Reading List: November 2021
The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality (Kathryn Paige Harden, 2021)
I heard about this book through a New Yorker article, which describes Harden’s professional and personal journey to “reconcile the findings of her field [genetics] with her commitments to social justice.” Their reporter was careful to position Harden relative to other players in this space of population genetics, statistics, ‘The Bell Curve’, and explanations. And the article was interesting enough that I wanted to get the complete picture.
Harden’s book is written to an audience with a variety of scientific literacies and political beliefs. At first a metaphor of genetics as studying recipes appeared to target an intro-level audience, but the metaphor proved useful when zooming out to explain GWAS and polygenic indices which won over researchers in the past ~10 years (i.e. definitely wasn’t on my biology final). We get callbacks to Mendel’s gene experiments and how high school knowledge can limit our understanding of additive genes, nature vs. nurture, and which genes ‘breed true’.
This finally cleared up a half-understanding of SNPs from when I exported DNA results from 23andMe to Promethease. For example, the minority DNA allele which SNPs are named for (e.g. rs1800497) is not that one- or two-letter change specifically, but a reference for a variant which generally travels together during meiosis (where the metaphor is: a poorly shuffled deck where nearby cards stick together).
On race and DNA, Harden sorts through ideas about race, biology, and anti-racism. She explains that ancestry is an obvious part of our DNA and person, but race is not the same thing as ancestry. One can make a list of markers to estimate self-declared race from DNA, but race does not come from one specific package of DNA, there is broad genetic diversity within a race, and there are recently overlapping ancestries. As a sociologist, historian, or demographer will tell you, the boundaries of race also change significantly over place and time (including the 2020 Census, where many people changed their answer for race).
The book does acknowledge the history of explaining intelligence/IQ with genetics. The history of biology and genetics cannot be separated from the racism of its founders. I’m not the right person to summarize Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man but at every step of studying intelligence with skulls, testing, inheritance, and DNA, the results were initially rushed and twisted to justify sexism and racism.
In the US, polygenic index research has made progress toward measuring intelligence by length of schooling (more easily measured, and less heritable, than ‘executive function’ / IQ / SAT-style testing). To collect a large sample and remove other genetic differences, most of the research focuses on Europeans and White Americans.
Interestingly the genes which come up in polygenic intelligence research on White students are not helpful to predict differences in schooling of Black students. You could respond to this by saying that every sub-population has its own genetic factors for education, or that the research hasn’t provided convincingly location-independent genes, or that the American school system has more arbitrary outcomes for Black students.
A related example comes up in Harden’s discussion of medical and social interventions which affect expected genetic outcomes. The fall of communism increased quality of life and opportunity in Soviet-occupied countries such as Estonia, and is found to strengthen the influence of intelligence genes. The argument made in the research is that opportunity was limited before, and in “meritocratic selection”, intelligent people were more able to succeed with more freedom. On the opposite end, an intervention for parents to check in on their teenagers could curb the potential of genes for alcoholism. Both examples show interventions toward public health and personal freedom can change opportunity and are not set by genes alone.
Eugenicists, monarchists, and a few pundits would claim that inherited intelligence is about fatalism, deserved success, and righteousness. Harden instead is making the case for genetics as a tool for testable interventions in a world more often influenced by luck and wealth gaps and zipcodes. It’s commonplace for a tracked middle school to determined your first high school math class and whether you take calculus, affecting your consideration for competitive colleges.
The ending chapter and an epilogue written during the COVID-19 lockdown emphasize disparities in our community, particularly for people with genetic disabilities, the Deaf, unhoused people, and people in prison. I wasn’t sure what to make of tacking this on at the end, because instead of revisiting criticism of education policy (Ruha Benjamin’s argument that we already know what improves education outcomes; or Harden’s own point about opportunities to take calculus) or painting an outline of how families and schools operate in her ideal informed future, it seems to cast a less-education-inclined genotype as a condition.
“Prisons Make Us Safer”: And 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration (Victoria Law, 2021)
Law debunks the main arguments in America’s debate over mass incarceration. I appreciated the book’s structure because you can read it through start-to-finish (180 pages) or jump to a particular topic. The book was finalized in summer 2020, so there are a few references to George Floyd. Seeing how Law talks about this new movement, it’s disheartening to think how little support there is for larger changes, especially under the Biden Administration.
Some pleasant surprises with the book:
- The author, an anarchist and longtime activist in this space, includes Biden, Hillary Clinton’s ‘super predators’ speech, and the First Step Act passed under the Trump Administration, in a modern history of how both parties contribute to our current situation.
- The myths include popular targets of leftist circles, such as private prisons or corporate work programs, or proposals to free people with only nonviolent drug offenses. The author reminds us that these are a fraction of the prison population, and niche issues compared to the overall injustice of this prison system.
- The book frequently mentions transgender prisoners, includes their quotes and anecdotes, and finds statistics when available.
In the history, it was interesting to see that longer prison sentences and solitary confinement were initially seen as a humane replacement to beatings. The Quakers’ goal was that quiet reflection, essentially solitary confinement, required a ‘penitentiary’.
In the later sections which address a system of safety from violence, Law supports restorative justice and criticizes sentencing reforms which have not been applied retroactively.
Last year the Marshall Project had an excellent story of a family who took part in restorative justice, and it also can be a lengthy, intense journey for victims of a crime. The examples given in this book of people organizing protests, flyers, or boycotts, strain credulity if we are supposed to organize a mass campaign anytime we want to seek an apology or consequences for something.
The framing of incarceration as a poor deterrent which catches only a few people and only applies punishment after-the-fact, is a good frame of thinking about ‘what does prison have to do with equal justice’. But that frame denies that we will find some people who commit crimes repeatedly. Even if these people are exceptionally rare in prison, even if we fund long-term mental healthcare programs, there’s a community consensus that (as an example) the New York City MTA is not keeping the subway safe from random acts of violence and harassment. That doesn’t mean that we want the MTA to keep hiring more cops and catching fare-jumpers or handing out masks, but an example where you have popular support for some kind of public warning / awareness system and some accountability, and little has changed.
Updates on Previous Reads
- Plessy of the historic Plessy v. Ferguson streetcar segregation case is on track for a pardon from Louisiana’s Governor.
- Via public health twitter — Somali people connected mosquitoes to malaria long before European and American scientists:
3. Jesus College in Cambridge (UK) returned their Benin Bronzes:
3b. The Smithsonian also removed their Benin Bronzes from display and announced that they are ‘fully committed to repatriation’.