Genetics Debate Suffers From Misinterpretation, Scholar Says

October 31, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Genetics and intelligence have academia coming apart at the seams, with the debate over "The Bell Curve" -- still hot three years after the book's release -- providing "a tragic example of how science can be misleading even to itself," says a University of Illinois geneticist.

"An essential element of appreciating a book like 'The Bell Curve' is knowledge of the subject matter," said Jerry Hirsch, professor emeritus and guest editor of a special issue of the journal Genetica (mailed to subscribers Oct. 24) devoted to "Uses and Abuses of Genetics in Society." "First-hand familiarity of the material under discussion is an element seemingly lacking in the commentary that has appeared."

The Genetica issue goes beyond the best-selling 1994 book by Harvard University psychologist Richard J. Hernstein (who has since died) and political scientist Charles Murray, Hirsch said. It is a criticism of the field of genetics and of much of academia for shoddy quality control in the literature. "The misunderstanding of genetics has been almost universal, especially from a behavioral point of view," said Hirsch, who has studied Drosophila genetics for 40 years. "It has been terribly mishandled."

The debate over racism has split his own field. He noted the 1995 resignation of then President-elect Pierre Roubertoux of France from the Behavior Genetics Association after outgoing President Glayde Whitney argued that there was a racial basis for different murder rates between U.S. cities.

In Genetica, Hirsch says he refuted the basic premise of "The Bell Curve" in 1975. Hernstein and Murray, he said, completely accepted the writings of Arthur R. Jensen of the University of California at Berkeley, who claimed that the genetic determination of intelligence had been proven. In a study, referred to in the Congressional Record, Hirsch showed that Jensen had distorted and misrepresented many of the 159 references in a 1969 paper. "The Bell Curve" lacks merit, Hirsch said, because it does the same thing.

In another Genetica article, Gordon M. Harrington of the University of Northern Iowa challenges some of the 25 points made by 52 experts who endorsed "The Bell Curve" in a December 1994 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. The endorsement, Hirsch said, came before careful academic scrutiny was done.

Jensen and the authors of "The Bell Curve," he said, confuse heredity with heritability. Heredity refers to what parents transmit genetically to offspring. Heritability is a statistical concept used in agricultural eugenics -- "where you have control over breeding." "It assumes random mating -- including incest -- in an equilibrium population and other important limiting conditions."Heritabiliy measures the relationship between a gene pool of a particular population and the expression of a certain trait under certain environmental conditions, Hirsch said. "It is not a measure of so-called nature-nurture ratio -- what proportions of human intelligence are due to nature and to nurture -- though it is widely misinterpreted as such. Heritability sounds like heredity, but they are in no way the same thing. Heritability estimation appeals to the racists. Calculate a nature-nurture ratio, and you've got genetic inferiority. That's absolutely wrong."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Genetics Articles from Brightsurf:

Human genetics: A look in the mirror
Genome Biology and Evolution's latest virtual issue highlights recent research published in the journal within the field of human genetics.

The genetics of blood: A global perspective
To better understand the properties of blood cells, an international team led by UdeM's Guillaume Lettre has been examining variations in the DNA of 746,667 people worldwide.

Turning to genetics to treat little hearts
Researchers makes a breakthrough in understanding the mechanisms of a common congenital heart disease.

New drugs more likely to be approved if backed up by genetics
A new drug candidate is more likely to be approved for use if it targets a gene known to be linked to the disease; a finding that can help pharmaceutical companies to focus their drug development efforts.

Mapping millet genetics
New DNA sequences will aid in the development of improved millet varieties

Genetics to feed the world
A study, published in Nature Genetics, demonstrated the effectiveness of the technology known as genomic selection in a wheat improvement program.

The genetics of cancer
A research team has identified a new circular RNA (ribonucleic acid) that increases tumor activity in soft tissue and connective tissue tumors.

New results on fungal genetics
An international team of researchers has found unusual genetic features in fungi of the order Trichosporonales.

Mouse genetics influences the microbiome more than environment
Genetics has a greater impact on the microbiome than maternal birth environment, at least in mice, according to a study published this week in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

New insights into genetics of fly longevity
Alexey Moskalev, Ph.D., Head of the Laboratory of Molecular Radiobiology and Gerontology Institute of Biology, and co-authors from the Institute of biology of Komi Science Center of RAS, Engelgard's Institute of molecular biology, involved in the study of the aging mechanisms and longevity of model animals announce the publication of a scientific article titled: 'The Neuronal Overexpression of Gclc in Drosophila melanogaster Induces Life Extension With Longevity-Associated Transcriptomic Changes in the Thorax' in Frontiers in Genetics - a leading open science platform.

Read More: Genetics News and Genetics Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to