brief opinion, it’s claims are large. If one takes it at face value one may be misled.
Dr. Harden’s opening paragraph is a suggestion to look at college graduation as a fault line – one that divides success on one side or death on the other. She states, “College education is a fault line in American society. Men who didn’t graduate from college have not had real gains in wages since the 1960s, and white Americans without a college degree are increasingly dying “deaths of despair” — liver disease from alcoholism, overdoses from opioids, suicides. Now new research has found that college graduation, with all its advantages, is partly the outcome of a genetic lottery.”
Why is college graduation the fault line? Because another academic studied that question. But does that make it true, or remotely comprehensive as to why men’s wages have not risen if they did not graduate from college or why these white men die “deaths of despair”? Perhaps rather than focusing on pushing men to pay huge tuition costs to graduate from college (she omits the conundrum of college graduates who can’t pay their loans off or can’t make more than a minimum wage), we could look at economic forces – economic rigging of the system, economic crimes of the big banks who hand out loans created out of thin air and liable to the American tax payer. Instead Dr. Harden pushes a highly complex issue of genetics into a narrow lens to promote her argument.
The second paragraph of the piece cites the study she bases her argument on and the genetic “lottery” based in the less than “one percent” of genes that are not identical but which, in part, stipulate educational correlates. “On Monday, scientists published a study in Nature Genetics that analyzed the genes of 1.1 million people of European ancestry, including over 300,000 23andMe customers. Over 99 percent of our DNA is identical in all humans, but researchers focused on the remaining 1 percent and found thousands of DNA variants that are correlated with educational attainment. This information can be combined into a single number, called a polygenic score. In Americans with European ancestry, just over 10 percent of people with a low polygenic score completed college, compared with 55 percent of people with a high polygenic score. This genetic disparity in college completion is as big as the disparity between rich and poor students in America.”
Here again she omits the lack of scientific rigor and certainty of these relatively new genetic tests and presents them as a truth we ought to believe in. Yet genetic tests, including 23andMe tests, are far from perfect. They are often considered incorrect up to forty percent of the time. The “polygenic score” she bases her conclusions on are also highly debated as to their accuracy and to their benefits in predictions. From all this uncertainty it is perhaps dubious to make such solid claims. Even if we take the evidence she presents at face value, how do we know what other variables would factor into the equation? Epigenetics is the science of how our genes get expressed. All our cells carry the exact same genes. What causes the genes to differentiate and express individually is the environment they live in. In this way there are enormous variables to be considered. Dr. Harden mentions none of this.
A few weeks after this op-ed was published another news story broke about 23andMe getting a $300, 000, 000 investment from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. The debate regarding the ethics of sharing people’s genetic data, and further, the ramifications of the partnership, are more than this critique can take on, but it adds to the complexities we are outlining.
Her third paragraph states, “Because researchers focused on differences within an ancestrally homogeneous group of people, their results have no implications for understanding racial disparities in education. Also, when researchers looked at African-Americans, the genetic variants only minimally predicted educational outcomes. Many more studies will need to be done before we can come close to understanding fully the role of genetics in the American education system.”
The first sentence is straight ahead and clear, but the next two sentences beg further clarity. Why does the research present clear genetic implications for those of European descent but not for those of African-American descent? She makes no mention. But she is sure to not implicate herself as being dogmatic in the third sentence (more studies needed) even though the rest of the article is written as though this is accepted truth – hence, this is why progressives should embrace the genetics of education.
The fourth paragraph states, “But research like this makes many people nervous. Linking social inequality to DNA — isn’t this eugenics? After all, the term “eugenics” was coined by Francis Galton, whose 1869 book, “Hereditary Genius,” argued that British class structure was based on a biological inheritance of “eminence.” In the United States, the idea that inferior genes were to blame for poverty led to state-sponsored atrocities, including forced sterilization and institutionalization.”
Indeed, there has been, for over one hundred years now, a movement in science to use genetics to demonstrate that the “favored races” are genetically superior. Galton was not only influenced by Charles Darwin, he was his cousin. Darwin’s well-known book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection has a subtitle: “or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life”. This does cause thinking people to pause or make “many people nervous” as Dr. Harden writes, for good reason. She even offers state-sponsored atrocities to the nervous folk. Then she adds fuel to the nervous fire, continuing, “Eugenic thinking is not safely in the past. Today, members of the “human biodiversity movement” enthusiastically tweet and blog about discoveries in molecular genetics that they mistakenly believe support the ideas that inequality is genetically determined; that policies like a more generous welfare state are thus impotent; and that genetics confirms a racialized hierarchy of human worth.” So there surely is a eugenics movement alive today often with opinions based in genetic science.
Dr. Harden moves on in her next paragraph saying, “This has led people who value social justice to argue that, when it comes to issues like education, genetic research should simply not be conducted. For instance, in response to an earlier study on the genetics of education, Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asserted that this type of research “cannot possibly be socially neutral — and in fact will intensify social inequities.” She joins a long tradition of left-wing thinkers who considered biological research inimical to the goal of social equality. Lenin himself wrote that “the transfer of biological concepts into the field of the social sciences is a meaningless phrase.”” It is interesting to associate Lenin with social justice as she does here. Of course, she is supporting her point that biology and equality do not mix well for people who want everyone to be equal; biology is far from equal or egalitarian and does not demonstrate fairness. This kind of thinking is a major flaw in “progressive”, “left”, “social justice warrior” ideology. The fundaments of Life are not equal. Best to leave out biology if one wants to make everyone equal. Also, interesting, given the title of her opinion piece that she associates people who care about social justice to be “progressives”. I think it serves no one to label people in this way. People from all walks of life and many different political philosophies care about social justice.
Dr. Harden goes on to make her case that using DNA information would actually help bring about a more equal society through better education, which justifies the genetic, biological research. She says, “But this is a mistake. Those of us who value social justice should instead be asking: How can the power of the genomic revolution be harnessed to create a more equal society? . . . Discovering specific DNA variants that are correlated with education can help us in two ways. . .. First, these genetic results reveal the injustice of our so-called meritocracy. As a nation, we justify stark inequalities with the idea that people who stayed in school deserve more than people who didn’t finish high school or college — more money, more security, more health, more life.“
I’m not sure what Dr. Harden is alluding to by “our so-called meritocracy”. And what are the “stark inequalities” she is referring to? As for “the idea that people who stayed in school deserve more than people who didn’t finish high school or college”, isn’t it more apt to say our market economy rewards people who create products people want to buy regardless of their educational level? Many kids make millions of dollars before even graduating high school, let alone college. These kids had something that others wanted bad enough to pay for. Isn’t that exactly why Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, to name a few, made so much money after dropping out of college? The majority of college graduates will only dream of making this kind of money. Their college diploma often doesn’t get much more than minimum wage, as pointed out above. And if the market recognizes that college graduates are often better suited for certain jobs because of their advanced training, isn’t that a fine way for the market to behave? Generally, people who stay in school longer learn more, have invested more of their resources, and expect a return on that investment. Why else would one stay in school? To be equal with those that do not? No, they want more learning, so they can have more opportunity and perhaps more stuff.
The next paragraph is a denial of Life itself and to desire to make it different than what it is. “But success in our educational system is partially a result of genetic luck. No one earned his or her DNA sequence, yet some of us are benefiting enormously from it. By showing us the links between genes and educational success, this new study reminds us that everyone should share in our national prosperity, regardless of which genetic variants he or she happens to inherit.”. “Genetic luck” is an offshoot of the old assumption that genes are random. But we know more today and that line of thinking has changed. Much evidence shows that we are beginning to understand the patterns that exist in genetic mutations which are not mathematically random. Dr. Harden’s assertion “No one earned his or her DNA sequence, yet some of us are benefiting enormously from it” is a realization that Life isn’t fair, doesn’t pretend to be equal, and shows how futile it is to demand equality in this system; but that is exactly what the social justice equality advocates want to do. We can certainly treat everyone in an equal manner, but we can’t make them equal. Life is built upon unequal, differentiated parts. Yet we all have equal free will to do with our inequalities what we will.
Our genes are not luck, they are formed from a lineage that is anything but luck. Our actions within our environments change our genetic expression and these epigenetic changes often get passed down through generations. Our free will, which decided what actions we take, created the genetic lineage we come from and are born into. This is not luck; this is Life, how it works, how it changes, how it patterns itself, and how it evolves. Our contribution will be the decisions and actions we take – do we work hard and smart at music and develop those genetic tendencies or do we sit on the sofa and watch the tele and drink soda and eat corn chips? And why should “everyone share in our national prosperity”? Everyone? Criminals? Slackers? Some people do not deserve to share in the prosperity by the fact that they are not contributing even though they are capable. A good question we can ask is, how can we motivate everyone to contribute their best?
Dr. Harden wants us to understand how our environments affect our educational outcomes, and that is a desire worth researching: environment is chief among epigenetic expression. She continues, “Second, knowing which genes are associated with educational success will help scientists understand how different environments also affect that success. The eventual development of a polygenic score that statistically predicts educational outcomes will allow researchers to control for genetic differences between people, so that the causal effects of the environment are thrown into sharper focus. Understanding which environments cause improvements in children’s ability to think and learn is necessary if we want to invest wisely in interventions that can truly make a difference.”
I concur. But we already know many answers as to what environments “cause improvements in children’s ability to think and learn”. Further research furthers academics careers. But at times, and education is one of those times, we in fact know more than we implement. Educational reform has been talked about for too many decades to take seriously. If we would simply use the evidence we have, implement the educational strategies and models that already exist, we could accomplish much of what we desire to improve children’s abilities to think and learn. For example we have proven models of learning (Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, among others) that work, but which are not integrated well into public schooling, which is mostly a one-size-fits-all type of model.
Maximizing a child’s potential is a very productive goal. And using genetic information can help us do so. But spending millions of tax dollars and using our significant resources to do so at the expense of using those resources toward implementing what we already know seems ill-advised. But if one is a researcher, one wants more research, as that is the bread and butter of one’s career and livelihood. Dr. Harden argues, “Talking about including genetics as a variable in statistical models doesn’t have the same dark allure as eugenic proposals to screen embryos or assign children to schools based on their genotypes. But the widespread use of polygenic scoring in research aiming to understand how environments shape children’s lives will yield big payoffs for knowing how to maximize a child’s potential. We can’t change someone’s genes, but we can try to change how she grows up.” And as for changing how “she grows up” we can start by insisting we provide true nutrition instead of the toxic food we allow our children to eat today, eliminating EMF dangers, curbing the overdosing of pharmaceuticals on children, and insuring the land they play on is safe along with the air they breathe and the water they drink. This we could do now if we had the wherewithal. This is a no brainer. This is easy. This could be done first, right now, and we would gain huge benefits, perhaps even more than the benefits we get from genetic testing.
We slowly, gradually, pretend we are making changes, step by step, by legislating regulations that simply fatten the bureaucratic nightmare we already have but make very little real impact on the lives of our children.
“Our genes shape nearly every aspect of our lives — our weight, fertility, health, life span and, yes, our intelligence and success in school. Scientists have known this for years, based on results from twin and adoption studies, but it’s only recently that we have been able to measure DNA directly and use it to predict outcomes with any degree of certainty.” What Dr. Harden omits in this paragraph is that genes are really more of a blueprint – what we do with them, which comes from our actions, makes the real difference. For one simple, small example of many, no matter how good one’s genes are for fertility, if one makes choices that down regulate those genes, such as being exposed to too much EMF radiation, which is ubiquitous these days, those genes will not give one any advantage whatsoever. Again, Dr. Harden leaves out a most potent aspect of genetics – epigenetics.
The final paragraph of Dr. Harden’s opinion brings in the dogma of the “climate changers”. Only an insane person would deny that climate changes. One can see the climate change each and every day. And to “ensure a sustainably habitable planet “does not require a belief in “climate change”. All it takes is common sense. Regardless if one believes that humans are changing the climate or not, one can advocate sustainable practices. But she finishes her piece saying, “Genetic differences in human life are a scientific fact, like climate change. Many progressives resist acknowledging this when it comes to education, fearing that it will compromise their egalitarian beliefs. But just like acknowledging the reality of climate change is necessary to ensure a sustainably habitable planet, acknowledging the reality of genetic differences between people is a necessary step for us to ensure a more just society.” And just like one desiring and contributing to sustainable ecological practices without believing in “climate change”, one can most certainly work to “ensure a more just society” without any acknowledgment of genetic differences. A good and moral heart, mind and soul, that innately understands and lives the Golden Rule will always make choices that ensure a more just society and a sustainable planet. There is no need to believe in special interests or any kind of advanced learning or knowledge to do so. Of course, if we use our advanced learning in open and imaginative ways, rather than in narrow and dogmatic ways, we will improve even more. And our children, all of them, deserve our best.