Judy Beishon’s review of Professor Robert Plomin’s Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are (Socialism Today, June 2019), in my opinion, bends the stick far too far towards accepting Plomin’s biological determinist theories on the relationship between intelligence and genetics.
One of the world’s leading Marxist critics of these dangerous ideas is Richard Lewontin, whose book, The Doctrine of DNA (1991), conclusively demonstrated that “there is not a shred of evidence” for biological determinist views (Socialism Today, February 1998). When Lewontin’s critical book was initially reviewed in Socialism Today it was only a few years since Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein had attempted to revive scientific racism with the publication of The Bell Curve, a book which Judy correctly slams for promoting “abhorrent racist claims about intelligence”.
So, what should we make of the fact that in 1994 Plomin was one of 52 signatories to a letter published in the Wall Street Journal that defended the intellectual basis for the arguments made in The Bell Curve? A letter which had been penned by Linda Gottfredson, an academic whose own IQ research had recently benefited from the largesse of the most vicious funder of scientific racism in America — the Pioneer Fund.
Of course, Plomin’s defence of The Bell Curve is decades old, but it seems that his reactionary views haven’t really evolved. For example, in Blueprint Plomin simply characterises The Bell Curve as a book that “warned that society was becoming stratified into an hereditary elite and an underclass.” It seems that the only lesson that Plomin has learnt from earlier genetic determinists is that it is more strategic to cloak his backward-looking ideas in a cloud of liberal platitudes. Hence, he states that his views are different from those of Murray and Herrnstein because he does not believe, like they did, that “genetic castes” are inevitable. All the same, Plomin concludes that “performance on tests of school achievement is 60 per cent heritable on average. That is, more than half of the differences between children in how well they do at school is due to inherited DNA differences.”
This is why it is so worrying that Socialism Today’s review of Plomin’s book states that: “Some of Plomin’s detractors have distorted or misunderstood his message as ‘genetic determinism’.” Their review then defends him by adding: “Plomin stresses that ‘genetic influence means just that – influence, not hard-wired genetic determinism’.” We are to apparently take Plomin on his word of his good intentions.
To her credit Judy highlights the controversial nature of “Plomin’s views on one of his specialisations, educational achievement.” But rather than shed light on the dangers inherent in Plomin’s scientism, she leans the other way, emphasizing how his conclusions could be utilised to reduce inequality.
The outwardly neutral way in which Plomin presents his biological determinism, however, is partially unmasked in the only paragraph in Blueprint that mentions the issue of racism. Here Plomin disingenuously asserts that the fierce debate that has raged over the last century over the influence of “genetic research on intelligence… was driven by misplaced fears about biological determinism, eugenics and racism.” To support this nonsense Plomin cites a 2017 Nature editorial whose main argument hinges upon the words of the editor of Intelligence — a controversial journal whose parent organization was founded in 2000 with the aid of the aforementioned Linda Gottfredson. (Another recent member of the journal’s editorial board is a white supremacist academic named Richard Lynn, who is a current board member of the Pioneer Fund, and actually served alongside Plomin on Intelligence’s editorial board when the Nature article was published in 2017.)
It turns out the editor-in-chief of Intelligence, Richard Haier, is less coy than Plomin about his intellectual forbears, two of whom, Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen, are notorious for their longstanding commitment to promoting scientific racism. In his recent book The Neuroscience of Intelligence (Cambridge University Press, 2017) Haier proudly refers to foundational (racist) IQ research in the early twentieth century as having “admirable” goals and defends the analyses presented in The Bell Curve.
Later in The Neuroscience of Intelligence Haier refers to the economic poverty inflicted upon the 51 million US citizens that are currently identified as having low IQ’s “may have some roots in the neurobiology of intelligence beyond anybody’s control.” In keeping with this reactionary train of thought, Haier, in line with the arguments presented in Blueprint, asserts that there is “no compelling evidence” that things like “supporting programs for early childhood education, jobs training, affordable childcare, food assistance, and access to higher education” can help “increase intelligence”. Haier then discusses the relevance of Plomin’s earlier book G is for Genes about tailoring education to meeting each “student’s genetic endowment”, observing that Plomin’s conclusions are “strikingly similar to Jensen’s conclusions more than 45 years ago.” This comparison is sadly all too accurate, and one can only hope that future articles in Socialism Today will engage more critically with the most recent iterations of scientific racism.
A longer version of this letter was first submitted to Socialism Today for consideration as a response to Judy’s review on June 12, 2019.