Kathryn Paige Harden (University of Texas): "The Genetic Lottery and Its Ethical Implications"

I have not yet read Dr. Harden’s book, only a few reviews. But from them, I think the controversy it stirs up will continue to grow for a while. Here is one of them.

I come at this topic from Evolutionary Psychology which makes a case that behavior has been as selected as any other feature of humans.



I, too, have read only the review, not the book.

The sense I get from reading the review is that the reviewer, and the author of The Genetic Lottery, Dr Hardin, as well, are spooked by what is becoming (and should have been recognised long ago) as incontrovertible evidence that humans have continued to evolve ever since their appearance in modern form and that one aspect of that evolution has been in their behaviour, both individually and in social groups. These are matters which, when applied to all other animal species, have been commonplace and unchallenged matters of fact for centuries and are part of the foundation of domestication of animal species which has been a part of human civilisation since its inception.

The mental gymnastics (“soft causality”, invoking [a misunderstanding] of quantum mechanics, calling “for the inclusion of diverse and culturally competent researchers in genetics” to “decolonize behavioral genetics”, etc.) all appear to me to be ways to deny or sidestep “hate facts” (unchallenged assertions of fact which are career-limiting to even acknowledge) and the accumulating evidence from genome-wide association studies that many forms of human behaviour are heritable in part and thus subject to evolution just as much as lactose tolerance in adulthood or skin colour.

The heritability of performance on the cognitive capability measured by IQ tests, its correlation with a wide variety of life outcomes and behavioural characteristics, and the existence of well-defined and stable group differences in mean values on these scores is as well-established as anything in the human sciences, with over a century of data collected all around the world on tens of millions of individuals. Denying it was ideologically driven and scientifically absurd before. As genetic evidence of causation piles up, continued denial will eventually require denial of reality itself.

I am confident the blank slate priesthood will rise to the challenge.


Denying that we cannot tell a man from a woman for example?!


One of the problems with the view you express is how the genetic divergence came about. Intelligence is only one, and perhaps not the most important variation.

You might find this informative.


Just a clarification—I am not arguing that intelligence is the only or the most important of the variations resulting from evolution of behavioural characteristics. I cite it primarily because we have such a huge database of measurements, distributed in time, space, and across other possible causal factors such as nutrition, prevalence of endemic diseases, family structure, wealth per capita, fertility, etc. that it allows data mining to separate heredity from other candidate causes.

I believe that the incidence of violence is at least as important a factor as intelligence (however defined) and that the domestication of the human species which occurred in long-term settled societies in East Asia and Europe (which can be seen in the “hate fact” FBI crime statistics) is another contributor to present-day conflicts of which one cannot speak.


Before 1800 all societies, including England, were Malthusian. The average man or woman had 2 surviving children. Such societies were also Darwinian. Some reproductively successful groups produced more than 2 surviving children, increasing their share of the population, while other groups produced less, so that their share declined. But unusually in England, this selection for men was based on economic success from at least 1250, not success in violence as in some other pre-industrial societies. The richest male testators left twice as many children as the poorest. Consequently the modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the middle ages. At the same time, from 1150 to 1800 in England there are clear signs of changes in average economic preferences towards more “capitalist” attitudes. The highly capitalistic nature of English society by 1800 – individualism, low time preference rates, long work hours, high levels of human capital – may thus stem from the nature of the Darwinian struggle in a very stable agrarian society in the long run up to the Industrial Revolution. The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.


Clark made a case that violence decreased over this time as well.

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It was downright amusing to read the attempts of Republicans to define a woman.

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Edward Dutton and Michael Woodley discuss the decrease in violence at some length in At Our Wits’ End (link is to my review) and suggest that the broad imposition of capital punishment in England and northwestern Europe starting around 1500 selected for “domestication”: aversion to violence and lower time preference as a deterrent to crime.

Another form of selection got underway as the middle ages gave way to the early modern period around the year 1500 in Europe. While in medieval times criminals were rarely executed due to opposition by the Church, by the early modern era almost all felonies received the death penalty. This had the effect of “culling the herd” of its most violent members who, being predominantly young, male, and of low intelligence, would often be removed from the breeding population before fathering any children. To the extent that the propensity to violent crime is heritable (which seems plausible, as almost all human characteristics are heritable to one degree or another), this would have “domesticated” the European human population and contributed to the well-documented dramatic drop in the murder rate in this period. It would have also selected out those of low intelligence, who are prone to violent crime. Further, in England, there was a provision called “Benefit of Clergy” where those who could demonstrate literacy could escape the hangman. This was another selection for intelligence.

Around 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed for various crimes during the reign of Henry VIII, and in the early 18th century England there were more than 200 offences punishable by death under the “Bloody Code”. There are abundant statistics showing a dramatic decrease in the rate of violent crime over this period, and the rate of crime remained depressed after the abolition or dramatic curtailment of the death penalty, suggesting an evolutionary effect as opposed to deterrence or immediate removal of perpetrators.


You might be right that there was a negative selection on violence because of executions.

But it does not feel right numerically. 72,000 people in 38 years is under 2000 a year. Out of a population of 2.5 million that does not seem like it would cause much of a selection.

Clark makes a case for positive selection and unlike most places in the world, violence was not a ticket to reproductive success. He notes that the aristocracy did not increase their fraction of the population because so many of them died violently.


The murderous and criminal element of a general population is usually small. Focused execution makes these numbers large on the criminal population


Wait, are you a biologist?


If you are addressing me, the field involved is evolutionary psychology and while I am not a biologist, I have published in related peer reviewed journals.

It was in response to @Mettelus

Though this recent meme might have come across your peripheral vision recently?

To quote Uncle Joe … “not a joke!!”

And the meme factory did not disappoint … enjoy!

Warning: do not click this link if you are drinking any liquids, hot or cold, are operating heavy machinery, are South of the Mason-Dixon line, know what is the Mason-Dixon line, or you actually are a biologist. Also, objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

Whooo, I read this entire review, despite spending the entire day in continuing legal education, and I’m confused. I reckon I didn’t hit the powerball in the genetic lottery myself.
First, I know we’re all supposed to pretend we know this, but what does “decolonization” of genetics (or of science generally) actually mean? And how does it fit into what this author is proposing or the world she wants to see?

The statement that “DNA matters for social equality” “ is surely…well, a no-brainer. Innit? Of course people are going to seek out people who are like them, and with whom they can converse on an equal level.
Nor does it strike me as a startlingly original idea that some people are born more “bookish” than others, and the former will do better academically.

Since these things are so axiomatic, and widely known, anything new or revolutionary about this book has to be what the author proposes to do about the inequality. The book seems to admit that genetics IS a lottery. I was scared as I read this review: was the author going to propose that intelligence be penalized, or deliberately selected out? How else can we create “equality of opportunity” between geniuses and the rest of us, and morons and the rest of us?

I must have missed some key concept here, dear polymaths. Can anybody tell me what’s new about this author’s theories? And more importantly, what the practical implications are?

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Kurt Vonnegut published a humble proposal of how this might be accomplished in 1961. Here is the full text [PDF].

I believe that popular culture and social media may be on the way to implementing this within the present decade.


Oh we are definitely on the way! Palm Springs Ca just announced that it is going to make no-strings-attached payments to gay and trans people, just because, well, they may have experienced significant disadvantages—and it’s not tied to income or wealth, it’s just a reward for NOT being hetero!

Last year (or maybe only last month, it’s hard to keep,track) the “meritocracy” was being attacked on the basis (I think) that “merit”—intelligence, character, industriousness—was the result of unfair SOCIAL advantages. Merit was not innate, and thus it was unfair that it results in the social rewards it does result in. “You didn’t build that”.

Isn’t Harden’s idea kinda the opposite: that yes, the qualities we think of as meritorious ARE innate. “Okay, you DID build that, but only because of an accident of your DNA.”

Either way, achievement is undesirable because it is the result of inequality!

If this is “evolution” let me join a subspecies destined for extinction.

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Yes, as I read it, Harden’s is uniquely and innovatively pernicious: “Yes, genetic differences are real. Consequently, those who won the genetic lottery should pay reparations, unto eternity, to those who lost.”

This is a prescription for freezing in place genetic inequalities and halting evolution. It’s much like the directives in the last chapters of Atlas Shrugged that try to eliminate competition and create a static society of entitlements.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.


Thanks. So the idea behind this book IS as simple, and as trite, and as scary, as I thought.
And it also is nothing new, witness the Vonnegut piece you linked to, and witness “Brave New World”.
At my alma mater, Bryn Mawr, it is now an honor code violation to tell any other student your grades.


Indeed, it does not feel right. Qualitatively, consider the extremely bloody history of Europe – 30 Years Wars, 100 Years Wars, Wars of Succession, Napoleonic Wars … and so many more. It might be interesting to compare the number of lives cut short by judicial execution to the number cut short by warfare. Clearly, violence was a highly desirable quality in a population. As Wellington was rumored to have said about his fellow English troops – I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but they scare the hell out of me.

It is really only in the last 70 years that the West has lost an outlet for violent young men. In the centuries and millenia before then, successful aggressiveness may have been a positive evolutionary advantage.