Colorful lottery balls in a rotating bingo machine.

Equalizing the Genetic Lottery?

By James Toomey

Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality is a thoughtful, thorough, and well-written book about the compatibility of behavioral genetics with progressive ideology. Weaving together her own fascinating work in genetics with Rawlsian political philosophy, Harden’s book is necessary reading for anyone interested in inheritance or politics — which, I suppose, is everyone.

The basic argument of the book is that the so-called First Law of Behavioral Genetics is correct — everything is heritable. Harden supports this claim with a wealth of research in genetics over the past few decades, with an emphasis on her own contributions (“within a group of children who are all in school, nearly all of the differences in general [executive function] are estimated to be due to the genetic differences between them”). More importantly, Harden does not think this fact has the implications for normative politics that many, particularly on the left, worry it does. The fact that some genetic profiles cause higher general intelligence — or anything else — does not mean those who have them are better or more deserving of society’s bounty and social prestige. We can, and should, adopt “anti-eugenic” policies designed to make better as much as possible the lives of the genetically “unluckiest.”

Accepting Harden’s descriptive premises, I find her political theory basically right. But the book elides a crucial distinction in left-leaning political thought that, I think, misses something about why so many on the left find the prospect of the heritability of mental characteristics so troubling, and which perhaps diminishes the book’s ability to persuade its target audience (which, frankly, is not me, having been already convinced on much of this by The Blank Slate).

Let’s take as “left” political positions that find various kinds of inequality per se morally problematic (hardly a grand theory of left versus right, sure, just let me have it for now. Also, caveat: I, like Harden, am talking about individual inequalities, not group inequalities). Granting that the inequality evident in the world is bad, a leftist could have two distinct political responses—elimination or mitigation. The former asks us to restructure things in such a way that the causes of the inequality are gone. If differential school funding is causing unequal outcomes, we ought to fund schools equally. In contrast, mitigation accepts that there are prior inequalities of various kinds, but commits us to making the lives of the worst off go as well as possible on their own terms. This is the theory of, say, the Americans With Disabilities Act — it doesn’t try to eliminate raw deals but tries to make your life go better if you’ve gotten one.

The various inequalities to which a leftist objects might have many causes, but let’s focus on the “big two” — social/environmental and genetic. Harden’s argument makes much of the fact that to the best of scientific knowledge genetic causes account for at least as much variation in life trajectory as most social causes. She wonders why progressives — if they really care about equality — are so preoccupied with social causes to the exclusion of genetic ones. This move works if there is no substantial difference in the way in which genetic and social causes operate (or are understood to operate). But there is.

Eliminating inequality requires that its causes be manipulable; we can’t eliminate that which we cannot control. Social causes are universally understood to be manipulable — we can always restructure society by legislation or revolution. But genetic causes are not. If barriers to the ultimate goal of genuine equality are genetic, we will never be able to eliminate inequality short of widespread genetic engineering.

In short, for those who fundamentally want to eliminate, not just mitigate, inequality, genes and social structures are not just two equivalent ways of causing inequality — they are distinct in precisely the way that matters. The question for the efficacy of Harden’s argument, then, is how much of the contemporary left wants to eliminate rather than mitigate inequality. I suspect it is a lot. Anecdotally, ultimately what many on the left aspire to is a genuinely equal society, not one in which we just actively take care of some unlucky subset forever. And this makes sense conceptually because eliminativism is in many ways a cleaner fit with the leftist impulse against inequality. If people are descriptively equal at the moment of their birth, then of course they are morally equal. If they’re not, egalitarianism requires a categorical ethical commitment to the moral equality of all persons regardless of any descriptive facts about them. This is a perfectly plausible position. But it’s the kind of bare moral claim that looks to many people a lot like faith.

Now you might wonder if the distinction in the manipulability of social and genetic causes (to which I ascribe much of the left-wing worries about genetics) really holds up. It certainly has for human history so far — social structures are more manipulable than genes. But it won’t be true forever. There will, no doubt, be a day when we could with genetic engineering guarantee every child a “core set” of genetic attributes just as we guarantee them primary education. Or preferentially enhance those whose genomes are by random combination least helpful for society, just as we allocate slots at prestigious universities to the disadvantaged. In principle genes are just as manipulable as social structures.

Harden doesn’t talk about this. I suspect this omission may be strategic, because discussing the issue would require her to commit to one of two uncomfortable positions. First, it might reveal the depth of her commitment to mitigation rather than elimination — she might believe that our goal should not be (and should never have been) to eliminate inequality, but rather help the worst off. This would genuinely distinguish her from many progressives she presumably considers allies. At least it would challenge many of their views about the moral status of inequality and our response to it. Alternatively, she might say that if we could eliminate genetic inequality, we should. This may be right, but it would bring her views much more closely in line with those of the classical eugenicists then she seems willing to admit. That’s what they were trying to do, albeit brutally.

In short, it is understandable that Harden does not discuss the ways in which, right now, social and genetic causes differ in their manipulability, and how one day they won’t. But I wonder if by failing to engage many progressives on why they find the prospect of genetic causes of inequality so much more troubling than social causes, this elision misses the point.

James Toomey

James Toomey is a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. His research focuses on bioethics, health law, and elder law. His scholarship has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, the Elder Law Journal, and AJOB Empirical Bioethics.

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