Genes, Intelligence And The Racial Implications For Public Policy


This is a fascinating article on the subject of genes, their creation or not of intelligence and the implications this has or public policy and all things racial – even racist if you prefer. It’s rather a book review, the piece, an what’s so interesting about it is the entire absence of any consideration at all of the scientific theory being out forward. It is indeed arguable how much genes predetermine intelligence, how much is epigenetic, how much is inculcated in the lived environment. That each of the three have some effects seems pretty reasonable, the portions we can shout about.

The book being reviewed, the underlying theory being examined, states that it’s mostly to near all genes. Hmm, well, OK. Except that’s not what is considered. Instead, the claim is made that the political – or racial, racist – implications of this being true are such that we shouldn’t consider #it to be true. We should simply reject the idea itself because of those public policy implications of its possible truth.

Which isn’t, really, how we’re supposed to be doing this science stuff. Quite the opposite in fact. But this does seem to be how the modern academy works, or at least certain corners of it. So much or the value of the modern academy then, eh?

Blueprint by Robert Plomin: latest intelligence genetics book could be a gift for far-right

In the prologue of his new book Blueprint, psychologist Robert Plomin explains that he has been waiting 30 years to write this. In part, he says, his “cowardice” in the face of the personally and professionally “dangerous” nature of his work on genetics put him off until now.

The book’s central theme is laid out from the very start. DNA can “tell your fortune from the moment of your birth, it is completely reliable and unbiased”. Plomin then takes the reader through his scientific research into twins and the human genome, and argues that genetics bring huge implications for parents and public policy alike.

DNA is the major systemic force, the blueprint, that makes us who we are. The implications for our lives – for parenting, education and society – are enormous.

On the science, Plomin has previously expressed his support for Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s racial premises in their notorious 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The Bell Curve is highly controversial because it claims black Americans are on average significantly less intelligent than white – and suggests that genetics plays a major role in this.

Plomin was a leading signatory of The Mainstream Science on Intelligence, a statement issued by a group of academic researchers in support of The Bell Curve’s racial “science” and originally published in the Wall Street Journal in December 1994. Below is an extract:

The bell curve for whites is centred roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85 … Heritability estimates range from 0.4 to 0.8 … indicating genetics plays a bigger role than environment in creating IQ differences.

This is a view about genetics, race and intelligence Plomin has not expressly disavowed. And based upon this “scientific” view of race, Herrnstein and Murray make specific policy proposals in their book, such as a radically reduced welfare state and the end of affirmative action.

Plomin, on the other hand, does not mention race at all in Blueprint – as with his recent book which looked at the role of genetics in education G is for Genes. This seems an extraordinary omission given the explosive implications of a scientific theory underpinned by an assumption of racial difference in intelligence.

Robert Plomin on Blueprint (book trailer).

Plomin also insists in Blueprint that “no specific policy implications follow from finding that inherited DNA differences are by far the most important source of individual differences”. But policy at present is based entirely upon environmental factors, like social need or the type of school a child attends. A shift to allocating public resources according to people’s DNA would have the most profound policy implications imaginable.

Personalising education

Indeed, in G is for genes, Plomin and co-author Kathryn Asbury argue that a child’s education should be “personalised” through the use of preschool DNA testing and followed by regular IQ testing. In Blueprint, Plomin explains that “if all you know about people is their DNA, you can indeed predict their school achievement”.

But if Plomin’s science as laid out in the statements he has made – including his support for the one published in the Wall Street Journal – is correct, education led by DNA and IQ testing would surely be racialised. This would mean most black children would receive a “personalised” education aimed at learners of below average intelligence – who can be expected to make only modest academic achievements due to their genes. This in itself seems worthy of mention in a book which has taken 30 years to write.

Read more: The IQ test wars: why screening for intelligence is still so controversial

David Gillborn, a professor of critical race studies as Birmingham University, noted that in a 2015 BBC interview, Plomin himself described his approach to the racial implications of his work as “softly, softly”. This was because, he said, reporting on his views on racial difference “is a distraction to my research”.

In Blueprint, Plomin’s account of his renowned longitudinal study of twins – since he arrived in the UK from the US in 1994 – is fascinating. His account of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWASs), based on vast data banks, and Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms – tiny snippets of genetic information which together create our human traits – is gripping.

Yet in the end with Blueprint, there exists a risk that readers end up impressed by Plomin’s account of his science without being aware of the racial and social implications of his theory. And in the context of a resurgent right wing across the world looking for “scientific” reasons to elevate race in public policy, this seems profoundly irresponsible.

Maybe Plomin thought this was the right way to tackle the more difficult history associated with his work. But scientific racism has never gone away. And ultimately, by avoiding the issue, his latest book could well attract unwanted attention from the wrong type of readers.

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