By Nafis H.
The recent opinion piece by prominent geneticist David Reich has once again fanned the flames of the debate on race, genetics, and intelligence. This is not a new debate — after eugenics was supposedly put to rest, it appeared that this ideology had taken refuge in the shadows of evolutionary psychology and behavior genetics. It is not surprising that the latter field, built on the nature vs. nurture duality, is a hotbed of debate and sensationalism, given the sociopolitical implications and our collective obsession with genetic determinism. Over the years, the question of whether differences in intelligence is due to environmental factors or genetic factors has been repeatedly raised. In 1994, Charles Murray co-wrote the notorious book, The Bell Curve, in which he argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites because of genetic differences. While the book was criticized by the evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould in his summary analysis & rebuttal The Mismeasure of Man (revised ed., 1996), the idea that there is an inherent, genetic differences in intelligence across races, stuck around in other forms. Once the human genome was sequenced, and genetic determinism again became fashionable with its technological reincarnation, billions of dollars of public money was funneled into studying the genetic basis of complex traits, including behavioral and psychological ones, and their differences across racial and ethnic boundaries. The belief that the answer lay in the genes nurtured the idea of eugenics along with it.
Current day eugenics, Eugenics 2.0, takes the form of hyper-rationalism, scientific racism, race realism, and the misleading idea of “human biodiversity.” It is not surprising, then, that the alt-right and white supremacists have taken up Eugenics 2.0 behind the shield of “Science”, just as they espouse their bigoted views from behind the mask of Free Speech. For example, earlier this year, a secret conference on eugenics and intelligence was hosted at University College, London, and featured white supremacist speakers like Toby Young. Sam Harris recently hosted Charles Murray on his podcast under the title “Forbidden Knowledge”, after Murray was protested when invited to deliver a lecture at Middlebury College, under the premise that Murray’s ideas were being restricted due to the college PC culture (Murray was recently awarded a hefty prize from the Bradley Foundation and is regularly invited to give talks on conservative platforms). Reich’s op-ed is naive at best, and to be fair he does precaution against weaponizing any of the scientific findings. However, as geneticist Razib Khan’s case shows, white supremacists can use such studies as evidence for racial superiority, and they are increasingly leaning towards genetic testing for validation.
This is not to say that Eugenics 2.0 hasn’t faced its own share of resistance in academia — much has been written against the idea that inherent genetic differences explain the variable performances in IQ tests along racial lines. The scientists that championed the environmental causes of such differences in IQ test outcomes have put forth socioeconomic status (SES) as the primary cause. A seminal study by Turkheimer et al in 2003 showed that genetic differences could only explain differences in intelligence among kids from high SES background. For the kids from lower SES, environmental factors were the primary cause for variation observed in IQ. A more recent critique of the paper showed that the differences observed between the two SES groups were not significant along racial lines. A paper by Figlio et al published in 2017, the largest study to test the idea that “genetic influences on cognitive abilities are larger for children raised in more advantaged environments”, found on no evidence to support their hypothesis. However, they do admit that “articulating gene-environment interactions for cognition is more complex and elusive than previously supposed.”
Other scientists have already denounced Reich’s op-ed — a host of scientists across disciplines have accused Reich of conflating the implications of modern behavior genetics research, and one scientist even questioned Reich’s expertise in understanding evolutionary biology and whether he is a racist. Academia is not without rebuttals, as evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen took to Twitter to criticize above-mentioned rebuttal op-ed to Reich, asking whether social scientists understand genetics themselves. Beyond the discussion of study design and other scientific details of contradictory results, the question has attracted other meta-analyses. Some of these include a sociological perspective on whether race is a biological or social construct, the limitations of IQ tests, whether the term “Race” should be used in the context of genetic differences between population groups, and whether this debate belongs in the realm of Free Speech.
This endless debate, however, is spurred on by a major epistemic flaw in understanding the nature and nurture equation. In his detailed analysis of the behavior genetics field in the post-genome sequencing era, sociologist Aaron Panofsky writes, “Behavior geneticists’ focus on environmental factors and interactionism has involved looking at different parts of the nature versus nurture equation, not a rethinking of the presumptions of that equation or the notion of the analytic separability of genes and environment.” What was perceived to be a change in paradigm, ended up being just a shift towards one variable or the other. The individual focus on genes or environment as separate entities have resulted in much contradictory evidence so far, allowing the white supremacists to weaponize scientific evidence to their favor and change public perception (for years, Nicholas Wade misrepresented scientific data to make racist claims as a science writer for the New York Times). However, Panofsky doesn’t provide an avenue to escape the quagmire that behavior geneticists find themselves in.
The promised paradigm shift can be achieved through a shift in how we view the relationship between us and our environment. And turns out, Marxist ideas can help us do exactly that. Engels first proposed the idea of using Marx’s dialectical materialism to examine this relationship is his unfinished book Dialectics of Nature (1883). Marx, in his revision of Hegel’s dialectics, asserted that dialectics should deal with the “material world” of human history and activity rather than the metaphysical world or the world of ideas. As Ernest Mandel describes in his introduction to Capital (Penguin edition, 1976), “when the dialectical method is applied to the study of economic problems, economic phenomena are not viewed separately from each other, by bits and pieces, but in their inner connection as an integrated totality”, dialectical materialism allows for studying the interactions between phenomena in an empirical manner. Engels’ intention in his unfinished book was to employ this philosophy to understand the ever-changing relationship between Man and Nature.
Biologists such as J.B.S. Haldane and others had tried to keep this tradition alive through their writings over the years. But the pseudoscience practiced by Trofim Lysenko and the misuse of dialectical materialism by Stalinists resulted in shunning of this approach in Western philosophy and scientific understanding. However, in its unadulterated form, dialectical materialism can provide a solution to the nature vs nurture debate, as Richard Levins & Richard Lewontin have outlined in their book The Dialectical Biologist (1985). Levins & Lewontin write, “an organism does not compute itself from its DNA. The organism is the consequence of a historical process that goes on from the moment of conception until the moment of death; at every moment gene, environment, chance, and the organism as a whole are all participating….Natural selection is not a consequence of how well the organism solves a set of fixed problems posed by the environment; on the contrary, the environment and the organism actively codetermine each other.”
The central premise of Levins & Lewontin’s argument is that because the relationship between an organism and an environment are reciprocal, and hence dialectical, it is the relationship that should be the subject of empirical study rather than either the environment or the organism individually. Additionally, they argue that this relationship cannot be studied outside the context of evolution, echoing both Marx and the famous biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky who proclaimed “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Lewontin went on to further solidify the necessity of using a dialectical approach to studying evolution and development of an organism. In his book The Triple Helix (2002), he writes “that the ontogeny [development] of an organism is the consequence of a unique interaction between the genes it carries, the temporal sequence of external environments through which it passes during its life, and random events of molecular interactions within individual cells. It is these interactions that must be incorporated into any proper account of how an organism is formed”, thus establishing the organism as a site of interaction between the environment and genes. Therefore, under dialectical materialism, the nature vs. nurture debate is replaced by how nature AND nurture contribute to the development of an organism.
Current scientific rationale employs the capitalist ideology of individualism to champion the cause of genetic determinism, and in turn, scientific racism. While scientists, both geneticists and sociologists, have acknowledged that both the environment AND genes play a role in development of cognitive functions, their study designs are flawed because of this reductionist, individualistic approach. Modern technological advances have done little to end the debate despite promises; scientific evidence generated using a reductionist view will only continue to be co-opted by oppressors and white supremacists, and scientists cannot afford to not care about the sociopolitical impact of their work. It is definitely time for a more encompassing understanding of our biology and our relationship with the environment, and dialectical materialism, as Marx and Engels had intended, and Levins & Lewontin have applied theoretically, is poised to do so.