I recently finished Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher’s book “The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, & the Future.” It was an engaging read and one I think social scientists should take a look at, even if they may not agree with some or any of the arguments (this all goes back to: listen to the opposing side if only to know more clearly what it is you’re against and refute it better). While Conley and Fletcher are definitely on the ‘social genomics’ bandwagon and believe this research could be potentially transformative for the social sciences, social policy, and society in general, they’re also aware of how risky and dangerous this research CAN be and the potential for misuse. In many ways, their book is also a piece of bioethics.
What I can’t tell, however, is given all the potential misuse for genetic data (and I’ll list some of the main ones I see), why Conley and Fletcher appear to be supportive of the field–they seem far more sure of potential threats to equality than possible benefits.
Here are some of the threats listed in the book:
- Ch 1: “the social genomics revolution means that new forms of inequality may emerge based not only on genotype but also on whether individuals know their genotypes (and the genotypes of those around them) and can act on them.” This would be a case where we have public information on people’s genetics.
- For example: dating companies like Tinder or OkCupid could pair with companies like 23andMe to provide genetic information in addition to an individual’s picture, hobbies, and interests. People would be selecting for a partner not only based on phenotype (or observed traits and behaviors) but also based on their genotype (predisposition to academics or athletics, health, etc.).
- Ch 3: As more and more parents opt for in vitro fertilization artificial selection (or personal eugenics) could result in genotocracy. Conley and Fletcher’s Epilogue is a sci-fi depiction of a future world where parents visit their ‘reprogeneticist’ and engage in self-chosen, self-directed eugenics to select for children that would be most successful.
- Ch 7: Personalized interventions based on plasticity (i.e. orchid-dandelion argument) might mean some individuals get the intervention because they are most likely to respond (orchids) and other individuals may not get the intervention because it would have little or no effect on them (dandelion). What are the ethics of providing care to some but not all based on differential responses that are influenced by genetics?
- For example: “Removing dandelions from highly enriched environments (classrooms with extra teachers, for instance), since they are relatively unresponsive to such settings. (Indeed to the extent that we recognize disadvantaged or challenging environments, we should place dandelion kids there so the argument would go)” (177-178). This poses issues with regard to equity.
- Another example: targeting college attendance policies toward economically disadvantaged people with more favorable polygenic scores (179)
All of these threats tie into one big and very realistic danger: those with power and resources will be some of the first to begin utilizing genetics research for their advantage, further separating themselves from those with little social capital, money, or education. For example, the wealthy and educated could begin fighting for educational interventions for their children based on the child’s genetic profile, or even prior to this child being born, begin to start controlling their own genetic information and use it to selectively breed for that child.
While it may seem a long ways away before personal eugenics becomes a reality, there are elements that may not be too far off. Think about “G is for Genes” which advocates for bringing knowledge of genetics into education or the recent paper by Cesarini and Visscher or Ben Domingue’s discussion of genetics and educational attainment. What is clear, is that despite the tricky history between genetics and education, these two fields are beginning to overlap more and more.
From Cesarini and Visscher’s paper:
It’s certainly true that insights into the genetics of educational outcomes (though some say to even say there are any genetics of educational outcomes is wrong) COULD provide guidance for drug-discovery efforts or new directions for theoretical understandings of genetic mechanisms, or education interventions or policy. The question to ask, however, is who would be the first to benefit from such knowledge? Who is genetics research on valued outcomes produced for? With regards to education, it’s highly likely that expensive private schools would be the first to implement some of the points Asbury and Plomin argue for in their book not only because they are removed from the bureaucracy and red-tape that plagues the public school system and slows the pace of change but also because private schools are more likely to have higher income and more educated parents who are more invested in their kid’s education and want to afford them every advantage. Additionally, non-secular private schools on average have smaller class sizes and spend more per pupil that public schools ($15,000 per student versus $12,000¹).
The future Conley and Fletcher map out for the hypothetical 2117 year is not completely rooted in fiction:
“The social world soon bowed to this new auto-evolutionary reality. Not only did admissions testing for schools give way to genetic screening, but the educational system fragmented into stratified niches based on specific combinations of genetically based traits. There were programs for those who ranked high in athletic ability and were neurotypical, and others for those who ranked high both in motor skills and on the autism spectrum. There were jobs that required ADHD, and those that avoided it. All of this was done in the name of greater economic efficiency. But maximum IQ was always king in this world” (Conley & Fletcher, 2017: 193)
IQ certainly always has been “king in this world.” Intelligence is one of the most valued qualities and is tied to success in various facets of life-course development. Conley and Fletcher argue that even if we don’t create “personalized interventions” or policies, society already has a sort of stratification based on differential responses based on genotype: “Genotyping individuals and observing that genotype interacts with the policy merely sheds light on an otherwise hidden form of stratification.”The question remains: Is ignorance bliss? Is it better to pretend this stratification or genotypic inequality does not exist?
The biggest problem I had with “The Genome Factor” was Chapter 6: “The Wealth of Nations: Something in Our Genes?” Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor’s publication in The American Economic Review about the “Goldilocks” level genetic diversity being tied to higher incomes and better growth trajectories was deeply troubling. The Ashraf-Galor theory argues that populations with high genetic diversity (like sub-Saharan Africa) or countries with too little diversity (like Native American populations) stand on the extremes of genetic diversity and have contributed to low economic growth or underdevelopment. In comparison, populations with ‘middle level’ (i.e. Goldilocks effect) genetic diversity (like European and Asian populations) produce high levels of development and have done so in both the precolonial and the modern era. Although Conley and Fletcher discuss how “the finding could be misinterpreted as showing that economic success, even at the country level, is “natural” and therefore immune to policy intervention” or that the theory “carries the implication that historical conquest by Europeans would be “good” for the development to the Native American populations by increasing their genetic diversity,” they simply argue that caution should be exercised when considering this analysis as it could lead to ‘inflammatory interpretations and policy predictions.’ This chapter on ‘genoeconomics’ felt like another chapter discussing all the possible risks or damage research in this area could cause, threats which I believe outweigh any potential benefits (and I had a hard time finding any real benefits Conley and Fletcher though genoeconomics might have for human society). Conley and Fletcher advocate for the integration of genetic research into the social sciences, (take for example Conley et al 2014 publication), yet I find far more risks in engaging in this field than benefits.
What do we do? Equity, Justice, and Genetics.
Should we be working to implement ethical restrictions or guidelines on this field as we’re doing with CRISPR Cas9 research? Would we be denying scientific research or the pursuit of knowledge when doing so, and is that in itself wrong? At what point do we as a society decide that the potential damage is worse than the potential benefit? Would restricting research here further promote stratification if other countries engage in it and only the wealthy are able to travel to receive those services?
Is it even possible to stem the tide of the ‘social genomics revolution’? Can equity and justice be served by genetics research or are the two fundamentally incompatible?
As always, I’m left with more questions than answers. This area is fraught with tension, heated debate, drastically differing opinions (e.g. Conley and Fletcher outline arguments the Left and the Right make with regard to the idea of genetics)– to take a stand is to make some enemies, in order to take a stand one has to decide which way the scale tips when it comes to potential benefit versus harm. Conley and Fletcher are attempting to tip the scales in favor of more potential benefit — imagine if we could address inequality that is rooted in the genotype and how profound that change would be. Even some sharp critics of genetics research are more open when it comes to something like epigenetics because it could demonstrate the effects of structures like racism or discrimination on the physical body (See Dorothy Roberts talk) and could give more legitimacy to those social scientists who research effects of poverty or racism on life outcomes. On the other hand, imagine if we discover inequalities that are influenced by our genotype and that is used to ‘naturalize’ social hierarchies or inequalities. What if we discover these inequalities before we have methods in place for addressing or ‘fixing’ them? Would social policies be negated while we try to figure it out?
As Conley and Fletcher conclude:
“The levee between the social and the natural forms of inequality will have been completely breached. What the ensuing flood will wash up it anyone’s guess, but it is coming.”