Promoting Social Justice – an essay

Professor Lerner’s essay, “Promoting Social Justice Through Eliminating Genetic Reduction from Developmental Science” was the feature story in the March 2022 Eliot-Pearson Newsletter.

Promoting Social Justice Through Eliminating Genetic Reduction from Developmental Science
Richard M. Lerner

Bergstrom Chair in Applied Science, Professor in the Department of Child Study and Human Development, Director, Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development

For more than 200 years the specious claims of genetic reductionists and their error-ridden research methodology have combined to claim that all facets of human development and all differences between people in their development can be explained by reducing the complexity of human life to the genes inherited at conception. But if everything a person does or becomes exists as an inherited blueprint residing in specific genes inherited at conception, then there is no way that socially progressive policies and programs, equitable education, health and medical resources, or employment opportunities can successfully diminish or eliminate specific developmental outcomes of any individual or provide ways to improve human life for all people by changing inequitable social conditions.

Sadly, within the past decade, a renewal of precisely such genetic reductionist claims have appeared in both science publications and major media outlets. For instance, developmental psychologist Jay Belsky published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times Sunday Review in November, 2014, asserting that:

“What distinguishes children who prove more versus less susceptible — for better and for worse — to developmental experiences? There is no single factor, but genetics seems to play a role… Should we seek to identify the most susceptible children and disproportionately target them when it comes to investing scarce intervention and service dollars?  I believe the answer is yes… One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the best teachers.”

More recently, behavior geneticist Robert Plomin (2018) claimed in his book, Blueprint, that:

“Genetics is the most important factor shaping who we are” (p. viii) and that “the DNA revolution has made DNA personal by giving us the power to predict our psychological strengths and weaknesses from birth” (p. vii).

Plomin (2018) then asserts that, through genetic reductionism, scientists have:

“the ability to predict our psychological problems and promise from DNA…Our future is DNA” (p, xiii).

And just last year, behavior geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden, in her 2021 book, The genetic lottery: Why DNA matters for social equality, asserted that:

“Yes, the genetic differences between any two people are tiny when compared to the long stretches of DNA coiled in every human cell. But these differences loom large when trying to understand why, for example, one child has autism and another doesn’t; why one is deaf and another hearing; and… why one child will struggle with school and another will not. Genetic differences between us matter for our lives. They cause differences in things we care about. Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand” (p. 19).

Today, mainstream developmental science rejects such genetic reductionism. Most scientists studying human development use models and rigorous research methods to interrogate the mutually-influential relations between individuals and their contexts – dynamic coactions usually symbolized as individualócontext relations. Current science indicates that the contribution of genes to human development depends on the context in which they exist. Across the nation and world, both epigenetics research and developmental science research document that human development is marked by enormous plasticity because of the specific dynamics of each person’s individualócontext relations.

Using this knowledge, programs and policies can promote thriving in each individual. The Eliot-Pearson community can give their voices and scholarship to creating social understanding and actions that erase from science and society the counterfactual and dehumanizing pronouncements of genetic reductionists, thereby helping create a more socially just world for all people across all of life.