Freddie deBoer attacks “Blank Slateism”, posing questions for those who deny the importance of genetic variation in human behavioral variation

July 24, 2022 • 12:30 pm

After I read the piece below by Freddie deBoer on his Substack site, a piece that’s a critique of Blank-Slateism and of those who deny that variation in genes influences variation in behavior, I decided to look him up. I found three relevant bits of information in his Wikipedia biography, quoted directly below (Wikipedia spells his name DeBoer, with a capital “D,” though the man himself writes “deBoer”).

  • DeBoer identifies himself as a “Marxist of an old-school variety”.
  • DeBoer’s first book, The Cult of Smart, was published in 2020 by All Points Books.  Gideon Lewis-Kraus, writing for The New Yorker, says the book “argues that the education-reform movement has been trammelled by its willful ignorance of genetic variation.” Lewis-Kraus groups deBoer with “hereditarian left” authors such as Kathryn Paige Harden and Eric Turkheimer in their shared emphasis on the importance of recognizing the heritability of intelligence when formulating social policy.

In DeBoer’s case, though, he seems to think that the genetic basis of variation in intelligence can help inform social and educational policy, while, as I noted in my review of Harden’s book in the WaPo, although she recognizes that intelligence (her construal of it is “educational attainment”) is highly heritable, with a lot of inter-individual variation based on genes, she insists that knowing that genetic basis (or a kid’s genetic “endowment”) should play no role in educational policy—or at least she doesn’t suggest one.  By the way, the Wikipedia article mentions some strong criticism of deBoer’s book.

And the third bit of information:

  • DeBoer has been a teacher at both the high school and college level.

I don’t care much about his politics when he writes about behavior genetics; I can assess what he says without knowing he was an “old-school Marxist”. That may help condition his views that people try to downplay the importance of genes, though I’d think that a Marxist would emphasize . I haven’t read his book, so I can’t comment there, but I was interested that he’s taught on several levels, so has some experience when he claims that it’s very, very difficult to change student achievement by changing educational methods.

It’s a short article; click below to read it:

Now there are hardly any people who believe in an entirely blank slate, and all of us think that traits like intelligence are ultimately the products of genes interacting with environments. So yes, there’s a genetic contribution to nearly all human traits. The question taken up by deBoer, however, is about the variation in a trait among individuals—how much of that variation is produced by variation in the genes among individuals as opposed to environmental varitaion (or various sorts of interactions). As I’ve said before, the proportion of observed variation in a trait among individuals in a population due to variation in their genes is called heritability. It ranges, of course, from 0% to 100%, or, expressed as a fraction, from 0 to 1.0.  (I’m leaving out technical details here, for by “genetic variation” I mean “additive genetic variation”—the genetic effects that can be selected on either naturally or artificially. The higher the heritability, the greater the effect of genetic variation on trait variation.

At any rate, as Harden says in her book, the heritability of many human traits is quite high. This has been shown in a variety of ways: adoption studies, twin studies (raised together and apart), and “genome-wide association studies” (GWAS)—Harden’s own method.

If I were asked to give a figure for the heritability of IQ or academic achievement, I’d say “about 50%”. What that means is that about half of the variation that we see among individuals within a population is due to variation among individuals’ genes in that population, the rest being due to environmental variation, non-heritable genetic variation, and interaction variance.  Many other human traits have high heritability, as do many traits in other animal species. In fact, among thousands of artificial selection experiments in plants and animals, I know of only three that failed to produce a response, and only when heritability is zero do you fail to get a response. (Two of those happened to be my experiments, selecting on directional asymmetry in flies.) Darwin was right when he said in On the Origin of Species, “Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please.” That attests to the ubiquity of variation in populations of captive animals, and that variation is undoubtedly greater in larger wild populations.

The upshot is that we expect nearly all human traits to show heritability within populations, with some of the values being quite high. Remember, though, that heritability is a figure that applies only to individuals in a specified population who on average experience the same variation of environments. You can’t extrapolate the heritability within a population to different populations, who may live in different environments or have different genes. Thus, although there’s substantial variation in Caucasians (as Harden shows) for academic achievement, you cannot say that the difference in academic achievement between American Caucasians and minorities in America is also based on genetic differences between groups. Why? Because there are environmental differences among groups that affect academic achievement. Genetically extrapolating from within groups to between groups is arrant error that has fueled a lot of racism.

But as far as I see, deBoer is simply addressing the blank-slate position that “not much of the variation we see in populations for intelligence (or anything else) has anything to do with genetic variation.”  This Blank-Slateism is characteristic of the “progressive” Left, who adhere to the extreme malleability of human behavior, and also explains why so many on the Left are also opposed to the claims of evolutionary psychology. It’s the same mindset that denies the importance of genes on behavior today that also denies the importance of genes affecting modern human behavior having been installed in our genome by natural selection. To see this viewpoint, have a look at A Blog That Shall Not Be Named, but one that you all know.

After that bit of boring instruction, on to deBoer, who wants Blank-Slaters to answer nine questions.  Before he poses them, he argues that the modern tendency of people to be snarky and  jokey, and the tendency to be divisive and willfully ignorant on social media, has kept people from really seeing the merit in a view that a lot of human behavioral variation is due to variation in their genes. I’ll quote:

But the urge to joke – driven, no doubt, by getting more “engagement” for doing so than by actually being constructive – has driven out substance from almost every online space I can imagine. It’s a nightmare, like a shitty open mic night you can’t escape.

Critics of behavioral genetics, the academic subfield devoted to the exploration of how genes influence cognition and behavior, are a good example. Although I believe it’s overwhelmingly likely such influence exists, that position is perfectly subject to criticism, and since historically people have gone very wrong in interpreting that relationship good criticism is important. But online, even very well-informed critics of behavioral genetics spend almost all of their time ridiculing and loling rather than arguing. This problem is particularly acute in this domain because so many want to dismiss any consideration of how genes influence how human beings act by saying that anyone who asks elementary questions in that regard is a Nazi.

Indeed. The reason that this kind of work is denigrated is simply because people working on human behavioral genetics are all thought to have a racist or sexist agenda, or even favor eugenics. But the genetics of human behavior is a fascinating field, if for no other reason that it tells us that a lot of variation in things like alcoholism, school achievement, smoking, risk-taking, and so on, are based on variation in genes. What are those genes? How do they influence our behavior? Many of these questions can be answered without being a Nazi!

deBoer has a specific practical reason to be interested:

This is all particularly frustrating for me because my concern with genes and cognition has always been very practical. My first book lays out the case that the assumption that all students are perfectly equal in potential, integrated into educational ideology in large part by John Dewey, has profound negative consequences for our education system – and hurts no one more than students who struggle in school. I have already detailed how blank-slate thinking brought us No Child Left Behind, the most disastrous educational policy in the history of our country. The entire charter school ideology, which empowers plutocrats to defund public schools and attack teachers and their unions, depends entirely on the idea that students all have exactly equal inherent ability and that any suggestion otherwise is a way to dodge accountability. This discussion is not theoretical; it has teeth, and our public schools are in the crosshairs. It’s beyond frustrating that asking elementary questions about genetics and behavior is greeted with jokes and not with arguments.

As I said, I haven’t read deBoer’s book and so can’t speak about how blank-slateism led to the No Child Left Behind policy. But it’s up to deBoer, as it was up to Harden, to tell us exactly how the genetic variation for achievement which clearly occurs within populations can be used to improve education for everyone. The paragraph above implies that you can’t use genetic information to improve education (Harden’s position), but can use it to avoid educational programs that assume everyone can achieve the same heights given the right environments. But are there such programs? How would genetic knowledge lead us to change the educational system? Maybe deBoer tells us in his first book, but he doesn’t tell us here. (He does say that knowing that there are different genetic potentials for achievement would have forestalled the “No Child Left Behind” program. Assessing that claim is also above my pay grade).

Anyway, here are a few questions deBoer would like Blank-Slaters to answer. At first I thought he was confusing variation among individuals within a population (the right question) with variation among populations (the wrong question), but he wasn’t. I’ll give and comment on seven of his nine questions. And yes, I agree with deBoer that many people, especially on the Progressive Left, try to ignore most of these questions:

  • The nervous system and brain are produced by the same basic process of genetic transmission from parents to child as any other part of the body. We’re developing greater knowledge over time of how genetic variants influence the development of brain structures. How could it be possible that differences in the genome would result in no differences at all in the functioning of the brain and greater nervous system, which produce our cognition and behavior? Wouldn’t this amount to some sort of Cartesian dualism where the mind and the body are entirely separate, the kind of thinking that was left behind hundreds of years ago?

Note here that he’s talking about genetic variation (“differences in the genome”), though he should have emphasized “within a population”.

  • Do you believe that animal cognition and behavior are influenced by the individual animal’s genome? Does a given dog’s particular genome influence its cognition and behavior? If not, how is it that some dogs can be selectively bred to be more or less aggressive, more or less friendly? If genes can influence the cognition and behavior of animals how could it be that genes don’t influence the cognition and behavior of humans, who are after all just another species of animal?

This is a good question. Although we have culture, it’s hard to believe that we’re so exceptional among animals that most of our behavioral and cognitive traits have a heritability of near zero. (Remember, you can artificially select animals to have all sorts of different behaviors. And natural selection has done that in the wild. Note that his statement “genes can influence the cognition and behavior of humans” is a bit misleading. Of course it does, but the question is one of genetic variation among individuals, not the development of cognition within an individual.

Two more questions:

  • Even ardent environmentalists will generally concede that some people are predisposed toward athletic success or are born beautiful. What is fundamentally different between a genetic predisposition towards athletic talent or physical attractiveness and a genetic predisposition to being good at math or bad at chess?
  • Often, fraternal siblings have significantly different performance on academic and cognitive metrics, even if born less than a year apart and despite sharing the same parents, home, family environment, family income, access to resources, and privileges. How does a purely environmentalist perspective account for this difference? How is it that children who are very closely matched on a great many environmental and familial variables often differ profoundly in various attributes of academic ability and personality

Below is the one question I think is ill-posed. An environmentalist perspective could account for child prodigies, for an “accident” of development might confer neuronal wiring that could lead to such prodigies. “Idiot savants” (Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” portrays one) could be the result of some quirk of development that affects the brain in a way that makes one both autistic but also extremely accomplished in one area. But it doesn’t even have to make you autistic. A developmental anomaly can just be a neuronal developmental accident having nothing to do with a specific mutation. In fact, deBoer inadvertently supports an environmentalist perspective here by noting an absence of prodigies among the siblings of prodigies:

  • How does a purely environmentalist perspective account for child prodigies like Terry Tao, who was doing differential equations at 8 years old, or Awonder Liang, who defeated a grandmaster in chess at 9 years old? Are their parents just that much better than the average parent? If so, why do prodigies almost never have fraternal siblings who are also prodigies? Did the parents forget how to raise children to be geniuses? Why has no one been able to replicate the parenting that produces prodigies and geniuses?

The next two are good questions, and if you answer them honestly you’ll be admitting that a substantial proportion of variation in human achievement, behavior, and personality rest on variation in genes (go look up estimates of heritabiltiies for human traits):

  • Are long-observed familial tendencies in schizophreniabipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions real? If yes, then that would mean that we can identify some genetic influences on behavior and cognition. Similarly, there are proposed genetic influences for developmental and cognitive disorders that impact behavior and thinking.
  • What it means that identical twins resemble each other in cognitive and personality outcomes whether raised together or apart, or that adoptive children resemble their adoptive siblings in such outcomes no more than they do a random person, is a matter of serious and sustained controversy. But that those dynamics exist is not a matter of controversy; a tremendous amount of data demonstrates that these tendencies exist summatively, whatever their origins. What are purely environmentalist explanations for this tendency? Why are adoptive siblings so often profoundly dissimilar to each other and similar to their genetic siblings despite being raised in very different environments?

His points are good ones, and will make Blank-Slaters squirm.

Finally deBoer brings up the lack of efficacy in improving schooling as evidence for genetic variation that isn’t malleable to environmental changes, like improved methods of education:

  • How is it that massive changes in environment and schooling have been found, over and over again, to prompt no changes in academic outcomes? What is the purely environmentalist explanation for this?

Well, you could say that there are cultural differences between children of different groups that haven’t been properly addressed by education (John McWhorter, for instance, thinks that teaching kids reading by phonics could help efface the gap in achievement between whites and blacks). Or there may be educational methods that we haven’t thought of yet. deBoer may well be right that there are inherent (i.e., genetic) differences in potential for achievement between individuals that prevent any educational reform from creating more equal and higher outcomes. But I’m not convinced from this last assertion that the explanation is genetic. This question differs from the rest in that there is no genetic data to support it save the difficulty of educational reform.

Let me emphasize that I’m largely in agreement with deBoer. Blank-Slateism is dominating the scientific views of the Extreme Left, and it’s had an inimical effect on research, rendering some scientific questions taboo not only to being researched, but even discussed. What deBoer needs to tell us is what he recommends we should do about the inefficacy of schooling. Perhaps his view is “nothing: we can’t change unequal outcomes.”


28 thoughts on “Freddie deBoer attacks “Blank Slateism”, posing questions for those who deny the importance of genetic variation in human behavioral variation

    1. I also found The Nuture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris (even if a bit dated by now) a good read for a lay person like me.

  1. Isn’t deBoer the one you mentioned in a previous post who argues that not everyone needs to go to college? I happen to agree with that. That would be one way to improve educational policy: allowing kids to focus on machine shop, or agriculture, or other activities regarded (for dubious reasons in my view but never mind that) as not intellectually serious enough for college-bound kids.

    1. College vs no-college is always a hard choice to talk about. On the one hand, it makes sense for society (including politicians) to encourage people to get as much education as they can. On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to make people feel bad if they didn’t go to college or ignore their job prospects if that’s the choice they made.

      This is yet another place where the market provides perhaps the best overall mechanism regulating wages, cost of education, and the value of degrees and skills. The role of government should not be to pick winners and losers (college vs non-college, one profession vs another, etc.) but to increase transparency, fight against market distortions, and generally point out trends. Any attempt to guide the country in particular directions based on predictions of the future should be done with a very light hand.

  2. DeBoer suffers from severe bipolar disorder (paranoia, homicidal thoughts). The genetic basis for variation in these kinds of cognitive diseases is of personal interest to him. I imagine that the claim his disease is mainly a product of his environment would be horrifying to him, especially given it’s known very high heritability (~0.85 in twin studies). He described his experiences on a recent “Honestly” podcast with Bari Weiss.

  3. But, but, if ‘the environment’ is the only significant factor in an individual’s acheivement, then attainment can be ‘fixed’ by the well meaning. But if an individual’s genetic endowment is a significant factor, which cannot at present be fixed, then that means that not everyone will achieve a similar outcome.

    Under my proposed NAMA (No Alternative Magisteria) rule, Political views (Blank Slateism) *must* be true otherwise the entire march towards Utopia will fail. And that cannot be allowed to happen.

    1. I’d suggest redefining utopia to conform with reality. Then work on the problems that can be solved.

  4. How is it that massive changes in environment and schooling have been found, over and over again, to prompt no changes in academic outcomes? What is the purely environmentalist explanation for this?

    Many educators will say that they’re getting the child too late. Grade school teachers think the preschool has already set the child on their path; Preschool teachers look to parents or day care centers; parents often blame or credit themselves. When my children were small it seemed like every time I picked up a book on child development it turned out the “most critical stage” was the one that had already passed. Books on newborns solemnly swore by the ultimate significance of what the mother did during pregnancy.

    One problem with measuring the value of school programs or early intervention is that the culture has changed. Children are being born into environments which might include infant day care or baby-led parenting styles. Children often do far more group activities and have less free time or independence. A kid raised in the early 2000s is then going to be compared to kids raised in the 80’s or 60’s. Teasing apart nurture from nature is especially complicated when the environment keeps changing with the generations — if not sooner.

    I once came across a child development specialist who’d discovered an interesting rule of thumb for predicting which children would do better or worse in school: visit the home and see how many books there were. Few to no books always correlated with children who were struggling. Conclusion: bad environment. Trouble is, a love for reading or an interest in exploring topics could very well be genetic tendencies. Peer groups are also significant — but a student seeking out the nerds or the slackers could very well be influenced by genetics, too.

    1. I think you’re onto something here. Obviously, teachers, child development specialists, authors of parenting books, and perhaps even book readers more often belong to the “nurture” camp rather than the “nature” one. That Johnny and Jane’s personality and intelligence might have been fixed at conception is not going to sit well with them. Telling parents that the best they can do is to avoid screwing up their children is just not going to sell.

      1. Behave
        Robert Sapolsky

        I don’t want to put words in his book but my takeaway was

        Pretty much everything in the growth of the child matters significantly. That includes gestation and before.

  5. Dawkins tweeted your excellent list of threats to scientific thinking yesterday. I sent it to a bunch of friends also.

  6. assumption that all students are perfectly equal in potential

    While this is an absurd assumption, I’m also persuaded that better instructional methods can improve educational achievement even among those with lower aptitude. It’s hard to see in the US because mainstream education is enamoured with demonstrably ineffective pedagogy, which includes Whole Language reading instruction rather than phonics, inquiry-based learning rather than explicit instruction, and a focus on content-free skills (like critical thinking) rather than instilling knowledge those skills depend on. In contrast, take a look at the school Michaela in the UK, which has had huge success in propelling inner city kids to the top education-wise. Such schools would be almost impossible in the UK because they would be shut down by the woke crowd.

    1. It is not a logical assumption, nor one for which there seems to be any evidence. However, as others have already commented, it is the basis for a philosophy held by many people.
      I sort of believe in a middle ground, where success in academics and life is a bit easier for some people to attain because they have a high capacity for learning, and strong impulse control. People without those qualities can still attain a great deal of success, but they are going to have to work harder to get there.

    2. One of your “UK”‘s should be a US? Presumably the 2nd one? Should read, “Such schools would be almost impossible in the US?” Also not that trends and fashion in education vary greatly over years & decades. What is unacceptable now in the US may be in favor, or at least considered worth trying in the future.

  7. deBoer’s book is absolutely worth reading. My quick review of his arguments.
    1. Doing well in the education system gets one labeled as ‘smart”.
    2. There is likely to be a significant genetic component to doing well in the system (or being able to tolerate the process of becoming ‘educated’).
    3. Society has placed a positive reputational and monetary value on being ‘smart’, that not always correlates to the benefit that professions requiring ‘smart’ people actually provide to the greater good.
    4. If you are lucky enough to get labeled as ‘smart’, then you don’t see anything wrong with the outcomes.

    Therefore professors at universities (like Dr. CC and myself) tend to get more rewards, ranging from larger paychecks to invites to join a cruise to Antarctica than do the people that keep the university buildings, apparatus and grounds clean and functioning.

    However, this is biased and unfair from the get go if one is enabled to be ‘smart’ by dint of winning a genetic lottery. It is as unfair as that taller people tend to be valued more than shorter people. It can be no more someone’s (or anyone’s) fault for not succeeding at the education game, than it is for not being tall.

    deBoer’s prescription is that we have to abandon the Cult of Smart and value work for what it provides and accomplishes and not whether non-smart people can do it well. As far as education goes, this means that failing at or being uninterested in getting educated should not be seen as a failure of either the person or necessarily even of the system (i.e., there is no way that any education system can make everyone become ‘smart’).

    1. Yes – Other titles that have made way on that idea of where or how “smart” comes from :

      Growth Mindset – Carol Dwecj

      ^^^ can’t recall authors immediately… maybe errors….

    2. I really like his definition of “smart”, it can also be seen as “a proxy for the skills and habits encouraged by a bureaucratic society”. Yeah, that’s what IQ tests measure.

  8. What you refer to as the ‘progressive Left’ is ‘leftist’ only as a matter of aesthetics; ‘Extreme Left’, the ‘Minimally Left’. These are bog-standard liberals, ones that loathe historical materialism (if they even know about it) but want to have more radical-feeling credentials than their actual beliefs and values provide them.

  9. I have been mentored for the last few years by an elderly gentleman who worked for many years as a tool and die maker, a machinist. By mentoring me, I mean he has been teaching me the fine points of machining, and helping me set up the tools in my shop. In return, I help him with different things within my level of expertise.
    But here is the thing- He is a very smart person, but the path to his chosen trade did not run through a university. The trade he mastered is intensely complicated. Some things that have totally stumped me, very complicated machining involving curved cuts on an irregularly shaped piece, turned out to be simple for him to visualize and explain a solution to me.
    There will always be a need for people with such skills. There were a lot of engineers who got us to the moon, but the engineers could not have personally made the equipment that got us there. The man I refer to made switches for the Apollo spacecraft. He made them one at a time, with the goal that each was perfect, well within listed acceptable tolerances.
    High proficiency in such a trade requires at least as much intelligence, time, and effort as something like a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

    1. Machinists as a group have classically been considered a “labor elite” – in part due to the observation you’ve made here. Their conditions of employment (typically, relatively greater control over their working environment, more able to say “we need xyz” and actually get it) have tended to reflect this.

  10. Right before starting his Substack, I mean a few days, Freddie was going to take a job hauling furniture for $15/hr or around there. He wrote about it in an early Substack of his.

    He could find no other employment in part due to some sort of academic cancellation or something….and now, views like this.

    Substack saved him and saved us, his readers.

  11. Thoughts:
    1. A very gentle admonishment for our host, we prefer the term ‘savant’ without the ‘idiot’ part these days.
    2. If, as is almost certain, at least 50% of difference in IQ/educational attainment is genetic, we are going to be wasting our time in looking for equal outcomes, as it will only be achieved with a degree of cruelty to the ‘tall poppies’.
    3. What we can, and ought to do, is to maximise the attainment of all, understanding that maximum will not be the same for everyone.
    4. (Trigger warning: topic approaching that is one of my hobbyhorses!) We absolutely need to put educational techniques on a scientific basis. We swing wildly from one theory to another (eg we haven’t even decided whether phonics or whole word teaching works better, and worse still, have turned it into a political matter rather than one to be answered by my proposed pedagogical science). Teachers teach according to fashion and unproven ideas. Can it be so hard to compare outcomes between matched groups? Achieving point #3 above is on indefinite hold until this is done, as the ‘smart’ kids spend half their effort learning to navigate the school system, and the others simply give up.
    5. Comments above suggesting that college isn’t for everyone, and that many skilled workers deserve more appreciation for their talents, are spot on. I’ve noted before that you have to live in a village to grok this. The plumber that rescues you at 6am is just as valuable to the community as the doctor who drains an abscess at the same hour. In a village with maybe only one of each trade, you learn quickly to be friendly and thankful, and use your particular skills in return to repay those who can do things others cannot. And I’m not just talking about an elite of skillful people. The guy who is willing to labour hard all day in the sun gets respect. Even the village idiot (there’s that word again!) is OUR village idiot, and you better be nice to him. This isn’t a utopian dream, this is rural life and I’m lucky to have enjoyed it for nearly all my years.

    1. I’m just saying this here – not a direct argument :

      I do not see any basis for the notion that ” “skilled” trades” (what, precisely, is “unskilled”?) that may require four year apprenticeships or higher trade school education are exclusive of accredited four-year university education, and vice versa.

      To me, it is almost a “little people” argument in sheep’s clothing – “skilled” labor is “for” certain people, but not “for” a different sort of people.

      No basis for this whatsoever, that I know of, other than what might be seen anecdotally.

    2. The sociology Chrism describes used to be not uncommon in Vermont, long ago. l don’t know to what extent this has survived the last six decades so. One small correction, though. The doctor and the plumber both do receive respect, but everyone understands that the former sometimes has more consequential responsibilities than the latter, in the life-and-death sense.

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