The Genetic Lottery. K Paige Harden.

Harden, K Paige. The Genetic Lottery. Princeton, 2021, Princeton NJ. NF; 10/21.

I think this book is popular because (and one of the reasons I liked it is) it hands both the right and the left a bit of a lesson in hard science and humility. Harden is a geneticist at a time when her field is exploding with the increasing availability of mapping human DNA. She tells us that genetics – what that map shows us – matters, but that it doesn’t and certainly shouldn’t determine our lives. She writes with conviction although occasionally verging on cutesy in some of her examples, and we receive a refresher course in modern genetics livened up by her common sense realism, some political commentary, and even a dash of metaphysics. I’d say her message is strong and reasonable enough it should be required reading for world decision-makers. Good luck with that!

Eugenicists, the fundamentalist baddies on the extreme right, take modern genetics to be on the verge of absolving us from bothering with social responsibility because nothing anyone can do will fix a person (or a race) with bad DNA. This Harden tells us is “a false pretext that must be dismantled.” She says instead she “… will argue that the science of human individual differences is entirely compatible with a full-throated egalitarianism.” But she says that conventional champions of that egalitarianism – the left – also make a misleading mistake in stating that genetics, the inherited biological map, don’t matter at all:

A model of the world that pretends all people are genetically the same, or that the only thing that people inherit from their parents is their environment, is a wrong model of how the world works.


…the so-called nature-nurture “debate” is … asking a silly question: genes and environments are always both important.

On to some Modern Genetics 101. Because we can now look at everything that exists in human DNA, we can do what’s called Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) which “correlate… individual elements of the genome (single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNP, called “snips”) with some measurable (human) characteristic…” Like income, educational attainment, depression, antisocial behaviour. The GWAS picks up your snips, but it takes a further sophistication called a polygenic index to bring the relationship between that genetic picture and what may be likely to happen in your individual life into focus:

… after you’ve conducted a GWAS, you have a long list of numbers, one for each SNP that you’ve measured, that represents the strength of the relationship between each SNP and your target phenotype (educational attainment, say). You can then take that list of numbers and use it as a type of scoring key for DNA from a new group of people. How many copies of each education-associated genetic variant does each person have—0, 1, or 2? (Remember that you get two copies of every gene, one from your mother and one from your father.) The number of copies of each SNP is multiplied by the strength of its relationship to educational attainment, and then everything is added up across all the SNPs that have been measured in your genome. This composite is a polygenic index.

… and that polygenic index gives a relative understanding, a starting point, of the genetic portion contributing to your outcome from an educational achievement perspective, on average.

Dr. Harden is precise and clear about genetics and has risen to substantial prominence in her field, but she is also clear about her (and genetics’) limitations:

I am not claiming that any particular DNA sequence is a necessary or sufficient cause of one’s life outcomes, that DNA determines anything about your life, that this counterfactual (what could have happened if you’d had different genes) is perfectly portable across time and place, that I can retroactively infer that the capital-C Cause of your life is your genes, or that I even know how any stretch of DNA works.

Part of what she’s arguing against leads into a digression into metaphysics. The idea that your genetics dictate in detail your life outcomes is associated with metaphysical determinism: the universe including everything anyone does, thinks, or dreams of unfolds in one way and one way only. “… intelligence (according to this view is) seen as an inherent property of a person’s brain, rather than as something that develops in a social context…” Her humility again:

Whether the universe is deterministic, whether such a thing as free will actually exists—these questions are beyond the scope of this book, to put it mildly.

…but she’s willing to speculate that there exists…

an embodied free will … that encompasses our ability to respond to complex circumstances in complex and unpredictable ways and in the process build the self. (One of her colleagues suggests that) the individual phenotypic space (who you are and what you are like) that is not determined by either your genotype or (your) environmental circumstances defines the boundaries in which your free will gets to play.

In Harden’s “(building of) the self” I hear the voice of Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens): “the organism (is) caught in the act of representing its own changing state as it goes about representing something else. But the astonishing fact is that the knowable entity of the catcher has just been created in the narrative of the catching process.” Harden also mentions philosopher Daniel Dennett whom I read to be an arch determinist and a more restrictive definer of free will.

So what should we do, faced with increasingly well-understood physical molecular genetics and the apparently way more complex, variable, messy, and highly politically divided world our DNA gets thrown into?

Harden, raised in a fundamentalist Baptist-style family, believes “(1) that people do not deserve economic disadvantages simply because they happened to inherit a particular combination of DNA, and (2) that society should be organized so that it benefits the least advantaged members of society.” And this obviously bright, also attractive, educationally and professionally successful person tells us we should be building “a more compassionate society (that reminds us) of luck, and of the gratitude and obligations it entails, against inevitable resistance.”

She finishes up by commenting on the famous thought experiment of left-leaning philosopher John Rawls. What if you are about to be born into the world and you have no idea who or what you will be, where you will be born, how much money your parents will have, and what your genetic and environmental “luck” will look like? What kind of a world would you want waiting for you?

Paige Harden in this quite technical but heartfelt book is trying to tell the world for God’s sake wake up and start being reasonable, compassionate, honest, and logical before it’s too late. If only we were listening.

Highly recommended 9.3/8.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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