It’s no wonder many people are suspicious of behavioral genetics. The field, which examines how the DNA we are born with affects our behaviors, has been hijacked by eugenicists, white supremacists and mainstream bigots as a way to justify inequality for minorities, women, the poor and other disadvantaged groups for more than a century.
But anyone interested in egalitarian goals shouldn’t shy away from the field, argues psychologist Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden. Instead, they should embrace it as a tool to inform policies that promote equality.
What are behavioral genetics?
Each person is born with a set of genes inherited from their biological parents. These genes carry information that shapes each person’s characteristics, such as physical appearance, personality, and medical conditions.
Humans, regardless of race or origin, are over 99% genetically identical. But this remainder less than 1% represents significant differences between people. As Harden told Big Think:
“A lot of the psychological, behavioral, and physical differences between us are tied to that tiny fraction of our genome that differs between us… Your risk of schizophrenia, your risk of depression, how far you go in school.”
Behavioral genetics is the study of these differences and how they predict life outcomes.
Importantly, your genes alone do not determine life outcomes. Even the strongest relationships between genes and psychology, such as intelligence and schizophrenia, only account for about 50% or less of the variance.
Instead, our genes are constantly interacting with our environment. Epigenetic research even reveals that our genes can essentially be turned on or off by a myriad of factors, including malnutrition, environmental pollutants, and psychological stress. And while genes create a framework that influences our physiology and psychology, the environment provides opportunities to learn, adjust, and shape behaviors.
Genetic research has been misunderstood and misused
There’s a long history of people misusing genetic research to justify societal inequality.
Building on conceptions of “hard heredity” – which (incorrectly) assumes that genes determine outcomes independent of environmental factors – some have used genetic research to argue that social inequality is due to genetic differences immutable. And because poverty and life outcomes are ingrained in every person’s genes, logic dictates that social policies are futile.
Genetic research has even been used to justify eugenics: the belief that genetics indicates a natural human hierarchy that determines one’s social value and status. Eugenicists have argued for the sterilization or attempted eradication of individuals or entire cultural groups deemed genetically inferior or “unfit” due to their genes.
Behavioral genetics can be a tool for positive change
In response to this historic misuse, many people and organizations with egalitarian values have chosen to ignore, degrade, or ban funding for research into genetic and biological differences.
Dr. Harden takes the opposite position. Despite – or perhaps because of – this historic abuse, she argues that those interested in equality cannot ignore genetic differences. This would allow the misinterpretation and abuse of genetic research to go unchallenged.
Subscribe for a weekly email with ideas that inspire a life well lived.
Instead, genetics should be used as a tool for positive change and improving equality.
Genetics is luck, not value. First, Harden points out, genetics is not a measure of human worth, but rather represents simply chance-based reasons why people differ. Two parents can have children with any of the more than 70 trillion possible genetic combinations. No one has control over the DNA they are born with.
Moreover, this genetic lottery influences inequalities ranging from health to level of education. So, according to Harden, people who care about fairness should care about genes.
“If we care about the inequality that comes from the accidents of people’s birth, the kind of fluke they have no control over, then we should care about the genetic inequality,” Harden told Big. Think. “Because it’s one of the main sources of inequality in this country.”
Genetics can guide the construction of better environments. Additionally, identifying genetic differences helps to ensure that significant differences are accounted for and can be used to ensure that everyone can maximize their success in life.
Remember that genes alone do not determine life outcomes, but rather interact with the environment; and the environment can be changed. Harden exemplifies vision. Poor vision is largely caused by genes, but as a society we do not devalue those with poor eyesight or deny them meaningful life activities. Instead, scientists developed glasses, policymakers and corporations made them readily available, and our myopic friends became some of the most successful people in the world.
Conversely, lucky genes—for example, for extreme athleticism or exceptional math ability—are only beneficial in environments that value them and allow them to thrive, such as areas with athletic programs or those where everyone has access to quality education.
In short, recognizing genetic differences can help society create more individualized and supportive environments.
“I think a lot of the power of genetics is a tool to help us understand the environment,” Harden told Big Think. “What are the social environments, school contexts, parental environments that can activate or deactivate genetic risk?
Policies and environments must be adapted to ensure that everyone, regardless of their genes, has the opportunity to succeed and fully participate in society. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a successful example. The ADA recognizes that some people have physical disabilities and in turn creates environments (with elevators, Braille, etc.) that everyone can use, regardless of their physical differences.
The anti-eugenics framework for more equality
Genome blindness – that is, ignoring genetic variation – ignores significant differences between people and how they experience life. This in turn can exacerbate inequalities.
As such, people who care about equality should be anti-eugenics, not anti-genetics. To improve equality, Harden argues that they should support research on how to improve and adapt school, family and community environments. They should advocate for social policies that help everyone maximize their potential.
By integrating science and values, we can create a more equal world.
“Science doesn’t fit neatly into ideology,” Harden told Big Think. “What we need to do is think about our values, what the science says, and then take those two things seriously when developing policy.”