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Can Behavior Genetics Free Itself From Racial Supremacy?

An excerpt from “Misbehaving Science”

Behavior genetics has always been a breeding ground for controversies. From the “criminal chromosome” to the “gay gene,” claims about the influence of genes like these have led to often vitriolic national debates about race, class, and inequality. In Misbehaving ScienceAaron Panofsky traces the field of behavior genetics back to its origins in the 1950s, telling the story through close looks at five major controversies. In the process, Panofsky argues that persistent, ungovernable controversy in behavior genetics is due to the broken hierarchies within the field. All authority and scientific norms are questioned, while the absence of unanimously accepted methods and theories leaves a foundationless field, where disorder is ongoing. Critics charge behavior geneticists with political motivations; champions say they merely follow the data where they lead. But Panofsky shows how pragmatic coping with repeated controversies drives their scientific actions. Ironically, behavior geneticists’ struggles for scientific authority and efforts to deal with the threats to their legitimacy and autonomy have made controversy inevitable — and in some ways essential — to the study of behavior genetics. Read an excerpt from the introduction of Misbehaving Science below.

In the mid-1990s a major controversy about the innateness of human differences rocked the field of behavior genetics. In 1994 Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein and policy analyst Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, an 845-page tome about US economic inequality. Herrnstein and Murray drew on research in psychology and behavior genetics to argue that US class structure can mostly be attributed to inequalities in individual intelligence as measured by IQ, that IQ is mostly an innate capacity of individuals under genetic control, and therefore differences in education and upbringing are not responsible for social inequalities. Their most provocative argument concerned race. Herrnstein and Murray claimed that genetic differences largely explain the lack of black and Latino success relative to white and Asian, though environment plays some role. The implication was that discrimination is mostly over, and that unequal social structure is genetically determined. Policies aiming to uplift minorities and the poor are doomed to fail, they claimed; instead, the “cognitive elite” must find ways to manage a permanent genetic underclass.

The Bell Curve drew heavily on the work of J. Philippe Rushton, a University of Western Ontario psychologist, for its claims about genetically driven racial differences. In 1994 Rushton pushed the racial argument much further in a book of his own, Race, Evolution, and Behavior. For Rushton, inequality in America was but one manifestation of a universal racial hierarchy in intelligence, personality, civilizational achievement, family stability, and propensity to social order. Across indicators, Rushton claimed, “Mongoloids” came out on top, “Caucasoids” were a close second, and the hapless “Negroids” were far below. He explained this pattern in terms of evolved strategies: as ancient humans left Africa, they faced harsher environments, which forced them to develop greater intelligence, sociality, and sexual restraint. One residue of this, according to Rushton, is that “Negroids” have big penises, small brains, and don’t care much for their children; “Mongoloids” have small penises, big brains, and invest heavily in their children; and “Caucasoids” are somewhere in between. Thus, Rushton’s charge was that black people are genetically and evolutionarily maladapted to modern, civilized life.

The race controversy took a twist the next year at the Behavior Genetics Association (BGA) annual meeting. Responding to the renewed attention to race and behavior, President Glayde Whitney, a mouse taste specialist from Florida State, organized a symposium called “Group Differences: Research Directions.” There, Rushton and Arthur Jensen and David Rowe, both noted psychologists and race researchers, argued for the genetic reality of racial differences. John Loehlin, a psychologist, argued cautiously against race research in his talk “Group Differences­ Should We Bother?” In his presidential address Whitney answered this rhetorical question with an emphatic, “yes.” Whitney entreated his colleagues, on the occasion of the BGA’s twenty-fifth anniversary, to undertake an ambitious research agenda to discover the genetic roots of racial behavioral differences. As justification he cited evidence that international crime rates are directly related to the proportion of blacks in the population. Then he accused anyone who might deny this argument of having “marx-itis” and began to apply this label to members of the audience who had been critical of race research in behavior genetics. The audience was shocked. To many the speech was a racist screed that misrepresented the field; some were embarrassed that the mostly black staff in the banquet hall had to listen to it. Several walked out in protest, including members of the BGA’s executive committee sitting at Whitney’s own table. Yet the race question, historically the field’s thorniest problem, could not be ignored.

These events drew a tremendous amount of attention to the field. Hundreds of thousands of copies of The Bell Curve were sold. It was the cover story of Newsweek, New Republic, and the New York Times Magazine. Nightline, Mac Neil / Lehrer Newshour, McLaughlin Group, Charlie Rose, and Primetime Live covered it on TV. Later, Rushton sent an abridged version of his book to thousands of social scientists and journalists. Since Herrnstein had died just before The Bell Curve came out, Rushton became the social science authority to whom media looked for defense of the book’s ideas. Both books were discussed in hundreds of articles; public forums and debates were staged. They became the occasion for a national debate about American society. Even Whitney’s speech to only two or three hundred behavior geneticists was covered in the news sections of Science and Nature.

The situation certainly had its benefits for the field of behavior genetics. All these buzz makers had relied heavily on the field’s concepts and claims to argue that racial behavioral differences are genetically determined, and thus their work raised the field’s public profile. Behavior genetics seemed to have information crucial to the fate of a democratic, meritocratic society – an enviable position when most scientists toil in obscurity, struggling to explain how their research matters to people’s lives. Perhaps, as some claimed, behavior genetics was simply revealing cold, hard truths about the inevitability of inequality and poverty.

The spotlight was an uncomfortable one, however. Many commentators noted parallels to an earlier era’s eugenics-motivated concern with the socially “unfit” and “racial degeneration.” They asked: Was behavior genetics “racist science”? Was it a first step to reviving Nazi eugenics? Others challenged the science, claiming it was too flawed to help guide social policy. When the eminent geneticist David Botstein was asked why so few geneticists had publicly criticized The Bell Curve, he responded, “The answer is because it is so stupid that it is not rebuttable.” This was an ugly problem forced on the field. Behavior geneticists had to ask themselves: If Herrnstein and Murray, Rushton, and Whitney were misusing the science, did behavior geneticists have a responsibility to denounce them? A failure to do so might imply that behavior genetics itself was either irresponsible science or “too stupid” to warrant attention from serious scientists, as Botstein’s gibe might imply.

The field’s collective responses to the controversy were quite unexpected. A small cohort of behavior geneticists did publicly attack the racial arguments. Jerry Hirsch, a fruit fly geneticist, organized sessions challenging The Bell Curve‘s scientific claims at the BGA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings, and he later edited a slate of critical articles in the journal Genetica. Douglas Wahlsten, a mouse researcher, wrote a scathing review of Rushton’s book. And in response to Whitney’s speech and the BGA executive committee’s unwillingness to censure him, Wim Crusio and incoming president Pierre Roubertoux, both mouse neurogeneticists, resigned their positions on the board. But all of these bold responses were taken by animal behavior geneticists whose research was very far from matters of human intelligence and racial differences.

By far, the field’s broadest, most public response was to embrace the arguments of The Bell Curve. “Mainstream Science on Intelligence,” an editorial in the Wall Street Journal signed by fifty-two intelligence researchers, including about two dozen leading behavior geneticists, endorsed Herrnstein and Murray’s picture of IQ and rejected the common notion that they had grossly misrepresented science. The statement sidestepped the genetically stratified society Herrnstein and Murray envisioned. But on the genetics of race differences, it had two points:

Most experts believe that environment is important in pushing the bell curves [for IQ scores between blacks and whites] apart, but that genetics could be involved too.

Because research on intelligence relies on self-classification into distinct racial categories, as does most other social-science research, its findings likewise relate to some unclear mixture of social and biological distinctions among groups (no one claims otherwise).

Although stated with a degree of equivocation that would comfort any liability lawyer, this statement was perceived by outside observers as well as members of the field as an endorsement of the controversial race claims of The Bell Curve.

Less publicly, behavior geneticists also supported Rushton. Through efforts to get him dismissed from his university and despite denunciations of his work by leading geneticists and naturalists, many behavior geneticists rallied around Rushton’s academic freedom and recognized him as a legitimate researcher. So too with Whitney: In the days and weeks that followed his speech, conflict erupted in the BGA over how to deal with him. Two sides emerged. Those siding with Roubertoux and Crusio felt that Whitney had illegitimately used his presidential authority to endorse a racist view, and that the BGA had to censure or expel him. The other side argued that the principle of intellectual freedom demanded that Whitney must be left alone. The intellectual freedom position won the day; nothing official was done to Whitney. But many were bruised in the debate, and a number left the BGA, including Pierre Roubertoux, its incoming president, to join instead the newly formed International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society. Whitney subsequently dove head first into white supremacist politics, contributing the forward to white supremacist David Duke’s autobiography and writing for the extreme right-wing magazine American Renaissance, before he died in 2002.

How should we explain these dizzying events? In particular, why have behavior geneticists embraced claims widely seen as racist science? The most obvious explanation is that apart from the few dissenters behavior geneticists believed their science justified the genetic explanation for racial differences in behavior. But this is not the case. As a leading psychological behavior genetics researcher explained:

I really don’t think that there are tools…. If I find genes for IQ, someone is going to say, go and look at it for racial groups. I think it would be completely uninformative. So, racial groups differ in frequency of a gene. They differ for the frequency for lots of genes. How are you going to say- just because within a Caucasian population, this gene is associated with a [trait]? … You’ve got no degrees of freedom when you’re studying racial groups. I think, so, I don’t even think the molecular genetics – I don’t see how it’s going to shed light on the etiology of racial differences.

Despite this view, the speaker was a signatory of the Wall Street Journal statement. Another field leader explained a colleague’s fury at the quality of Rushton’s work: “I know someone, a pretty prominent behavioral geneticist, who’s livid at Rushton for one of his books…. He thought that the analysis was just completely flawed. And this was not an ideologue. In fact, I know this person to be pretty conservative politically and [he] would probably be pretty open to the type of thing Rushton might argue.” These sentiments — that racial claims are not only flawed but also impossible to justify with available tools — continue to be widely held by behavior geneticists.

To be clear, one can believe that genes cause racial behavioral differences and also that science cannot substantiate that belief. What is more, the Wall Street Journal statement was really a sociological one about what some experts believe, not what the science proves. But by behavior geneticists’ own definitions of scientific possibility, all this actually militates against the idea that science has compelled their endorsement.

Thus, those who believe the genetic explanation for racial behavioral differences do so despite, not because of, their field’s science. Furthermore, defending race researchers’ scientific freedom opens up a contradiction: how can scientific freedom be invoked to defend practices that are beyond science?

Inconsistencies in the scientific account have led critics to charge that behavior geneticists are politically motivated. This line of argument holds that behavior geneticists have historically supported genetic claims about racial behavioral differences because they are racist or at least politically conservative. Psychological studies of science have long demonstrated the association in scientists between conservative politics and belief in racial inferiority. Critics Leon Kamin and Stephen Jay Gould have argued separately that racial and class bias infect the ways behavior geneticists have interpreted their data. Many historians and journalists have demonstrated the deep social and institutional ties between scientists promoting race difference claims and politically conservative activists and foundations. The 1984 book Not in Our Genes by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, all influenced by Marxism, argued that behavior genetics was part of a larger scientific interest in biological determinism that was inspired in general by the desire to justify the cultural status quo and more recently by a backlash against the revolutionary and egalitarian ethos of the 1960s.

However, political motivations cannot explain behavior geneticists’ actions either. First, despite the blatant right-wing views of some, there is political diversity among behavior geneticists. Indeed, a strong testament to this is the frustration conservatives occasionally voice with their colleagues – Whitney charging them with “marx-itis” is but one example. Second, behavior geneticists have generally tried to steer clear of politics. In response to the Whitney affair, behavior geneticist Nicholas Martin said, “The vast majority of the membership is fully aware of the polemic potential of much in our purview, and we try to avoid getting drawn into politics. To have all this blown in one evening by one insensitive person is galling, to say the least.”

Behavior geneticists have also disputed the charge that their work is political because it justifies fatalism about solving human problems. As one interviewee explained, “I’m sure there were very many well­ intentioned people that thought that if we do research and we find that reading disability [for example] has a genetic component to it that this might imply that, you know, there should be less effort for special education or remediation. That’s exactly the opposite of what we have in mind.” Political motives may animate some behavior geneticists (and some of their critics), but they cannot explain the collective patterns of action in this controversy, or the field’s many others.

This vignette opens up many of the key questions this book aims to address. Moving from the specific to the general: Why have behavior geneticists backed claims about the genetics of racial differences when doing so is disruptive, costly to scientific authority, and poorly motivated either scientifically or politically? Beyond race, behavior genetics has constantly been wrapped up in controversy; why is this so? How do behavior geneticists cope with controversy? How does this affect the knowledge they produce? What can controversy in behavior genetics tell us about the causes and consequences of controversy in other fields of science?

Excerpted from Misbehaving Science with permission from the University of Chicago Press. Misbehaving Science is available for purchase on the University of Chicago Press website here, and on Amazon here.

To read an interview with the author, Aaron Panofksy, click here.

Aaron Panofsky is an Associate Professor in the Institute for Society and Genetics, Public Policy, and Sociology. He is a sociologist of science, knowledge, and culture with a special interest on the history, intellectual organization, and social implications of genetics. His recent book Misbehaving Science is a history of the field of behavior genetics that looks at how the way scientists have dealt with successive episodes of controversy have affected the field’s social organization and limited its intellectual possibilities. He has also written critically about attempts to apply behavior genetics to problems of social policy and education. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Center for American Politics and Public Policy.

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