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What To Do About Racial Supremacy in Behavior Genetics?

An interview with Aaron Panofsky

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 interview with Aaron Panofsky below.

Public Seminar [PS]: In Misbehaving Science you carefully trace the development of, and ruptures within, the field of behavior genetics. How did you become interested in the sociology of behavior science?

Aaron Panofsky [AP]: When I entered college, I had the intention of being a natural scientist, but several things deflected me from that trajectory. One, I had the probably erroneous perception that science was too narrow and specialized. Two, I was impressed by classes in political and social theory, literature, and Buddhist thought about the radical complexity, indeterminacy, and contradictory character of human character and social and political relations. This was the early 1990s, just after the high-water mark of poststructructural and postmodern theory. Though I don’t think I understood these strands of thought well, they seemed so much more convincing than the reductionist sociobiology — politics, conflict, love, and beauty can all be explained as simple manifestations of evolutionary pressures — that some of the biologists I’d encountered were promoting. I dropped the biology major and did a self-created major in interdisciplinary science studies.

I carried these interests to graduate school in sociology at NYU. There I worked with Dorothy Nelkin, Troy Duster, and Craig Calhoun, and I aimed to study this nexus of the biological explanation of social life. But at the time it seemed that there were really two approaches: one was to engage in a methodological critique of the science to reveal its biases and assumptions. The other was to look at the social and ideological consequences of the ideas. Dot and Troy worked mostly within these traditions, but the approach couldn’t address what I considered a fascinating sociological question which was: how could the domain of behavioral genetics (genetic influences on IQ, personality, criminality, etc.) remain so controversial for decades and still remain “science”? After all, science is supposed to be able to resolve or abandon controversies. And while the controversies around behavior genetics have evolved somewhat — though less than the field’s champions would like everyone to believe — they’ve persisted in a similar form for about 60 years. It was Craig who introduced me to the work of Pierre Bourdieu, whose field theory and sociology of practical reason gave me the framework for engaging this specific puzzle, and thus to shed light on the methodological and ideological problems that animated the field in the world.

PS: How did the project evolve over time? Did your original idea go through many stages and changes? Like the field of behavior genetics, was it propelled forward by conceptual and methodological tension points? Can you describe them for us?

AP: It took a long time to do the project — over 10 years from its original articulation in 2002 to when the manuscript was finalized in 2013 (it makes me a bit queasy just to recollect it!). Despite that amount of time, there were long periods of stasis and then big shifts; yes, not unlike the field’s development in my narrative. The first, I described above, using field theory to break with prevailing ways to analyze this domain. The second break point came a few years later when I was trying to write drafts describing the field’s organization. The question I kept getting was “is this really a field?,” because behavior genetics seemed so much less tightly structured than the canonical social fields that Bourdieu analyzed. Most readers meant this question to say I was barking up the wrong tree by trying to apply the theory to an inappropriate case. But I came to realize that the incomplete, contested, disorganized, anomic semi-fieldness of behavior genetics was precisely the explanation for why controversies about ideology and methodology persisted there. With this realization I had finally “won the social fact” as Bourdieu would put it. Even so it took me several additional years to figure out how to tell that story in a convincing way. I owe the last stage to my colleague Hannah Landecker who helped me realize how to reorganize the dissertation (which was unreadable) into the historical or developmental framework your question references and also to show how specific material disputes were at the heart of developmental transitions. It was at this point the most of the story clicked into place — but even so, the core concept of the book (“misbehaving science” = persistent ungovernable controversy due to partial anomie) only emerged as an explicit thing at the very end. So yes, knowledge production is a deeply nonlinear, peripatetic, and uncomfortable process at all scales, not least of which is the individual thinker.

PS: What do you hope readers will take away from, or carry with them, after reading Misbehaving Science?

AP: One thing, I think, is that since the 1980s constructivist science studies focusing ethnographic studies of laboratory practices and Latourian actor network theory has been somewhat uninterested in science’s institutional order in general and Bourdieu’s field theory in particular. What makes a field a field, what makes science science, and how science is a special field of cultural production in part because it is a field of fields, all of these are important analytic points. Dynamic knowledge production and “scientific freedom” occurs within enabling social structures. Social structure and historical development matter to what can be thought and known in science. I think the best line from the book is “science liberated from structure leads to knowledge in shackles.”

Another point, I think, is that while genetics is a socially powerful and intimidating discourse, it is actually deeply limited in explaining who we are and why society is as it is. This project has made me both more respectful of geneticists (even behavioral geneticists) and what they’re trying to do, and also less worried that they’ll ever be able to take over the world. The fact that genetics commands so many resources and so much respectful genuflection is sometimes frustrating. But I hope my research inspires some to deep, though skeptical, engagement with genetics rather than ignoring it or denouncing it (as determinism or racism).

But finally, any work like this is open ended, and I’m always eager to learn what others take from it. Indeed, that’s why I was so flattered with Isaac Reed’s comments because he had drawn from Misbehaving Science and made connections in ways that I had never anticipated. Every writer should be so lucky!

PS: Whose work has shaped your intellectual formation and ways of thinking in fundamental ways?

AP: This is a hard question; I’m going to mark myself as pretty stodgy and uncool, but oh well: Apart from those mentioned above, I’ve been most inspired by Elias, Foucault, Fields and Fields, Arendt, Taylor and others interested in the historical evolution of thought and unthought intellectual structure and the relationship between authority and knowledge. I have also been deeply shaped by various writers and artists — among them, Le Guin, Borges, Duchamp, and Richter — though those influences would be another story.

PS: What’s next? Do you have other book projects in the works?

AP: One of the key themes of Misbehaving Science is how ungovernable controversies about racial differences have proved to behavior geneticists. My next book, tentatively titled Unjust Malaise: Genetics in the Fog of Race takes this on directly. The jumping off point is the idea, asserted around the time of the Human Genome Project, that genomics was about to finally clarify the nature of race. The new computational, high throughput study of millions of genomes was supposed to tell us once and for all whether race was a social construction or a biological reality, and also whether racial differences in behavior and health were genetic or environmental in origin. But instead, genomics has proliferated uncertainty and ambiguity about the nature of race and even what counts as genetic evidence in this domain. So the book, which is a little more than half written, is really about how the ambiguity and controversy about the genetics of race persists and it traces in detail how this plays out in a set of venues — the history of efforts to produce “value free” knowledge of race, population genetics, intelligence and behavior, ancestry testing, and health disparities. It’s a little less institutional sociology and a little more in the weeds of the science. I’m trying to do half critical sociology of race science and half explainer for a bewildered public.

Another project takes up the Misbehaving Science theme of scientific controversy and anomie at a higher scale than one field. I’m looking at the so-called reproducibility crisis, in which it is being asserted that many findings across the biobehavioral sciences can’t be replicated, and many are worrying about links to a widespread authority crisis in science. This project is very much in the data collection stage, but I’m interested in how scientist activists are arguing precisely that science is too anomic and needs more standardized structures and practices. But these efforts — often to impose storybook philosophy of science as actual norms of practice — have spawned many institutional reforms as well as a whole set of controversies about what counts as good science, whether reforms will work, whether they’re even necessary, whether reform is just a power grab, whether resistance to reform is elite complacency, etc. etc. It is a fascinating set of dynamics currently unfolding — very much of a piece with the uncertainties of our post-truth era.

Misbehaving Science is available for purchase on the University of Chicago Press website here, and on Amazon hereTo read an excerpt from Misbehaving Science 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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