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My Problem with “Taboo” Behavioral Genetics? The Science Stinks!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Last spring, I kicked up a kerfuffle by proposing that research on race and intelligence, given its potential for exacerbating discrimination, should be banned. Now Nature has expanded this debate with “Taboo Genetics.” The article “looks at four controversial areas of behavioral genetics”—intelligence, race, violence and sexuality—”to find out why each field has been a flashpoint, and whether there are sound scientific reasons for pursuing such studies.”

Behavioral genetics has failed to produce robust evidence linking complex traits and disorders to specific genes.

The essay provides a solid overview, including input from both defenders of behavioral genetics and critics. The author, Erika Check Hayden, quotes me saying that research on race and intelligence too often bolsters “racist ideas about the inferiority of certain groups, which plays into racist policies.”

I only wish that Hayden had repeated my broader complaint against behavioral genetics, which attempts to explain human behavior in genetic terms. The field, which I’ve been following since the late 1980s, has a horrendous track record. My concerns about the potential for abuse of behavioral genetics are directly related to its history of widely publicized, erroneous claims.

I like to call behavioral genetics “gene whiz science,” because “advances” so often conform to the same pattern. Researchers, or gene-whizzers, announce: There’s a gene that makes you gay! That makes you super-smart! That makes you believe in God! That makes you vote for Barney Frank! The media and the public collectively exclaim, “Gee whiz!”

Follow-up studies that fail to corroborate the initial claim receive little or no attention, leaving the public with the mistaken impression that the initial report was accurate—and, more broadly, that genes determine who we are.

Over the past 25 years or so, gene-whizzers have discovered “genes for” high IQ, gambling, attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, alcoholism, heroin addiction, extroversion, introversion, anxiety, anorexia nervosa, seasonal affective disorder, violent aggression—and so on. So far, not one of these claims has been consistently confirmed by follow-up studies.

These failures should not be surprising, because all these complex traits and disorders are almost certainly caused by many different genes interacting with many different environmental factors. Moreover, the methodology of behavioral geneticists is highly susceptible to false positives. Researchers select a group of people who share a trait and then start searching for a gene that occurs not universally and exclusively but simply more often in this group than in a control group. If you look at enough genes, you will almost inevitably find one that meets these criteria simply through chance. Those who insist that these random correlations are significant have succumbed to the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.

To get a sense of just how shoddy behavioral genetics is, check out my posts on the “liberal gene,” “gay gene” and God gene” (the latter two “discovered” by Dean Hamer, whose record as a gene-whizzer is especially abysmal); and on the MAOA-L gene, also known as the “warrior gene.” Also see this post, where I challenge defenders of behavioral genetics to cite a single example of a solid, replicated finding.

Ever since I first hammered behavioral genetics in my 1993 Scientific American article “Eugenics Revisited,” critics have faulted me for treating the field so harshly. But over the last 20 years, the field has performed even more poorly than I expected. At this point, I don’t know why anyone takes gene-whiz science seriously.

In her Nature article, Hayden polls readers on whether scientists should “refrain from studying” the genetics of intelligence, race, violence and sexuality. Overwhelmingly, readers say no. Fine. But we should all treat “gene whiz” claims—on any topics, not just ones that might be “taboo”–with the skepticism they deserve.

Image courtesy Mushii/Wikimedia Commons.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Foremast Jack 2:53 pm 10/4/2013

    By all means, let us stop research into fields whose output might upset our progressive sensitivities. Did someone say war on science?

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  2. 2. rationalrevolution 3:31 pm 10/4/2013

    I agree that we should be skeptical of all scientific claims, and perhaps especially skeptical of claims made in the field of behavioral genetics, but there is certainly no reason to ban or even avoid research on these “taboo” subjects.

    As a “leftist” and a biologist I’m very dismayed as the view of biology held by many so-called “liberals”, who seem to completely buy into the naturalistic fallacy and to think that all biological explanations for behavior or differences between groups do nothing but justify discrimination, etc.

    I think its exactly the opposite. You can’t “fix” (or address) something until you understand the causes of it.

    For example, if rape is a biologically driven behavior, then believing that rape is caused by “rape culture” is completely absurd, and the ways that we can work to prevent rape are completely different if rape is a behavior rooted in biology vs a behavior that’s learned from our environment.

    My point is, if you want to achieve certain results, like reducing rape or improving academic performance of minorities or addressing the career choices of men and women, etc. then you have to understand the underlying causes of these behaviors, otherwise we are doomed to perpetual failure at best, and misguided (and potentiality damaging) intervention at worst.

    We have to follow the science where it leads, period.

    And “liberals” need to stop thinking that all biological explanations for behaviors and differences necessarily bolster case for discrimination and abuse, they don’t.

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  3. 3. johnsonmattc 3:34 pm 10/4/2013

    OK. In my field (criminology), the vast majority of the literature utilizing genetic components to address crime do so without claiming the existence of those labeled “genes”. They use genetic information to link possible predisposition to certain behaviors with the more important environmental factors. Any respectable biosocial approach completely avoids any discussion of genes alone as the cause of any behavior. I am a criminologist with a primary background in sociology, but an interdisciplinary approach to understanding crime. Research linking genetic factors with social outcomes needs to improve, but I am not seeing the comically inept literature in my discipline as portrayed by Mr. Horgan. At initial glance, it appears that the author cherry-picks examples of bad research to support his preconceived notions while neglecting information that challenges his decades-old investment.

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  4. 4. mathari 4:00 pm 10/4/2013

    The problem is the Courts are allowing this garbage as “evidence” because crooked whores that sell themselves as “experts” use this speculation and surmise as an alternative cause of injury to the brain. Here are two examples from the great liberal state of New York:

    “Defendant’s experts opined that ADHD is a congenital condition … opined that plaintiff’s disorders and disabilities were caused by … social and environmental circumstances of his upbringing. Contrary to plaintiff’s assertion that this was essentially an unwarranted attack on plaintiff based upon his race and economic situation, or that these opinions were based on speculation, the experts referred to scientific studies and articles showing a link between socio-economic factors and psychological development (Cunningham v Anderson, 85 A.D.3d 1370, 1374-1375 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2011)).

    “Defendants … argue that they were caused … by socioeconomic factors attendant to his family life. In that regard, they submitted affidavits from two neuropsychologists … [that] pointed to familial, hereditary or idiopathic causes of such learning disorders … and claims that plaintiff’s behavioral difficulties were caused by his exposure to “chronic environmental stress” and were the end product of “a long history of marked family turmoil.” … These opinions are not, as plaintiff claims, based entirely on speculation or conjecture, but in part, are supported by relevant scientific literature (Robinson v Bartlett, 95 A.D.3d 1531, 1534-1535 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2012)).

    These claims are having real life consequences before the judiciary that has heard for years that its all genetics. We have to scream as loud as we can to stamp this bigotry out of existence.

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  5. 5. larkalt 4:36 pm 10/5/2013

    There are too many environmental influences on IQ to know whether some races have different intellectual abilities from others. And race itself is a scientifically dubious category.
    It’s curious though – as a white person I don’t care if Asians might have higher IQ’s on average, than whites. I’m an individual, so this does not imply that I’m less intelligent than the Asians I meet. It gives me no information about individual Asians or about myself.
    The only reason for black people to care about the measured average black/white IQ difference, is prejudice against black people and failure to see black people as individuals. It’s an issue about our society, not a science issue.
    It would be a gross injustice and grossly stupid, for anyone to discriminate against me as a white person, in favor of an Asian.
    The possible destructive effects of scientific research on black people, aren’t something to be ignored.
    What is the reason TO do research on race and intelligence? It’s not a question of arguing against NOT doing such research. Research needs to have a positive justification. There’s a limited amount of money available for scientific research, and an incredible amount of research that needs to be done. There are SO many worthwhile projects – I think of desperately needed medical research that goes begging for funds. So why do research that doesn’t seem to have any practical use, and might be used to cause psychological harm???

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  6. 6. tikkun26 4:40 pm 10/5/2013

    Scientist, mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes, known as the father of modern thought was the first to articulate the mind-body problem/split. The question is how do these two phenomena connect. Descartes posited the pineal gland was the locus of connection. Today scientists say it’s the genes. Of course there is no logical necessity, nor scientific, that the driver of connection be physical. In short, the mind-body problem remains a mystery. Behavior geneticists obviate the problem by adopting biological/physical determinism. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away, but it does produce crude and crass methodology. Of course there are no verifiable results to support such hypotheses, and there won’t be.

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  7. 7. johnnyb93 7:02 pm 10/5/2013

    I sounds like you want to toss out the baby with the bath water. The problem isn’t the subject of research; it is bad research. And this problem isn’t limited to genetics.

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  8. 8. FlexibleArrangement 9:28 pm 10/5/2013

    The Good News is that the NIH cannot currently fund any of this junk science!

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  9. 9. ted_christopher 2:26 pm 10/7/2013

    The problem is potentially deeper here. Whatever the excess in claims, the underlying search is dictated by science’s model of life and the failures to find DNA support for behavioral genetics mirrors the encompassing Missing Heritability problem. We don’t need science to confirm the existence of significant innate characteristics of individuals, but science is supposed to enlighten us with a physical basis for that innateness/inheritance (and perhaps offer some help for truly problematic cases).

    The problems facing behavioral genetics were arguably telegraphed by the enormous and environmentally-confounding differences between monozygotic twins. For example, concurrence on being gay amongst male monozygotics is only 20-30%. And beyond this – for those willing to look – are a number to behavioral phenomena which are thoroughbred science conundrums. At minimum it should offer rebuttal ammo against the tsunami of science-certainty espoused by people like Harris and Pinker.

    I can’t imagine the DNA search methodology of late being different from other genome search efforts. Circa 2008 you had a report like “The Search for Intelligence” by Carl Zimmer (Oct. 2008 Sci. American) chronicling the usage of SNP-based arrays.

    For those interested in an alternative take on the situation you can access a paper I recently wrote . If nothing else it offers a look at some jaw-dropping intelligence matters.

    The interested might look at Thomas Sowell’s latest “Intellectuals and Race”. I just ran into it yesterday at the library and he is usually thorough (although he is not going to question (non-social) science).

    Finally, I have tutored inner city kids for some time now. And the overwhelming intellectual obstacle I encounter is culture. If you are not motivated to get on board with learning (and stay there) then you will get very little from education.

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  10. 10. larkalt 3:58 pm 10/7/2013

    ” I have tutored inner city kids for some time now. And the overwhelming intellectual obstacle I encounter is culture. If you are not motivated to get on board with learning (and stay there) then you will get very little from education.”
    Why aren’t they motivated to learn?

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  11. 11. ted_christopher 12:59 pm 10/8/2013

    The motivation to learn appears to begin at home (beyond any innate drive), although it does not take much support there. We see people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Even quite a few of the refugee kids we tutor – whose parents have little educational background and might even be illiterate- we can get on board with regular worksheet-based efforts. Personally, I hope to instill some of what I think of as “attitude” in the kids. This attitude I hope is a commitment to get on board with learning and try in their own way to be smart (and find good things to do with their smarts).

    For the most part the refugee parental commitment might simply be facilitating getting their kids to the library (where there is plenty of tutor help) and expressing gratitude to tutors via a smile or nod. Somehow despite obstacles – including language and troubled neighborhoods and schools – it seems to help and the kids keep showing up. We regularly send some of the refugee kids away from the table (‘An hour is enough, do something else now’). And school work has improved.

    On the other hand, kids from other groups including the biggest ones – African American and Hispanic – rarely take advantage of the tutoring opportunities. Perhaps every 3 or 4 months I see an African American or Hispanic kid showing up regularly. I think for many of these kids they come from homes/cultures that view education negatively. One of the smaller refugee groups, Nepalis, also seem to exhibit minimal commitment to education.

    Finally, Thomas Sowell has written a lot about different cultures and the associated educational imports.

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  12. 12. larkalt 1:53 pm 10/8/2013

    @Ted Chris
    It seems like the difference you’re referring to between refugee kids and the kids born here, is a difference in hope. The refugee families would come here with lots of hope. I don’t know why the AA or hispanic children would have so little hope, though.

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  13. 13. timcliffe 11:14 pm 10/8/2013

    Skepticism is essential. But the notion (that’s the kindest word I can think of) that scientists should ignore socially important topics is, um, well, I can’t think of a kind word.
    This is not to say that all topics are equally worthy of scientific investigation. For example, to use the author’s starting example, I suspect that the combined topic of “race and intelligence” is silly enough (given the enormous nebulosity of “race”), that few smart scientists will bother with it — not because the topic is controversial, but because they know they won’t find anything meaningful or useful.
    But violence? I don’t see how we can doubt that genes plays a role in our species’ tendencies towards certain kinds of violence, and it seems overwhelmingly probable to me that individual differences in those proclivities are influenced by our individual genes. The only alternative I see is the unlikely proposition that those tendencies are universally identical, with all individual difference caused by environmental influences.
    Yes, of course environmental influences are important; perhaps overwhelmingly so. But if there is a genetic component to violent behavior, it would be irresponsible not to try to nail it down. rationalrevolution pointed out in a prior comment that “You can’t “fix” (or address) something until you understand the causes of it.” If genes are amongst the causes for a socially important problem, we need to know that.
    Many interacting genes? Well, fine, the genetic component of a problem may be difficult or even entirely intractable, at least at present. But we don’t ignore the environmental components of such problems as violence just because they’re complex.
    Some commenters have babbled (kindest word) about “genetic determinism.” For anyone who may believe those commenters, there are no genetic determinists whatever amongst real scientists who actually research complex behaviors. They ALL know and acknowledge that human behavior is complex and is influenced by all sorts of environmental factors — but also by genes. A certain kind of person doesn’t believe that genes have anything whatever to do with behavior, and that anyone who believes genes do have a role is therefor that mythical animal, a genetic determinist. I am not sure how many of these people are deliberately using the term to tar and feather scientists, and how many of them are simply deluded.
    But I am sure that the author of this article is playing right into those people’s hands, to the detriment of the public’s understanding of honest scientific investigation.
    It is certainly true that some scientists (and popularizers) go off the deep end with poorly supported and unreproducible notions. This gets us back to skepticism. Scientists look at such unlikely results with skepticism, and so should we all, particularly on controversial topics. But that’s not the same as sneering dismissal and attempts to ban research.

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  14. 14. rkipling 10:10 am 10/9/2013

    Perhaps a blog post on this topic is a search for relevance?

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  15. 15. dburress 6:15 pm 10/9/2013

    The main part of this post made a good point: datamining for genetic correlates of behavior mainly turns up false positives–even for behaviors known to have relatively high heritability. A similar problem arose in searches for genetic correlates of disease. Evidently heritability very often inheres in a complex of many genes, each exerting a very small influence.
    The post also alluded to to a dumb point: that we should stop researching topics likely to be be misused. What was dumb wan’t raising the question, but rather raising such a sensitive question without actually contributing anything to the discussion. The existence of bad science on x is not a valid argument against doing good science on x.
    David Burress
    Kansas Progress Institute

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  16. 16. bucketofsquid 10:27 am 10/15/2013

    @Foremast Jack – The Republicans are the ones cutting science funding so your comment is blatantly stupid. Why not just admit that you are a bigot and come out of the closet? If you have a meaningful dispute with the blog post then by all means address it. Otherwise you just confirm what we all suspected.

    @Rational Revolution – When there is real science involved and not sloppy methodology with a predetermined outcome that can’t be replicated by impartial researchers, then you are correct. Unfortunately I have found no real science involved in behavioral genetics. Notice that no one disagreeing with Horgan actually provided any real refutation. That is because there isn’t any. All it would take is an unaffiliated lab replicating the results with proper methodology to prove him wrong. Just as the “vaccination = autism” study used infantile methodology by selecting only children with autism and not checking a random group of several thousand children to compare autism rates between immunized and unimmunized children, these “behavioral genetics” goofballs are using a preselected group and not proper double blind methods.

    @Johnsonmattc – Given the abysmal track record of the American judicial system, you aren’t exactly a reliable source of information. Sorry but when you put yourself out as an expert you should expect to be challenged. Funny how so many death row inmates are being released because of DNA evidence and challenges to the wildly inaccurate nature of finger prints. When criminology becomes reliable then maybe you will matter.

    @rkipling – Perhaps posting such a meaningless comment is a desperate try at feeling important?

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  17. 17. mathari 2:49 am 10/16/2013

    10000 years ago, there were 1 million of us. 500 years ago 500 million of us. Today there are 7 billion. In other words, we are all almost identical (+99.9%). Our differences are like the colors on a peacock. They make up a very very small part of the equation.

    On the other hand, over the last 100 years, we have exponentially increased in rates of autism, schizophrenia, mental disorders, and cancer. These are complex disorders. There are some mendelian disorders capable of causing very specific outcomes but overall the variance in our genes cannot possibly cause such disorders or low IQ or cancer.

    The Genome Wide Association Study has compared the genes of normal people to the genes of people with schizophrenia, autism, etc. There are no differences. There is no functional mutation. There is striking similarity between us all. There may be some slight difference but it is slight – not enough to be responsible for anything more than what we refer to as within the margin of error. Certainly not enough to be responsible for the ills of society.

    Neurotoxins, on the other hand, cause these differences. For example – lead is a well studied one. People closest to the lead smelter in australia were studied (port perie). People closest had 15 point loss of IQ and schizophrenia and autism. People further 5 point loss and adhd. Clusters of areas such as homes with lead paint or next to a chemical plant that pollutes the environment see similar results. In these areas, you see heritability (claims of 70%) because everyone is affected. These areas have sharply increased the overall levels of complex disease from .1% to 10%.

    Genes could never cause, in 100 years, this much disparity. It is impossible and irrational.

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