On May 14, a gunman walked into a Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. The massacre killed 10 people. Beforehand, he had posted a long screed online about Great Replacement Theory, using, among other things, links to a series of genetics studies—peer reviewed, and published in prestigious journals like Nature—as citations. These were a variety of human behavioral genetics studies, a field of research that tries to use genetics to find the source of complex human behaviors. One study was a genomic study on whether intelligence is inherited from one generation to the next. Another was on the genetics of different psychological traits. Then another study on the genetics of intelligence.
Scientists have been quick to write and denounce the Buffalo shooter. “Scientists have to recognize that their research can be weaponized,” Janet D. Stemwedel, a philosopher of science at San José State University, wrote weeks later in Scientific American. “They need to think hard not only about how their findings might be misinterpreted or misused, but also about the point of even conducting the studies they do of differences among racial groups. Above all that, scientists need to take an active role in fighting both violence and white supremacy.”
These sorts of pushbacks have happened before. In 1994, political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, a book that discusses the apparent IQ differences between Black and white people, and the class structures associated with it. (It’s worth pointing out that IQ tests were originally intended as a rough method for determining whether 19th-century French children were a little behind on their schooling. Modern-day use as a measure of intelligence is a greatly contested notion.)
The Bell Curve created a media sensation so wide that the two dry academics were excerpted by then-editor Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic. Years of debate in the media ensued. Reviews of the book (and reviews of the reviews) came out for years, mostly in polite arguments—what does the book really say about intelligence differences? Did you know that actually liberals used to love IQ testing as a means of social mobility? Does using the word “intelligent” and “smart” as synonyms tell us anything about whether the authors are racist?—that allowed Murray and Herrnstein to remain in the public eye as intellectuals and stewards of noble research, as well as appear on Tucker Carlson’s show to talk about race wars.
It’s far past time for reviewing and speaking out on research like Murray’s and Herrnstein’s. The slow response to The Bell Curve has helped similar work live on today in the hands of others, like psychologist Stuart Ritchie at King’s College London and behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden at the University of Texas. Harden in particular has surfed the same media wave as Murray and Herrnstein with her 2021 book The Genetic Lottery, which once again went looking for the inherent biological sources for structural inequalities, like differences in educational attainment and income. She and her book were feted in an overwhelming positive, incurious, and uncritical 10,000 word New Yorker piece upon the book’s publication: “She wore a soft flannel shirt, faded stone-washed jeans, and dark Ray-Ban sunglasses. The air was hot and dry, but Harden is the sort of person who seems accompanied by a perpetual breeze”; “Harden was raised in a conservative environment, and though she later rejected much of her upbringing, she has maintained a convert’s distrust of orthodoxy.”
In the following months, she was subject to overwhelmingly negative reviews, once people had time to actually read the book. Too little, too late. Another generation of crypto-race science was legitimized.
This isn’t a discussion of what-ifs. Research like this trickles down into violent thought, both through the end of a gun or the flow of a pen. For instance, Long Island’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is now a prestigious biology research station but originally was a hub for eugenics research, especially starting in 1910 at the creation of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). Work there directly influenced the 1927 Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell. A Virginia law allowed for forcible sterilization by the state of anyone deemed “socially inadequate.”
The slow response to The Bell Curve has helped similar work live on today in the hands of others.
The law at the heart of Buck was based on a “model” written in 1914 by Henry Laughlin, the biologist and founder of the ERO. In his draft, Laughlin created what he thought was a law that would pass constitutional muster when used as a framework by states to draft formal legislation. He detailed who he thought should be subject to sterilization by the state, including any “socially inadequate person…[who] fails chronically in comparison with normal persons to maintain himself or herself as a useful member of the organized social life of the state,” or anyone who due to genetic inheritance was at least one quarter socially inadequate (as well as ne’er do wells, tramps, people without homes, and paupers).
The Buck ruling upheld the Virginia statute, formally allowing more than 70,000 people the government deemed “imbeciles” to be sterilized in the decades to follow. Referring to Carrie Buck (the woman at the heart of the case), her mother, and Buck’s child, Associate Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote in the decision: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Most of those sterilized after the decision was issued were women of color.
This is an old saw, now spoken again. Rather than deem people imbecilic, the recent trend among human behavioral genetics researchers has been use of the genome-wide association study, or GWAS. They ask: Are there genetic causes for the difference in wealth, educational attainment, even divorce and infidelity rates among different populations, particularly white and Black Americans?
This is a type of analysis that looks for overrepresented genetic fingerprints in a population. If, say, you were looking for the genetic cause of Huntington’s Disease, you could compare a group of Huntington’s patients with a genetic database, and look for a mutation that was common in patients but not in healthy people. Using this analysis to look for the cause of complex behaviors like intelligence, education, or divorce is a completely different scenario—bereft scientifically, logically, and ethically.
It would be obtuse and practically nihilistic to compare, say, male and female coworkers, who do the same work, and wonder what genetics has to do with their differences in income. Or to look at an underfunded, segregated school and wonder what part genetics plays in why its test scores are lower than the wealthy school across town.
The research does not work. The statistical effect sizes of genes on life outcomes are small to the point of non-existence. More importantly though, human behavioral geneticists do not even attempt to offer a logical mechanism that allows for individual genetic differences (often literally single nucleotide changes in a three billion nucleotide-long human genome) to affect human behavior (for deeper discussions of the technical failures of GWASs and human behavioral genetics, see these reviews of Harden’s book).
It’s ethically abhorrent, pinning societal-scale failures and inequalities on individuals. It would be obtuse and practically nihilistic to compare, say, male and female coworkers, who do the same work, and wonder what genetics has to do with their differences in income. Or to look at an underfunded, segregated school and wonder what part genetics plays in why its test scores are lower than the wealthy school across town.
So why do scientists continue to pursue such shoddy science? The writers and biologists Richard Lewontin of Harvard University, Stephen Rose of the Open University in the U.K., and Leon Kamin of Princeton University had an answer: power. Rather than attack societal ills at the societal level, the wealthy and powerful (like tenured professors at prestigious universities, or simply a wealthy, white American) can benefit by both shifting blame for inequality on to individuals and offering small, even nonexistent steps towards justice, like the kind encapsulated in tiny, illusory effect sizes of genetics on life outcomes. They wrote in 1982:
“The outcome is better assured, and, if concessions must be made for fear of successful disruption, those concessions can be small, slow, and even illusory. Those who have power must, if possible, avoid the struggle entirely, or at least keep it in bounds that can be accommodated within the institutions they control.”
In other words: The work reinforces that the rich, the credentialed, are normal and anyone who falls short of them needs to be corrected, for the benefit of society (the motivating principle behind Laughlin, the ERO, and Buck).
Despite the field’s noble self-perception, science is stratified by positions of power just like any other industry. Those wielding it include publishers and editors of large, high-impact journals; scientists who sit on grant committees at major funding bodies, who decide who gets what precious little funding money is available in the US; the leaders of large scientific societies, whose memberships often number in the tens to hundreds of thousands, and publish journals and put on huge, city-controlling conferences.
All these people can refuse to participate in this sideshow for any longer. Publishers are gatekeepers of the scientific community, and recognizing that an area of science is both bad research and is actively harming people now, with promise to harm more later, can reduce the spread and potency of this work by simply refusing to publish it. That includes the publishers of some of the most widely read scientific journals in the world, like Springer Nature (which publishes Nature), the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS, which publishes Science), and the National Academy of Sciences (which publishes Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
This would help establish, among scientists and non-scientists, that human behavioral genetics research is simply bad research—the kind that’s not worthy of attention.
This isn’t censorship. This is de-platforming. In the same way that a social media network like Twitter might ban far-right extremists from publishing hate speech, mainstream journals could simply decline to allow research that feeds far-right thought and violence in their pages. Let people who do this work be out in the fringes, where they belong.
None of the publishers whose work was cited by the Buffalo shooter—Springer Nature, AAAS, or SAGE Publishing—responded to repeated requests from The Daily Beast for comment and questions on whether they would take action.
De-platforming is an admittedly tricky thing, and not a one-size-fits-all solution to extremist thought. But, the time for simply debating whether there are meaningful genetic differences between humans is long past; Lewontin himself showed decades ago that human distinction along the lines of race and genetics is a meaningless farce. The same news cycles have played out now multiple times, first Murray and Herrnstein in the ’90s, now Harden in the 2020s. Soon there will be someone else. Why put up with this any longer? Phrenology, IQ tests, gene sequencing, what next? How much deeper do we have to go? What new data to explain the existence of the rich and powerful and the poor and weak are we waiting for?
Any journal that engages in de-platforming should be transparent about why they’ve made this choice—to cut off the flow of race science that’s been in motion for over a century, and not targeting the researchers doing that work personally. Those people are free to publish elsewhere, or do other work.