Nature still battles nurture in the haunting world of social genomics

Nathaniel Comfort lauds a sociologist’s study of the problems built into genetic research.
Man kneels next to the Brooks Life Science Systems A3+ SmaRTStore, which stores and retrieves DNA samples.

A DNA-sample library.Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics Catherine Bliss Stanford University Press: 2018.

In the beginning, there was nature. Then the statistician Francis Galton — Charles Darwin’s half-cousin — set nature (heredity) in opposition to nurture, or environment. Galton treated heredity as a family treasure, tucked away in the gametes, shielded from the buffeting environment and passed down the generations. Applying this idea to what he perceived as the degeneration of English manhood, Galton coined a haunting but familiar term: eugenics.

Thus, the nature–nurture binary has been linked with hereditarianism and eugenics from the start. This trio flares up from time to time, for instance in early-twentieth-century eugenics, 1970s sociobiology and the controversial 1994 book on intelligence by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve (Free Press). History doesn’t repeat itself, but it winds.

The latest turn of the helix is ‘sociogenomics’. This uses genome-wide association studies, high-speed sequencing, gene-editing tools such as CRISPR–Cas9 and baroquely calculated risk scores — often combined with social-science methods — to ‘understand’ the ‘roots’ of complex behaviour. In Social by Nature, sociologist Catherine Bliss anatomizes the field.

Bliss looks at the science, the professional social structures and the social context of these new developments. She seeks social explanations of why the nature–nurture binary persists in the face of DNA-sequence data that once promised to erase it. Sociogenomics has great biomedical potential, she believes; but the path towards that reward runs along a knife edge, with cliffs of eugenic risk on either side. It is a brilliant book — dense at times, but insightful and filled with illustrative anecdotes and case studies. It’s one you should read if you care about what drives academic research, scientific racism or genetic futurism.

Student holds up sign during protest against Charles Murray at University of Notre Dame in Indiana USA

Students at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana protest outside an event featuring the author of a controversial book on intelligence.Credit: Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP

Sociogenomics follows many patterns familiar from previous moments of heightened genetic determinism, such as sociobiology, behavioural psychology or the debate ignited by The Bell Curve. But Bliss argues that, this time, it’s different. She suggests that genetic methods have never promised so much, while delivering so little. As a historian, I see more consistency in the promises of human genetics over time; nevertheless, Bliss’s findings are striking.

She notes, for example, a special issue of the journal Biodemography and Social Biology from 2014 concerning risk scores. (These are estimates of how much a one-letter change in the DNA code, or SNP, contributes to a particular disease.) In the issue, risk scores of between 0% and 3% were taken as encouraging signs for future research. Bliss found that when risk scores failed to meet standards of statistical significance, some researchers — rather than investigate environmental influences — doggedly bumped up the genetic significance using statistical tricks such as pooling techniques and meta-analyses. And yet the polygenic risk scores so generated still accounted for a mere 0.2% of all variation in a trait. “In other words,” Bliss writes, “a polygenic risk score of nearly 0 percent is justification for further analysis of the genetic determinism of the traits”. If all you have is a sequencer, everything looks like an SNP.

What the historian Andrew Hogan has called the “genomic gaze” isn’t the fault of individual bad-guy researchers: it’s structural. Bliss is careful to acknowledge the good, even noble intentions of many of the scientists she spoke to (as a sociologist, she keeps the names of her ‘informants’ confidential). But she finds that the funding and publicity mechanisms integral to biology drive it towards genes-first explanations. The stakes are high: finding an SNP associated with a risk increase from 0.01% to 0.03% (a threefold rise) for a disease such as breast cancer could make a career. “While researchers do not intend to lift the focus off of the environment,” Bliss writes, “they are forced to recast social phenomena as ‘evolutionary phenotypes’ so that they can make scientific claims” that sound relevant to biomedical funders.

This tendency has social implications. ‘Just-so stories’ abound, reinforcing toxic stereotypes. For example, Bliss cites peer-reviewed work speculating that violence might get men more sex. And prevention can grade into genetic surveillance: after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the state asked a geneticist to examine gunman Adam Lanza’s genome for markers that might have predisposed him to violence.

Bliss handles sensitive categories such as race, gender and sexuality with subtlety, examining the interplay of peer-reviewed articles and their media coverage. For example, she notes that most social-genomics papers “make rote references to racial differences without defining what they mean”. She observes that mass-culture gender norms, by contrast, inflect peer-reviewed articles, demonstrating that culture shapes science as well as the reverse.

Some of Bliss’s informants even contemplate the creation of DNA-based social strata. “You know,” one reports a colleague saying, “it’ll be great when we can have the janitors just be janitors.” Shades of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: I’m so glad I’m a Beta.

Genetic determinism, then, isn’t just spread over genomics like poisoned icing. It’s baked into how we fund, conduct and disseminate research. Unlike the optimists who claim that individualism and the free market immunize us against eugenic evils, Bliss sees both as rife with eugenic risk. The medical marketplace helps to reify the idea that your genome is your true identity. It lends scientific authority to efforts to find ‘objective’ answers to impossible, hopelessly social questions about, say, IQ. Direct-to-consumer advertisements often target children or parents. The Children’s Palace in Chonqing, China, for instance, hosts a “genetics summer camp” for children aged 3–12 that claims to identify and then to develop ‘traits’ such as sporting and musical ability.

I’m less convinced than Bliss that this genocentrism is new to the genomic age. I readily concede that genomics gives new power to hereditarian explanations of human behaviour, and that our culture is newly conducive to ‘gene-for’ research. But much of what she describes sounds to me like determinism in a new context.

What Bliss does brilliantly is analyse the mechanisms by which genetic determinism is an outcome of the research endeavour itself. Her most searing conclusion is that scientists and journalists can understand that nature and nurture are not zero-sum, can even strive to strike essentialist language from their work, and yet can still serve the god of genetic determinism. Driven by capital, individualism and the lure of interdisciplinarity, we may be opposed to the ideology and yet willingly participate in its prosecution. In historical context, that is a haunting thought.

Nature 553, 278-280 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00578-5
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