What would you think if you heard about a new fortune-telling device that is touted to predict psychological traits like depression, schizophrenia and school achievement? What’s more, it can tell your fortune from the moment of your birth, it is completely reliable and unbiased — and it only costs £100.
This might sound like yet another pop-psychology claim about gimmicks that will change your life, but this one is in fact based on the best science of our times. The fortune teller is DNA. The ability of DNA to understand who we are, and predict who we will become has emerged in the last three years, thanks to the rise of personal genomics. We will see how the DNA revolution has made DNA personal by giving us the power to predict our psychological strengths and weaknesses from birth. This is a game-changer as it has far-reaching implications for psychology, for society and for each and every one of us.
This DNA fortune teller is the culmination of a century of genetic research investigating what makes us who we are. When psychology emerged as a science in the early twentieth century, it focused on environmental causes of behavior. Environmentalism — the view that we are what we learn — dominated psychology for decades. From Freud onwards, the family environment, or nurture, was assumed to be the key factor in determining who we are. (Plomin, 2018: 6, my emphasis)
The main premise of Plomin’s 2018 book Blueprint is that DNA is a fortune teller while personal genomics is a fortune-telling device. The fortune-telling device Plomin most discusses in the book is polygenic scores (PGS). PGSs are gleaned from GWA studies; SNP genotypes are then added up with scores of 0, 1, and 2. Then, the individual gets their PGS for trait T. Plomin’s claim—that DNA is a fortune teller—though, falls since DNA is not a blueprint—which is where the claim that “DNA is a fortune teller” is derived.
It’s funny that Plomin calls the measure “unbiased”, (he is talking about DNA, which is in effect “unbiased”), but PGS are anything BUT unbiased. For example, most GWAS/PGS are derived from European populations. But, for example, there are “biases and inaccuracies of polygenic risk scores (PRS) when predicting disease risk in individuals from populations other than those used in their derivation” (De La Vega and Bustamante, 2018). (PRSs are derived from statistical gene associations using GWAS; Janssens and Joyner, 2019.) Europeans make up more than 80 percent of GWAS studies. This is why, due to the large amount of GWASs on European populations, that “prediction accuracy [is] reduced by approximately 2- to 5-fold in East Asian and African American populations, respectively” (Martin et al, 2018). See for example Figure 1 from Martin et al (2018):
With the huge number of GWAS studies done on European populations, these scores cannot be used on non-European populations for ‘prediction’—even disregarding the other problems with PGS/GWAS.
By studying genetically informative cases like twins and adoptees, behavioural geneticists discovered some of the biggest findings in psychology because, for the first time, nature and nurture could be disentangled.
… DNA differences inherited from our parents at the moment of conception are the consistent, lifelong source of psychological individuality, the blueprint that makes us who we are. A blueprint is a plan. … A blueprint isn’t all that matters but it matters more than everything else put together in terms of the stable psychological traits that make us who we are. (Plomin, 2018: 6-8, my emphasis)
Nevermind the slew of problems with twin and adoption studies (Joseph, 2014; Joseph et al, 2015; Richardson, 2017a). I also refuted the notion that “A blueprint is a plan” last year, quoting numerous developmental systems theorists. The main thrust of Plomin’s book—that DNA is a blueprint and therefore can be seen as a fortune teller using the fortune-telling device to tell the fortunes of the people’s whose DNA are analyzed—is false, as DNA does not work how it does in Plomin’s mind.
These big findings were based on twin and adoption studies that indirectly assessed genetic impact. Twenty years ago the DNA revolution began with the sequencing of the human genome, which identified each of the 3 billion steps in the double helix of DNA. We are the same as every other human being for more than 99 percent of these DNA steps, which is the blueprint for human nature. The less than 1 per cent of difference of these DNA steps that differ between us is what makes us who we are as individuals — our mental illnesses, our personalities and our mental abilities. These inherited DNA differences are the blueprint for our individuality …
[DNA predictors] are unique in psychology because they do not change during our lives. This means that they can foretell our futures from our birth.
The applications and implications of DNA predictors will be controversial. Although we will examine some of these concerns, I am unabashedly a cheerleader for these changes. (Plomin, 2018: 8-10, my emphasis)
This quote further shows Plomin’s “blueprint” for the rest of his book—DNA can “foretell our futures from our birth”—and how it affects his conclusions gleaned from his work that he mostly discusses in his book. Yes, all scientists are biased (as Stephen Jay Gould noted), but Plomin outright claimed to be an unabashed cheerleader for his work. Plomin’s self-admission for being an “unabashed cheerleader”, though, does explain some of the conclusions he makes in Blueprint.
However, the problem with the mantra ‘nature and nurture’ is that it runs the risk of sliding back into the mistaken view that the effects of genes and environment cannot be disentangled.
Our future is DNA. (Plomin, 2018: 11-12)
The problem with the mantra “nature and nurture” is not that it “runs the risk of sliding back into the mistaken view that the effects of genes and environment cannot be disentangled”—though that is one problem. The problem is how Plomin assumes how DNA works. That DNA can be disentangled from the environment presumes that DNA is environment-independent. But as Moore shows in his book The Dependent Gene—and as Schneider (2007) shows—“the very concept of a gene requires the environment“. Moore notes that “The common belief that genes contain context-independent “information”—and so are analogous to “blueprints” or “recipes”—is simply false” (quoted in Schneider, 2007). Moore showed in The Dependent Gene that twin studies are flawed, as have numerous other authors.
Lewkowicz (2012) argues that “genes are embedded within organisms which, in turn, are embedded in external environments. As a result, even though genes are a critical part of developmental systems, they are only one part of such systems where interactions occur at all levels of organization during both ontogeny and phylogeny.” Plomin—although he does not explicitly state it—is a genetic reductionist. This type of thinking can be traced back, most popularly, to Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The genetic reductionists can, and do, make the claim that organisms can be reduced to their genes, while developmental systems theorists claim that holism, and not reductionism, better explains organismal development.
The main thrust of Plomin’s Blueprint rests on (1) GWA studies and (2) PGSs/PRSs derived from the GWA studies. Ken Richardson (2017b) has shown that “some cryptic but functionally irrelevant genetic stratification in human populations, which, quite likely, will covary with social stratification or social class.” Richardson’s (2017b) argument is simple: Societies are genetically stratified; social stratification maintains genetic stratification; social stratification creates—and maintains—cognitive differentiation; “cognitive” tests reflect prior social stratification. This “cryptic but functionally irrelevant genetic stratification in human populations” is what GWA studies pick up. Richardson and Jones (2019) extend the argument and argue that spurious correlations can arise from genetic population structure that GWA studies cannot account for—even though GWA study authors claim that this population stratification is accounted for, social class is defined solely on the basis of SES (socioeconomic status) and therefore, does not capture all of what “social class” itself captures (Richardson, 2002: 298-299).
Plomin also heavily relies on the results of twin and adoption studies—a lot of it being his own work—to attempt to buttress his arguments. However, as Moore and Shenk (2016) show—and as I have summarized in Behavior Genetics and the Fallacy of Nature vs Nurture—heritability estimates for humans are highly flawed since there cannot be a fully controlled environment. Moore and Shenk (2016: 6) write:
Heritability statistics do remain useful in some limited circumstances, including selective breeding programs in which developmental environments can be strictly controlled. But in environments that are not controlled, these statistics do not tell us much. In light of this, numerous theorists have concluded that ‘the term “heritability,” which carries a strong conviction or connotation of something “[in]heritable” in the everyday sense, is no longer suitable for use in human genetics, and its use should be discontinued.’ 31 Reviewing the evidence, we come to the same conclusion.
Heritability estimates assume that nature (genes) can be separated from nurture (environment), but “the very concept of a gene requires the environment” (Schneider, 2007) so it seems that attempting to partition genetic and environmental causation of any trait T is a fool’s—reductionist—errand. If the concept of gene depends on and requires the environment, then how does it make any sense to attempt to partition one from the other if they need each other?
Let’s face it: Plomin, in this book Blueprint is speaking like a biological reductionist, though he may deny the claim. The claims from those who push PRS and how it can be used for precision medicine are unfounded, as there are numerous problems with the concept. Precision medicine and personalized medicine are similar concepts, though Joyner and Paneth (2015) are skeptical of its use and have seven questions for personalized medicine. Furthermore, Joyner, Boros and Fink (2018) argue that “redundant and degenerate mechanisms operating at the physiological level limit both the general utility of this assumption and the specific utility of the precision medicine narrative.” Joyner (2015: 5) also argues that “Neo-Darwinism has failed clinical medicine. By adopting a broader perspective, systems biology does not have to.”
Janssens and Joyner (2019) write that “Most [SNP] hits have no demonstrated mechanistic linkage to the biological property of interest.” Researchers can show correlations between disease phenotypes and genes, but they cannot show causation—which would be mechanistic relations between the proposed genes and the disease phenotype. Though, as Kampourakis (2017: 19), genes do not cause diseases on their own, they only contribute to its variation.
GPS are unique predictors in the behavioural sciences. They are an exception to the rule that correlations do not imply causation in the sense that there can be no backward causation when GPS are correlated with traits. That is, nothing in our brains, behaviour or environment changes inherited differences in DNA sequence. A related advantage of GPS as predictors is that they are exceptionally stable throughout the life span because they index inherited differences in DNA sequence. Although mutations can accrue in the cells used to obtain DNA, like any cells in the body these mutations would not be expected to change systematically the thousands of inherited SNPs that contribute to a GPS.
Turkheimer goes on to say that this (false) assumption by Plomin and Stumm (2018) assumes that there is no top-down causation—i.e., that phenotypes don’t cause genes, or there is no causation from the top to the bottom. (See the special issue of Interface Focus for a slew of articles on top-down causation.) Downward causation exists in biological systems (Noble, 2012, 2017), as does top-down. The very claim that “nothing in our brains, behaviour or environment changes inherited differences in DNA sequence” is ridiculous! This is something that, of course, Plomin did not discuss in Blueprint. But in a book that, supposedly, shows “how DNA makes us who we are”, why not discuss epigenetics? Plomin is confused, because DNA methylation impacts behavior and behavior impacts DNA methylation (Lerner and Overton, 2017: 114). Lerner and Overtone (2017: 145) write that:
… it should no longer be possible for any scientist to undertake the procedure of splitting of nature and nurture and, through reductionist procedures, come to conclusions that the one or the other plays a more important role in behavior and development.
Plomin’s reductionist takes, therefore again, fail. Plomin’s “reluctance” to discuss “tangential topics” to “inherited DNA differences” included epigenetics (Plomin, 2018: 12). But it seems that his “reluctance” to discuss epigenetics was a downfall in his book as epigenetic mechanisms can and do make a difference to “inherited DNA differences” (see for example, Baedke, 2018, Above the Gene, Beyond Biology: Toward a Philosophy of Epigenetics and Meloni, 2019, Impressionable Biologies: From the Archaeology of Plasticity to the Sociology of Epigenetics see also Meloni, 2018). The genome can and does “react” to what occurs to the organism in the environment, so it is false that “nothing in our brains, behaviour or environment changes inherited differences in DNA sequence” (Plomin and Stumm, 2018), since our behavior and actions can and do methylate our DNA (Meloni, 2014) which falsifies Plomin’s claim and which is why he should have discussed epigenetics in Blueprint. End Edit
So the main premise of Plomin’s Blueprint is his two claims: (1) that DNA is a fortune teller and (2) that personal genomics is a fortune-telling device. He draws these big claims from PGS/PRS studies. However, over 80 percent of GWA studies have been done on European populations. And, knowing that we cannot use these datasets on other, non-European datasets, greatly hampers the uses of PGS/PRS in other populations—although the PGS/PRS are not that useful in and of itself for European populations. Plomin’s whole book is a reductionist screed—“Sure, other factors matter, but DNA matters more” is one of his main claims. Though, a priori, since there is no privileged level of causation, one cannot privilege DNA over any other developmental variables (Noble, 2012). To understand disease, we must understand the whole system and how when one part of the system becomes dysfunctional how it affects other parts of the system and how it runs. The PGS/PRS hunts are reductionist in nature, and the only answer to these reductionist paradigms are new paradigms from systems biology—one of holism.
Plomin’s assertions in his book are gleaned from highly confounded GWA studies. Plomin also assumes that we can disentangle nature and nurture—like all reductionists. Nature and nurture interact—without genes, there would be an environment, but without an environment, there would be no genes as gene expression is predicated on the environment and what occurs in it. So Plomin’s reductionist claim that “Our future is DNA” is false—our future is studying the interactive developmental system, not reducing it to a sum of its parts. Holistic biology—systems biology—beats reductionist biology—the Neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis.
DNA is not a blueprint nor is it a fortune teller and personal genomics is not a fortune-telling device. The claim that DNA is a blueprint/fortune teller and personal genomics is a fortune-telling device come from Plomin and are derived from highly flawed GWA studies and, further, PGS/PRS. Therefore Plomin’s claim that DNA is a blueprint/fortune teller and personal genomics is a fortune-telling device are false.
(Also read Erick Turkheimer’s 2019 review of Plomin’s book The Social Science Blues, along with Steve Pitteli’s review Biogenetic Overreach for an overview and critiques of Plomin’s ideas. And read Ken Richardson’s article It’s the End of the Gene As We Know It for a critique of the concept of the gene.)