why your genes rarely determine your fate
If you were to go solely by the New Yorker profile of geneticist Kathryn Harden, you’d assume that academic discussions about the role genes play in our lives is limited to two camps bitterly divided over a political stance. On the one hand, progressive researchers believe that any admission of genetics’ influence on our talents or predispositions simply plays into racist and eugenicist beliefs which led to many unspeakable horrors over the past century. On the other, flawed scientists and evil cranks who’ve embraced the dark side of biology believe that certain genetic profiles may not make them ubermensch, but definitely say that some people are their natural lessers, for lack of a better description.
Supposedly, a third camp which understands the nuances of a difficult debate is now trying to bridge the gap and scholars like Harden are leading the charge of putting our genetics in the right context. This is, of course, a case of the media trying to sell a story. In fact, the view that genetics plays a complex and important role in all aspects of our lives is the norm among the relevant research papers. The debate is how much and how to present new findings in a way that eager racists can’t spin into justifications for their delusional beliefs in their own “natural supremacy,” even when it concerns something as trivial as genes that let us digest milk. It’s an especially difficult line to walk when the science doesn’t yield a clear answer.
For example, there’s a fairly uncontroversial consensus that certain talents are both inherited and products of practice. Somewhere among the 20,000 to 25,000 genes that make us human there are hundreds, if not thousands, that make it easier for us to master certain skills, give us a significant head start when we discover them, or just make it an enjoyable activity for us, giving us more incentive to practice it and reach ability levels few others can. But if we fail to practice and push ourselves, those talents will easily go to waste. Just to add to the caveats, there’s also significant variation in how much genetics help in any particular skill. Athletics? Probably more. Music, games, and academia? Possibly less.
how much does nature really matter?
Of course, all this prompts the question of just how important those variations are in the grand scheme of things. For example, Harden’s research found that certain genes are correlated with a greater chance of finishing formal schooling. This sort of data has been used for decades by racists trying to justify why kids from disadvantaged communities had lower graduation rates and lower educational attainment. Arguing that they were evidently “genetically inferior” let eugenicists and bigots justify systemic barriers for those they saw as lesser people as nothing more than inventions of bleeding heart “Cultural Marxists” with what sounded like hard data, then use said data to launch their own bizarre breeding experiments.
However, when taken into broader context, those findings don’t mean very much. Being born in the right zip code in the United States and Canada is even more tightly correlated with certain outcomes like health, life expectancy, wealth, and educational advancement. In addition to that sobering fact, there’s also research showing that even naturally talented students from certain ethnic and racial backgrounds get pushed out of formal schooling. This allows bigots to collect what looks like damning data, ignore the context around it, then pretend that genetics is more or less destiny, and would look at that, some people just can’t cut it on a biological level. It’s all hateful bunk but it sounds like science and research, and they can run with it.
But we’re not done yet. Sure, some genes will make you function better at the education model we use today and let you earn a degree with greater ease. Yes, that natural talent may matter a lot less if you’re in a discriminated group because you’ll be denied the chance to put it to good use to make some bigots feel better about themselves. At the same time, what happens when we change how we teach kids and our current educational model? The same genes may play a lesser role or even be a hindrance. After all, our environment changes and so do our arbitrary systems. Because some of these genes may play little role in gaining reproductive advantages, they may not get passed on or be recessive, their utility fading over time.
the doomed quest for the perfect human
Essentially, the question of whether a certain natural predisposition is really important past the current moment in time, and the fact that nature doesn’t care how we score on our entrance exams, or how many three pointers we can sink, or how well we play chess, but our ability to repel infection, survive new climates, digest new foods, and, of course, produce offspring, is at the root of the argument against designer babies, and ultimately, eugenics. It’s bad science, bad policy, and bad survival strategy to put so much stock into arbitrary predispositions created by thousands of gene expressions which may change over a lifetime anyway. We’ll be trying to hit a moving target in search of something woefully irrelevant to our survival.
Many a dystopian novel starts with a quest to engineer the perfect human only to create some monstrosity that either can’t be stopped from taking over the world or causes great misery and pain by triggering an apocalypse. Real efforts to do exactly that using sperm from Nobel Prize winners and other distinguished figures have been far more anti-climactic, resulting in a mostly average population with a few outliers but great expectations that they would magically be the next Einstein or Newton. Trying to repeat these experiments will result in more of the same. As far as humanity is concerned, the typical person’s life outcomes are, and almost always will be, much more dependent on social policies than they are on our DNA sequences.
Certainly, humans are not equal. There will always be those among us who are exceptional and those who are, well, less so. Yet, we will still fall along a bell curve and something like 90% of us will have very little variation to speak of, our talents being quite diverse and accounting for just a small fraction of our abilities, useful in little more than picking an occupation we’d enjoy or a hobby we’d pick up. Any notion that genetics is destiny and that we can parse those minute and varied differences to establish some sort of genetically meritocratic pecking order or use them to dictate how to make societies fairer and more equal are equally ridiculous and unscientific, and are best left in the bloody dustbin of history where they belong.