Harvard biochemist Jonathan Beckwith says genes, social policy a dangerous mix

April 7, 1995

By Mike Wooldridge, MAWooldridge@LBL.gov

There is no place for nature-versus-nurture research in decisions about social policy, Harvard biochemist Jonathan Beckwith told a capacity crowd in the Bldg. 50 Auditorium last week. The scientific evidence linking our genes to our behavior is too weak, and the potential for serious social consequences too great.

Yet that is exactly what is happening with books such as the recent bestseller "The Bell Curve," he said, which argues that, because intelligence is inherited, programs such as welfare are doomed to failure.

Such accounts misrepresent the connection science has found between genes and behavior, he said. They lead to inaccurate stories about biological determinism in the media, and provide dangerous ammunition for those using genes-as-destiny arguments to curb social programs.

Beckwith, a member of the DOE/National Institutes of Health Human Genome Project's Working Group on Ethical, Legal and Social Issues, was invited by LBL's Human Genome Program to give the talk on March 28.

The biotechnology revolution, he said, puts human behavioral genetics in a vulnerable position. "The tremendous advances in genetics, and the existence of things such as the Human Genome Project, creates an environment where extreme claims about genetics and behavior might be accepted," he said.

The media's fascination with genetic explanations for how we act means researchers have to be on their guard, he said. "Geneticists must take care in publishing and talking about their work, and word their conclusions carefully. A single sentence in a paper can have a tremendous impact."

Beckwith emphasized that he isn't arguing for science to stop examining the role genes play in behavior. He said there are instances where good science has yielded important facts about genetic links, for example with mental illnesses such as manic depression and Tourette's syndrome. But it has been with studies of traits such as intelligence, aggression, and criminality--where evidence has been much less convincing--that genetics has had a tremendous social impact.

Beckwith cited studies in the late 1960s that linked the I.Q. test score gap to race, and studies in the 1980s that linked math ability to gender. The flurry of articles in the popular press that often follow the publication of such research often exaggerates the gene-behavior connection, he said. Displaying a Newsweek article entitled "Born Dumb" about genes, intelligence, and education, he asked, "What kind of effect do you think that has on a student who reads it?"

He also cited as a recent example "The Bell Curve," in which, he said, the authors misuse the same types of studies to make sweeping claims about social policy. The book's authors begin with the premise that intelligence is mostly inherited, and go on to conclude that the I.Q. score gap they see between upper and lower classes in society is practically unchangeable. They recommend that social programs be re-evaluated in this light.

"The Bell Curve" authors rely on evidence from genetic studies of families, Beckwith said, such as those charting the development of twins as compared to normal siblings. Because of the complexity of our environment, he said, family studies are no sure measure of the extent to which genes determine our behavioral fates. Such complex, long-term studies are also of limited use, since other researchers cannot accurately repeat them.

Beckwith said he is optimistic that with geneticists now focusing on recombinant DNA techniques to match genes with traits, studies of genes and behavior will be more sound. Unlike generation-long studies of families, scientific peers can easily repeat genetic comparisons in test tubes.

He warned, however, that there will always to be the issue of personal bias in a science as politically charged as human behavioral genetics. He cited several recent high-profile studies that linked genes to homosexuality. Some authors of the studies, he said, have admitted to having a strong political agenda--linking sexual preference to biology, the authors hoped, might provide evidence for fighting discrimination.

Scientists can never completely separate personal bias--noble as it may be--from research like this, he said. "The best we can do is be aware of our biases and be open about them."