The new field of social genomics can be used by progressives to combat racial inequality or by conservatives to excuse it

Erik Parens:

Over the past decade, economists, sociologists and psychologists have begun collaborating with geneticists to investigate how genomic differences among human beings are linked to differences in their behaviours and social outcomes. The insights sought are wide-ranging: why do some of us have a greater sense of subjective wellbeing than others? Why do some go further in school than others? When it comes to income, why do some people earn more and others less?

As surprising as it might be to readers familiar with the history of often-ugly efforts to investigate complex behaviours and outcomes through genetics, some prominent members of this new cohort of researchers are optimistic that their work will advance progressive political agendas. According to the progressive authors of a recent European Commission report, insights from what I call ‘social genomics’ are ‘fully compatible with agendas that aim to combat inequalities and that embrace diversity.’

Indeed, findings from social genomics are compatible with what we in the United States consider Left-leaning agendas to combat inequalities. They are, however, equally compatible with what we think of as Right-leaning agendas that accept – or make peace with – inequalities. Moreover, such findings are as compatible with a Right-leaning version of ‘embracing diversity’ as they are with a Left-leaning one. This should move Left-leaning social genomicists to curb their optimism about the potential of their research to advance their political agendas.