This I Believe

by Dave Schuler on March 17, 2014

There’s a very good parenthetical passage in a post at Andrew Sullivan’s site on the scandal du jour about Paul Ryan’s presumed racism which takes a side trip into Charles Murray’s scholarship. Here it is:

(It’s an old and great line that liberals believe nothing is genetic but homosexuality, while conservatives believe everything is genetic except homosexuality. For my part, it seems pretty damn obvious that almost all human behavior is a function of both – and the interaction between them.)

A great, succinct way of expressing something that I, too, believe.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds March 17, 2014 at 9:42 am

I hate it when science is distorted by politics. We have to pursue knowledge even when it may discomfit some people, even when it may be dangerous in the wrong hands. As to nature and nurture I suspect we’ll discover more cases of “all of the above” than we used to assume. But let’s begin with the data, not with the politics.

Jimbino March 17, 2014 at 10:17 am

There are some things that are close to purely genetic by definition, like native intelligence.

Cstanley March 17, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Epigenetic research (as opposed to squishy social science) will probably be more conclusive on the question of how many traits are produced by nature + nurture.

This dust up isn’t even about that question though. Really the liberals like Josh Marshall are arguing that we can’t examine any potential perpetuating factors for generational poverty within the impoverished communities, at all. They are claiming it is racist to look at either genetic or cultural factors. That becomes pretty fatalistic, since they aren’t offering any external policy solutions to break the cycle, either.

steve March 17, 2014 at 5:19 pm

Nature vs nurture is nearly always a poor concept. Environment can clearly overcome genetics and absent genetics environment can achieve only so much. It is really the interaction between the two that is important. At least on intelligence, I think we should eventually learn that IQs within a fairly broad range allow for equal levels of achievement determined by environmental factors. However, if you fall out of that range, environment cannot make up for its absence.

Steve

mike shupp March 17, 2014 at 8:00 pm

True Conservatives don’t accept genetics or any other part of that Darwin nonsense. It’s all determined by phrenology.

PD Shaw March 17, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Conservatives strike me as more likely to adhere to some version of the Horatio Alger story –success is due to one’s own hard work and failure is due to government intervention.

mike shupp March 17, 2014 at 9:12 pm

Cstanley – I’m not a “liberal like Josh Marshall” but I have taken some anthropology courses and I sort of understand the point about not looking for “perpetuating factors for generational poverty within the impoverished communities.”

Several points, actually. Marshall would like to make the case that people are poor because of cultural and sociological factors beyond their control. (We live in hierarchical class-based societies, those of us who aren’t hunter-gatherers amyhow, and such societies simply don’t have egalitarian distributions of wealth, authority, and social status. It’s simply ludicrous to argue that where we all fall in American society is entirely determined by our genetics.)

I add this point: Our genetic history as human beings surely owes much more to the several million years our ancestors spent being humble foragers and hunter-gatherers than to the past ten thousand years of agriculture and urbanism. We all come equipped with roughly 30,000 genes and I strongly doubt that ANY of them directly predestines its carrier to poverty or to wealth.

Now, you want to snark that liberals aren’t offering :external policy solutions” to break the povery cycle? I’ll give you two. Here’s the first: Allow easy abortion for children that really aren’t wanted. That’s going to include babies that conservatives don’t want to see aborted. Tough.

Second: Perhaps in ten years, perhaps twenty, perhaps even less, it’ll be easy for a medical lab to look at eggs and sperm samples and tell would-be parents “We can give you a baby that will be healthier and taller than average, that will be at least five IQ points brighter than what you might otherwise get, that will be less likely to develope schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. And of course there will be no prospect of Downs Syndrome or any other chromosomal abnormality. We can’t guarantee it will become a track star or an opera singer or a state governor, but it will be a damned good kid. Do you want to go ahead with that …. or do you just want to take your chances, like your parents did?”

Now this’d cost something. My guess is about in-vitro fertilization runs to about 50,000 dollars a kid. 4 million kids a year born in the USA, that’s 200 billion bucks — about one percent of GNP, about one quarter of the annual bill for Soc Security or Medicare. Maybe the health insurance companies will cover that for not too much money — escaping the costs for schizophrenia and dementia ought to appeal to them. Alternatively, the Federal government should pick up that bill for everybody’s kids. Even illegitimate kids. Even Mexican migrants kids. Even (whisper it!) little for little black kids in Chicago and Lousiiana parishes. Give any infant that’s actually wanted the sort of genetic breaks that rich folks are going to buy for their kids. Let’s do this for a couple of centuries, and see if it still makes sense to ponder “perpetuating factors” for poverty and social class.

Cstanley March 17, 2014 at 10:05 pm

@ Mike. Ah, so the solution is eugenics with some technological advances. Beyond “offering” these scientific advances, at what point do you make them compulsory when there are too many people who just keep having kids the natural way?

You do realize, too, that only in Lake Woebegone are all the kids above average?

All snark aside, I’m a little confused by your response though. I agree that people are often poor due to factors that are beyond their control, and that genes aren’t the limiting factor in most of those cases. So then how is your genetic engineering plan going to solve the problem?

mike shupp March 18, 2014 at 2:26 am

Hmmm??? Many people like having kids around and generally they want to give them as many advantages as possible. There’s no particular reason to compell parents to have genetically engineered children, and I’m not suggesting particularly major social changes — people get abortions today if amiocentesis shows they got a child with Tay-Sachs disease for example, so “eugenics” is already here, we’re just being careful not to use the term.

Cstanley March 18, 2014 at 8:53 am

Probably best to avoid a lengthy discussion on the moral issues involved since I doubt we’ll agree. But eugenics implies social policy because it is an attempt to change the population gene pool, which is different than a consideration of what some individuals are voluntarily doing. Suffice it to say that there are not enough people who make rational decisions regarding sexual behavior and childbearing, to have the changes occur in the gene pool without coercion.

What I’m more interested is your response to the last question in my post. Do you, or do you not believe that poverty among certain groups is caused by inferior genetics?

PD Shaw March 18, 2014 at 11:43 am

As I understand it, genetic research currently is demonstrating at least 50% of IQ is determined by genes. That’s a floor, which may increase. They are not finding a single gene, but multiple genes of small effect. Link

I speculate some of these genes might end up being described as influencing character or personality traits, and not pure cognitive power. That is, IQ isn’t solely registering intelligence, but a combination of related traits.

The last I read the Flynn effect (median IQ of a population continually increases over time) was slowing and may be stopping in developed countries. If it stops, we may have bottomed out from the most obvious environmental influences on IQ, such as nutrition, prevention of infectious diseases, learning to take tests . . .. This would mean that the heredibility of IQ will have become by far the most important factor for probably 90% of the population.

Increasing sorting by breeders within their educational class will tend to aggravate the disparity in IQ.

I agree with steve that “IQs within a fairly broad range allow for equal levels of achievement determined by environmental factors.”
Economic and public policy are making slight differences in IQ more important, however. This is where I would focus public policy.

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