News & Politics

Nature 90, Nurture 10

Anyone with an ounce of common sense, two eyes, and a grasp of history understands instinctively that most genetic traits are inheritable. Height, body type, skin color, even eye color run in genetically related families, and those families, bound together in local, tribal, ethnic, and national communities, reflect that. There’s nothing inherently conspiratorial, “racist” or “supremacist” about any of this. And yet, for decades, ideologically driven scientists and cultural Marxist apologists have struggled with such a raw truth, and have endeavored to show that nurture, not nature, is the determining factor, especially when it comes to talents and intelligence. After all, what do human sperm and eggs have to do with the making of the New Soviet Man omelet?

So this book is sure to cause a fuss:

There are few areas of science more fiercely contested than the issue of what makes us who we are. Are we products of our environments or the embodiment of our genes? Is nature the governing force behind our behaviour or is it nurture? While almost everyone agrees that it’s a mixture of both, there has been no end of disagreement about which is the dominant influence.

And it’s a disagreement that has been made yet more fraught by the political concerns that often underlie it. Traditionally, those on the left have tended to see the environment as the critical factor because it ties in with notions of egalitarianism. Thus inequalities, viewed from this perspective, are explained not by inherent differences but by social conditions.

Similarly, those on the right have leaned towards a more Darwinian conception, in which different social outcomes are accounted for by differences of suitability to the environment. In turn, such an understanding has in the past led to the promotion of eugenics (both on the left and right) – through selective breeding, sterilisation and, in the case of the Nazis, wholesale murder.

And this is from the Guardian, Britain’s leftiest of left-of-center newspapers. In an even-handed review of Robert Plomin’s new book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, Andrew Anthony writes:

In common with many other scientists, Plomin believes that Freud sent society looking in the wrong place for answers to the question of what makes us as we are. The key to personality traits does not lie in how you were treated by your parents, but rather in what you inherited biologically from them: namely, the genes in your DNA.

He finds that genetic heritability accounts for 50% of the psychological differences between us, from personality to mental abilities. But that leaves 50% that should be accounted for by the environment. However, Plomin argues, research shows that most of that 50% is not attributable to the type of environmental influences that can be planned for or readily affected – ie it’s made up of unpredictable events. And of the environmental influences that can be moderated, much of it, he argues, is really an expression of genetics.

In other words, some of the things that various researchers have been attributing to “privileged” nurturing are themselves products of nature — smart people tend to improve their lot and thus create an environment in which to raise their smart children, who in turn marry other smart people and have more smart children. Of course, none of this accounts for the Julian emperors, the Kennedys, and the Gambino crime family, but then what does?

Ever since the development of genetics a century and a half ago, the discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure 65 years ago, and the mapping of the human genome 15 years ago, there has been an awareness that science was delving into secrets of Promethean flammability. While there has always been widespread acceptance that genes determine our physiology for good and bad, much greater controversy has surrounded the subject of our psychology – our behaviour and personality traits.

It’s one thing to state that genes largely determine how fast we run, how high we jump and how vulnerable we are to, say, myopia. But it’s another to argue that genes also largely determine how intelligent, empathetic or antisocial we are. We prefer to think of such traits as social constructions, brought about by the familial and social environments into which we happen to be born.

After all, if one child is subject to parental love and attention in comfortable, secure surroundings with plenty of intellectual stimulation, while another grows up in conditions of neglect and social deprivation, we expect the former to perform better at school and in life in general. And, by and large, they do, though Plomin believes that has less to do with social factors than biological ones. Once again, he says, it’s genetic inheritance, not conditions of upbringing, that makes the most difference.

So why is this controversial? It never used to be. But now, in an anti-rational fit of bogus egalitarianism, the Left has decided that, yes, even Nature herself is racist and sexist.

This is a difficult concept to absorb for several reasons. The first is that we can all come up with examples in which environment would have a profound effect on outcome. For example, if you locked a child in a room and never taught that child to read or allowed it access to a book, then, released, that child at age 13, would, to say the least, display distinct learning difficulties.

Plomin’s argument is that, in a society with universal education, the greatest part of the variation in learning abilities is accounted for by genetics, not home environment or quality of school – these factors, he says, do have an effect but it’s much smaller than is popularly believed.

To be sure, Plomin makes this important point:

Another problem that Plomin encounters with explaining his findings is that people often confuse group and individual differences – or, to put it another way, the distinction between means and variances. Thus, the average height of northern European males has increased by more than 15cm in the past two centuries. That is obviously due to changes in environment. However, the variation in height between northern European males is down to genetics. The same applies to psychological traits.

“The causes of average differences,” he says, “aren’t necessarily related to causes of individual differences. So that’s why you can say heritability can be very high for a trait, but the average differences between groups – ethnic groups, gender – could be entirely environmental; for example, as a result of discrimination. The confusion between means and variances is a fundamental misunderstanding.”

Which is precisely why the Left, which is so wedded to group identities, is also so very wrong, and so very racist. The Left’s whole (mis)understanding of history and science forces it to argue counter-factual propositions in the service of its transient, and largely imaginary, ideological truths.

“Show me a study that doesn’t find genetic influence. You can’t just say: ‘Oh, parents resemble kids and I think it’s environmental’. With DNA now, you have to take this polygenic score that’s been shown in 20 studies to predict educational attainment, and show me that it doesn’t. Oliver’s coming from straight Freudian psychoanalytical stuff, where that whole edifice was built up on no data.”

A further argument made in Blueprint is that even those effects that are environmental may also be genetically influenced. This is what Plomin refers to as the “nature of nurture”. If we look at the correlation between parental socioeconomic status and their children’s educational and occupational outcomes, the tendency is to see it as environmental – better-educated parents pass on privilege, thus limiting social mobility.

But genetics, writes Plomin, “turns the interpretation of this correlation upside down”. Instead, the socioeconomic status of parents might be viewed as a measure of their educational outcomes, which are heritable. So children benefit from their parents’ genes more than from their socioeconomic privilege.

The genius of the American system, therefore, was precisely to remove the inheritability of privilege (however familialy earned at some point) and replace it with the meritocracy of earned upward mobility. As the plain truths of genetics become ever clearer — and the pernicious false egalitarianism that began with Rousseau and continued with Marx continues to fade — the amelioration of “nurture” differences will only serve to highlight the genetic differences that remain:

If we do manage to iron out environmental differences, Plomin notes, we then have to accept the genetic differences that remain. Because, the more we reduce environmental differences, the more we highlight genetic differences. In other words, if we want equality of opportunity, then the price is having to acknowledge a genetically loaded inequality of outcome.

The psychologist believes that we have to go with the science, not settle on a story that suits our political sympathies. “It’s better to be right than wrong,” he says.

But equality of outcome is precisely what the modern Left demands; they believe it’s far better to be wrong than Right. But when the ever-increasing disparity between what they wish were true and morally neutral physical reality finally becomes unbridgeable, even by the brute force imposed socialism or communism, the battle between Left and Right will finally be resolved.

That day can’t come too soon.