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The Genetic Lottery

Rob Brooks and Kathryn Paige Harden

So there's this gene-environment interaction, but those gene-environment interactions also give us clues about where can we intervene environmentally to help people who are most genetically at risk. So it's not just the genes or the environment, it's the combination of the two together.

Kathryn Paige Harden

Our success is often attributed to merit, education and human nature… but how much of our lives is shaped by genetic ‘luck’? Genetic differences affect our lives in ways that matter, shaping our success and flourishing. 

In her groundbreaking first book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, Professor Kathryn Paige Harden explores how this ‘genetic luck’ shapes important traits from personalities to health to educational and financial success. 

She argues that denying the importance of genetics has contributed to the corrosive myth of meritocracy. She calls for recognition and appreciation of how these differences can push society to extend opportunity and lives of dignity to all. 

Hear Kathryn Paige Harden in conversation with UNSW evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, in a fearless discussion about how we are shaped by genetic inheritance, and how modern genetics can contribute to a better society. 

Order The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality from the UNSW Bookshop and receive a 20% discount.

The Centre for Ideas’ International Conversations series brings the world to Sydney.  Each digital event brings a leading UNSW thinker together with their international peer or hero to explore inspiration, new ideas and discoveries. 


Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. This podcast was recorded on the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people, and we pay our respects to their elders past and present. The conversation you're about to hear, The Genetic Lottery, brings together psychologist and behavioural geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden, from the University of Texas, Austin, with Rob Brooks from UNSW Sydney, and was recorded live. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Rob Brooks: I'm delighted today to be speaking to Professor [Kathryn] Paige Harden, about her exciting new book, The Genetic Lottery: What DNA Means for Social Equality. Joining us from Austin, Texas, where she is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas. Welcome [Kathryn] Paige Harden.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Thank you for having me.

Rob Brooks: I'm really excited to have a chance to chat with you today. I've been watching, since your book came out, and it seems to have been just about everywhere, in the past six months or so. It's at once both a tremendous introduction to modern genetics, but it's also a very brave book in which you argue that behaviour genetics is a valuable tool for tackling many of the inequities that trouble societies and trouble people, and that's not the kind of argument that behaviour genetics is really known for, and that behaviour geneticists have made over the last century or so. What has changed, that you can make that argument now?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Oh, gosh, what has changed? I think several things have changed. One is, technology has changed. So, you know, until relatively recently, if you were interested scientifically, in linking genetic differences between people with differences in how their lives went, so, the sorts of things that I'm interested in are, psychological characteristics of children and adolescents, but also life course outcomes, like education or income. And until recently, if you were interested in linking genetics with those types of outcomes, you couldn't actually measure anything about the human genome directly. You were relying on studies, such as twin studies or adoption studies that made really controversial assumptions. And the controversy around those assumptions made that research, I think, easier to ignore or underestimate. And now the DNA genie’s out of the bottle, we have this incredible technology where we can directly measure the human genome and investigate how specific genetic variants are associated with things that we care about in our society. So I think that technological change has pushed the issue to the forefront of the conversation. But I also think that the way in which we talk about biology in relation to equality has also shifted in recent years. So if we think about examples, such as the neurodiversity movement, which is looking at differences related to autism, or ADHD, or the gay rights movement, these are communities in which people have not said, we're pinning our claim to social equality on our biological sameness. They're actually saying, look, there might be biological diversity, and it's society's responsibility to see that and accommodate that ,respond to that, understand that. So I think we've had this combination of technological change, and also activist movements that have talked about biology, in relation to equality differently. And those two things together really set the stage for the argument that I'm making in this book that genetics is not destiny, but it does matter. And if we're interested in looking at a quality scientifically, but also addressing it politically, and economically, we need to think of genetics as one part of that picture.

Rob Brooks: Excellent. So you do tread this middle ground, I guess, and it looks to me like you've had a bunch of heat from both the left and the right, just to simplify it. One of your reviewers, Damian Morris, writing in Quillette claimed that the genetic lottery is a dangerous book that threatens to make our genetic advantages and disadvantages a new front in the culture wars. Firstly, how does that feel to have opened up a new front? And I guess more seriously, have genetic endowment not always been a front in the culture wars?

Kathryn Paige Harden: I think they have always been a front in the culture war. You know, if we think about the origin of even the phrase eugenics, right? So eugenics was this word coined by Francis Galton in the late 1800s, meant good genes. And from the very beginning his speculations about the role of heredity in human development were entwined with the racist and classist ideologies that characterised Britain in the late 1800s. And arguments about the role of genetics and human life and what we should do with that information has been contested science across ideological lines from the very beginning, and that, you know, that contestation was only more entrenched in the 20th century. So there is, you know, there has never been a time from Darwin on, in which the discussion of genetics or evolution or heredity in relation to humans has not been something that causes anxiety and controversy and concern. So I as much as I, you know, I guess I appreciate maybe the allegation that it's me opening this front in the culture war, I think I'm really surfacing tensions that have existed for a really, really long time in our conversations about these issues.

Rob Brooks: And there have been other attempts, I guess, to use biology, and particular genetics, to some extent evolution as well, and our understanding of those processes, our modern understanding of those processes, to do things that deliver social good, and that might be considered, sort of, of the political left. Do you have any other books that you particularly like or appreciate or think are worth our readers engaging with, that do that?

Kathryn Paige Harden: That's a really great question, you know that I have a kind of an offbeat suggestion, which is quite an older one, which is, heredity and the nature of man, which is by Dobzhansky, Theodosius Dobzhansky, in the… I think he published it in the 1950s, or 1960s. And he was an evolutionary biologist who was famous for working on the evolutionary synthesis. So how do we reconcile what we know from Mendel and the study of Mendelian traits with what we think of as evolutionary theory for the studies of Darwin, how do these things go together? But he was also of Russian Ukrainian background and had been observing both the horrors of Nazi Germany and World War Two, but also the treatment of geneticists by the Soviets in the 1940s and 50s. Where Mendelism genetics was considered a threat to the class struggle. And so he was really responding to, you know, some of the most potent authoritarian ideologies of the 20th century, genocidal ideologies, both of which were responding and leaving to genetics in a certain way, and was trying to make sense of, now I've emigrated to America, my whole my whole life's work is on evolution, how do we talk about this in a way that avoids the kind of evils of fascism, but also the evils of communism, in terms of how they treated people, vis a vis genetics. So it's really interesting to read that book, because it's from 70 years ago, and yet the tensions that it's talking about, the kind of needle he's trying to thread here, is really, really similar, in many ways to the conversation we're having now.

Rob Brooks: And it's not often that a book from 70 years ago comes across in such a way, as, kind of, refreshing and something you're glad you discovered.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, yeah. Or you know, that still, it speaks to the timelessness of these kinds of issues that people are struggling… about the relation between biology, and identity, and agency, and fairness.

Rob Brooks: So Dobzhansky could do it 70 years ago, but you know, many of the people whose original books and papers that recite in genetics, are already cancelled or being cancelled, or, you know, we're really questioning their entire legacy, including their scientific legacy. What do we do about people like Francis Galton, Ronald Fisher, Henry Goddard, Karl Pearson, who laid such important foundations for this science, but you know, held views, often did things with those views that are completely repugnant to us now.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, you know, I wrote an essay about this last year, and it was titled, What Do We Do With the Science of Terrible Men? And it was exactly on this question. If we look at biostatistics, every single one of our tools from the correlation coefficient, the standard deviation, the f test, even you know, what we think of as experimental factors, right, the design of experiments, were set up by people who at the time held, to varying degrees, what we think of as really atrocious eugenic views, particularly about the poor, about people of colour, about the ethics of something like involuntary sterilisation. And so that puts us in a situation of, how do we acknowledge that history, recognize that history, dig out some of the eugenic assumptions that characterise our use of those tools, but also reclaim them, reappropriate them, we're not going to stop calculating correlation coefficients in the modern sciences, despite the fact that it was invented by Karl Pearson, who advocated against child labour laws, for instance. I just want to know that this is a problem that we see, really across the board. So the title of that essay, What Do We Do With the Science of Terrible Men?, was a play on a, an essay by the writer, Emily Nussbaum, who's a TV critic for the New Yorker, and she has this really great essay about What Do We Do With the Art of Terrible Men?, which is another thing, you know, can you enjoy the film, if the filmmaker has been, you know, for instance, involved in sexual assault? She begins with an extended digression on Woody Allen, was her example. We see this with political figures. How do we recognise that really problematic figures have given us political documents, like the Declaration of Independence, in the United States, but were also slave owners. So I really think that in some ways we can never fully separate the art from the artist. Any teaching of statistics, I think needs to acknowledge the assumptions and the background that went into these developments. But we can also think about like, well, how can libertarian movements reclaim those tools? You know, how can we use them for good, and I've been really inspired by the work of, for instance, there's a book that I cite in the, in my book called A Terrible Thing to Waste, and, you know, IQ tests have been misused for decades, but can they be used as a tool to diagnose for instance, environmental racism, like, you know, the effects of exposure to toxicants, on children of colour. So I think that's always an ongoing conversation that we're having, where we have to be aware of the history but not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. 

Rob Brooks: Talking about genetics, I guess, I’ve put your book on to my evolution class’ reading lists, both because of your interesting argument, but also, because it's a really superb introduction to contemporary genetics, and behaviour genetics in particular. Now, many in our audience won't have studied genetics, perhaps ever. And I won't ask you for the full primer, because that'll take up all the time we have but you rely really quite heavily in your argument on two topics, genome wide association studies, and polygenic indices. And I'm wondering if you could just give us before we can go forward, a bit of a working sense of what these are, for those of us whose genetics is, let's say, the 20th century.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, so every human has in their cells, 23 pairs of chromosomes unless you have a condition like Down's, in which you've inherited an extra chromosome. And all of those chromosomes, your DNA, are made up of four DNA letters, which are abbreviated G, C, T, and A. So most of that DNA is exactly the same across all humans. So all humans are more than 99% genetically similar. Most of that DNA is making a person, making a human body. But if we look at that less than 1%, that differs between people. Those are what we would call genetic variants. So they vary between people. Most commonly, scientists, like myself are studying variants that are called snips, like snip, which we don't even have to get into what that stands for, but they're single DNA letter differences between people. So I might have a T in a certain spot, and you might have a C in a certain spot. So what a genome wide association study is doing is; it's measuring hundreds of thousands, or even millions of those snips, those DNA letter differences between people, that are scattered throughout your entire genome, across all your chromosomes. And doing basically a giant data mining exercise to look for patterns, which genetic variants are correlated with some outcome we're interested in. So if the outcome we're interested in is height, we might say which genetic variants are more common in tall people versus short people? In the case of educational attainment, which is how many years you've gone in school, we're looking at which genetic variants are more common, and people who graduated from college versus dropped out before they got their high school or secondary school degree. Those studies are typically restricted to people who are really similar with regards to both their self identified race and ethnicity and with regards to what we would call their genetic ancestry. So all of their recent genetic ancestors came from the same part of the world. The most common study is of people who self identify as white British. And if we look at their genetic ancestry, it seems that all their recent genetic ancestors came from Northern Europe. And that's because the most data has been collected on those people, and so it's easiest to do studies with them. 

So we're just looking, again, for these tiny correlations between these genetic variants are more common in people who have one characteristic versus another. That's fairly uncontroversial if the outcome of interest is something like macular degeneration, or type two diabetes, and the first genome wide association studies were really focused on these biomedical phenotypes, blood lipids, cholesterol levels, where things started to get really interesting, from a psychological perspective is when researchers started to train this genome wide association study lens on things that are typically the focus of social science. So how far do you go in school? How much money do you make? Have you ever been addicted to opiate drugs, like these type of more psychological behavioural phenotypes. A lot of people were sceptical that that would work at all. But it turns out that we can identify in people of European ancestry, patterns of genetic correlations that are related to, going further in school, making more money, having sex at a later age, delaying childbearing, a number of these reproductive phenotypes. So that's a GWAS, and then we can take the information from a GWAS, and apply it to new groups of people. So recently, just a month ago, actually, there was a new paper in Nature Genetics, where they looked at genetic variants associated with educational attainment in 3 million people, they found 1000s of genetic variants that were more or less common, and people who had gone further in school. And so what researchers like I do is that we collect DNA samples from new groups of people, and essentially use the results of these big GWAS, these genome wide association studies, as kind of like a scoring key for new people from this new samples DNA. So I might take a sample of your spit, sequence the DNA and it and then say, okay, how many going further in school variants do you have, how many not going further and school variants you had, and add that up into a single number, and that number is what we call a polygenic score, or a polygenic index. So it's a single number that represents my best guess as a scientist, which is still not that good of a guess, there's still a lot of uncertainty there about your likelihood of displaying a phenotype, an outcome that I'm interested in, based just on information that I'm getting from your DNA and the results of previous research.

Rob Brooks: And I'm guessing that there's a bit of resistance to the notion of this one dimensionality to important traits. Is that something that's new or?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, well, I mean, of course, there is because it's really, I mean, it's, it's actually kind of shocking that it works because it's the ugliest, messiest thing, right? It's the cludgiest thing from the perspective of a biologist. You know, from the perspective of a biologist, you're interested in mechanisms that we really understand. So this gene is being expressed in this tissue to create this gene product, which is interacting with this other gene product in this way, and a polygenic score is mushing all of that together into one number, right? So if we have genetic variants that are associated with going further in school, that could be because the genes are affecting something about brain development that's affecting memory, and it's easier to learn your schoolwork, it could be that the genes are affecting something about your appearance, maybe you have a more symmetrical face. And now you conform to social norms about beauty, and your teachers are nicer to you. Because of that. It could be that you're a morning person, and we start school at 7:30 in the morning, and that makes you more successful. So it's this real black box mechanistically. And it's really biologically unsatisfying. At the same time, a polygenic score, polygenic index, is strongly related to a person's chances of graduating from college as knowing something about their family income. So it's kind of unignorably large in terms of the magnitude of its association. And it's really mechanistically opaque and biologically messy. So whether or not that's a bug or feature, whether or not the messiness makes you go, why are we even doing this or from my perspective makes you really interested? Well, what's going on there? What kind of processes is this polygenic score tapping into? I think, you know, it’s part of the controversy around this type of work.

Rob Brooks: You don't stop at this kind of big correlational type of stuff, you've given a really excellent exposition in the book about the importance of understanding cause and what it means for something to be a cause. And the importance of mechanisms. Can you give us a bit of a sense of how the mechanisms between genes, and issues to do with social equality and flourishing, how we make those connections?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, so the thing about mechanisms is that a lot of times when we're talking about mechanisms, people assume that they have to be biological mechanisms, so that if genes are related to how far you go in school, the first thing that people want to know is well, which genes and you know, what are they doing in cells, and what proteins are they creating? But I'm a psychologist, right? So I'm interested in not just in, what are molecules doing in cells, but what are people doing in society? How are social institutions pushing people into one trajectory versus another. And those are also mechanisms, social and environmental mechanisms. So ironically, I think our genetic tools, because they smoosh together so many different biological processes, are actually kind of the most interesting as tools to understand these social and environmental mechanisms. So for instance, if a child has a certain genetic predisposition, what type of parenting do they tend to evoke? Do they tend to evoke from their parents more harsh discipline? Because they're a rowdy kid who's really difficult to manage their behaviour? Are they the sort of kid that evokes teachers' love playing with them and giving them lots of stimulation? And then how does that differential treatment reinforce the kids initial genetic propensities? What are the feedback loops between people and their environments? Those are the sorts of social mechanisms that I'm really interested in using polygenic scores as a tool for understanding.

Rob Brooks: You tell a story in your chapter seven about some of your primary research on educational attainment. And not only is there considerable genetic variation in, sort of, the cognitive component, and you know, how you go on standardised tests, etc. But the other non cognitive traits that influence how we go forward, and you talk about this in terms of genetic luck, what does this mean, you know, how conscientious you are or your social environment? And those very interesting and unusual ways in which genes influence us. How does that play into your notion of genetic luck that, you know, the title of your book is a genetic lottery?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah. So just to back up a second, if we look at what are some of the things that differ between people that make it easier to go through school, we actually have a ton of research about that from educational and developmental psychology. So part of that is cognitive ability. You know, if you have better working memory, better, visuospatial reasoning or stronger vocabulary, school is easier for you. But a big part of it is what economists have called non cognitive skills, which is all the stuff that makes school easier, that's not cognitive ability. Parents, who if you think about your multiple children will recognize that there's personality traits that might make school easier or harder. Are you impulsive? Are you fidgety? Do you like to plan and organise things? How persistent are you in the face of frustration or failure? Are you the sort of person who's interested in ideas? Or are you, you know, you know, what you like, and that's what you like, and you don't like other things. You know, kind of, how open to new experiences are you? And we also know that personality is heritable, you know, part of our personality is shaped by the genes we happen to have. What I think is interesting about that, is that, a lot of times – I'm going to use another gambling analogy other than a lottery – a lot of times people think about the relation between genetics and success in life, economic or educational success in life, is being kind of like a poker game, right? There's the genes, or which hand you get dealt, but there's still how you play the hand that you've been dealt. But I think if we think about genetic influence on personality, that metaphor starts to break down. Because our genes are also influencing how we play the hand we're dealt, it influences how motivated we are, how planful we are, how much impulse control we have. So there's a philosopher of freewill named Galen Strawson, who is here at UT Austin, and he has this famous line that luck swallows everything. There's really nothing that's not touched at least a little bit by luck. At the same time my PhD advisor from the University of Virginia, Eric Turkheimer, is famous for saying everything is heritable. Everything that differs between people is influenced a little bit by our genes. And I think those are two things that are actually expressing the same idea, or very similar idea. This lucky event, which genes you happen to inherit from your parents, they don't determine everything about you, but they do influence almost everything about you. And that makes this line between what's effort and agency, and what's luck, kind of impossible to tease apart, because part of our effort is due to our genes, and our genes are, you know, this lucky thing that we inherited. So it really kind of breaks down this distinction, I think, that we have between like, what we have control over or what we deserve, and what's influenced by the luck in our life.

Rob Brooks: So that goes back to the sort of left, right, divide the nature nurture controversy. If you go back to the beginnings of Greek philosophy, you know, rationalism and empiricism, I like to say, the left likes to blame the system and the right likes to blame the victim. But what you're saying here is that you can't really do either of those things because genetic luck gets in there, like a bit of a blender.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah. Genetic luck is blended in there. I, you know, I would say, there's kind of two traditions on the political right that the left objects to. And one tradition is, is one around, you know, one about like a racialized hierarchy or classes hierarchy, right? So the idea that some people are better than other people. But there's also this strain, particularly in the American right wing, which is all about merit and dessert, and you earned it, you pulled your, you know, the American dream, you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. And I think that genetics actually tells us very little about the first story, you know, racism, genetic construct, we're not, you know, genetics is not telling us anything about racial differences. But it's telling us something about why that second story, I think, is incorrect, right? Because if we look at the role of chance and structuring people's life outcomes, the room that’s left over for the kind of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps mythology is, I think, much narrower, and than many people might want to recognize.

Rob Brooks: You have a great quote in there, I was just looking for it a moment ago, about, you know, never talk to a successful person about luck.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's, um, it's from EB White, who I think is best known for the children's book, Charlotte's Web, but was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and so had many essays, not about children's issues, but you know, about adult issues. And he has a book called One Man’s Meat, and there's an essay in there on luck, and he says, you cannot speak of luck to a self made man. And I think that speaks to something that many of us have, which is this desire to feel in control of our lives, and to feel like our success is up to what we've done and what we've earned. There's a great study, this is not in my book. But there's a great study by psychologist Paul Piff, where they rig a monopoly game, and some people get $400 every time they pass, go, and other people get $200 every time they pass go. And everyone knows it, everyone in the game can see how the game is rigged. But if you ask the winners of the game, who were inevitably the ones who get $400, every time they go around the board, why did you win? They still attribute their win to the savvy choices they made in the game, and not to the fact that they got double the money every time they went around the board. And I think that that really reveals something about how people can respond to being made aware of the role of structural luck in their lives. And I think genetics is a form of structural luck in people's lives.

Rob Brooks: It's a vaguely depressing idea, certainly that monopoly game is.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Is it? Oh, yeah the Monopoly game result is a little bit depressing. But you know, also illuminating, right? I mean, I think this is the power of psychology, which is that if we know that about ourselves, we have an opportunity for insight. The economist Robert Frank wrote this book called Success and Luck which he was talking about external lucky events that happen to you. I sort of think of it as a kind of a twin to my book, and he has this great part about how, when we're looking forward, we need to approach our lives with a feeling of control and agency, what can I change? But when we're looking backwards, we need to think about how our successes were due to things beyond our control and to feel grateful for them. And I really like that kind of message about how we can both have agency and gratitude when we appreciate the role of luck in our lives.

Rob Brooks: Now, we just need to roll out some kind of campaign to figure out how to bring that to everyone. We have questions, some questions from our audience, and I want to introduce one of them. Now, it comes from a viewer called Hazel Whitaker, who asks, where do you see the most opportunity for future students to work in this area? And I guess, not just behaviour genetics, but the entire area of the genetic lottery. What areas have the most potential, and where will there be skill shortages? We can tell what Hazel's thinking about here.

Kathryn Paige Harden: So I think one of the greatest opportunities right now in diversifying genetics. Right now, the vast majority of information we have about the human genome comes from one narrow slice of the global population. And that's people with Northern European ancestry. So it's white Britons, Icelanders, and white 23andme customers, make up, like, the vast majority of genome wide association studies. And that's not only inequitable, but hurts the science, because we're neglecting an enormous pool of genetic diversity and variety that we're not examining. So I think expanding the diversity of genetics, which also means building infrastructure and talent within local communities, particularly in the Global South, is going to be one of the most productive avenues in genetics moving forward. And then somewhat closer to you know, the realm of behavioural genetics. You know, right now, there's, there's an entire enterprise of intervention studies, we're going to test whether, you know, this control group versus this treatment group, helps kids do better in school, or improves their psychological well being or reduces teenage anxiety, or whatever. And that's largely separate from genetics right now. And I think a marriage of experimental studies that include genetics, I think, is gonna be really productive in the future.

Rob Brooks: So skipping to those interventions, I guess, there's this great quote with which you in the second last chapter, chapter 11. So I'll read the quote, and then I'll ask the question.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Okay.

Rob Brooks: And you write that, “the question becomes then, how can public spaces and working conditions and access to medical care and legal codes and social norms be reimagined, such that the arbitrariness of nature is not crystallised into an inflexible caste system? This is the critical overarching question I want to bring to our discussion of policies in the post genomic age, which we will consider in the final chapter.” Now when I read that I'm on board with [Kathryn] Paige Harden and the genetic lottery, and I want to intervene, and I've got a really solid view of what we shouldn't do, and how to avoid eugenic thinking or genome blind thinking, and we might get back to those in a little moment. But I'm a little bit short at this stage on specifics. So now I'm going to assume that President Biden has read the genetic lottery or someone in his office has, and he brings you in, and he says, I mean, he's got a few other things on his hands, but he reads, and offers you any portfolio in his cabinet, and he says Paige, you've got some interesting ideas here, take whichever portfolio you want, and implement one program, any program that you like, where do you start, and what do you do?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Okay, well, the first one is easy, which is universal health care. So I think this is something that's under-appreciated, particularly when I'm talking to audiences outside of the United States and outside of Texas. But I live in a state which has, you know, the largest number of uninsured or underinsured Americans in the country, and where people are routinely sent home because they are unable to access basic medical care. So if we're thinking about, what do we owe people, regardless of what they quote unquote, have achieved, regardless of their biology, regardless of their environmental circumstances? Like a very obvious baseline, one is healthcare. And that seems obvious, but it's something that we have not done in the United States. And I think, to our great detriment. So if Biden gives me one thing, it's that. Which is, decoupling access to health care from education, which is how it's been, you know, education is tied to employment, and right now health care is tied to employment in the United States. That's the first one. I think the second one is really around de-emphasising university degrees as a pathway to stable and secure employment. I think, again, we don't have to look very far. There are other countries that do a much better job in terms of unions, in terms of wages, in terms of apprenticeships, in terms of investments in human skills training, that is not, you’re gonna go do a four year degree. So that would be the second thing that I would want to take on, which is not, how do we get more people through university? I think that's important. I think that's interesting. But how do we de-emphasise the role of a university degree on labour conditions? On the ingredients of having an economically secure life? What is our labour policy for non college educated workers? I think that would be the second thing that I would be most interested in. If he was like, well, you're a scientist, and we're not going to put you in charge of either labour policy or health care policy. What are you going to do for education? I think there needs to be many more randomised controlled trials of different educational interventions, more policy evaluation studies. And I think those studies need to be genotyping their participants. And that can sound like a really controversial perspective. But we know that genetic information improves our statistical power to detect what's working on average, it also is a window to see if our interventions are helping people who are most at risk for poor educational outcomes. So I would be advocating for a platform that allows the combination of de-identified genetic data with mass experimentation with the sorts of things that students are already, you know, schools are already trying and implementing. Can we have good randomised control trials around those things?

Rob Brooks: So you know, in terms of the student question, then, we're not looking for just more behaviour geneticists, we're looking for people, considering labour markets, health care policy, and education. And those are often areas that are particularly resistant to genetic information, you know, where that battle to really be taken seriously, as a geneticist comes in. How do we get more openness to genetics into the kind of argument that you're making in the academic departments and the bureaucracies that are associated with social interventions?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, you know, that's such a good question. And that's part of, you know, the conversation that I was hoping to start with this book. You know, I think one thing is just back to making it clear why genetics is even relevant for people who work in the social policy sphere. A lot of times, what I hear is, well, I can't change people's genes, I can change people's environments. So why do I even care about what their genes are? I'm, you know, I'm interested in the nurture side of the equation. And I think explaining to people, well, just because something is genetic, doesn't mean we can't intervene environmentally. And because there's genetic variation, we want to know whether or not your environmental intervention is working in the same way for people regardless of their genetics. And I've had so many people in the policy space, say to me, I never realised that this was at all even relevant for what I do before this book, before we started talking about it and genes in this way. So I think you kind of have to dismantle a little of this nature/nurture binary in people's heads in order to even explain why it might be a useful tool. I will say it's been interesting in the reaction to the book, and that I've gotten the most pushback, I think, from fellow academics, but many policymakers and governmental institutions have reached out to me to say we want to hear more about this. So I think a lot of people are hungry for new tools and new solutions. But it's an ongoing conversation, definitely.

Rob Brooks: So I guess, with these kinds of conversations, the other big story in genetics over the last couple of decades, in addition to that technical advances in GWAS, etc, has been a maturing understanding of gene environment interactions that, you know, the environment in which one set of genes or one genome flourishes is not necessarily the same as another. Do you have any really great examples that you can use to get our viewers who might be a little bit genome sceptical on board with this notion of gene environment interactions? 

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah, so I think one example we can think of comes from the realm of family therapy, actually. So if we look at, there’s genetic differences in teenagers' risk for addiction, right? Now, every teenager is equally likely to develop an alcohol abuse problem. And some of that genetics has to do with, how does your body metabolise alcohol? But some of it has to do with personality. Do you tend to like loud, rowdy friends? Do you like to go to parties where, you know, there will be substances on offer? At the same time, we see that one of our most effective therapies for adolescents who are at risk for substance use problem is family therapy to improve teenager parent relationships. So are you the sort of parent that your kid wants to tell you things, right? Wants to tell you who their friends are? You’re I think that you're the father of teenagers, like, do you know where your kids are at 11pm at night? Do you know who they're spending time with? So what we see is in randomised controlled trials of family therapy that is devoted to improving parent child communication and parental monitoring of teenagers whereabouts, that that helps on average, but it helps kids who are most genetically at risk for addiction the most. And that's because one of the pathways between their genetic risk and their addiction is through their social environment. And that's what the family therapy is intervening on, and it's helping with. So, you know, you might have a, you know, a permissive parent or a cold parent or a parent who just doesn't, you know, is busy and doesn't really know what their teenagers are doing. And that can be totally fine for one kid, and really dangerous and problematic for another kid. So there's this gene environment interaction. But those gene environment interactions also give us clues about where can we intervene environmentally, to help people who are most genetically at risk. So it's, you know, it's not just the genes or the environment, it's the combination of the two together. And you really have to understand both of those pieces in order to figure out how to help the teenagers who are most at risk.

Rob Brooks: Now, as if it weren't complicated enough, one of our audiences has written in with a question about epigenetics and DNA methylation, which of course is yeah, you know, compelling set of ideas. And they asked, John Silk asks, do you think the manipulation of DNA methylation might reverse results in inheritance?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Oh, gosh, that's such a good question. So just to go back a step. So epigenetics is, you know, an umbrella term that describes a number of processes that regulate how your genes are read in your cells. So all of your cells, with some exceptions, have the same DNA, but your liver cells, don't look like your brain cells, your body at 40, doesn't, unfortunately, look like your body at 22. And that's in part because of changes in epigenetic regulation. And one form of epigenetic regulation is DNA methylation, which is where methyl groups, kind of, this is a very unscientific term, glom on to the genome to affect, you know how the genome can be read, in certain tissues at certain times. So what we see is that our lab actually does research on DNA methylation, and we see that there's a very clear association between both which genes you inherit and your patterns of DNA methylation, but also what is your environmental context? So in Austin, children growing up in poverty show different DNA methylation patterns and children who are coming from affluent homes. In the ageing field, this has been a really hot topic, because you know, people are always interested in the fountain of youth. So if you reverse DNA methylation, if I could make your DNA methylation look more like a 25 year old, would the rest of your biological systems follow suit? People have differing opinions on the the realism of that. I really think of it as this is another layer of information that's telling us about what's happening in a child's development. So we can think about the genome, the epigenome, the exposome, and then there are phenotypes. And all of these, with the exception of the DNA sequence, are changing dynamically over the course of development.

Rob Brooks: So high tech interventions. You spend a lot of the book dismissing the arguments and the understanding of genetics of people who you'd rather politely call hereditarian pessimists. People like Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray, you sort of give up on human improvement, because the only way they can envision it is by improving genes. Now, there's a very active movement out there who are altogether less pessimistic. They're full of can-do bravado, and they're flush with tech dollars and crypto fortunes and they want to do things like go to Mars. In the case of biology, these are the transhumanists and they're all about improving humans using technology, including improving human intelligence. Where did these people sit for you in terms of the rather patchy history of hereditarianism and social engineering? Is there a place for transhumanists and transformers technologies in improving human lives?

Kathryn Paige Harden: You know, that is a fascinating question and I have to say of all the questions you've asked, the one that I've given the least thought to. So I don't think I have a very well elaborated answer on that, I have some… I have some reactions that come to mind. And the first is, I think people are understandably wary of a kind of perfectionism and how that might affect people who don't want to engage in that perfectionism. So just to use a rough analogy, you know, part of the reason that we sometimes object to doping in sports is, does that create this expectation that if you're going to participate in athletics at all, you're going to have to take these body altering drugs that might have unwanted side effects? How does that create pressure that's ultimately unwanted by most people? The premise of the movie Gattaca is this right? But it becomes so normative that you genetically engineer your children, that people who are conceived the old fashioned way are stigmatised as quote, unquote, invalid. So I think one worry that I have just, thinking about is, how do proposals for human optimization come from the transhumanism movement, what are the potential costs? Or what are the potential risks that those have in terms of people being left behind, or people being stigmatised or creating a culture that ultimately is experienced as negative and then unwanted? My other reaction to it is, I think, what the hereditarian pessimists and maybe the transhumanists have in common is this... and I don't want to speak generally, because I'm sure that there's intellectual diversity in the latter two, is the sense that if biology matters that humans well being can only be improved via our biology. And I think that potentially underestimates radically the role of cultural innovation, right? So just think of one example, if you compare the average math that, like, a second grader learns today, with who would have been doing that math 500 years ago? We've gone from here's a cultural thing that only geniuses engaged in to something that we teach the average eight year old, right? And that's not because we've tinkered with people's biology, but because we have changed culture and education. So I guess I'm not so much sceptical, but wary of movements that make biology the only or the primary method by which we improve human wellbeing,

Rob Brooks: Biological knowledge, cultural intervention, I suppose. So you've asked a lot of us in your book, you know, I used to think that most engaged people would be interested in social equality, in ensuring fairness and in you know, making sure that people have opportunity. But climate change has shown us and I think that the COVID pandemic has shown us that even when science has, you know, written in bright neon, the best evidence-based solutions to problems, people will still argue, and they'll squabble, and they'll fret about their own liberties, rather than necessarily taking collective action. I suppose we had Don’t Look Up for a moment to laugh at and laugh at ourselves about, but do you ever really despair of people's capacity to do what you've asked? Which is a task that's a lot more complicated, I think and ideologically fraught, than, say, acknowledging climate change or wearing a mask?

Kathryn Paige Harden: Yeah. Yes. I mean, I definitely have moments in which I feel like I'm just shouting into the void. And I think most academics probably have moments in which they wonder if their work is, you know, what is it for? And is it futile? But I think in my darker moments, I try to think of times in which we really did make progress because people were very persistent. You know, when people realise that lead was a neurotoxin, right? You know, there's stories of people walking around and being like, all I can see is poison everywhere around me, and no one will listen to me. Or when people first realised that smoking was harmful, or that we needed sanitation in water in order to stop the spread of communicable diseases, and we needed public health investments, those ideas were not immediately adopted. Those ideas were adopted after years and decades of scientists saying, but I really do think this is important, but I really do think this is the way forward. There's this, there's this old Instagram account called Humans of New York, where they would stop people and take a picture and interview them. And there was this the Humans of New York with Obama, like many years ago, and Obama said when I focused on how I was losing, I couldn't do it, all I could focus on was what is the work, what is my responsibility? And I feel like that's something I come back to which is like, well, what is what is the work? And my work is to do good science and to communicate it as clearly as possible. And you know that that's where I need to focus my energy and effort.

Rob Brooks: Well, for a very bleak question, you've given us a very uplifting answer, and an absolute, it's been just great fun chatting to you about the genetic lottery, and about your ideas. I'd like to finish by thanking you, [Kathryn] Paige Harden, it's been a fantastic conversation. I've really enjoyed it. I hope that everybody's gonna go out there and buy the book in one form or another and read the book, and then think about the book because it's something that's really worth reading. And I think you've given us the work that we need to do over the next coming years. So thank you very much.

Kathryn Paige Harden: Thank you so much for the lovely questions. I really appreciate it.

Ann Mossop: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Kathryn Paige Harden

Kathryn Paige Harden

Kathryn Paige Harden is a tenured professor in the Department of Psychology at UT Austin, where she leads the Developmental Behaviour Genetics lab and co-directs the Texas Twin Project. 

Harden received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Virginia and completed her clinical internship at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School before moving to Austin in 2009. Her research has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Huffington Post, among others. In 2017, she was honoured with a prestigious national award from the American Psychological Association for her distinguished scientific contributions to the study of genetics and human individual differences.  

She is the author of The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality which provides a provocative and timely case for how the science of genetics can help create a more just and equal society.  

Rob Brooks

Rob Brooks

Rob Brooks is an international expert on the conflicting evolutionary interests that make sex sizzle and render reproduction complex. He has won Australia's most prestigious award for science communication, the Eureka Prize, and is the author of Artificial Intimacy: Virtual friends, digital lovers and algorithmic matchmakers and Sex, Genes and Rock 'n' Roll: How evolution has shaped the modern world, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Science Writing. He is Scientia Professor of Evolution at UNSW Sydney, where he founded and directed the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre.

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