Skip to main content

The Genetic Lottery - Kathryn Paige Harden ****

Sometimes you get hold of a book, then keep putting off reading it, because it seems like it's going to be hard work. That's what I did with The Genetic Lottery - in a sense I was right. It could have been more accessible in its writing style, but where I was expecting a woke, knee-jerk response to genetics and social equality, what we get instead is a well-reasoned argument for taking a different approach, combined with more in-depth explanation of the traps it is possible to fall into when dealing with the influence of genes on cognitive ability, earning etc. - and how to avoid them.

Kathryn Paige Harden has to tread carefully. Any mention of linking genetics and ability is liable to face an instant accusation of resorting Galtonesque eugenics. However, Harden espouses what she calls anti-eugenics. It is not enough, she suggests to be genetics blind. If we really want equity of opportunity, we need to try to level out genetic favourability just as much as we should try to deal with the impact of social deprivation on opportunity.

Harden shows in some detail how it is possible to discover the level of genetic contribution to anything from height to educational attainment. And though this may well only contribute 10 to 20 per cent of the difference, it has a bigger influence than does, for example, how rich mummy and daddy are. She also makes it very clear that this has nothing to do with race. Although there are some relatively minor genetic differences between groups of people which tend to be labelled as races (the concept of race itself is totally non-scientific), they are trivial compared with genetic differences where these labels don't apply.

Although Harden writes in quite a personal fashion, I did find the text difficult to read - it works around points at length, often without really coming down to a clear conclusion. The reader gets a feeling of where she is going, but it's hard to pin down clear ways forward. She tells us, for example, of the uselessness of a communist regime's levelling down approach to dealing with inequity - but doesn't really give a practical path for doing anything in modern Western society, particularly in the US, with the exception of overhauling its ridiculous healthcare system.

Harden often uses religious examples or metaphors, and to some extent, this book seems like the John the Baptist of the genetic lottery and how to deal with it - it lays some of the groundwork, but doesn't really tell us how to get there. Like many books on climate change, it's a lot better on the problem than the solution. Even so, it is a real eye-opener and an important book. For too long we have assumed that if we could fix the unfairness in the system, we would be fine having a hierarchy based on genetic ability - reward based on talent. Harden underlines the unfairness of this approach, while still recognising that we want the selection of people doing a job like an airline pilot or surgeon to be based on what they can deliver, rather than equity of outcome. It may be that we can never square this particular circle. But it's a topic that benefits from discussion.



Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Human-Centered AI - Ben Shneiderman ****

Reading some popular science books is like biting into a luscious peach. Others are more like being presented with an almond - you have to do a lot of work to get through a difficult shell to get to the bit you want. This is very much an almond of a book, but it's worth the effort. At the time of writing, two popular science topics have become so ubiquitous that it's hard to find anything new to say about them - neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Almost all the (many) AI books I've read have either been paeans to its wonders or dire warnings of how AI will take over the world or make opaque and biassed decisions that destroy lives. What is really refreshing about Ben Shneiderman's book is that it does neither of these - instead it provides an approach to benefit from AI without suffering the negative consequences. That's why it's an important piece of work. To do this, Shneiderman takes us right back to the philosophical contrast between rationalism and e

Bewilderment (SF) - Richard Powers ****

Generally speaking, I avoid anything listed for the Booker Prize as being too worthy and pretentious to be bothered with, but I'd heard good things about Bewilderment , and I have found in the past that genre books that manage to get past the literati ( Wolf Hall , for example) are far better than the average entry. The publisher would probably disagree, but the reality is that Bewilderment is science fiction. I wondered to start with if Richard Powers was dealing more in Lab Lit - fiction with a scientific context but where the science isn't the driver in how people's lives are changed - but this is pretty solid SF. Clearly the book is strongly influenced by that SF classic Flowers for Algernon - in fact, Powers does a couple of open hat tips in its direction. Although Bewilderment isn't as ground-breaking as Flowers , it follows the model of a person's brain being changed by science to deal with an issue, but here it's an emotional problem rather than an in

A Natural History of the Future - Rob Dunn *****

Many books with an ecological theme are depressingly doom-laden. The authors delight in pointing out that from a biologist's viewpoint humans are just one of a vast number of species - nothing exceptional - and that we mess with nature at our peril. To be honest, I find such books hard going. So I was surprised that, despite Rob Dunn's take on the future of nature under human influence being fairly pessimistic, I got a lot out of  A Natural History of the Future . After some initial bombardment with Rutherfordian stamp collecting, Dunn captures the imagination by telling us genuinely interesting stories both about individual studies and about the more general relationships between species populations and their environment. That sounds rather dry, but it really isn't. There are many examples, but to pick one out, I was fascinated by the idea that attempts to stop species crossing borders will result in greater evolution of new species in those regions where access is restric