Conceiving a child is like playing the lottery. Given any two parents, there are 70 trillion possible genetic combinations that any one of their children could inherit.
This genetic diversity can make siblings really different from one another, for instance, in terms of their education, income, and lifespan.
Any attempt to study or address inequality in society must consider the impact of genetic inequality.
PAIGE HARDEN: Conceiving a child is like a giant Powerball. If we think about any two parents, there are 70 trillion possible genetic combinations that any one of their children could inherit. So siblings are really different from one another, in their education, in their income, even lifespan. And genetics is part of the reason why. But to study things like genetics in relation to education or intelligence or personality, has long been a really controversial area of research. For many people, the idea of genetic differences between us is hard to reconcile with what they think of as equality. But if we care about inequality that is tied to accidents of people’s birth, the kind of stroke of luck over which they have no control, then we should care about genetic inequality, because it is one of the major sources of inequality in this country.
My name is Paige Harden. I’m a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. And I recently wrote a book called “The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality.”
I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that all humans are over 99% genetically the same, regardless of their racial group. Even those differences don’t fall along racial lines. So most of our DNA we have in common. That remaining less than 1%, however, is really scientifically interesting, because many of the psychological, behavioral, physical differences between us are related to that tiny fraction of our genome that differs between us. How can we figure out which genetic variants are associated with some of the psychological differences that we care about? Your risk for schizophrenia, your risk for depression, how far you go in school. I think a big part of the power of genetics is as a tool to help us understand the environment.
What are the social environments, the school contexts, the parenting environments that can turn on or turn off genetic risk? So if I’m at genetic risk for doing poorly in school, is there something about the school environment that can buffer me against that risk, such that I still go on to do well in my math class, such that I still go on to do well in college? So we’re interested in bringing together the biological differences but also an understanding of the environment to see how they combine to shape children’s lives.
This work, connecting genetics to things like education, continues to be controversial because people fear ‘eugenics.’ And that’s the idea that genetic differences underlie some natural hierarchy of value, and that genetic information should be used to sort of slot people into their place or station in life. White supremacist groups will be eager consumers of genetic research in order to justify their narratives around biological hierarchy. But if scientists that have egalitarian values avoid the topic, then the only people who are consuming it and talking about what it means are these ideological extremes.
The predominant response to the eugenic perspective has been what I call ‘Genome-blindness.’ And that’s really the idea that we should avoid talking about biological or genetic differences between people. The fear is that if something’s genetic, it’s natural and there’s nothing we can do about it. So let’s not talk about genetics lest people give up on the idea of changing social policy. And that doesn’t bear out under the science. Things can be influenced by genetics, but still responsive to the environment. A great example is if you wear eyeglasses.
That’s something that is genetically-caused, that we fix not by CRISPRing your genome or selecting your embryo, but by giving you an environmental intervention that you wear on your face. So, I think we can think of the antidote to eugenics not being genome-blindness, but being ‘anti-eugenics.’ There’s a really great example of anti-eugenic policy in the United States, and that’s the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If you go into an ADA compliant building, there has to be an elevator there. What’s being equalized is not their functioning, so someone might still not be able to walk, they might still be in a wheelchair. What’s being equalized is their ability to participate with dignity in a public space. In order to accomplish that, you actually have to recognize differences between people. What if we took that anti-eugenic disability justice perspective when we’re crafting policies?
I am an egalitarian. I think of social inequality as a moral and political problem to be fixed. But at the same time, I think that biological differences between us are real and make a difference for our lives. I’m out here saying, ‘Science doesn’t neatly fit into ideology.’ What we need to do is think about what our values are, what does the science say, and then take both of those things seriously when we’re crafting policies.