For a time, it seemed as if we were about to use the bright beam of science to illuminate the murky world of human action. Instead, as Turkheimer writes in his chapter in the book, “Wrestling With Behavioral Genetics,” science finds itself enmeshed with social science and the humanities in what researchers call the Gloomy Prospect, the ineffable mystery of why people do what they do.
The prospect may be gloomy for those who seek to understand human behavior, but the flip side is the reminder that each of us is a Luxurious Growth. Our lives are not determined by uniform processes. Instead, human behavior is complex, nonlinear and unpredictable. The Brave New World is far away. Novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.
Just as important is the implication for politics. Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race. In the 20th century, communists used primitive ideas about “scientific materialism” to try to re-engineer a New Soviet Man.
Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.
We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.
In some conservative circles, claiming a genetic basis for intelligence is all the rage (because then you don’t have to spend money trying to educate those people). Thankfully, one prominent conservative isn’t doing so.