Opinion | Columns

The pseudoscience of heritable success

It isn’t often that serious science manages to breach the selective membrane of popular media. “If you want it read,” goes the shifty unspoken rule, “you’d best make it red”—red with manufactured peril, red with a sharp, lurid veneer of bioethical alarmism, red with the very red tape of academic bureaucracy and Big Science secrecy. So the research that does tender heavy circulation isn’t always the most rigorous—it is, on the other hand, always the raciest. Atop the laundry list of undercooked, oversold scientific “breakthroughs” to reach the public eye in recent years, the new genetics of success juts out as perhaps the most preemptively reported, most proactively hailed or hated. Enter the latest work from economist (read: non-geneticist) Gregory Clark. According to his recent op-ed in the New York Times, a significant percentage of variation in social success and status can be attributed to—wait for it—heritable predisposition.

The general thrust of this fledgling science will be familiar to most readers. Twin studies—the most favored and fruitful modus operandi of behavioral geneticists—suggest that academic proficiency is highly heritable. Adoption surveys, too, exploring variations in affluence, point to the determinant power of lineage over environment and upbringing. But Clark and his colleagues at Harvard and Berkeley push the envelope with a wider scope and demographic approach. By measuring success and status—using the distribution of registered physicians and attorneys as an indicator—across a comprehensive panel of surnames in Europe, South America, Asia, and the U.S. and controlling (in ways unspecified) against the significant push and pull of “cultural traits, family economic resources, [and] social networks,” they conclude that “the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure, are strongly inherited.”

It’s a hard thesis to sell and an even harder one for you and me—collegiate millennials raised on a culture of personal empowerment—to buy without a blush of shame. Social mobility, we’ve been told, begins and ends with higher education (Clark and colleagues found that upper-class America is still lopsided with the surnames of Ivy League alumni from the mid-19th century). Today, the economic demography of Ivy League institutions is still embarrassingly monolithic, and airwaves run thick with proposals for novel policies and admissions criteria that might begin to dilute the problem. Yet here comes a respectable academic with a game-changing, snake-oil-smelling claim: that the real socio-history of class struggle can be read in the four-lettered lexicon of DNA. Check your privilege indeed, Clark and co. might say, but check it too closely and you’ll drift quietly into the quicksand that is biological determinism.

As sociologists and economists turn more and more toward half-baked genetic models to decipher demographic phenomena, it will become critically important to inspect the assertions of Clark and those like him. Theirs might not be the whole truth, but it certainly isn’t all hot nonsense either. Yes, the science behind the argumentation is dangerously underworked, to the point that any serious alteration to policy on its basis would be criminally irresponsible. Pipe dreams of a near future in which government and academic programs are tailored to offset the imbalances of heritable privilege only draw attention away from larger, more temporal institutional biases that prevent schools like ours from expanding economic diversity. Even so, the unsettling trends exposed by Clark’s study do merit some degree of serious examination: Biological reductionism is one sort of evil—wholesale denial of statistics, another. 

What in the world, then, are we to make of the semi-credible information supplied by the new “geneticists” of success? The first order of business, I think, is to call for a moratorium on their usage of biological terminology. Indeed, the greatest crime of socio-genetics as it is propagated by reputable academics à la Clark is simply that it involves very little genetics. This is a macroscopic, interpretive field through and through, with very little clinical mileage: So far, the search for single-gene or single-locus determinants of even simple behavioral traits has proven fruitless (although this may change with the plummeting pricetag on full-genome sequencing and with the advent of comprehensive behavioral epigenetics).

By Clark’s own admission, he and his diligent assembly “can’t know for certain what the mechanism of inheritance is.” Explanatory incompleteness is an albatross shared by most proclamations of a genetically transmissible temperament, and it should trouble us. In the pageant of molecular complexity that mediates genotype and behavioral phenotype, the deterministic devil is in the details: Genes beget proteins, and proteins accomplish some measurable biochemical function. Claims of a genetic susceptibility to addiction or social aggression, for instance, are scientifically tenable, because the underlying neurochemistry can be understood quantitatively. The same cannot be said of a trait as nebulous as “professional ambition.” 

There probably do exist reasonable genetic corollaries—predispositions if not predictors—of quirks which can nudge a subject toward early academic proficiency, creative aptitude, or emotional resiliency. But we haven’t the means to discern them, and to claim otherwise is scientifically irresponsible. The only necessary response to this suspicious innuendo will be to point out that molecular science can elucidate only the hardware of human behavior—the discretionary software still belongs to free-willed agents.

Kevin Bi is a Columbia College junior majoring in biochemistry. He serves as an executive board member of the Columbia University Wind Ensemble. Primate’s Per-spec-tive runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Great to hear someone taking on popular science with a critical eye. It's become way too easy to wave the "SCIENCE" wand to prove any point without citing the relevant research.

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