The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality (2021) by Kathryn Paige Harden is in many ways the book I have been waiting for: a left-wing perspective of behavioural genetics. Anyone interested in science will raise an eyebrow now: “Politics should not interfere with science” and I wholeheartedly agree (and so would Kathryn Paige Harden), but anyone who has some inside knowledge of the research knows that this area of research has often been abused by the right ranging for justifying hierarchical structures, racism and even eugenics.
This tendency has been so strong that researchers who have worked to uncover genetic differences among people are often unfairly accused of being right-wing racists. One evolutionary psychology researcher got fired from his university because of such — unfounded — suspicions. Harden opens her long argument by appealing to the left to finally accept genetic differences, or what she calls the “genetic lottery” and then continues, like a scientific Joan of Arc, to fight right-wing superiority thinking for a more egalitarian society.
When discussing whether inequalities are fair or unfair, one of the few ideological commitments that Americans broadly claim to share (or at least pay lip service to) is a commitment to the idea of “equality of opportunity.” This phrase can have multiple meanings: What, exactly, counts as real “opportunity,” and what does it take to make sure it’s equalized? But, generally, the idea is that all people, regardless of the circumstances of their birth should have the same opportunities to lead a long and healthy and satisfying life. Through the lens of “equality of opportunity,” it is not strictly the size or scale of inequalities per se that is evidence that society is unfair. Rather, it is that those inequalities are tied to the social class of a child’s parents, or to other circumstances of birth that are beyond the child’s control.
Harden bashes the hypocrisy that often surrounds the American lip service to egalitarianism. The commitment to meritocracy often serves to maintain the existing social inequalities rather than help overcome it. The economic developments regarding inequality have made it clear that unbridled open markets and meritocracy, despite both having their origins in egalitarianism, only reinforce inequalities. There is no such thing as a trickle-down economy. Rich people don’t make poor people richer, they only make themselves richer.
Harden’s focus is mostly on educational attainment, which has a much stronger genetic component that most of us, parents and teachers included, would want to be true But by now we know that not all children are “gritty” (very much the same as the Big 5 factor conscientiousness) or highly curious (Big 5 factor openness), the two personality traits that most predict academic attainment. Conservatives often use such findings from behavioural genetics to point out “See, there is no point in funding those “underprivileged” as it’s genetic and cannot be changed”. However, education is the main “equalising factor” in our society and liberals have to come to terms with genetic inequalities too. Educational attainment is strongly correlated with life outcomes, life satisfaction and income.
So far, it’s not entirely clear how to interpret the genetic data. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if these have a strong correlation with personality types. Surveys show a very stable picture when it comes to income distribution and personality type (Myers-Briggs):
From this statistic, you can see that extroverts tend to make much more money than introverts. The same is true for J (judging, roughly equivalent to conscientiousness), and the other traits. So, you can consider yourself a winner in the genetic lottery if you have inherited ESTJ or ENTJ.
However, that genetic lottery is by far not as random as the term lottery implies. I have argued for the following evolutionary origin of personality types:
All of our traits were adaptive in our evolutionary past, depending on the mode of subsistence. Farmer types were highly conscientious with all of its Big 5 facets: Orderliness, Decisiveness-Consistency, Dutifulness, Industriousness. These adaptations avoided pathogens (sedentism) and helped early farmers survive and thrive. It’s exactly this group that thrives most in a meritocratic world as it is adapted to 9–5 routine jobs and high productivity. Pastoralist types and hunter-gatherer types do less well, on average. However, hunter-gatherer types show a bifurcation, some types (ENTJ/INTJ) play in the high-income league whereas others (INFP, INTP) are among the lowest earners. This hunter-gatherer group consists of what has been described as “orchids”, they may be among the most beautiful flowers or just fade away.
To my knowledge, genetic research hasn’t shown the existence of such orchids yet. However, it’s not hard to find such connections if you look closely. Autism incidence is higher in families of highly successful scientists or engineers. Neurodiversity incidence is also extremely high in homeless people. There was a good chance that Einstein, who was most certainly on the spectrum, may actually have ended up as a hobo instead of the world’s most famous scientist.
As Harden points out, genetic traits are not destiny and certainly may play out in different environments. An inconvenient truth for conservative farmer types is that conscientiousness does not make people richer everywhere. There is a conscientiousness paradox in developing countries, i.e they have a high percentage of conscientiousness and poor people at the same time. Hard work and conscientiousness do not make you rich if you are a simple farmer in a third-world country, but there is a good chance that these traits make you rich if you have affluent parents who send you to an expensive private school.
As a liberal, I do not dread research in behavioural genetics, I welcome it. I am quite sure, once we get the big picture, there will be little reason for supremacy, racism, and any other kind of inegalitarianism. I am quite certain that the years to come will change our picture of humanity as we will slowly come to understand the patterns behind the “genetic lottery”.
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on December 8, 2021.