My Great Internal Conflict

For the past two years I’ve been focused on the concept of intelligence. What is intelligence? How do we study it? Why do we study it? I’ve confined my studies particularly to an area of behavior genetics which uses molecular genetic technologies to try and find alleles or genetic variants associated with g– or general intelligence. I’ve spoken with researchers on all sides of the argument (because the genetics of intelligence is certainly a charged and some would even say a controversial area of study) and I found myself speaking with accomplished academics standing on opposite ends of a ‘Scientific’ field that purports to be using robust statistical models and larger and larger sample sizes to identify markers with small effect sizes that shape the nature of the polygenic trait of cognitive ability. There are hard sciences researchers who are not as convinced by the heritability estimates for g and believe this research is methodologically weak, there are others who believe the evidence is undeniable proof of the strong genetic influences on cognitive ability. There are social scientists who are using genetic information to supplement their studies on social behaviors like political ideology or economic decision-making. There are others who are staunch opponents to this area of research, arguing that it feeds into eugenic discourses and risks legitimizing and perpetuating racial and class hierarchies.

I’ve spoken to all these sides because I want to try and gain as much of the ‘whole picture’ as I can. What motivates individuals to research the genetics of cognitive ability or educational attainment? Undoubtedly these researchers see benefits to this scholarly pursuit and we should take those arguments seriously. At the same time, there are others who see danger in this field and we should take those concerns just as seriously. We hear more and more often that we need to live outside our ideological bubbles and listen to and try to understand differing viewpoints. College campuses across the US are being accused to promoting liberal agendas, unwilling to hear other perspectives, quick to shut down opposing arguments in the name of ‘safe space.’ I would consider myself liberal, I’m certainly drawn to a study of the concept of intelligence because of my concern for how it might impact ethnic minority and low-income communities. However, I’ve also realized it would be virtually impossible to try and make my views heard among those who may disagree with me if I refuse to hear their side too and acknowledge their arguments. I find myself caught between two worlds. On the one hand, I am afraid I appear to comfortable and agreeable to genetics research on intelligence or other behaviors with histories tied to eugenic, racist, and classist discourses and that some critics of the field of behavior genetics might also criticize me for giving it too much credit. On the other, I fear that supporters of behavior genetics might fail to respect my work because I come from a social sciences background rooted in a desire for social justice and assume I am immediately opposed to their work. It would appear that being ‘diplomatic’ in this debate might win me few supporters on either end.

I’ve been told I will eventually need to choose a side in this debate. Do genes play a role in cognitive ability? Should we be conducting this research? I’m not sure I am ready to provide a definitive answer to this question until I have finished my own data collection, but I do believe in socially responsible research. Personally, I can see how genes play a role in cognitive abilities, I think this is undeniable. For example, we can see how on an extreme end a disorder like Down Syndrome affects one’s mental capabilities or on the other a child is incredibly able to master complex theoretical physics by the tender age of ten. I am not sure in the case of the ‘average person’ the extent to which genes influence one’s cognitive abilities. Twin-study heritability estimates of intelligence often place it between 0.6 and 0.8. The issue is, I have many issues with twin studies as reliable studies. My reading has exposed me to some of the methodological flaws of these studies. Not only those of the classic Equal Environment Assumption (EEA), but also the fact that many of the twins in the classic MISTRA study of twins reared apart were in reality only partially reared apart. Further, the MISTRA study has thus far failed to reveal the DZ twin results in addition to the MZ twin results that seemed to prove that genes unfailingly play a large role in one’s behaviors. I think often times the hard sciences are critical of the social sciences for their flowery language, not replicable findings, or faulty methods– but I’ve found that the hard sciences are in many ways equal culprits. How hard science researchers could use twin studies and the issues associated with them to conduct research on an area as contested as intelligence is what interests me. Surely there is the common perception of the hard sciences as fool-proof, objective, empirically-driven and clean. I’m finding, however, its a field just as messy as that of sociology or psychology.

Which I suppose brings me to my great internal conflict: I can see how genes influence an individual’s cognitive abilities. What I cannot see is how current research in behavior genetics can irrefutably tell us this or why, despite the fact, that many genetics researchers acknowledge the great impact the environment can have on our life outcomes and behaviors, we are placing more focus on finding the genetic markers associated with those behaviors. Is it because it is in theory easier to identify a gene than it is to address an environmental factor? That the gene is more clean and isolated than our environment which is messy, complex, and impossible to partition? If this is the case, I would say so far behavior genetics has shown us that behaviors like intelligence or educational attainment or political ideology or criminality are also messy and complex, and thus far impossible to partition into a set number of genes with determined and replicable effect sizes.

I do not think the ‘nature vs nurture’ environment is valid any longer. It’s become a matter of ‘nature AND nurture.’ The question is, what research will bring about more change? What will benefit more people? Or even, what will benefit those who currently are given the short-stick? Who do we carry out our research for and do we act in a socially-responsible manner?

Current behavior genetics research on cognitive ability uses European ancestry population samples living in relatively stable economic circumstances– that is not in situations of social deprivation or low income– so who does genetics of cognitive ability benefit? GWAS studies give us information about a given population at a particular moment– if the high heritability estimates for g are accurate do they apply to the ethnic minority confined to the housing-project, the prison-system, the failing school? Does that heritability estimate help the low-income individual stuck in a cycle of disadvantage and marginalization?

I know these questions are not usually the driving motivations for behavior geneticists, but I ask them because this research does have the possibility to impact the historically marginalized– in a negative way. If we do not conduct research for those who are on the peripheries and continue to research for those who stand in the majority, do we not run the risk of further gaps and inequalities? How can we address this challenge?

I suppose I’ve raised another conflict.

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