Hereditarian Hypotheses Aren't More Harmful
The blank slate can lead to totalitarianism, conflict, and the rejection of important genetic enhancement technology.
Written by Ives Parr.
There’s a heated debate over why demographic groups differ on important outcomes. Why are some neighborhoods exceptionally high in crime? Why do women end up in different careers than men? Why are some races more likely to be arrested by police? Why do some ethnicities go to college at higher rates? Why are some nations rich while others are poor? These are critical questions. Yet we remain divided on them. Answers vary a lot depending on the political views of the person you ask.
One answer you rarely hear someone openly professing is the hereditarian perspective, namely that genes are the primary driver of these disparities. This perspective is highly stigmatized in the West, and its proponents are often silent out of fear of backlash.
While most critics refuse to even entertain the hereditarian perspective, more thoughtful critics argue that while it could, in principle, be right, there is no good reason to openly discuss such a repugnant idea. They claim that public acceptance of the hereditarian perspective could reignite the same impulses that led to the injustices committed by the racists and eugenicists of the twentieth century.
Properly evaluating the hereditarian perspective is a substantial task that requires careful scholarship and is far beyond the scope of my essay. However, I will defend the claim that we should want to know the truth, whatever it is, and that genetic explanations are not, in fact, more dangerous than the “blank slate” explanations offered by American progressives.
To begin with, we should want academics and politicians to have a good understanding of the role of genes in socioeconomic outcomes because we’d like the policies they enact to be based on accurate information. Interventions based on false causal explanations will inevitably fail. If a variable of interest has no causal role in the relevant outcome, then manipulating that variable will not bring about the desired results. Not only can this be incredibly wasteful, as it diverts money from taxpayers that could have been used for effective interventions, but it could also be counterproductive or have other unintended consequences.
Wasteful and counterproductive interventions could be excused if the magnitude of the harm from the widespread acceptance of the role of genes was sufficiently great. Undoubtedly, people who subscribed to a belief in innate differences have committed atrocities. However, people who rejected this belief have also committed atrocities. As Carl (2018) notes, advocates of a blank-slate view have used this belief as a justification for totalitarian efforts to “remake humanity.” And as Pinker (2002, p. 156) points out, Mao Zedong claimed that “a blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it,” and a slogan of the genocidal Khmer Rouge was “only the newborn baby is spotless.”
In addition to totalitarianism, blank-slate explanations lead to hostility between groups. When a group is disproportionately successful, the reason behind its success invites speculation. Accusations of cheating or scheming will be made if cultural and genetic explanations are deemed unacceptable. The most notable example is the disproportionate success of Ashkenazi Jews, which has generated a good deal of conspiratorial explanations. Carl (2018) also noted that blank-slate explanations are used in the persecution of other successful minorities:
Throughout the last two centuries, numerous ethnic groups and social classes have been persecuted because their success was taken as evidence of their wickedness: ‘bourgeois peasants’ in the Soviet Union; literate professionals in Cambodia; ‘rich peasants’ in Mao’s China; the Indians in Uganda; the Chinese in Indonesia; the Armenians in Turkey; the Igbos in Nigeria; and the Jews in Europe, Russia and the Middle East (Pinker, 2002, Ch. 8; and see Cofnas, 2017).
Explanations for group disparities that allege mistreatment are actually more dangerous than genetic explanations. Among people who accept that some individuals are less academically successful due in part to their genes, few would say that the less academically successful deserve punishment. In fact, many would say that they deserve extra support. Both progressives and conservatives are open to the idea that victims of such “cosmic injustices” deserve our compassion.
Attributing one group’s lack of success to genes removes the need to blame, control, or punish some other group. In fact, moving from a belief in interpersonal injustice to a belief in cosmic injustice would temper social conflict, which has been rising largely due to the more hostile “woke” faction of progressivism.
Another highly objectionable aspect of “blank slate-ism” is that it fosters a culture resistant to advancing genetic enhancement technology. Thanks to a drastic fall in the cost of genomic sequencing, researchers have found associations of specific genes with various physical and psychological outcomes, and our understanding of these associations continues to grow. Meanwhile, advances are being made in genetic engineering (gene-edited babies have been born), and multiple companies are offering polygenic embryo selection to consumers (Genomic Prediction and Orchid).
While the benefits of polygenic embryo selection are real, they are not currently revolutionary. Yet as the technology develops further, revolutionary benefits will come—as noted in my article “Embryo selection as foreign aid.” We will soon have a powerful and ethical way of influencing people’s genetic makeup, which has the potential to help the worst off. The improvements in welfare will dwarf those from all known environmental interventions when it comes to health, lifespan, intelligence, and happiness. To use the injustices of the past as an excuse to suppress this technology would allow those injustices to continue harming humanity.
Even if one rejects the hereditarian perspective, it should be clear that investigating the role of genes in demographic group differences is worthwhile. The harms of falsely attributing those differences to interpersonal injustices and of suppressing free inquiry are considerable. The most important thing to remember is that we have to face reality if we want to change it.
Ives Parr writes about genetic Enhancement, bioethics, cognitive ability, the culture war, and more. Subscribe to his Substack.
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