The publication of Blueprint (2018) by the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin has revived the old debate about whether there’s something inherently racist or right-wing about looking for biological causes of human behavior. The subtitle of Plomin’s book—How DNA Makes Us Who We Are—makes it sound as if he’s a full-blooded hereditarian and that has led to a predictable outcry from long-standing opponents of this “dangerous” intersection where the natural sciences and the behavioral sciences meet. (To read an extract from Blueprint, click here.)
To its opponents, sociogenomics—or social genomics—of which Plomin is a leading practitioner, sounds suspiciously like sociobiology. When the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson published a book of that name in 1975, it was greeted with passionate opposition by a group of left-wing scientists who had assembled under the banner of ‘Science for the People,’ originally an anti-Vietnam War protest group. The biologists in that organization, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends up until this point, formed the ‘Sociobology Study Group’ and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a letter in the New York Review of Books signed by Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, among others, accused Wilson of peddling the same junk science that had led to the murder of six million Jews:
The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community…These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.
Wilson was dubbed the ‘Right-Wing Prophet of Patriarchy’ and subjected to vicious barracking whenever he crossed Harvard Yard or attempted to speak in public. The most famous protest occurred in 1978 at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. that had been convened to bring Wilson and his critics together. Ulicia Segerstrale takes up the story in Defenders of the Truth (2000), the definitive account of the sociobiology controversy:
The session has already featured Gould, among others, and Wilson is one of the later speakers. Just as Wilson is about to begin, about ten people rush up on the speaker podium shouting various epithets and chanting: ‘Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!’ While some take over the microphone and denounce sociobiology, a couple of them rush up behind Wilson (who is sitting in place) and pour a pitcher of ice-water over his head, shouting ‘Wilson, you are all wet!’ (To read more, click here.)
This article in the Guardian correctly points out that polygenic risk scores for medical problems are based on genomic data compiled from predominantly European-descended populations 1/ (To read more, click here.)
West Yorkshire Police hit the headlines twice this week. First we learned that the fourth-largest force in England and Wales has decided to ‘screen out’ 46.5 per cent of cases a year, i.e. not investigate them. And these aren’t minor crimes, but things like theft, assault and burglary. Apparently, West Yorkshire Police’s 5,671 officers will spend their time on ‘more complex’ offences instead. What do they mean by that? A clue was provided by the second story which concerned the verbal harassment warning the force has given to Graham Linehan, a television comedy writer, after a Twitter dispute resulting from Linehan referring to a transgender activist as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’ — and using their original, male name — even though the person in question is biologically male.
Many people will think this is poetic justice for Linehan and, by rights, I should be one of them. The co-writer of Father Ted is a socialist zealot with more than half a million followers on Twitter, and for years he has used this platform to denounce anyone to the right of Jeremy Corbyn. His stock-in-trade is furious moral indignation, the effect of which is often to whip up his disciples into an outrage mob, baying for blood. I’ve been on the receiving end many times, the most recent of which was four months ago when I published an account of getting into trouble at the beginning of the year for breaching politically correct speech codes on Twitter — exactly the same thought crime Linehan has now been accused of. ‘A stupid, empty man, quick with a lie, shallow as a puddle, one of the worst the UK has to offer,’ he tweeted. Cue the usual pile-on from his left-wing followers. I could tell they were sensitive, bookish types because their language was straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (To read more, click here.)
My oldest friend Sean Langan came to lunch last Sunday and, rather disappointingly, he seemed more interested in playing with our Amazon Alexa than asking me what I’d been up to. Sean is a documentary filmmaker who spends a lot of time in war zones — he’s just back from Syria —and he often reminds me of that Japanese soldier stranded in the Philippines who didn’t realise the second world war was over until 29 years later. The technological changes that occur while he’s in some god-for-saken hellhole are a constant source of wonder to him. I half-expected him to stop dead in front of our TV in amazement: ‘You mean to tell me the pictures are actually in colour? Whatever will they come up with next!’
Alexa is an internet-connected virtual assistant that looks like a large, black tin can. She sits there, dormant, until you say her name, at which point she comes to life. ‘Alexa,’ you say. ‘Is it going to rain today?’ She will then do her best to answer, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. People use it to make shopping lists, listen to podcasts, even control their heating. After an initial flurry of excitement, I mainly use her as an egg timer. (To read more, click here.)
The inquisition that has been launched by Woke physicists against Professor Strumia for expressing some heretical ideas at CERN about why women are under-represented in physics is truly shocking. You would think physicists, of all people, would be wary of inquisitions.
Professor Strumia has now been suspended by CERN and is under investigation by the University of Pisa, where he holds a chair in physics, for “ethics violations”. I wouldn’t be surprised if he loses both positions.
In the BBC report, his headline sin is reported to be claiming that “physics was invented and built by men”. That’s not 100% accurate — some women, such as Marie Curie, have made critical contributions to the field — but is it “offensive”? (To read more, click here.)
On Friday, more than 1,000 head teachers marched on Downing Street to protest against ‘dangerous’ cuts to budgets.
Judy Shaw, vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers, has said that things are at such a critical point, her primary school has no more than £80 left in its budget by the end of the academic year.
Another head teacher – this one at a primary school in Theresa May’s constituency – has written to parents asking them to pay for toilet paper.
So, is it really the case then, as any neutral observer might conclude, that budgets have been savagely cut by this heartless Tory government?
In fact, the opposite is true.
The last school year, for example, saw the Government devote an enormous £39 billion to education for five to 16 year-olds in England, up from £37 billion the year before.
This is the highest amount ever spent on schools.
Protesters claim the figure is misleading because it doesn’t take into account rising pupil numbers and inflation. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), a politically independent economic research body, insists that spending on schools has doubled in the past two decades, even allowing for those factors.
According to the IFS, in fact, the average amount received per pupil by primary schools increased by a whopping 114 per cent in real terms between 1997 and 2015. Secondary schools, too, have been treated well, enjoying a 90 per cent rise in real terms over the same period.
If Mrs Shaw’s school has a mere £80 left in its coffers, it is unlikely that the fault lies with the Government. And if, like me, you’re wondering where all that extra money has gone, here’s a clue: 1,300 head teachers in England are paid more than £100,000, and 600 are paid more than £110,000.
If they’re really so concerned about money for toilet paper, maybe they should pay themselves a bit less.
Every Prime Minister in my lifetime has vowed to make Britain more meritocratic. Some politicians, such as Nick Clegg, have gone further and said that improving social mobility is their number one priority, inviting future generations to judge them by that metric. Well, it’s probably too early to pass judgement on Clegg or the policies of the Coalition Government, but the prognosis is grim.
There are various ways of measuring social mobility, but the most common is to look at whether children earn more or less than their parents. This is known as “intergenerational income mobility” and, by that standard, the last five Prime Ministers haven’t done very well.
Of the children born into the bottom income quintile in 1958, only a quarter remain in the bottom fifth as adults. For children born in 1970, that percentage climbs to 35 per cent. This “stickiness” is also visible in the top quintile. Thirty-two per cent of children born into the richest fifth of homes in 1958 remain in the top quintile as adults, compared to 41 per cent of those born in 1970.
Intergenerational social mobility has actually declined over the past 50 years. Social Mobility: And its Enemies by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin is a useful primer on what has proved to be one of Britain’s most intractable social problems. Major is the Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, an organisation that has been at the forefront of trying to boost social mobility since it was founded in 1997. Machin is a professor of economics at the LSE and one of the leading experts in the field. Among other things, he co-authored the 1958 cohort study that enables us to make the kind of comparisons I’ve made above. (To read more, click here.)
It beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn can, with a straight face, announce that capitalism has failed and we’d all be better off under socialism. ‘The super-rich are on borrowed time,’ he said at the Labour party conference. He’s going to tax the rich until their pips squeak, overlooking the fact that the coalition government’s decision to lower the top rate of tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent actually boosted tax revenues. The taxes paid by the top 1 per cent of income earners are now responsible for 28 per cent of the total tax take, higher than it ever was under Labour. Coincidentally, 28 per cent of the total amount the government spent in 2016-17 was on welfare — things like social security benefits, disability benefits, incapacity benefits, housing benefit, child benefit etc. In effect, the rich are paying for the services that sustain the poorest people in our society. Isn’t that an example of capitalism working as it should?
More generally, the superiority of capitalism to socialism when it comes to helping the very poorest is completely indisputable. Since 1990, more than a billion people across the globe have been lifted out of extreme poverty as countries like China, India and Indonesia have embraced the fundamental principles of the free enterprise system. In 2013 alone, 114 million people saw their incomes climb from below $1.90 a day to above $1.90, the international poverty line. Compare this with the effect of the socialist economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, whom Corbyn hailed as ‘an inspiration to us all’. Venezuela was once tipped to be among the richest South American countries, thanks to its abundant natural resources; now it is among the poorest. When Chávez came to power in 1998, 48 per cent of households were living in poverty; last year, that figure was 82 per cent. Since 1990, the global infant mortality rate has more than halved, from 64.8 deaths per 1,000 live births to 30.5. Venezuela’s infant mortality rate, by contrast, increased by 30 per cent last year. (To read more, click here.)
‘Kavanaugh’s Drinking Should Be Investigated,’ says the headline on Slate, a reference to the admission by Mark Judge, a schoolfriend of Brett Kavanaugh’s, that he sometimes got ‘black out’ drunk. This prompted a wit on Twitter to remark: ‘Guys, I think conservatives won the culture wars.’
Reading that brought me up short. I’m a social liberal and an economic conservative, and have always told myself that people like me have won: liberals won the culture war and conservatives won the economic war, at least in the US and the UK. But what if it’s the other way round? (To read more, click here.)
Has the British character declined in the past 100 years? If so, what can be done about it? Click here to listen to my Radio 4 documentary on good character and whether it can be taught, either by parents or schools. Includes an interview with the Behavioural Geneticist Robert Plomin.