Ideas of social equality and their intersection with genetics are rightfully met with hesitance. Our perception of the field is often marred with stories about how pseudoscience was used to justify racial inequality and ideas of racial superiority. Pseudoscience being used to justify horrendous antisemitism fills the topic with memories of Nazi Germany. The perceived “science” of the time was used to give grounds for the idea that non-Aryan people were genetically lesser, and led to horrifying events like mass genocide, and more specifically as a justification for mass sterilization. At the same time, in our current political landscape, political extremist groups and white supremacist ideology invoke the very real fear that such ideas are making a comeback. Dr. Kathryn Harden navigates these connotations, but sees the intersection between genomics and social issues differently. Dr. Harden, a clinical development psychologist and author of “The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality '', discussed these issues at Town Hall Seattle on Tuesday, October 12, in a lecture promoting her book.
As Dr. Harden explained, DNA and human genome sequencing is becoming an increasingly lucrative technology. She argues that such technology can be used to elicit social change and examine social structures in our society. Dr. Harden, in her work as a psychologist, studies inequality of outcome and how people are channeled into certain outcomes in their lives. In other words, her work examines the aspects of one’s life that lead them to specific places and how early those aspects begin to dictate the rest of someone’s life. Dr. Harden focuses on psychiatric and genetic disadvantages that have significant outcomes, as she explained through her lecture. The human genome is composed of nucleotides, represented by the letters A, C, G, and T, which dictate certain parts of a person’s phenotype, or genetic presentation. Everyone’s DNA is made up of different nucleotides that make them the specific, unique person they are. Dr. Harden uses what are called Genome-Wide Association Studies which measure single-letter differences between nucleotides across a sample group of genomes. Using these measurements, a polygenic score is created, which denotes the effect genetic variants may have on an individual. Essentially, the score tells us how likely an individual is to have a given trait.
Dr. Harden uses the example of college completion to show the information that a polygenic score can give. What is found is that the disparities between high and low income and college completion is the same as between high and low quartiles of polygenic scores. In other words, the correlation between average household income and college completion is similar to that of polygenic scores and college completion. Another similar example is with math classes, where students with higher polygenic scores were in higher level math classes. Dr. Harden argues that this information can tell us where genetics automatically puts people at a disadvantage. The problem is, that this sort of language can easily translate into rhetoric around “genetic worth”. Dr. Harden works to make it clear that genetics is not determinate, it is probabilistic, yet, it may be impossible for humans to separate these two things. Dr. Harden herself, in an area where she denoted abuses of these types of sciences, cited the 1927 court case wherein Buck v. Bell voted to uphold a state’s ability to forcibly sterilize some women. The problem is, this rhetoric can have horrendous implications and I struggle to see how the idea of the polygenic score makes the risk worth it.
This research is directly linked to the almost platitudinal question of nature versus nurture. Obviously, the structures of systemic oppression have just as much of an impact on things like college completion as Dr. Harden argues the polygenic score does and psychiatric hindrances can be found without the score, so whether it is strictly necessary for social equality that a polygenic score exists is debatable. In addition, the polygenic score is so general that it lacks the nuance of each individual person’s situation. Dr. Harden notes that the score doesn’t always account for the environment, so it’s worth exploring if a more tailored, nuanced approach to social equality would simply be more useful. Not only that but the data that Dr. Harden uses is mostly collected from people who self-identify as white, which misses out on the people for whom efforts towards social equality are most important. Dr. Harden is trying to dismantle a lot of the issues in social equality with the science that created them. This is a noble endeavor—but is it possible? In 1997, Audre Lorde answered a similar question by saying that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” But more than that, when the implications of these ideas can be so catastrophic, and the positive impacts can be accessed through different initiatives—is it worth the risk?
Dr. Kathryn Harden's Why DNA Matters for Social Equality took place on October 12, 2021. For more information see here.
Lead photo credit: Paige Harden, courtesy of Town Hall Seattle
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