Eliminating Genetic Reductionism From Developmental Science

Richard M. Lerner

Imagine for a moment that dropping out of high school was a crime. Imagine as well that you are a judge of a case involving a 15-year-old girl who had been convicted of dropping out of high school, as had her mother and her grandmother. Declaring that “Three generations of high-school dropouts are enough!” you sentence the girl not to prison but to being sterilized. For at least this family, you intend to put an end to the transmission across generations of dropping out of high school.

Ridiculous, you say. A nonsensical, pointless, and even stupid anecdote.

Perhaps. But forget about imagination. Consider this actual set of events:

In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in support of a decision upholding a Virginia law that authorized sterilization of “mental defectives” without their consent. He agreed that a young woman, Carrie Buck, should be sterilized because she was unfit to reproduce. Raped, and now pregnant, her mental defect was evidenced by the fact that she was going to have a baby out of wedlock. Justice Holmes wrote:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

(Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, italics added)

And so Carrie Buck was sterilized. Although her pregnancy was not aborted and she eventually gave birth, she was kept from passing along her genes any further, so that her mental defectiveness could not be a further infliction on society. But Carrie Buck’s experience was not unique. Doerr (2009) explained that “State laws permitting sterilization of individuals deemed unfit to reproduce—most commonly institutionalized persons with mental illness, or even conditions such as epilepsy—were common in the first half of the twentieth century” (p. 1). The Virginia law that resulted in Carrie Bucks forced sterilization was not repealed until 1974. However, before this law and the comparable laws in more than 30 other states were repealed, more than 65,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States—to protect society from them spreading their defective genes.

Moreover, doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation forcibly sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010; the women targeted for sterilization were those deemed likely to return to prison in the future (Johnson, 2013). It was not until September, 2014 that California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill prohibiting forced sterilizations in prisons.

The Conceptual and Empirical Failures of Genetic Reductionism

1 have often reflected on a calamitous irony besetting social and behavioral science: Some people holding advanced degrees in their fields (and therefore who presumably should know better) do not recognize the logical flaws associated with their use of the 70-plus-year-old so-called evolutionary modern synthesis, which entailed the integration of Mendelian genetics with neo- Darwinian variation and natural selection. This position posits that there is a unit of natural selection—a gene—that remains fixed and immutable in its functional significance across eons of exchanges between individuals and their contexts, that is, across incalculable instances of the very process of evolutionary change, of natural selection and adaptation, discussed by Darwin. Examples of such fallacious reasoning occur in what is termed parental investment theory within evolutionary psychology (e.g., Belsky, 2012; Ellis, Schlomer, Tilley, & Butler, 2012), and in the use of sociobiological models of intellectual differences among racial groups (Rushton, 1992, 2000; Wade, 2014).

This logical problem is coupled with abundant and burgeoning evidence that genes are outcomes of evolutionary processes and not bases of them (Pigliucci & Muller, 2010; West-Eberhard, 2003). There is a similarly large and convincing literature that genetic function is a relatively plastic outcome of mutually influential relations among genes and the multiple levels of the context within which they are embedded: Cellular and extracellular physiological processes, psychological functioning, and the physical, social, and cultural features of the changing ecology that, together, create epigenetic change (e.g., Bateson, 2015; Cole, 2014; Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Keller, 2010; Meaney, 2010, 2014; Misteli, 2013; Slavich Sc Cole, 2013).

These data make fanciful, at best, the Kipling-like “Just-So Stories” about how genes function (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). The imagined stories of how the genes that afforded survival on the African savannah now explain sexual and reproductive behaviors among contemporary girls of color (e.g., Belsky, 2012; Belsky, Steinberg, & Draper, 1991) stretch credulity beyond reasonable bounds. Current biological science data indicate that epigenetic changes in mutually influential gene—context relations may persist across generations (Meaney, 2010, 2014; Misteli, 2013). Therefore, the illogical claims of social and behavioral scientists who tell these stories, and thereby adopt Cartesian split and reductionist claims about the function of genes, are also counterfactual.

Given the bad science emblematic of these genetic reductionist claims, a neophyte social or behavioral scientist—or a molecular geneticist happening on such egregiously flawed ideas—might expect that genetic reductionism would not be taken seriously by competent social and behavioral scientists. They might expect that such scientists would vociferously and visibly dismiss this thinking, in any form that it might occur. However, if these observers continued to pay attention to the literatures of these fields, they would learn that the presence of these ideas persists. As in the children s game, Whack- A-Mole, as soon as the failures of one instantiation of genetic reductionism are compellingly refuted, other instances of this problem-riddled conception, and another version of this idea, pops up.

Examples of Genetic Reductionism

In the 1940s through the 1970s Konrad Lorenz (e.g., 1939, 1940a, 1940b, 1966, 1974) presented these fundamentally flawed ideas about the “hardwired” links between genes and behaviors to explain imprinting in precocial birds or, as well, the ethical inferiority of Jews. His ideas were then thoroughly countered and dismissed, for instance, by Lehrman (1953, 1970) and by Schneirla (1957, 1966). Nevertheless, the ideas resurfaced again in the heritability work of Jensen (1969, 1980) regarding racial differences in intelligence. Herrnstein and Murray (1994) and Rushton (e.g., 2000) reiterated genetic reductionist arguments for the bases of racial differences in intelligence test scores.

In addition, genetic reductionist conceptions resurfaced in human socio- biological ideas about gender differences in sexuality and parenting (e.g., Dawkins, 1976; Freedman, 1979) and again in the postulation of Five Factor Theory, that there are five “big traits” (conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extraversion) that are fixed, stable, and biologically set facets of personality. These purportedly fundamental facets of individual functioning are held to reflect “nature over nurture” and to involve attributes that “are more or less immune to environmental influences . . . significant variations in life experiences have little or no effect on measured personality' traits” (McCrae et al., 2000, pp. 175-176).

Moreover, these ideas surfaced once again in evolutionary' psychology'. Here we find genetic reductionism used to generate explanations of how problematic father—daughter relations result in also problematic reproductive behavior of the daughters during adolescence (e.g., Belsky et al., 1991; Ellis et ah, 2012).

These flawed and empirically counterfactual ideas just continue to appear, much like a virulent virus that mutates to preserve itself. The dimensions of bad science reflected in these genetic reductionist ideas are legion and go well beyond logical problems and the misrepresentation of the fundamental features of genetic functioning within the ecology of human development. There are issues of conflating description with explanation and of equating purported analogy with biological homology. In addition, genetic reductionists use statistics that summarize group trends and neglect problems in data analysis and interpretation due to inappropriately inferring homogeneity and stationarity of data sets. That is, in their computations of heritabil- ity coefficients, genetic reductionists implicitly accept or infer ergodicity (Molenaar, 2014; Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2012, 2014, 2015; Nesselroade & Molenaar, 2010), when human development is fundamentally nonergodic (Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015). Moreover, genetic reductionists typically ignore low levels of variance and weak effect sizes in promulgating sweeping generalizations about genetic influences on behavior. Furthermore, they often advocate without adequate evidence ways in which their biological reductionist interpretations can be applied to programs and policies.

These erroneous extensions and interpretations of the idea of genetic reductionism create social mischief, at best, and racial, ethnic, class, gender, and so on, divisiveness and social turmoil, at worst. The recommended applications of bad science reinforce the fears of institutionalized racism in America and further the marginalization of minority group members in society. However, these are issues never publicly considered by those who promulgate these flawed extensions of counterfactual genetic reductionism.

Relational Developmental Systems Metatheory as a Frame for Eliminating Genetic Reductionism From Developmental Science

For all these reasons, therefore, I wish that genetic reductionism would disappear from the intellectual landscape of developmental science. The “positive” way of stating this wish, that is, if I focused on what I would like to see appear instead of disappear, is that I would wish to see relational developmental systems (RDS) metatheory used to frame models of human development (Overton, 2015). In addition, I would like the methods of research and data analysis linked to such theories (e.g., Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015; Molenaar, Newell &, Lerner, 2014) used across the breadth of research in human development and, in fact, in any biological, social, or behavioral science that has applied implications for humans.

Models derived from RDS metatheory depict universal functions of a living, open, self-constructing (autopoietic), self-organizing, and integrated/ holistic system (Molenaar, 2014; Overton, 2015; Witherington, 2014).

RDS metatheory is derived from a process-relational paradigm (Overton, 2015). Across the past four plus decades, several scholars have provided ideas contributing to the evolution of this paradigm (e.g., Bakes, 1997; Brandtstiidter, 1998; Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2005; Elder, 1998; Elder, Shanahan, & Jennings, 2015; Ford & Lerner, 1992; Lerner, 2012; Nesselroade, 1988; Overton, 1973; Riegel, 1975, 1976; and, even earlier, see von Ber- talanffy, 1933).

Overton (e.g., 2015), however, has led the way in integrating and extending this scholarship. He explains that, compared to a Cartesian worldview, the process-relational paradigm focuses on process (systematic changes in the developmental system), becoming (moving from potential to actuality; a developmental process as having a past, present, and future; Whitehead, 1929/1978), holism (the meanings of entities and events derive from the context in which they are embedded), relational analysis (assessment of the mutually influential relations within the relational developmental system), and the use of multiple perspectives and explanatory forms (employment of ideas from multiple theory-based models of change) in understanding human development.

Within the process-relational paradigm, the organism is seen as inherently active, self-creating (autopoietic), self-organizing, self-regulating (agen- tic), nonlinear/complex, and adaptive (Overton, 2015). Within the RDS approach to theory, split conceptions are eschewed in favor of a metatheory that emphasizes the study and integration of different levels of organization, ranging from biolog)'/physiology to culture and history, as a means to understand life-span human development (Lerner, 2006; Overton, 2015). Accordingly, the conceptual emphasis in RDS theories is placed on mutually influential relations between individuals and contexts, which are represented as individual^context relations.

The bidirectional arrow used in the RDS illustration of person—context relations is intended to emphasize that the coaction of individual and context involves the entire relational developmental system. As such, the relations among levels of the autopoietic system, and not independent linear combinatorial attributes, are the focus in such a model. Indeed, the fusion of individual and context within the relational developmental system means that any portion of the system is inextricably embedded with—or embodied by, in Overton’s (2015) conceptualization—all other portions of the relational developmental system.

Within the context of such a bidirectional relational system, the embeddedness within history (temporality) is of fundamental significance (Elder et al., 2015). This embeddedness means that change is constant in the relational developmental system and that, as such, there may be either stochastic or systematic changes in individual<=>context relations across time and place (Elder et al., 2015; Misteli, 2013). There always exists, then, some potential for systematic change and, thus, for (relative) plasticity in human development. Plasticity can arise through individual<=>context relations that are either ontogenetically or historically normative or from nonnor- mative life or historical events (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006; Lerner, 1984). The presence of such plasticity in human development means that combinations of individuals context relations can be identified or designed to enhance the probability of positive development among all individuals, and to decrease disparities in opportunities for positive development. In short, the application of RDS-based research can eventuate in the enhancement of social justice (Fisher, Busch-Rossnagel, Jopp, &. Brown, 2012).

The above-noted research on epigenetics provides rigorous and rich empirical examples of the importance of the distinction between plasticity in development versus developmental fixity (e.g., Misteli, 2013). The study of epigenetics illustrates that the genes received at conception (i.e., the genotype) are not a fixed blueprint for development. Genes are constantly getting turned on and off across the life span, and most of this activity is stochastic and short term (and of largely unknown origin; Misteli, 2013). However, epigenetic changes are enduring, systematic, and even cross- generational (Meaney, 2010; Misteli, 2013; Slavich & Cole, 2013).

Ending the Whack-a-Mole Game: A Call to Action

The conclusion about genetic reductionism that can be drawn from the example of epigenetics research is that Cartesian split conceptions of genes and their attendant reductionism constitute, at best, counterfactual distortions of contemporary understanding of the embodiment of genetic activity within epigenetic processes (e.g., see Meaney, 2010, 2014). At worst, genetic reductionist ideas and theories (or Whack-a-Mole Pop-Ups using these ideas) are intellectual atavisms redolent of such failed ideas as trephining and phrenology'.

In the 1970s, first Overton (1973) and then I (Lerner, 1978) published articles in Hitman Development explaining the conceptual and methodological errors (including egregiously flawed statistical analyses and misinterpretations of the findings from these analyses) of the then-current instantiations of genetic reductionist ideas, that is, behavior genetics and heritability analysis. My 1978 article was an outgrowth of the reviews of such genetic reductionist work that 1 presented in the first edition of my Concepts and Theories of Human Development text (Lerner, 1976).

In these publications, Overton and I warned of the substantive and applied “dangers” of this flawed work. Our articles built on earlier publications, for instance, those of Schneirla (1956, 1957) and Anastasi (1958). In turn, as different instantiations of genetic reductionism appeared, we, and many, many others critiqued the several conceptual, logical, and methodological problems of genetic reductionist ideas, whether cast as behavior genetics, human sociobiolog)', or evolutionary psychology. These critiques of bad science and of the dangerous misapplications stemming from these ideas were provided by scholars in developmental science or comparative psychology (e.g., Patrick Bateson, Gilbert Gottlieb, Gary Greenberg, Jerry Hirsch, Michael Meaney, George Michel, Peter С. M. Molenaar, Stephen Suomi, and Ethel Tobach) and biology (e.g., Elaine Bearer, Marcus Feldman, Stephen Jay Gould, Mae-wan Ho, Eva Jablonka, Marion Lamb, Evelyn Fox Keller, Richard C. Lewontin, and Benno Miiller-Hill).

Despite the breadth, depth, and quality of these contributions to developmental science, instantiations of genetic reductionism continue to pop up. Frankly, on the one hand, I marvel at the resilience of bad science. On the other hand, I am appalled by the fact that many bad ideas associated with genetic reductionism, for example, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance more generally, have a staying power that is unfathomable to me. Moreover, unfortunately, there have been very problematic inferences derived by many nonscientists—including journalists—from the continuing visibility of genetic reductionist ideas in developmental science. Key here has been the idea that genes differentiate people into racial groups that have quite different (and allegedly irremediable) propensities for intellectual functioning and for positive or problematic behaviors.

The potential implications of the flawed thinking and empirically coun- terfactual claims associated with this idea are manifested in the recent book by journalist Nicholas Wade (2014), who claimed that genes shape social behavior, manifested as behavioral traits that are alleged to vary significantly among races. Wade argued that these genes account for racial differences in wealth and economic institutions more generally. In short, if racial groups are either poor or rich, Wade argued that it is because of the evolution of their genes, and not social discrimination, racism, lack of education, and so on. This book continues to elicit attention despite the erudite and compelling criticism it has received, for instance, in a review of the book by Stanford University' geneticist Marcus Feldman (2014).

Moreover, other manifestations of the popular dissemination of these flawed ideas continue to emerge. Another example is Jay' Belsky s neo- eugenicist Op-Ed piece in the New York Times Sunday Review in November, 2014. Belsky claimed that there are some children who have genes that make them unable to gain from social interventions. As such, he recommends that society should not waste money on attempts to enhance their lives.

The individual responses to bad science and to its socially dangerous application to which I have pointed can (and should) continue to be published, as Overton and I, and others, have done for, now, 40+ years. I have concluded, however, that such an approach is necessary but woefully insufficient. I believe it is time for the major organizations in developmental science, and the major journals in our field, to collaborate in writing and broadly disseminating a consensus document about the bad science associated with past and contemporary genetic reductionist ideas. In turn, this statement should present the contemporary understanding of the relational developmental systems within which genes are embodied. The document should explain die abundant and growing evidence (e.g., in epigenetics and in the study of social genomics) about the plasticity of human development and present the profoundly different implications of this work for applications to policies and programs.

The visibility of such a collaborative consensus document, and its publication in the major developmental science journals around the world, could, finally, have the effect of diminishing the presence of bad science in our field or, to recall the stronger words used by Jerry Hirsch in 1981, to “unfrock the charlatans.” Such a statement should also explain the dangers of the policy and program recommendations being promulgated on the basis of such bad science, and—perhaps—enhance public discourse about how informed citizens can act to promote the positive and healthy development of all people.

Academics might contribute to such public discussions by working with their institutions’ public relations departments to transform their relevant publications into news stories that could be disseminated to media. Academics could also ask the public relations people at their institutions to contact media about their availability to speak about the nature and dangers of genetic reductionism and about scientifically rigorous alternatives to it. As well, developmental scientists should include critiques of past and present instantiations of genetic reductionism in their classrooms and laboratories; in turn, they should also point out the problematic individual, family, and social impacts of these flawed ideas and explain the compelling evidence against them and their applications. The more that academics make the refutation of genetic reductionist ideas the norm in their writing, public speaking, classrooms, and laboratories, the sooner will we see present a new generation of developmental scientists who can help the general public, media, and policy makers understand that genes are plastic components of the relational developmental system and not blueprints that design human behavior and development across ontogeny, generations, and contexts.


Whether couched in the language of behavior genetics, human sociobiolog)', or evolutionary psychology, the flawed thinking and counterfactual claims of genetic reductionism continue to plague science and society. Either we eliminate genetic reductionism from developmental science or we continue to allow bad science to erode the quality of our field. Today, there is no scientific reason to give any credence to genetic reductionism, no matter what clothing this wolf at the door happens to wear.

The inevitable outcome of failing to act to eliminate genetic reductionism from developmental science—and from the media and social policy worlds that genetic reductionists seek to influence—will be, at the least, wasting precious resources “testing” egregiously flawed and counterfactual ideas. At the worst, failing to act will make us enablers of societally disastrous applications of developmental science. Such applications can only rob people of life chances and destroy social justice. Therefore, 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.

Of course, such proclamations will have come too late for Carrie Buck, or to the daughter, Vivian, she bore before her sterilization terminated her capacity to reproduce. Despite the genes for feeblemindedness and immorality Vivian allegedly inherited from her mother, she did very well in school for the brief time that she attended it, before she died of complications from measles in 1932. In fact, she was listed on her school’s honor roll in April 1931! Indeed, the intellectual achievements of Carries daughter reduce to arrant nonsense and socially irresponsible rhetoric claims that the genes inherited by some children foreclose their potential for positive development or make them unable to thrive through participation in progressive social programs.


1 thank Kristina Schmid Callina, Rachel M. Hershberg, Sara K. Johnson, Jacqueline V. Lerner, Willis F. Overton, and Jennifer Urban for their comments.


The writing of this article was supported in part by grants from the John Templeton Foundation.


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