Kathryn vs. the "Eugenicists"

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I've recently finished reading a new book by Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery. I was not impressed. But I was a bit outraged by her unfair (and, I suspect, dishonest) portrayal of Charles Murray, specifically his writings on her field of genetics. You can read my general report on the book here. This post concentrates on her treatment of Murray.

Consumer note: I'm a long-time Murray fan. I have eight of his books on my shelves, two on my Kindle. If you want to dismiss me for that reason, stop reading now. But you might also consider that I may know a little more about Murray's thoughts and opinions than average.

I'm almost certain I know more about them than does Kathryn Paige Harden.

Her book describes the importance of one's genes to the development of (for example) one's cognitive skills. Which, in turn, influences educational attainment and eventual economic success. Fine. But Harden is a (self-described) "full-throated egalitarian" and she feels it necessary to distinguish her views from those she describes as "eugenicists". (Generally speaking, those who claim that genes determine the general superiority/inferiority of individuals, groups, and often races.) And she puts Murray in those crosshairs at a number of points. Her contempt is palpable. For example, she pigeonholes him (p. 134) as a "conservative provocateur". (In contrast, Ibram X. Kendi is described simply, and more respectably (p.209) as a "historian".)

Murray, of course, co-authored The Bell Curve back in 1994 with Richard Herrnstein, a Harvard psychology professor. And Harden is pretty desperate to distinguish her views from those in The Bell Curve. But how? Ah, she finds her smoking eugenicist gun on page 533:

The Bell Curve, with its fleeting reference to Rawlsian ideas, pointed faintly at a new way of talking about genetics and social equality. But after their tantalizing half-page dalliance with egalitarianism, Herrnstein and Murray retreat to a profound inegalitarianism, complaining that "it has become objectionable to say that some people are superior to other people… We are comfortable with the idea that some things are better than others–not just according to our subjective point of view but according to enduring standards of merit and inferiority (emphasis added). After 500 pages, it's clear what sort of things—and what type of people—they consider better. According to them, to score higher on IQ tests is to be superior; to be White is to be superior; to be higher class is to be superior. Indeed, they describe economic productivity ("putting more into the world than [one] take[s] out") as "basic to human dignity."

I encourage any reader to pick up a copy of The Bell Curve, turn to the chapter in question (titled: "A Place for Everyone") and judge for yourself how fair this description is. (One danger signal: that ellipsis Harden inserts skips over multiple paragraphs.)

The first part of the quote is pretty clearly discussing the moral and cultural relativism imposed by "egalitarian tyrannies", not genetics as Harden implies. Here's a more complete snippet:

The same [tyrannical] atmosphere prevails on a smaller scale wherever "equality" comes to serve as the basis for a diffuse moral outlook Consider the many small tyrannies in America's contemporary universities, where it has become objectionable to say that some people are superior to other people in any way that is relevant to life in society. Nor is this outlook confined to judgments about people. In art, literature, ethics, and cultural norms, differences are not to be judged. Such relativism has become the moral high ground for many modern commentators on life and culture.

The second part of the quote (p. 534) continues the discussion of how relativism blurs judgment. Again restoring some of the context Harden has ignored:

Our views on all these issues are decidedly traditional. We think that rights are embedded in our freedom to act, not in the obligations we may impose on others to act; that equality of rights is crucial while equality of outcome is not; that concepts such as virtue, excellence, beauty, and truth should be reintroduced into moral discourse. We are comfortable with the idea that some things are better than others—not just according to our subjective point of view but according to enduring standards of merit and inferiority—and at the same time reject the thought that we (or anyone else) should have the right to impose those standards. We are enthusiastic about diversity—the rich, unending diversity that free human beings generate as a matter of course, not the imposed diversity of group quotas.

And that "economic productivity" bit that Harden finds troublesome is all the way back on page 520, where Herrnstein and Murray voice their concern about future trends for the less cognitively gifted:

In economic terms and barring a profound change in direction for our society, many people will be unable to perform that function so basic to human dignity: putting more into the world than they take out.

To translate for the non-economically gifted: they won't be hired for productive jobs.

Harden ignores this valid concern in order to shore up her "see, they're eugenicists" claims. (Does she agree? Disagree? Doesn't matter when you're slandering people!)

These are just a few paragraphs, but it's amazing how clumsily Harden employs a rhetorical funhouse mirror to turn them into some kind of eugenic rant.

Futhermore, it's clear that Harden is flummoxed by what she calls the "fleeting reference to Rawlsian ideas" in The Bell Curve. But instead of worrying that she didn't understand the point Herrnstein and Murray were making, she seems to conclude ah, they didn't really mean it.

On page 89, Harden claims Herrnstein and Murray "blithely presented their hypothesis that at least part of the reason that Black and Hispanic people in America had lower average IQ test scores than White people was because of the genetic differences between them. Their actual position:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.

But that agnosticism is apparently not good enough. (Harden herself shies away from the issue with a complex argument.)

Murray has been even more explicit about his views. His current pinned tweet thread:

(I should add that painting Murray as some sort of white supremacist because of his concentration on cognitive skills and IQ testing is kind of weird. Because he rather consistently points to Asians as having even higher IQ averages than whites. It's a funny kind of "white supremacy" that cedes an even higher status to Asians.)

In summary: Harden's treatment of Murray makes him a cartoonish villain to be lumped in with famous (actual) eugenicists of history, e.g. Madison Grant. She either knows better, or she doesn't; either way, it's a despicable slander.

And it's a shame, really. She fails to recognize that Murray (and folks on Team Murray, like me) really do share at least some of her purported goals: for decent people to live valuable, respectable, productive, happy lives no matter what their genes say about them. There could be an honest discussion, and perhaps some shared policy positions. Unfortunately, it appears we'll have to do that with someone more fair and open-minded than Harden.

Last Modified 2021-10-26 4:07 PM EST

The Genetic Lottery

Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

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This sounded like a good book to read that would be out of my usual conservative/libertarian comfort zone. It turned out to be more irritating than illuminating, full of strawmen and facile/flawed arguments.

The "straw" thing outraged me enough to write about it in a separate post, published in my "default" blog feed.

The author, Kathryn Paige Harden, is a professor of clinical psychology at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. She is an active researcher in human genetics. I assume the science she explicates here is accurate. The problem she proposes to tackle is how the diversity arising from sexual dice-tossing can be dealt with if you are, as Harden claims to be, a "full-throated egalitarian" (not to be confused with a white-throated sparrow).

The argument here is pretty simple: Your genes are a matter of luck, and that luck can be good, bad, or indifferent. In any case, you can't be said to have "deserved" whatever benefits (or lack thereof) your genes have provided you in life. Harden concentrates on cognitive skills, and how they play out for one's educational attainment and eventual economic benefit.

Some argue that it's inherently evil to study the impact of genetics on (say) one's cognitive talent; Harden contends those folks are simply sticking their heads in the sand.

On the other hand, Harden disdains those nasty eugenicists who argue that genetics proves that some people are simply better than others.

She attempts to chart a middle course, one where genetic analysis can be used as a tool for good, mostly along the lines John Rawls outlined in A Theory of Justice, fifty years ago: design a society where inequalities of outcome are allowed if and only if such inequalities work to the relative advantage of the least well-off.

The flawed arguments start early. On page 5, she refers to a 2014 paper that claims "In the past forty years, the top 0.1 percent of Americans have seen their incomes increase by more than 400 percent, but men without a college degree haven't seen any increase in real wages since the 1960s." In case, you missed that, she repeats and italicizes: "The 1960s". And in case you missed that: "… in all that time, American men who didn't get past high school haven't gotten a raise."

This is a pretty obvious fallacy, one I assume Harden would have noticed if someone in her own field had committed it: populations are dynamic. The "American men without a college degree" in 1960 are not the same people as those in 2021. (Ditto for "the top 0.1 percent".) It's a mistake to speak of them as if they were a static group.

No question, we'd like to see people do well economically. But Harden's comment that these folks "haven't gotten a raise" is like observing that the average tree height in a forest hasn't changed in 50 years, and then claiming that implies trees in that forest aren't growing at all.

But Harden is correct on her overall (completely obvious) point: people can't be said to "deserve" their genetic inheritance. So? Harden sketches out what she calls her "anti-eugenic" prescriptions in a final chapter, making (I think) an implicit parallel with Ibram X. Kendi's "anti-racist" agenda. She contrasts her recommendations with "eugenic" policies (uniformly cartoonish) and "genome-blind" policies (derided, analogous to "color-blind" approaches to race). Basically, she advocates using genetic testing as a tool for Good, not Evil. (Gee, that was easy.) For example, identifying kids with low cognitive polygentic indices at an early age who might need extra help. Again, being a good Rawlsian demands this. Other than dragging genetic tools into the argument, there's not that much new here.

Harden ignores the multiple rebuttals to Rawlsian concept of "justice" that have cropped up over the past decades. Here's an obvious one: it's true enough that you don't "deserve" the benefits you derive from your "good" genes. Guess what? Nobody else does either.

Here's Richard Epstein making a similar point in a Cafe Hayek Quotation of the Day from a few weeks back:

Even though talent, circumstance, and luck play a role in human behavior, we all are spared an enormous administrative burden if we mutually renounce any claim to these assets of others. A rule of self-ownership, far better than any of its alternatives, allows us to move on with the business of life. A rule of self-ownership selects the single person to be the owner of each person’s natural talent, and picks that person who in the vast majority of cases tends to value those assets the most: each obtains control over his or her own body. At least for adults (and there are, of course, qualifications for children), the rule offers the shortest path from initial entitlement to productive human activity.

Bottom line: I think Professor Harden should have stuck to the science.

Last Modified 2021-10-26 8:53 AM EST