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 schizophrenia, bipolar 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.”