V Exposing the Counterfactual Nature of Genetic Reductionism

The counter-narrative to dynamic, relational developmental systems-based models of human development is genetic reductionism. Across my career, several different instantiations of genetic reductionism have been formulated to explain (or, better, explain away) the holistic, autopoietic (self- constructive), and relatively plastic character of the dynamic developmental system (Lerner, 2018). In what are split and essentialist accounts of development, proponents of behavioral genetics, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary developmental psychology have reduced the complexity of human development to the counterfactual claim that genes, existing prior to the beginning of the ontogenetic journey of a specific organism, are received at conception and, therefore, the DNA they contain is the “master builder” of the span of a human life. The allegation is that DNA is both the blueprint and the enactor of the blueprint, of the organism’s development.

Indeed, behavior geneticist Robert Plomin asserts in Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are (2018) that “DNA is the major systematic force, the blueprint that makes us who we are” (p. xiii) [and] “inherited DNA differences are the main reason why we are who we are” (p. 5). The evidence that Plomin used in this book to support his assertion has been repeatedly shown to be flawed on both conceptual and methodological grounds (e.g., Bateson & Gluckman, 2011; Gottlieb, 1998; Immordino-Yang, et al., 2019; Joseph, 2015; Meaney, 2010; Moore, 2002, 2015; Moore & Shenk, 2016; Richardson, 2017; Slavich & Cole, 2013; Wahlsten, 2016; Witherington & Lickliter, 2016; Woese, 2004).

Repeating this point in the Epilogue to his book, Plomin (2018) combines his flawed depiction of the role of genetics in human development with an equally counterfactual claim about the role of environmental influences in this development:

Genetics accounts for most of the systematic differences between us— DNA is the blueprint that makes us who we are. Environmental effects are important too, by they are unsystematic and unstable, so there’s not much we can do about them.

(p. 186)

Environmental effects, such as growing up in a specific family, in a special neighborhood, in a specific culture, at a specific time in history, and being treated in specific ways by teachers, government officials, police officers, and employers because of your race, religion, gender, sexuality, or national origin are therefore relegated to irrelevancy by Plomiti (2018) and other genetic reductionists (e.g., Belsky, 2014). The assertion that there is not much that can be done to change the course of development through changing the environment is a statement that, on its face, is patently absurd and, as well, ignorant of the thousands of studies documenting the effectiveness of programs and policies in enhancing human life. Using only applied developmental science as an instance of this scholarship, there is an abundance of such evidence (e.g., Barbarin, et al., 2019; Cabrera & Leyendecker, 2017; Durlak, et al., 2011; Jones & Kahn, 2017; Rhodes, 2020; Vandell, et al., 2015).

In addition to these shortcomings of Plomin s genetic reductionism, there are socially dangerous implications of his dismissal of context as irrelevant and as something about which society could not do much in any event. If the public and policy makers believe that money spent on changing individuals context relations is wasted, because environmental changes are going to be vain attempts at improving people s lives, then a next step might be ceasing to invest in making the lives of people better, a solution that was in effect recommended by Belsky (2014). And if genes create in people irremediable problems, then should society take steps to eliminate the presence of problematic DNA from the human gene pool? Such eugenic ideas have been forwarded—and even tried—across history (Lerner, 1992; Lerner & Chase, 2020).

As the articles in this section illustrate, across my career I have worked to eliminate genetic reductionism from developmental science, both because it represents bad science (Lerner, 1976, 1978, 2016, 2018; Lerner & Overton, 2017; Lerner & von Eye, 1992) and because of its potentially disastrous societal applications (e.g., Lerner, 2015). Such applications can only rob people of life chances and destroy social justice. Because developmental science has the knowledge base to change the life course trajectories of people who are often the targets of genetic reductionist ideas, all that remains to eradicate genetic reductionism from scientific discussion is to have sufficient numbers of developmental scientists willing to proclaim loudly and convincingly that the naked truth is that the “emperor” (of genetic reductionism) has no clothes.


Barbarin, O. A.. Tolan, P. H., Gaylord-Harden, N.. & Murry, V. (2019): Promoting social justice for African-American boys and young men through research and intervention: a challenge for developmental science. Applied Developmental Science, 24(3). https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2019.1702880

Bateson, P., & Gluckman, P. (2011). Plasticity, development and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Belsky, J. (2014, November 30). The downside of resilience. New York Times, Sunday Review, p SR4.

Cabrera, N. J., Sc Leyendecker, B. (Eds.). (2017). Handbook on positive development of minority children and youth. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Durlak, ). A., Weissberg, R P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, К. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A metaanalysis of school-based universal interventions, Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

Gottlieb, G. (1998). Normally occurring environmental and behavioral influences on gene activity: From central dogma to probabilistic epigenesis. Psychological Review, 105, 792-802.

Intmordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L., Si Krone, C. R. (2019). Nurturing nature: How brain development is inherently social and emotional, and what this means for education. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 185-204.

Jones, S. M., Sc Kahn, |. (2017). The evidence base for how we learn: Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development. National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Aspen Institute. Retrieved from: https://assets. aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2017/09/SEAD-Research-Brief-l 1.1.17.pdf

Joseph, J. (2015). The trouble with twin studies: A reassessment of twin research in the social and behavioral sciences. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lerner, R. M. (1976). Concepts and theories of human development. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Company.

Lerner, R. M. (1978). Nature, nurture, and dynamic interactionism. Human Development, 21, 1-20.

Lerner, R. M. (1992). Final solutions: Biology, prejudice, and genocide. University Park, PA: Penn State Press.

Lerner, R. M. (2015). Eliminating genetic reductionism from developmental science. Research in Human Development, 12, 178-188.

Lerner, R. M. (2016). Complexity embraced and complexity reduced: A tale of two approaches to human development. Human Development, 59, 242-249.

Lerner, R. M. (2018). Concepts and theories of human development (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lerner, R. M., & Chase, P. A. (2020). Hate in contemporary America: Pathology or opportunism? In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Perspectives on hate: How it originates, develops, manifests, and spreads (pp. 137-160). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lerner, R. M., Si Overton, W. F. (2017). Reduction to absurdity: Why epigenetics invalidates all models involving genetic reduction. Human Development, 60(2-3), 107-123.

Lerner, R. M., Si von Eye, A. (1992). Sociobiolog)' and human development: Arguments and evidence. Human Development, 35, 12-33.

Meaney, M. (2010). Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene x environment interactions. Child Development, 81, 41-79.

Moore, D. S. (2015). The developing genome: An introduction to behavioral epigenetics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, D. S., & Shenk, D. (2016). The heritability fallacy. 1VIREs Cognitive Science, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs. 1400

Plomin, R. (2018). Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. London: Allen Lane.

Rhodes, J. E. (2020). Older and Wiser: New ideas for youth mentoring in the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Richardson, K. (2017). Genes, brains, and human potential: The science and ideology of human intelligence. New York: Columbia University Press.

Slavich, G. M., & Cole, S. W. (2013). The emerging field of human social genomics. Clinical Psychological Science, 1, 331-348.

Vandell, D. L., Larson, R. W., Mahoney, J. L., tk Watts, T. W. (2015). Children’s organized activities. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Volume Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science, Volume 4: Ecological settings and processes (7th ed., pp. 305-344). Editor-in-Chief: R. M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Wahlsten, D. (2016). Dynamic heredity. Developmental Psychobiology, 58, 419-421.

Witherington, D.C., & Lickliter, R. (2016). Integrating development and evolution in psychological science: Evolutionary developmental psychology, developmental systems, and explanatory pluralism. Human Development, 59, 200-234.

Woese, C. R. (2004). A new biolog)' for a new century. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 68(2), 173-186.

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