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Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Genetic Lottery:

Ethical implications for policy.
I'd bought and begun Jennifer Hochschild's book Genomic Politics first, when I encountered Kathryn Paige Harden's then-upcoming work in a lengthy New Yorker article (probably paywalled).

Solely on the basis of that article, I subsequently downloaded it the day it was released and read it forthwith. She takes on a "radioactive" "3rd-rail" topic. Adroitly so.
That genetics would be useful at all for advancing the goals of social equality is a claim that is frequently met with skepticism. The potential dangers of eugenics loom large in the imagination. The potential benefits of connecting genetics to social inequalities, on the other hand, might seem slim. Even if a new synthesis of genetics and egalitarianism is possible, why take the risk? Given the dark legacy of eugenics in America, it might feel overly optimistic, even naïve, to imagine that genetic research could ever be understood and used in a new way.

What is missing from this consideration of risks and benefits, however, are the risks of continuing the status quo, where understanding how genetic differences between individuals shape social inequalities is widely considered, by both academics and the lay public, to be taboo. This status quo is no longer tenable...

Harden, Kathryn Paige. The Genetic Lottery (p. 21). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
I thoroughly enjoyed it (heavily documented; more than 400 end-note citations). I'm now back onto Genomic Politics for comparisons and contrasts. I've riffed on "Omics" issues across the years (though mostly focused on clinical dx IT support and QA issues). apropos,


Tents, wheelchairs, and shopping carts piled with belongings sat baking in the sun next to the intersection where Kathryn Paige Harden pulled to a stop at a red light. She had driven past the homeless encampment, beneath an Austin freeway, often enough that she carried bottles of water to hand out through her car window to those who lived there. On this hot summer afternoon a couple years ago, her two young children voiced their concerns for the welfare of the camp’s residents. “Will ghosts get them at night?” the kids asked from the back seat. “Why don’t they have houses?”

Harden was struck by the range of potential answers to the latter question. They’d made bad choices? They didn’t work hard enough? The system was stacked against them? She gave her son and daughter the short version of what she believes: “Some people are unlucky in their lives.”

She offers a much longer, more complex answer in her new book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, published this September by Princeton University Press. A psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, Harden studies how our genes influence the way we think, feel, and act—a field known as behavioral genetics. She writes that some people are born lucky, with DNA containing variants that predispose them to academic achievement, stable jobs, higher incomes, and greater well-being. Others inherit variants more likely to lead to mental illness, addiction, and poverty, as well as a greater risk of homelessness. While acknowledging the roles our environment and experiences play in shaping our lives, HardenBmakes the case that social scientists who want to address the roots of inequality must reckon with genetics.

That stance has made her something of a lightning rod. She’s been accused of promoting eugenics, the discredited pseudoscience of “improving” the human race through selective breeding. One colleague even likened her research to the claims of those who deny that the Holocaust occurred…

My typical book candidate vetting involves Amazon reviews (cogent low-rated reviews can be a show-stopper) and Google searches). In this case, I didn't look at anything beyond the New Yorker article prior to my purchase. But, post hoc,

"The ultimate claim of The Genetic Lottery is an extraordinarily ambitious act of moral entrepreneurialism. Harden argues that an appreciation of the role of simple genetic luck—alongside all the other arbitrary lotteries of birth—will make us, as a society, more inclined to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy lives of dignity and comfort."
—Gideon Lewis-Kraus, New Yorker

"The Genetic Lottery is a good read, peppered with relatable stories and examples. Harden pulls off the trick of simultaneously introducing a technical field to newcomers; addressing deep, specialist debates; and taking seriously the intersection of scientific and philosophical analyses of inequality."
—Aaron Panofsky, Science

"While acknowledging the roles our environment and experiences play in shaping our lives, Harden makes the case that social scientists who want to address the roots of inequality must reckon with genetics. . . . The more researchers understand about the myriad factors that influence how our lives turn out, the more they can help improve outcomes for everyone. Genetics is one of those factors, Harden argues: when we ignore it, the most vulnerable suffer."
—Jennifer Latson, Texas Monthly

"[An] outstanding new book. . . . It’s scientifically spot on, historically adroit, and excellently written. Required reading."
—Adam Rutherford

"Harden diligently fights a desperate battle to enlist science to serve progressive social reform."
Kirkus Reviews

“This brilliant book is without a doubt the very best exposition on our genes, how they influence quite literally everything about us, and why this means we should care more, not less, about the societal structures in which we live.”—Angela Duckworth, author of Grit

“To me, the aim of genetic research should be threefold: to find out which differences between people are real, which of those matter, and how to use that knowledge to get the best outcomes for all people. This fascinating book is a step toward that goal.”—David Epstein, author of Range

“Harden expertly explains what we can—and importantly, can’t—take away from genetic research, and does so without shying away from the complexities or controversies. Nobody should be allowed to opine about genetics in public until they’ve read this book.”—Stuart Ritchie, author of Science Fictions

“A thoughtful, brave, and very engaging book. In contrast both to those who see genetic differences as justifying hierarchy and to those who reject the study of the influence of genes on social stratification, Harden argues that understanding the findings of behavioral genetics is essential if we are to create a more just society.”—Peter Singer, Princeton University

The Genetic Lottery is a must-read for anyone who cares about understanding why humans differ from one another. Harden lights a clear path toward an anti-eugenic genetics that embraces human diversity and works toward equity for all humans.”—Russell A. Poldrack, author of Hard to Break

“Compelling and highly readable. Harden dispels the myths that genes are destiny, that their influence is all-or-none, and that those who work on genetics are eugenicists. She makes a persuasive case that if we understand genes this can help us work towards a fairer society.”—Dorothy Bishop, University of Oxford

“Harden skillfully integrates genetic research and social science to address inequality. She demonstrates that empirical advances in understanding the role of biology and social influence in life outcomes can productively inform our moral debates and public policy decisions, if only we can forthrightly address the blinkered generalizations of the past.”—Matt Grossmann, author of How Social Science Got Better

“In this thoughtful, important, and fascinating book, Harden presents a new synthesis of genetics and egalitarianism, showing how an appreciation of the power of genes is essential for moving us towards a good and just society. The Genetic Lottery is going to have a major impact on how everyone thinks about luck, merit, and human nature.”—Paul Bloom, Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology, Yale University, author of The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning
Notwithstanding that there's obviously "confirmation bias" in the foregoing, I agree with all of those assessments. My blurb would simply say "She's right."

This commenter doesn't like "lefties."
“The hero of the [New Yorker] article is a young academic super-star lefty named Kathryn Paige Harden who, the New Yorker says, is almost single-handedly fighting a two-front war: “on her left are those who assume that genes are irrelevant, on her right those who insist that they’re everything.” No one — and I mean no one — thinks genes are “everything,” but that is the pose lefties strike. They believe only committed progressives can truly understand the policy implications of genetics.”

Unhappily, I find a lot of the ad hominem-laden criticism of Dr. Harden—amid the usual Straw Men—condescending and misogynistic. Calling her knowledge of psychology “sophomoric?“ Really (a psychology PhD tenured professor)? Dismissing her methodical, detailed argument as "nonsense" is itself nonsense. One (male) critic on Twitter (a Canadian "Labour Economist"**) called her work "asinine." How helpful.
** An economist is someone who encounters something that works in practice and tries to determine whether it will work in Theory.

Click to enlarge.

Well, the latter one may be headed toward resolution.
More to come, particularly as I now finish Dr. Hochschild's book (I also have 3 others in the oven at the moment; keeps Grandpa off the streets).

The choice of good decision-makers—and of those who should be left out of the room where it happens—is a matter of politics, not rationality. The social science experts’ long lists of appropriate and inappropriate decision-makers make it clear that we can expect no consensus around a small set of “the correct” governors. Many actors have claims; people have varied evaluations of the legitimacy and priority of those claims; there is no authority or consensual process for evaluating the actors or their claims. That is why political activity is essential—and entirely warranted in a democratic polity. Decision-making about societal uses of genomics will and mostly should include negotiation, emotion, rational discourse, scientific evidence, procedures and precedents, trade-offs and pay-offs, and power grabs. It may never be finally resolved.

Hochschild, Jennifer. Genomic Politics (pp. 218-219). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Yeah. Most difficult. But human affairs get "governed" one way or another.

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