Yes, There is a Gene for That
This is an open response to an article in Jacobin called There's a Gene for That. I'm replying to this because it touches on a subject that I've been grappling with a lot lately, which is how many “leftists” fail to acknowledge biological reality.
Mr. Mehta, while you raise some reasonable points, I think that you have fallen into the same trap that many, if not most, leftists have fallen into with regard to biology, which is basically buying into the same fundamental framework as conservatives, but simply taking the opposite side of the coin.
Let me first say that as someone with degree in biology and who is a (let's say) “pseudo-neo-Marxist” (whatever that may mean), I am very frustrated with how many leftists view biology. In fact I think this frustration is a common circumstance among left leaning biologists.
I want you to hear me out and I want to change your mind on this issue.
When I read your article and listen to your argument, and the arguments of many other leftist who hold similar positions, what I hear is a mirror image of what conservatives believe in regard to biology. Both your view and the conservative view seems to be that biology dictates what is right and wrong, what is acceptable or not acceptable. The only difference is that conservatives claim that inequality is an inherent natural phenomenon, therefore it is justified, while leftists take the position that inequality and all manner of obvious injustices are bad, therefore “they cannot be natural”.
This is essentially what your argument boils down to in my mind. What I am going to tell you is that inequality and all manner of injustices are natural, but the fact that these things are natural does not in any way justify them.
In my opinion, it is of vital importance that “the left” understands this and takes this position, because what many leftists like yourself (presumably) have done, is placed the core foundation of leftist theory and ideology on quicksand. What you've done is you've basically said, “all leftist ideology is built on the premise that there are not inherent differences between people,” i.e. that all people “are in fact equal”.
What this argument does is it says, if it can be proven that all people are not in fact “biologically equal”, then our entire case for social equality falls apart.
What I'm telling you is that the case for social equality does not, and cannot, rest on an assumption of “biological equality”.
Biological inequality is an inescapable fact, however, what's also true is that minor biological differences are greatly exaggerated by social constructs. Essentially, “right and left” are “both right” when it comes to claims for the root causes of inequality, but the problem is that “the right” tries to justify all inequality via biological inequality while “the left” tries to claim that all inequality is social in origin, fearing that acknowledging any biological inequality proves the positions of “the right” correct. And the really big problem with all of this is that biological inequality is scientifically provable and quantifiable, while social causes of inequality are not, or at least are not as easily and directly provable and quantifiable. This puts “the left” in a very bad position, because even though it may be true that there are many social causes of inequality, it is much harder to prove those than it is to prove the biological causes.
Essentially both “the left” and “the right” take the same position, that the role of society should be to “enforce the natural order of things.” The difference is that “the right” claims that inequality and hierarchy are the natural order of things so those things must be good, and society should therefor be built on those principles; whereas “the left” takes the position that hierarchy and inequality are bad, therefore they must be “unnatural”, and therefore must be “caused by” society. The thinking then goes that if we can eliminate the effects of society, we would then “return to” a just natural state. (This is a major theme in feminsit "rape cutlure" theory)
What I'm telling you is that the natural order of things is unjust and all manner of behavioral ills are rooted in our biology. Historically society has tended to reinforce and exacerbate those natural injustices, however the role of society should be to counteract natural injustices and try to create a just world, despite the fact that the world is inherently unjust.
And this takes me to one of your core augments, which is that “evolutionary theory” has historically been used to justify “power and inequality”. Here I will point you to my article The Mis-portrayal of Darwin as a Racist. In that article I basically show the opposite of your claim, which ironically is a claim commonly made by anti-evolution right-wing fundamentalists against evolution. The conservative idea that human inequality is rooted in the “natural order of things” is an idea that greatly precedes evolutionary theory, and in fact Darwin and evolutionary theory did much to disprove many of these ideas. It was evolutionary theory, and later genetics, which showed that we are all much more similar to each other than was previously believed and tore down many of the fundamental assumptions about human inequality.
Nevertheless, the reason that there has been a long-held idea that inequality and hierarchy are a part of the natural order of things is because it is an obvious observation of the natural world, which people have been making for thousands of years. The issue comes with the belief that the world has “been designed the way it is supposed to be.” The world has not been designed, there is no “way it is supposed to be.” The natural world is not a guide to justice or a model for society, indeed the role of society should be to overcome the inherent injustices of the natural world.
You go to great lengths to demonstrate environmental effects on physiology, and these points are obviously true, but none of this is new information to biologists (nor ultaimtely do these arguments contradict a determinsit view, they merely add additional factors). Biologists well understand the complexities of gene expression, through mechanisms like epigenetics and other forms of environmental feedback loops that influence biological development, but really all of this misses the point.
The real point is that exploitation and market failures are demonstrable phenomena that drive economic and social inequality, regardless of any biological differences between individuals or groups. And here is the point I want to really drive home.
It doesn't matter if X group is “biologically more intelligent” than Y group. That fact, even if it is true, does not, and cannot ever, justify exploitation any more than X group being physically stronger than another would justify exploitation.
Forget about groups and statistics for a minute and think about individuals. If one individual is physically stronger than another, does that make it okay for the stronger person to enslave the weaker one, or to intimidate them into under-compensated labor? No, clearly it doesn't. The same goes for intelligence. The fact that one individual is smarter than another doesn't justify the smarter person taking advantage of the less intelligent one. And like I said, forget about “groups” and just think about individuals. It is obvious that on an individual basis some individuals are smarter than others. This is an inescapable fact. What difference does it make if X group is statistically more intelligent than another? This can no more justify exploitation than one individual being more intelligent than another or one individual being physically stronger than another.
To claim that various groups would all have demonstrably equal intelligence if not for environmental factors is as absurd as claiming that all individuals would have the same intelligence if not for environmental factors.
I worry when I see leftists (this is very common among so-called feminists) arguing about biology and denying even the possibly of biological differences between various groups, be they sexes, “races” or whatever. I worry because it both totally misses the point and it leads to arguments based on a premise that can easily be disproven, thus seemingly undermining the case for many “leftist causes”.
The case for social and economic equality does not rest on an assumption of biological equality, period. Do not ever base any argument for social or economic equality on an assumption of biological equality. By doing so you merely undermine the case for social and economic equality, because we aren't biologically equal.
This is something that Karl Marx understood very well, which is exactly why he famously stated (always quoted out of context), “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” This statement inherently acknowledges that we are not all equal in ability.
But even more important, the mechanisms of economic redistribution from wage laborers to capital owners is a provable fact that stands on it's own, regardless of any other considerations. Both market failures and manipulation of markets by capitalists to misappropriate value to themselves are provable facts which stand on their own.
It doesn't matter if “the working class” are biologically less intelligent than the capital owning class in America. Even if this is true, which I strongly beleive that it is, it doesn't change the fact that the mechanisms of capitalism rob value from wage laborers and undermine democracy.
Theft is wrong. That the strong steal from the weak doesn't make it justifiable. The fact that more intelligent people are able to rise to the top of a corrupt system doesn't make the system defensible. The fact that smart people are more capable of rigging the game and cheating doesn't make it okay.
There are three major factors that drive economic inequality, but only two of them drive extreme levels of inequality. One is biological inequality, but while this is true, it is really only a minor factor. Two is the “winner take all” effect, which I'll go into, and three is private capital ownership. In America there is no question that two and three are the major drivers of inequality, but to deny the existence of factor number one simply makes it appear that factor number one is of crucial importance, when in fact it is not.
First let's address the “winner take all effect”. You have a one mile race with 100 competitors, where each competitor pays a $100 entry fee which is used for prize money. First prize for this race is $8,000, second prize is $1,500, and 3rd prize is $500. No prizes for anyone who places after 3rd.
The winner of the race runs the mile in 3 minutes 45 seconds, the second place finisher runs it in 3 minutes 46 seconds and the 3rd place finisher runs the mile in 3 minutes 48 seconds. The last place finisher runs the mile in 6 minutes.
The compensation for winning first place is 5.3 times larger than the compensation for 2nd place, but the first place winner isn't 5.3 times faster than the 2nd place winner, in fact they are only marginally faster. I think you see where this is going. The difference in reward is greatly disproportionate to the difference in performance. This phenomenon is ubiquitous within our economic system, and what people on “the right” do is they claim that our economic system “is a measure of” performance, such that they claim that an individual's compensation measures their contribution, i.e. that differences in compensation measure the differences in contribution. This is kind of true if you are talking about the bottom 99% of workers, but it is totally untrue when you talk about high-end incomes, in just the same way that it is untrue in the race example above.
What those on “the right” effectively try and do then is to claim that the winner is in fact 5.3 times faster than the 2nd place finisher because their reward is 5.3 times greater, when in fact they are only 1.003 times faster than the 2nd place finisher and only 1.74 times faster than even the last place finisher.
And this is where the biology issue becomes important, because what happens is that our social system amplifies modest biological differences, but the biological differences are there, they are real. We don't need to deny the biological differences, we need merely to show that while there is real biological inequality, it doesn't actually account for the vast inequality produced by our society. Maybe the first place winner won because he had a larger heart and longer legs than any of the other competitors, clear biological advantages. That does nothing to change the fact that he is still actually only 1.74 times faster than the last place finisher and that his prize money came from the entry fees of all the other racers who got nothing at the end of the race.
However a trap that many on “the left” fall into is trying to claim that the first place finisher is completely undeserving, and that they aren't actually even the legitimate winner of the race. This is also not true. I think that in America at least, it is probably the case that most of the richest people in the country actually are the top “contributors” to economic development and productivity. It isn't so much a matter of ranking that's the problem, the issue is that the people at the top, while legitimately at the top, are still massively over compensated, and that over compensation (just like the prize money in the race) comes from redistribution from all of the people who are under compensated. Yeah, maybe the people who are getting under compensated are in fact “inferior” to use a horrible right-wing term, but it doesn't change the fact that the compensation for “the winners” comes from redistribution from “the losers”.
I'm not going to address the issue of capital ownership in this post, it would take way too long, I'll just refer you to my article here: Understanding Capitalism V: Evolution of the American Economy
I do want to address one more issue as well though, which is the issue of “removing boundaries”. This is a really major topic of feminism, and one that I think many on “the left” have a lot of misunderstandings and wrong expectations about.
Yes, it is a fact that historically there have been many legal and social barriers that prevented various groups from “maximizing their potential”, this is indisputable. It is also indisputable that these barriers had a real impact on limiting the abilities and deminishing the lives of whole groups of people. However, it doesn't hold true that these barriers were necessarily the sole cause of performance differences between groups. In fact, what I think is a very likely case is that over time people intuitively picked up on stereotypical aptitudes of various groups (something our brains are “designed” to do) and then institutionalized rigid rules and social structures that reinforced and amplified those minor differences.
Again let's use a racing example. Today the best long distance runners in the world are indisputably Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, or let's just say East Africans. To deny the inherent biological advantages that individuals from these populations have for long distance running would be foolish at best.
But let's say that now that we've established that the best long distance runners tend to be from East Africa, that we decided as a culture to say that only people from East Africa are even allowed to compete in long distance races, and in fact only East Africans are allowed to run for more than one mile at a time.
If we did that, what would happen is that over time all non-East Africans would get worse and worse at long distance running. Not biologically worse, just worse due to lack of practice and training in that skill. So let's say that 100 years after that rule is put into place we look around and we see that East Africans are running marathons in under 2 hours, and we do a few sample tests and find that non-East African can't even finish a marathon. So some people say, “See, look how bad non-East Africans are are long distance running! Just proves that we should only let East Africans run!” But some decide, “Hey, that's not fair.” They do some studies and they find that, in fact if you train someone from Japan or Germany or whatever, they can greatly improve their long distance running ability.
So we decide, “Let's remove this rule, and allow everyone to run long distances.” Okay, so we do that and we then work on “closing the running gap,” and we make great progress, and non-East Africans are able to get their marathon times down to 2 hours and 30 minutes, but then, even after decades of trying and training and focus on helping non-East Africans run longer and faster, the gap is never fully closed and it still remains that all of the world's best long distance runners are East Africans.
Puzzled, the advocates of running equality demand that something must be wrong, and somehow various environmental factors must be giving East Africans an advantage that everyone else isn't getting. They start blaming the coaches and investing in all manner of programs to give non-East Africans advantages, but despite all this, the East Africans still dominate long-distance running. Not by a lot. Nothing like it was during the height of the ban, but they still edge out everyone else consistently.
Why? Because, they have inherent biological advantages. Yes, the social restrictions put in place by the ban exacerbated the performance differences, and were the cause of a large part of the differences, but they weren't the sole cause.
Don't read too much into what I'm saying here, I'm just saying that we must at least be open to this possibility as an explanation for many types of performance differences that we observe among various groups of individuals. What we are dealing with are confounding effects. There can be multiple causes of differences, and I think a very likely scenario, given how evolution and social systems work, is that our social system have evolved to greatly amplify minor biological differences.
What this means is that, unlike what many people on the left think, while we should expect social justice equality policies to greatly reduce performance differences among various groups, it may well be the case that underlying biological differences mean that performance differences, in aggregate, can't be fully eliminated via any amount of social engineering.
You have to at least be open to that possibility. And once you accept that possibility, you can then accept the fact that social and economic equality does not have to rest upon an assumed biological equality, in fact it shouldn't.
Having said all of this, I think a very important point of agreement is that we need to be very skeptical and wary of the so-called science of biological determinism and genetic profiling because of the potential for misuse and abuse, given the fact that science, like all things, is a tool in the hands of the ruling class, whether that ruling class be American capitalists or the Chiense government. So while I beleive that the fundamental principles of "biological deteminism" are sound, I agree that there is much reason to be concerned about their implemetantion.