Reductionism, Natural Selection, and Hereditarianism
Assertions derived from genetic reductionist ideas also ignore the abundant and burgeoning evidence that genes are outcomes of evolutionary processes and not bases of them. (Lerner, 2021: 449)
Genetic reductionism places (social) problems “in the genes” and so if these problems are “in the genes” then we can either (1) use gene therapy, (2) reduce the frequency of “the bad genes” in the population (eugenics) or (3) just live with these genetically caused problems. Social groups differ materially and they also differ genetically. To the gene-determinists, social positioning is genetically determined and it is due to a genetically determined intelligence. (See here for arguments against the claim.)
On the basis of heritability estimates derived from flawed methodologies like twin and adoption studies (Richardson and Norgate, 2005; Joseph, 2014; Burt and Simons, 2015; Moore and Shenk, 2016), hereditarians claim that traits like “IQ” (“intelligence”) are strongly genetically determined and if a trait is strongly genetically determined, then environmental interventions are doomed to fail (Jensen, 1969). Since IQ is said to have a heritability of .8, it is then claimed by the reductionist that environmental interventions are useless or near useless. Indeed, this was the conclusion of Jensen’s (1969) (infamous) paper—compensatory education has failed (an environmental intervention) and so the differences are genetic in nature.
Arguments like those have been forwarded for the better part of 100 years—and the arguments are false because they rely on false assumptions. The false assumptions are (1) that natural selection has caused trait differences between populations and (2) that genes are active—not passive—causes. (1) and (2) here can be combined for (3): genes that cause differences between groups were naturally selected and eventually fixed in the populations. This article will review some hereditarian thinking on natural selection and human variation, show how the theorizing is false, show how the theory of natural selection itself cannot possibly be true (Fodor and Piatteli-Palmarini, 2010) and finally will show that by accepting genetic reductionism we cannot achieve social justice since the causes of the social problems reduce to genes.
The ultimate claim from hereditarians is that human behavior, social life, and development can be reduced to—and explained by—genes. Social inequities are the target for social justice. Inequities refer to differences between groups that are avoidable and unjust. So the hereditarian attempts to reduce social ills to genes, thereby getting around what social justice activists want. They just reduce it to genes leading to possibilities (1)-(3) above. This has the possibility of being disastrous, for if we can fix the problems the hereditarians deem as “genetic”, then countless lives will not be made better.
Hereditarianism and natural selection
The crucial selection pressure responsible for the evolution of race differences in intelligence is identified as the temperate and cold environments of the northern hemisphere, imposing greater cognitive demands for survival and acting as selection pressures for greater intelligence. (Lynn, 2006: 135)
Hereditarians are neo-Darwininans and since they are neo-Darwinians, they hold that natural selection is the most powerful “mechanism” of evolution, causing trait changes by culling organisms with “bad” traits which then decreaes the frequency of the genes that supposedly cause the trait. But (1) natural selection cannot possibly be a mechanism as there is no agent of selection (that is, no mind selecting organisms with fitness-enhancing traits for a certain environment), nor are there laws of selection for trait fixation that hold across all ecologies (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010); and (2) genes aren’t causes of traits on their own—they are caused to give the information in them by and for the physiological system (Noble, 2011).
In his article Epistemological Objections to Materialism, in The Waning of Materialism, Koons (2010: 338) has an argument against natural selection with the same force as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (2010):
The materialist must suppose that natural selection and operant conditioning work on a purely physical basis (without presupposing any prior designer or any prior intentionality of any kind). According to anti-Humean materialism, only microphysical properties can be causally efficacious. Nature cannot select a property unless that property is causally efficacious (in particular, it must causally contribute to survival and reproduction). However, few, if any, of the biological features that we all suppose to have functions (wings for flying, hearts for pumping bloods) constitute microphysical properties in a strict sense. All biological features (at least, all features above the molecular level) are physically realized in multiple ways (they consist of extensive disjunctions of exact physical properties). Such biological features, in the world of the anti-Humean materialist, don’t have effects—only their physical realizations do. Hence, the biological features can’t be selected. Since the exact physical realizations are rarely, if ever repeated in nature, they too cannot be selected. If the materialist responds by insisting that macrophysical properties can, in some loose and pragmatically useful way of speaking, be said to have real effects, the materialist has thereby returned to the Humean account, with the attendant difficulties described in the last sub-section. Hence, the materialist is caught in the dilemma.
We can grant that “nature” cannot select a trait if it isn’t causally efficacious. But combining Fodor’s argument with Koons’, if traits are linked then the fitness-enhancing trait cannot be directly selected-for since when you have one, you have the other. In any case, “natural selection” is part of the bedrock of hereditarian theorizing. It was natural selection—according to the hereditarian—that caused racial differences in behavior and “intelligence.” And so, if the hereditarian has no response to these two arguments against natural selection, then they cannot logically claim that the differences they describe are due to “natural selection.”
So the hereditarian theorist asserts that those with genes that conferred a fitness advantage had more children than those that didn’t which led to the selection of the genes that became fixed in certain populations. This is a familiar story—and the hereditarian uses this as a basis for the claim that racial differences in traits are the outcome of natural selection. These views are noted in Rushton (2000: 228-231), Jensen (1998: 170, 434-436) and Lynn (2006: Chapters 15, 16, and 17). But as Noble (2012) noted, there is no privileged level of causation—that is, before performing the relevant experiments, we cannot state that genes are causes of traits so this, too, refutes the hereditarian claim.
Rushton’s “Differential K” theory—where Mongoloids, Caucasians, and Africans differ on a suite of traits, which is influenced by their life histories and whether or not they are r- or K-strategists. Rushton (2000: 27) also claimed that “different environments cause, via natural selection, biological differences“, and by this he means that the environment acts as a filter. But the claim that the environment is the filter that causes variation in traits due to genes being “selected against” fails, too. When traits are correlated, the environmental filters (the mechanism by which selection theory purportedly works) cannot distinguish between causes of fitness and mere correlates of causes of fitness. So appealing to environments causing biological differences fails.
But unfortunately for hereditarians, a new analysis by Kevin Bird refutes the claim that natural selection is responsible for racial differences in “IQ” (Bird, 2021). So now, even assuming that genes can be selected-for their contribution to fitness and assuming that psychological traits can be genetically transmitted (which is false), hereditarianism still fails.
Hereditarianism and genetic reductionism
The ideology of IQ-ism is inherently reductionist. Behavioral geneticists, although they claim to be able to partition the relative contributions of genes and environment into nest little percentages, are also reductionists about “traits”—such as “IQ.” Further, if one is an IQ-ist then there is a good chance that they would fall into the reductionist camp of attempting to explain “intelligence” as being reducible to physiological brain states, and parts of the brain (such as Deary, 1996; Deary, Penke and Johnson, 2010; Jung and Haier, 2007; Haier, 2016; Deary, Cox, and Hill, 2021).
Reductionism can be simply stated as the parts have a sort of causal primacy over the whole. When it comes to psychological reduction, it is often assumed that genes would be the ultimate thing that it is reduced to, thereby, explaining how and why psychological traits differ between individuals—most importantly to the IQ-ist, “intelligence.” Behavioral geneticists have been reductionists since the field’s inception which has carried over to the present day (Panofsky, 2014). Even now, in the 3rd decade of the 2020s, reductionist accounts of behavior and psychology are still being pushed and the attempted reduction is reduction to genes. Now, this does not mean that environmental reduction has primacy—although we can and have identified environmental insults that do impede the ontogeny of certain traits.
Deary, Cox, and Hill (2021) argue for a “systems biology” approach to the study of “intelligence.” They review GWAS studies, neuroimaging studies and attempt a to lay the groundwork for a “mechanistic account” of intelligence, attempting to pick up where Jung and Haier (2007) left off. Unfortunately, the claims they make about GWAS fail (Richardson and Jones, 2020; Richardson, 2017b, 2021) and so do the claims they make about neuroreduction (Uttal, 2012).
This kind of genetic reductionism for psychological traits—along social ills such as addiction, violence, etc—then becomes ideological, in thinking that genes can explain how and why we have these kinds of problems. Indeed, this was why the first “IQ” tests were translated and brought to America—to screen and bar immigrants the IQ-ists saw as “feebleminded” (Richardson, 2003, 2011; Allen, 2006; Dolmage, 2018). Such tests were also used to sterilize people in the name of a eugenic ideology that was said to be for the betterment of society (Wilson, 2017). Thus, when such kinds of reductionism are applied to society and become an ideology, we definitely can see how such pseudoscientific beliefs can manifest itself in negative outcomes for the populace.
Ladner (2020:10) “constructed an economic analysis grounded in evolutionary biology.” Ladner claims that “Natural Selection is the main force that determines economic behavior.” Ladner claims that socialism will always fail since authoritarian regimes stifle our selfish proclivities while capitalism is grounded in selfishness and greed and so will always prevail over socialism. This is quite the unique argument… Of course Dawkins gets cited since Ladner is talking about selfishness, and these selfish genes are what cause the selfish behavior that allow capitalism to flourish. But the claim that genes are selfish is not a physiologically testable hypothesis (Noble, 2011) and DNA can’t be regarded as a replicator that’s independent from the cell (Noble, 2018). In any case, the argument in this book is that inequality is due to natural selection and there isn’t much we can do about capitalism since genes make us selfish and capitalism is all about selfishness. But being too selfish leads to such huge wealth inequalities we see in America today. The argument is pretty novel but it fails since it is a just-so story and the claims about “natural selection” are false.
(See Kampourakis, 2017 and Richardson, 2017a for a great overview on what genes are and what they really do.)
Hereditarianism and mind-brain identity
Pairing hereditarianism with physicalism about the brain is an implicit assumption of the theory. Ever since our the power of our neuroimaging methods have increased since the beginning of the new millennium, many studies have come out correlating different psychological traits with different brain states. Processes of the mind, to the mind-brain identity theorist, are identical to states and processes of the brain (Smart, 2000). And in the past two decades, studies correlating physiological brain states and psychological traits have increased in number.
The leading theorists here are Haier and Jung with their P-FIT model. P-FIT stands for the Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory which first proposed by Jung and Haier (2007) who analyzed 37 neuroimaging studies. This, they claim, will “articulate a biology of intelligence.” (Also see Colom et al, 2009.) Again, correlations are expected but we can’t then claim that the brain states cause the trait (in this case, “IQ.” (See Klein, 2009 for a primer on the philosophical issues in neuroimaging.)
But in 2012 psychologist William Uttal published his book Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-meta Analysis where he argues that pooling these kinds of studies for a meta-analysis (exactly what Jung and Haier (2007) did) “could lead to grossly distorted interpretations that could deviate greatly from the actual biological function of an individual brain.” Pooling multiple studies from different individuals taken at different times of the day under different conditions would lead to a wide variation in physiologies, nevermind the fact that motion artifacts can influence neuroimages, and it emotion and cognition are intertwined (Richardson, 2017a: 193).
The point is, we cannot pool together these types of studies in attempt to localize cognitive processes to states of the brain. This is exactly what P-FIT does (or attempts to do). In any case, the correlations found by Jung and Haier (2007) can be explained by experience. IQ tests are experience-dependent (that is, one must be exposed to the knowledge on the test and they must be familiar with test-taking), and so too are parts of the brain that change based on what the person experiences. We cannot say that the physiological states are the cause of the IQ score—since the items on the test are more likely to be found in the middle-class, they would then be more prepared for test-taking.
Socially disastrous claims
Views from the likes of Robert Plomin—that there’s “not much we can do” about “environmental effects” (Plomin, 2018: 174)—are socially disastrous. If such ideas become mainstream then we may desist with programs that actually help people, on the basis that “it doesn’t work.” But this claim, that environmental effects are “unsystematic and unstable” are derived from conclusions based largely on twin studies. So whatever variance is left is attributed to the environment. (Do note, though, the Plomin’s claim that DNA is a blueprint is false.)
Hereditarians like Plomin then claim that environmental effects derive from one’s genotype so in actuality environmental effects are genetic effects—this is called “genetic nurture.” By using this new concept, the reductionist can skirt around environmental effects and claim that the effect itself is genetic even though it’s environmental in nature. Genes, in this concept, are active causes, actively causing parental behavior. So genes cause parental behavior which then influences how parents treat/parent their children. In this way, behavioral geneticists can claim that environmental effects are genetic effects too. (This is like Joseph’s (2014) Argument A in its circularity.)
By applying and accepting genetic reductionist claims, we rob people of certain life chances and we don’t commit ourselves to social justice. Of course, to the hereditarian, since the environment doesn’t matter then genes do. So we need to look at society from the gene-view. But this view betrays how and why our current social structures are the way they are. “IQ” tests were originally created to show that the current social hierarchy is the “right one” and the hereditarian believes to have shown that the hierarchy is “genetic” and so each group has their place on the social hierarchy on the basis of IQ scores which reduce to genes (Mensh and Mensh, 1991).
But humans are social creatures and although hereditarians attempt to reduce human social life to genes (in a circular manner), they fail. And their failing has led to the destruction of thousands of lives (see the sterilizations in America during the 1900s and around the world eg in Cohen, 2016 and Wilson, 2017). Reductionist attempts of social behavior to genes have been tried over the past 20 years (e.g., Jensen, 1998; Rushton, 2000, Lynn, 2006; Hart, 2007) but they all fail (Lerner, 2018, 2021). Social (environmental) changes cannot undo what the genes have “set” in individuals and so, we need not pour money into social programs.
For instance, many hereditarians and criminologists have espoused eugenic views, like Jensen’s claim that welfare could lead to the genetic enslavement of a part of the population (Jensen, 1969: 95) and that we can “estimate a person’s genetic standing on intelligence” based on their IQ score (Jensen, 1970: 13) to name two things. It is no surprise to me that people who hold such reductionist views of genes and society that they would also hold eugenic views like these. It is, in fact, a logical endpoint of hereditarianism—“phasing out” populations, as Lynn described in his review of Cattell’s Beyondism (see Tucker, 2009).
The answer to hereditarianism
Since we have to reject hereditarianism, then the answer to hereditarian dogma is relational developmental systems (RDS) theory which emphasizes the actions of all developmental resources, not reducing development to one primary developmental resource as hereditarians do. Similar things have been noted by other developmental systems theorists, most notably Oyama (1985/2000). What is selected aren’t genes, or behaviors. What is actually selected are the whole developmental system. Genes aren’t active causes. So if we look at development as a dance with music, as Noble (2006, 2016) does, there are no sufficient causes for development, but there are necessary causes of which genes are but one part of the whole system.
The answer to hereditarianism is to simply show that it fails conceptually, it’s “causal” framework for explaining the differences is unsound (“natural selection”) and to show that multiple interacting factors are responsible for human development in the womb and throughout the life course. “Theories derived from RDS meta-theory focus on the “rules,” the processes that govern, or regulate, exchanges between (the functioning of) individuals and their contexts” (Lerner, 2021: 457). Hereditarianism relies on gene-selectionism. But genes are not leaders in evolution; development is inherently holistic, not reductonist.
The hereditarian program has its beginnings with Francis Galton and then after the first “IQ” test was made (Binet’s), American eugenicists used it to “show” who was a “moron” (meaning, who had a low “IQ” meaning “intelligence”). Tens of thousands of sterilizations were soon carried out since the causes of these problems were in these people’s genes and so, negative eugenics needed to be practiced in order to cull the population of these genes that lead to socially undesirable traits.
The hereditarian hypothesis is, therefore, a racist hypothesis, contra Carl (2019) who argued the hereditarian hypothesis is not racist while citing many arguments from critics. I won’t get into that here, as I have many articles on the matter that Carl (2019) discusses. But what I will say is that the hereditarian hypothesis is racist in virtue of (1) not being logically plausible (reductionism about the mind and physicalism are both false) and (2) the hypothesis ranks races on a scale of “higher to lower” (that is, a hierarchy). Racism “is a system of ranking human beings for the purpose of gaining and justifying an unequal distribution of political and economic power” (Lovechik, 2018). Therefore, the hereditarian hypothesis is a racist hypothesis, contra Carl’s protestations. Hereditarians may claim that their claims are stifled in the public debate, but for behavioral genetics at large, this is false (see Kampourakis, 2017). Carl (2018) claims that “stifling” the debate around race, genes, and IQ can do harm but he is sadly mistaken! By believing that differences that can be changed are “genetic”, they are deemed to be unfixable and the groups who have a higher frequency of which ever genes that are causally efficacious (supposedly) for IQ will then be treated differently.
If neuroreduction (mind-brain reduction) is false, if genetic reduction is false, and if natural selection isn’t a mechanism, then hereditarianism cannot possibly be true, and if heritability . The arguments given here go well with my conceptual arguments against hereditarianism for more force against the hereditarian hypothesis. Just like with my argument to ban IQ tests, we must ban hereditarian research too, since the outcomes can be socially disastrous (Lerner, 2021 part VI, Developmental Theory and the Promotion of Social Justice). By now, these kinds of “theories” and claims have been refuted to hell and back, and so, the only reason to hold these kinds of beliefs is due to racist attitudes (combined with some mental gymnastics).
So for these, and many more, reasons, we must outright reject genetic reductionism (not least because these claims derive from flawed studies with false assumptions like twin studies) along with its partner “natural selection.” We therefore must commit ourselves to social justice to ameliorate the effects of racist attitudes and views.