Tatyana Deryugina (Twitter: @TDeryugina)

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Nature or nurture

Posted 30 Apr 10 by Tatyana

Apparently, Larry Summers has a protege, a 3L who wrote an email asserting the possibility that intellectual performance differences between races might be partly genetic. As much as the writer tried to be politically correct (if there is a politically correct way to say something like this), the email got passed around (you can read about it here).

What is it about nature arguments that makes them so appealing? (By the way, when I say "nature”, I mean the unexplained gap AFTER you’ve accounted for observable characteristics of individuals).

For one, they’re simple. You are who you are; we don’t have to figure out how you got that way and try to disentangle a myriad of potential social forces. You don’t have to think very hard, unless you’re a geneticist. The typical null hypothesis in empirical economics is that policy has no effect. The burden of proof is on the policy proponent. It’s appealing to say that differences are genetic unless proven otherwise, and it seems to be the default explanation used through much of human history when differences across groups were explained by nature.

As a social scientist, it’s also tempting to attribute differences that we can’t explain to "nature”. If you controlled for every known socioeconomic variable and there’s still a difference, calling it "genes” is much better for your reputation. Social scientists aren’t supposed to know much about genes. But if you say that there might be some unexplained social factor, well, then you’re admitting to not knowing something about your discipline. And that’s a no-no.

Let’s not forget policy makers and social workers too. Imagine that you’ve worked on bridging some gap between blacks and whites all your life and it’s still there. How good does the nature argument look compared to feeling like you failed?

The "nature” argument absolves society of any responsibility to change, much like the assertions that global warming is part of a natural cycle and not the product of power plants and cars. You don’t have to worry about how you’re treating your daughter. You don’t have to feel guilty because your parents paid for private school, got you SAT tutors and read you books in utero.

Nature arguments should have a place in the academic world. But my sense is that most of the arguments are self-serving. It’s important to know whether some differences are genetic because that means we can use our resources more effectively. But there’s a danger that over ascribing phenomena to nature will prevent us from recognizing and addressing societal problems. In my opinion, the error where something societal is attributed to genes is a much more costly one than attributing something "natural” to nurture.


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