From Heredity to the Collectivity


Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature, by R.C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin. New York: Pantheon Books, 322 pages, $21.45/$8.95

Scientific study of the contributions of heredity and environment to human abilities and behavior began with Francis Galton in the 1860s. He studied "hereditary genius," concluded that heredity is more important than environment, and initiated the eugenics movement to improve humanity. The eugenics movement sought, on the one hand, to encourage more children among people with good heredity and, on the other hand, to prevent reproduction of bad heredity, especially by discouraging children among the feeble-minded.

The influence of eugenics peaked in the 1920s and then fell off for several reasons. Some of its supporters built their prejudices into their ideas of what were good genes. Coercive social measures, including sterilization of the institutionalized retarded, came into public disfavor. The Nazis used eugenics as a rationalization for genocide. The left, which had initially favored eugenics in line with its rationalism, moved toward environmental theories that promised quicker results. They were also disappointed that increased equality of opportunity did not bring about complete equality of result.

Like many other issues, controversy about the heredity of behavior heated up in the 1960s. Advocates of affirmative-action measures to achieve equality of result needed the assurance that observed inequalities of accomplishment must be the result of discrimination of some kind, even when overt discrimination may have been substantially eliminated. Since the '60s, scientists whose studies support the view that important components of human behavior are hereditary have been attacked—some to the extent of having their lectures disrupted.

R.C. Lewontin and Leon Kamin are two leaders of American "radical science," also called critical science, and Steven Rose is similarly active in Britain. Lewontin has a substantial scientific reputation in evolutionary genetics. The three pooled their efforts in Not in Our Genes, which bills itself as an answer to the "New Right ideology…with its emphasis on the priority of the individual over the collective. That priority is seen as having both a moral aspect, in which the rights of individuals have absolute priority over the rights of the collectivity—as, for example, the right to destroy forests by clear-cutting in order to maximize immediate profit—and an ontological aspect, where the collectivity is nothing more than the sum of the individuals that make it up."

The authors often bow to Marxism and refer to the bourgeois origin of various concepts. Thus, they say, "We should make it clear that we use the term ideology here and throughout this book with a precise meaning. Ideologies are the ruling ideas of a particular society at a particular time. They are ideas that express the 'naturalness' of any existing social order and help maintain it."

Full-blooded Marxism, however, associates an ideology with each "class" defined by its "relation to the means of production" and explicitly postulates a "working class ideology." There is no trace of the proletariat in this book, so we have a kind of attenuated and perhaps less virulent Marxism. Why modern Marxists ignore the "working class" is too complicated for this review. However, it seems to be mutual.

Those who hold that intelligence, criminality, and other human behavioral characteristics have important hereditary components are accused by the authors of "reductionism" and "determinism." Reductionism, they say, is the view that the properties of a complex object are the properties of its parts. Their strawman is the idea that a society is "aggressive" if the individuals that compose it are aggressive. This kind of reductionism fails if the properties of the entity depend on the interaction of its parts.

The authors fail to distinguish between a universal doctrine of reductionism, which I'll bet no one holds, and specific reductionist hypotheses. For example, we believe that the color of an object is not determined by the "colors" of its atoms but is usually determined by its surface molecules—compounds of small numbers of atoms. Its visual texture, however, is not determined by its molecules but by a larger-scale structure. Thus specific reductionist hypotheses may be true or false. When they are true, they represent important simplifications. The theory that aggressiveness of societies is simply related to the aggressiveness of its individuals cannot be confirmed or refuted solely by general considerations.

Determinism, as the authors use it, seems to require an adjective—for example, genetic or environmental—to make it definite. Then it is the hypothesis that some property of an object, such as the intelligence of a person, is entirely or mainly determined by one thing, such as heredity. Again, specific deterministic hypotheses are simple, and some of them turn out to be true.

The authors cite many determinist and reductionist hypotheses with which they disagree. These include hereditary determination of IQ, the theory that IQ determines success in academic study, and theories of the biological determination of sex differences in human behavior. One is suspicious of the accuracy with which they cite the views of the people they attack. Perhaps many of them admit more interaction among influences than is ascribed to them.

When attacking a theory such as the one that IQ is about 80 percent hereditary, they demand very high standards of proof. For example, they find all the studies of separated twins to be flawed. (This is apart from the fictitious studies of Cyril Burt that Kamin played an important role in exposing.)

Yet there is one determinist hypothesis that they accept without applying strict criteria: the hypothesis that their opponents hold their views because they support a capitalist society, or the oppression of women, and so on. They offer no criteria that would have to be met in order to warrant these kinds of conclusions about why someone holds certain views. But a hypothesis about why someone holds certain views requires just as precise a statement and just as convincing evidence as a biological hypothesis.

The book had considerable critical success. All 11 reviews the Stanford University librarians found for me were substantially favorable. (It helped that no less than three of the reviewers were among the 15 people whose assistance was acknowledged in the preface as participants in the "Dialectics of Biology Group" and "the Campaign against Racism, IQ, and the Class Society.") The reviewers took on the role of a cheering section, applauding blows against the enemy rather than discussing the plausibility of the positions taken. In this they were somewhat less rational than the authors.

The genetics of human behavior is a difficult scientific subject, and we laymen cannot hope to play an influential role in solving its problems. However, there are two issues that concern us and that we can influence.

First, if scientists are to serve as our representatives in discovering the truth about some important aspect of the world, then we must prevent ideologies from limiting the hypotheses they can consider. Such intimidation reached its extreme in the late '40s when Lysenko, with Stalin's help, succeeded in destroying Soviet genetics by getting his opponents fired and sending some of them to die in the Gulag.

Even the American academic campaign of intimidation that this book serves has probably succeeded in keeping many young scientists who don't want to be thought reactionary from studying certain hypotheses for fear of liberal disapproval. Thus, no one mentions the grimmest hypothesis about the cause of a decline in college entrance examination scores in recent years: maybe the eugenicists were right and the lower fertility rate of educated people for 100 years contributed to the reduction in the number of people capable of high college entrance exam scores. The point here is not that this hypothesis is correct; it may or may not be, but in the prevailing political climate no scientist even considers investigating this possibility.

The second proper concern of laymen arises when controversies among scientists impinge on public policy. Then we cannot avoid choosing among the rival proposals. However, even without detailed scientific study, we can tell when intimidation is being attempted.

As a computer scientist concerned with artificial intelligence—with making computer programs solve difficult problems—I offer one comment out of my own speciality. Computers differ only in speed and memory capacity; what one can do, another can also be programmed to do, perhaps more slowly. Human nonintellectual capacities vary by factors of two or three; one man can train to lift twice or three times the weight of another. Therefore, if intelligence were like strength, we would expect that an ordinary person could learn to do physics like Einstein or chess like Bobby Fischer, only taking several times as long for the same result. Since this obviously doesn't happen, the qualitatively superior intellectual performance of some people over others constitutes a puzzle for the future to solve. Solving it will require an open mind.

John McCarthy is a professor of computer science at Stanford University.