On genetics Oliver James is on a different planet to the rest of us

In reviews of his brilliant 2002 book The Blank Slate, which railed against the ‘modern denial of human nature’, Steven Pinker was accused of erecting a straw man. Nobody actually believes, scoffed the critics, that children are born with brains of soft clay, their mental makeup unaffected by genes and infinitely mouldable by their parents. Everyone acknowledges both genes and environments are important in psychological development. Don’t they? Alas, having read Not In Your Genes, the new book from celebrity psychologist Oliver James, I can confirm that such gene-phobics do exist. James is the straw man made flesh.

To open the book is to step into a parallel universe. In James’s neo-Freudian world, DNA has no effect on the mind or mental health, whereas parenting reigns supreme. His theory, largely derived from his experience as a psychotherapist, is that interactions between parents and children, especially abusive or neglectful ones, leave deep impressions, fully explaining why children become similar to their parents. The book lays the anecdotes on thick; James tries to draw lessons from the childhoods of such luminaries as Tiger Woods and Vince Cable, and includes a rather ghoulish analysis of the premature death of Peaches Geldof.

But anecdotes are not data; in fact, Not In Your Genes is a compendium of psychological myths and legends, such as the supposed effect of birth order on personality (shown in two huge 2015 studies to be small to non-existent), and the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is all it takes to become exceptional (also recently debunked).

The rest of the book is an all-out assault on genetic research. It would be a bizarre anomaly if James were correct and genetics had no effect on psychology, since about 80 per cent of human genes are expressed (have effects) in the brain. Indeed, decades of research provide ample evidence of the genetic influence on psychological traits like intelligence, personality, and mental illness. James disagrees, bending over backwards to avoid awkward conclusions (at one point risibly suggesting that ‘epigenetics’ might be why his son is psychologically similar to him; nobody has told him that, since epigenetics involves the switching on and off of genes, this would be a genetic effect). He argues that identical twins are psychologically similar not because of their identical genomes, but because parents treat them more similarly. But several studies of ‘misclassified’ twins, where parents think the pair are identical when they’re fraternal, or vice versa, contradict this assertion. Biological similarity leads to psychological similarity, regardless of parenting.

Results from studies of twins converge with those from adoptees and extended families. Nowadays, we can estimate heritability— the variation in a trait due to genes — directly from DNA using a technique called GCTA (James mentions GCTA, but his fumbled explanation reveals he hasn’t grasped how it works). GCTA heritability estimates for psychological traits appear all the time, and they fit nicely with what we’d expect from the family research.

Knowing genes influence traits is not the same as knowing which specific genes are involved. For this, we have to turn to ‘genome-wide association studies’. Because psychological traits are so complex, there are many thousands of genes that are related to them, each with a very small effect (perhaps increasing the size or efficiency of different brain structures, each by small degrees). Basic statistics tells us that, to find small effects, you need a lot of people in your study. Unfortunately, James doesn’t understand this (or much else about gene-finding studies, as evidenced by his weird and inappropriate use, throughout the book, of the term ‘Human Genome Project’ to mean ‘any molecular genetics research’). Time and time again, he argues that because geneticists have so far only identified a fraction of the genes responsible for the variation in a particular trait, the trait has no genetic basis worth mentioning. This leads him to make preposterous statements about scientists ‘universally accept[ing]’ that only a few per cent of the variation in, say, schizophrenia risk is genetic. No — they accept that the specific genes we know about so far only explain a small amount of that risk. The other specific genes — and there is strong evidence from the heritability studies that they exist — remain to be discovered.

And they are being discovered. As study sample sizes have increased, more and more of the genetic variants linked to conditions like schizophrenia have been found. There is no reason to think this trend won’t continue. In the next few months, major genome-wide studies of intelligence and personality are set to appear with exciting new findings. This tangible progress leaves James’s Lysenkoist argument looking rather forlorn. Never fear, though: James says he has talked, off the record, to geneticists who’ve told him he’s right and that the relevant genes will never be discovered. If you’ll forgive my sinking to his level, most geneticists with whom I’ve spoken off the record have told me that James’s opinions are vacuous nonsense.

Superficially, the book appears well stocked with scientific references. But just try following the citations: they frequently make precisely the opposite point to James. He often interprets honest discussion of methodological limitations as confessions that genetic research has been a let-down. The nadir is an outrageous out-of-context quotation from geneticist Robert Plomin, who recently stated: ‘I’ve been looking for these genes for 15 years and I don’t have any.’ Plomin was arguing— given his knowledge of the results from twins and GCTA — that the specific genes would be found with larger samples and better technology. In James’s hands, the quote is transformed into a cowed admission of failure.

Few books risk such damage to the public understanding of science as those by Oliver James. Inexplicably popular despite their scientific illiteracy and mediocre writing, they are promoted widely by James’s regular, shriekingly aggressive media appearances. A glance at the studies shows the absurdity of the extreme blank-slate position advanced in Not In Your Genes: environments clearly matter, but so does DNA, and the perversity of denying this becomes ever more acute with each new genetic discovery. Truly understanding human psychology and helping those with psychiatric illnesses requires us to have a realistic view of the causes of differences between people. That realistic view is Not In This Book.

Stuart Ritchie is a postdoctoral research fellow in the psychology department at the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter: @StuartJRitchie

  • Oliver James, I suggest, like so many others, is massively influenced by IDEOLOGY, which is, in effect, the exact but equally extreme and insane opposite of Nazi ideology.

    After all, if genes matter, so does race and a Darwinian understanding on our own species, its different populations (races) and societies, which a previous generation of academics made a taboo of, in overreaction to the Nazis having hijacked and abused, for their own evil purposes, the half-baked ideas of social Darwinism.

    Clearly, these issues need to be dealt with cautiously, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes that social Darwinists did, but the taboo needs to be lifted: http://unapprovedcomments.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/the-wests-overreaction-to-nazism.html

    • facefault

      >After all, if genes matter, so does race

      Nah. Genetic variation doesn’t correlate nearly as well with typical definitions of “race” as lay people think. See e.g. http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/v36/n11s/full/ng1435.html and http://www.nature.com/index.html?file=/ng/journal/v36/n11s/full/ng1455.html

      • What you say may well be true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that we still have a massive taboo in place in respect to both race (different human populations) and the implications of Darwinian evolution for human society, which I think explains Oliver James’ reluctance to recognise the importance of genes.

        • facefault

          I disagree on half of that. I hear lots of discussion of evolution’s implications for society. Evo psych and sociobiology aren’t as widely discussed as they were a few years ago, but claims like “ADD is common because some people have a genotype that makes their attention span better for hunting than for farming” are all over the place.

          I do agree that the genetic-determinist style of racism is more taboo than it was in the 90s. I like to think that’s because of more awareness of the evidence against it, but it’s probably not. It’s extremely easy to find glaring flaws in “scientific racism,” but most people on the left seem to be satisfied by just saying it’s wrong without looking for themselves.

          • If you are going to use the term, “scientific racism” you need to be more specific about what you actually mean.

            Some seem to think that any suggestion of differences between races (especially relating to intelligence) is automatically racist, which is nonsense. We should be able to accept differences (even in intelligence) without making as issue of racial superiority/inferiority out of it.

          • facefault

            Claiming there are genetically-determined differences in intelligence between racial groups is a claim of racial superiority/ inferiority. You may not like to hear that. Maybe you’ll protest that you think other groups have inherent advantages in athletics or something and that it all balances out like Dungeons and Dragons races. But it is in fact a claim of superiority.

            Such a claim requires very high standards of evidence. Neither the evidence for claims of inherent differences in intelligence, nor the claims of inherent differences in athletics and so on, meets even mediocre standards. Measured differences within groups are well within what we can expect to see from environmental differences in lead poisoning, nutritional deficiencies, parasite load, etc. As I did below, I recommend Clarence Gravlee’s “How race becomes biology” and Cosma Shalizi’s writing on the subject for explanations of why.

          • Your view is ideological, not scientific, notwithstanding that many academics share it with you, because it is now a part of their employer’s, i.e. state, ideology, on which its claim to moral authority rests, just as it once did on church ideology.

            Personally, I’m no better qualified to make judgements on the evidence for race differences, than I am in respect to the evidence for anthropogenic climate change, but I’m very sceptical of anyone who dismisses the evidence for either out of hand, which is what you seem to be doing in respect to race differences.

            It seems perfectly reasonable to me to suspect that there would be differences, but that wouldn’t justify declaring one race superior or inferior to another. There are often big differences between siblings, which most parents accept without declaring one superior or inferior to the other, notwithstanding that it is likely to have important implications for their aspirations, choice of education and career.

            Where does this state racial ideology come from? It was an overreaction to Nazi racial ideology, which it is the exact but equally extreme and insane opposite of.

          • Frat

            Roger Hicks, you may come off as a reasonable person. Yet, the difference between your arguments and facefaults is that facefault point to evidence whereas you do not. You state that, “It seems perfectly reasonable to me to suspect that there would be differences” when facefault already has pointed to evidence that declare the opposite. When one is involved in a discussion, it is generally viewed as helpful to at least try to understand what the other person is saying.

            As per today, any “racial” differences you would find in a comparison could just as well be a consequence of psychosocial determinants, for example, the racial priming effect on aptitude tests.

            And the difference between ideology and science is that in science you change your view according to the evidence. Wouldn’t it make you the one with the ideological view?

          • I have good reason to believe that the denial of racial differences is ideological and power-political, despite not being qualified to weigh all the evidence myself.

            To me it is not racial differences that really matter, but the fact that race and ethnic origins are central to any deep and meaningful sense of both personal and group identity, certainly as far as I’m concerned, and I am clearly not alone in feeling as I do, but which the “nation state”, in deceitfully posing as a nation (in order to legitimise itself, its ruling elites and the immense power they wield and abuse), has a clear interest in denying and suppressing.

          • Barzini

            Do you accept that Dutch people are on average taller than Vietnamese people? Do you accept that hormones such as testosterone vary by race? Do you accept that men of West African origin completely dominate 100m sprinting for non-cultural reasons?

            Why continue with this taboo? Even if East Asians were proven to have a higher average IQ than White Europeans, so what? What would be the problem with such a discovery?

          • facefault

            >Personally, I’m no better qualified to make judgements on the evidence
            for race differences, than I am in respect to the evidence for
            anthropogenic climate change, but I’m very sceptical of anyone who
            dismisses the evidence for either out of hand, which is what you seem to
            be doing in respect to race differences.

            My qualifications are a bachelor’s degree in human evolutionary biology from Harvard. I am better qualified to make judgements on the evidence for non-trivial genetic differences between races than the average person. I have read the evidence extensively, with an open mind. And I haven’t been impressed.

            You don’t even try to engage with the evidence either way; you simply declare that people who disagree with your preconceptions are ideologically driven. I see no merit in that argument, because it can be made with equal strength against any position.

          • Barzini

            Surely the domination of 100m sprinting by men of West African origin is a non-trivial difference.

            Or do you believe that the reason for this domination is cultural as opposed to genetic?

          • waldemar2010

            All the more reason to not re-use Lewontins Fallacy.

          • David Brown

            I agree to your comment and trust your educational background. Especially in this part “I see no merit in that argument, because it can be made with equal strength against any position.”

            my blog – https://vapehabitat.com/

          • Crenando

            “Your view is ideological, not scientific” So do you have zero self awareness or are you a hypocritical tool?

          • David Whitlock

            There is a meta-analysis out which shows very different “genetics of intelligence” results for US based studies vs non-US based studies.


            My hypothesis is that the “genetics of intelligence” found in the US based studies are SNPs that correlate with racial discrimination, poverty and low socioeconomic status, and that the “low intelligence” is mediated through the discrimination and the SNPs are just markers for that (that is the SNPs are correlational, not causal).

          • facefault

            Very interesting! I’ll have to read it in depth.

          • MeMow001

            That isn’t what it shows. The paper is a meta analysis of studies that claim heritability is affected by environment. It shows that in the first world in general such an effect does not exist but that in the US measures of heritability are depressed by environment factors (for the poorest subjects). It makes no claims about race (and none of the sampled papers find racial differences in heritability)

          • David Whitlock

            In case you are unaware, in the US, poverty and ethnicity are very strongly correlated.

            Poverty is highly heritable in that if your parents are poor, you are very likely to be poor also. We sort of know that “poverty” isn’t genetic, even though we know it “runs in families”.

            None of the sampled papers measured race, so of course they couldn’t report racial differences.

            The question this research is trying to answer; is the “heritability” of intelligence like the “heritability” of wealth and poverty (mediated through social systems)? Or is it like the “heritability” of skin color (mediated through genetics), or is it a genes times environment effect (as in genes for skin color “cause” discrimination which then mediates intelligence through social systems).

            So far, there is no data that falsifies the hypothesis that the heritability of intelligence is “heritable” like wealth, through social systems. The European and Australian data suggests that there is no genetic component of heritability of intelligence. The US data does show a genetic component, but (using the well known understanding that there is tremendous racial discrimination in the US) that could easily be due to association of poverty and discrimination with ethnicity.

          • waldemar2010

            “The European and Australian data suggests that there is no genetic component of heritability of intelligence”

            Do you mean to say you read that in this study? Because the study doesn’t even remotely states that.

            What it states is that if ones IQ is derived from SES (Social economic status) + genetics rather than just genetics is may be a fair assumption that lower SES groups show a tad less heritability of IQ than higher SES groups. They do find a moderate such effect in US data and no such effect in European/Australian data.

            So they find the opposite of that quote.

          • David Whitlock

            Except twin and GWAS studies have no way to distinguish between SES that associates with SNPs and “genetics” that associates with SNPs.

            All those studies can show is “association with SNPs”. Whether the mechanism is due to the heritability of SES (which associates with SNPs) or “genetics of IQ” (which associates with SNPs) is not determinable from the data.

            Looking at which “genes” associate with high IQ, and there aren’t any of “large effect” (as in an effect large enough to distinguish from “noise”. The only “association” is with SNPs, which are spread all over the genome and are not linked to specific genes or gene pathways.

            My interpretation is that heritability of SES is a stronger effect in the US than in EU and Australia because there is a much longer and more severe effect of discrimination in the US. That could be due to epigenetics of Jim Crow.

          • waldemar2010

            Exactly how do SNPs correlate with racial discrimination, poverty and low socioeconomic status?

          • David Whitlock

            People of an ethnicity with white skin, share SNPs associated with
            ethnicity with white skin, so those SNPs are associated with reduced
            discrimination in societies where people with non-white skin are
            discriminated against.

            SNPs associated with an ethnicity that is discriminated against will also associate with the adverse effects of what discrimination causes.

            For example, in the South, in 1860, SNPs associated with having a mother who was of African descent were associated with being a slave, slave status being determined by the slave status of one’s mother.

            All traits that co-associated with being a slave; poverty, being whipped, being illiterate, etc, would also associate with the SNPs that associate with slavery. The SNPs are not “causing” slavery or the adverse effects of slavery, they are simply associated with it. It is the social environment that is causing slavery based on maternal slave status and the SNPs are merely associated with that social determination.

          • waldemar2010

            But not all low SES groups show the same adverse effects. The Chinese being a good example.

          • Claiming there are genetically-determined differences in intelligence between racial groups is a claim of racial superiority/ inferiority. You may not like to hear that.

            I certainly do not like to hear that, because it is an invitation to people to feel racially superior or inferior, depending on which race they belong to, if the evidence for racial differences are substantiated, which it may well be, many would claim, already has been.

            Equating intelligence with superiority/inferiority, whether personal or racial, is a mistake, which you are clearly making, along with a lot of other people, because it is implicit in state racial ideology, which it is time to debunk as the instrument of socio-political intimidation, rewards, punishments, manipulation and control that it is.

          • Crenando

            “We should be able to accept differences” Try joining us in the real world, you dithering pseudo-intellectual

      • Barzini

        Men of West African origin completely dominate 100m sprinting – the reason is very obviously genetic

      • Chaim Goldberg
      • waldemar2010

        Only if you look at one single gene does that hold. Take a bunch and at thousand you can basically nail someones race flawlessly. Your linked paper also states that:

        “When several thousand or more
        polymorphisms are examined, individual populations, such as Japanese and
        Chinese, can be delineated34,
        and members of ‘admixed’ American populations, such as Hispanics,
        African-Americans and European-Americans, can be accurately identified34,
        49. Similar results are obtained whether coding or noncoding polymorphisms are used49”

    • Statetheobvious

      I know there’s a group of enterprising racists out there who think throwing around the word “Darwin” like holy water at an exorcism makes their racism seem “scientific”, but it doesn’t. Science make something seem scientific. Although efforts to make racism seem sciency date back to at least the nineteenth century. Samuel Cartwright said that any slave who attempts to escape slavery suffers from what he called “drapetomania”, because black people are naturally subservient and they would develop mental illness if they were free citizens. (Remember, making your made-up word Latin or Ancient Greek means it’s science!). Many things are entirely genetic (like whether you have a widow’s peak or are double-jointed) but don’t correlate to any particular population, certainly not what lay people consider “race”. A person may speak in the same accent as their parents, but no one thinks that’s genetic at all, even though it strongly corretales to population groups.

      • Originally, racism meant racial hatred and racial supremacism, but in now equated with racial prejudice, thereby making virtually everyone who fails to comply with state racial ideology of colour-blindness and of white racial self-denial and self-contempt a “racist”.

        This is why the taboo I refer to in my initial post is so difficult to overcome, because it is now bound up with the power politics of the state, just as medieval church ideology once was.

        Racial prejudice (the natural human inclination to identity with members of one’s own tribe, race or ethnic group) has effectively taken the place of “original sin” (disobedience of divine, i.e. priestly/state authority), which only submission to priestly/academic/state ideology and authority can save us from eternal damnation for, not as heathens and heretics, as in the past, but as bigots, xenophobes, nativists and racists.

        • Statetheobvious

          That is ridiculous. There is no “state racial ideology of colour-blindness and of white racial self-denial and self-contempt” (what, now you’re arguing racism is classical liberalism and preying of people’s dislike of so-called big government), and believing you’re a victim is really the problem. Look who’s on our money, who wins big awards handed out by the state, who we consider our cultural icons and heroes. Nearly all white. Of course, so are most of our villains.

          And are you really saying that it’s a natural human inclination for someone from Detroit to identify with someone in Tanzania, and not someone else in Detroit? Someone from Ohio with the last name Smirnovich should feel anything towards Russia? A cursory look at European history shows people allying with those far away to fight against some local tribe or neigbouring country. The English got along with the Romans far better than they ever did with the Irish. The Greeks and Turks fought for centuries despite living right next door. Christianity (and Islam) created lasting societies where people based their tribal identity on religion, regardless of race and those aren’t new.

          • “Ridiculous”? I don’t think so. The state used to use a religious ideology as an instrument of socio-political intimidation, rewards, punishments, manipulation and control. Now it uses a more secular, racial ideology, facilitated initially my society’s understandable overreaction to the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust, which was mistakenly blamed on “racial prejudice” towards Jews.

          • Mistakenly? Race is nothing but a line of demarcation between appropriate mates for reproduction and inappropriate mates. Perhaps it is arbitrary but most people have for quite some time drawn these lines with other people. I think the Nazis went overboard on their enforcing of this line but whatever you want to call it, the Nazis were addressing biological reproduction.

          • Tribal identity based on religion? Well, perhaps, but there was that little incident called the 30 YEARS WAR and the PROTESTANT REFORMATION, and the Islamists do seem to have a bit of a problem with their Shia-Sunni split. So, it is not completely clear how the entire society was based on religious identity!

        • Is race prejudice about identifying with one’s own kin or just rejecting others who are different? A quick look at problems within kinship webs and nuclear families does not make me think of identification or identifying with but instead, ‘How the hell do I get out of this?’

      • James C. Coyne

        Do you travel around from blog post toblog post making the same point or have you been cloned many times? “Drapetomania”, was never accepted by mainstream medicine or the “alienists” (what became psychiatry). If you are going to claim the authority of history, please read history.

      • Barzini

        Surely the reason men of West African origin dominate 100m sprinting and men of Pakistani origin don’t is genetic as opposed to cultural?

    • Cogra Bro

      J Philippe Rushton ( Race, Evolution and Behaviour) Richard Lynn, & Tatu Vanhanen (IQ and Global Inequality, The Global Bell Curve etc etc ) Arthur Jensen, Glayde Whitney (Race, Genetics and Society) Satoshi Kanazawa and Hans Eysenck, inter alia, would disagree wth facefault.

      • facefault

        Yes, and the vast majority of scientists disagree with them, because their methods are weak.

        Jensen and Eysenck have used fabricated data (cf http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/nov/14/race.highereducation ).

        Lynn presented data from people in a home for the developmentally disabled in Spain as data from the entirety of Equatorial Guinea. That’s the most egregious thing he’s done, but far from the only one. He regularly knowingly uses incorrect methods to get the results he wants. (cf http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S104160801000035X ; http://pyjamasinbananas.blogspot.com/2007/10/sex-and-iq.html )

        I presume you’re not actually familiar with Kanazawa’s work, just with his name, because if you are familiar with his work you should be deeply embarrassed for citing it positively. He makes extremely basic statistical errors (cf his attractiveness -> having more daughters study). And that’s when his work actually has analysis, rather than blog-post-level blathering.

        Further, worth noting that not one of the researchers you cite is even a geneticist. They’re all psychologists.

        For more in-depth examination of why the evidence claims are largely pseudoscience, I recommend JM Wicherts and Cosma Shalizi. For examination of where differences actually come from, I recommend Gravlee’s “How race becomes biology.”

        • MeMow001

          Whilst I agree with you about the merits of these criticisms and the importance of relying on experts you yourself cite below as evidence a mathematician who wrote a couple of less than impartial blog posts and a philosopher. I find it depressing the way in which these conversations degenerate into crazy racial claims. The question of whether measures of heritability are meaningful is seperate to the question of whether they are useful for between group comparisons. The evidence for the former proposition is IMO stronger than you accept whereas the evidence for the latter is either non existent or corelational.
          JM Wicherts is great although his review of hereditarian IQ estimates for Africa raised the score by about 5 points. (More importantly estimates of pre Flynn effect IQ score and thier use in racial/country comparisons are particularly stupid).

        • waldemar2010

          That guardian article has no list of references and is merely a political piece.

    • Aren’t you therefore in effect saying that belief in a particular religion, like the belief in a race difference, is genetic since the beliefs we hold determine our decisions and therefore our survival and reproduction, a la natural selection? The thing is that I don’t think there is any connection between beliefs and genetic-determinism – we are not born with beliefs, the beliefs are not in our genes!

      • No, that is not what I’m saying. Race is not a belief, but rooted in biology and the development of different human populations over time, not withstanding academic attempts to make us believe that it is just a “social construct”, in order to please their state employers.

        Race is real and important, only not in the way that racial supremacists believe it is, but because central to any deep and meaningful sense of both personal and group, i.e. genuine national, identity. Which is why the modern state, which legitimises itself, its ruling elites and the immense power they wield and abuse by deceitfully posing as our nation itself, is so intent on denying and suppressing the importance of race and ethnicity.

        • facefault

          I think the position that race is necessarily central to identity is silly. We build our identities around the dividing lines our culture notices and considers meaningful.

          In a society with no racial diversity, no one would consider their race a significant part of their identity. Just as in countries where everyone has black hair, no one considers their hair color a significant part of their identity.

          In a society with plenty of racial diversity and no discrimination by race, no one would either.

          I question why anyone would care to have race be a significant part of their identity when they can define themselves by much more interesting things, like what they actually do with their life.

          • I think the position that race is necessarily central to identity is silly.

            With all due respect, in my view, you think it “silly”, because you, and millions of others, have been ideologically indoctrinated to do so.

            It is the ideology that now dominates all western elites, which you would have had drummed into you by your professors at Harvard, even as you studied for your bachelor’s degree in human evolutionary biology.

            Not coincidentally, it is the exact but equally extreme and insane opposite of Nazi racial ideology, which initially it was, of course, an overreaction to, before being fashioned into an instrument of socio-political intimidation, rewards, punishments, manipulation and control, just as medieval church ideology once served.

            In many respects, academics are the modern, secular heirs and counterparts of the medieval clergy. As privileged clients and employees of their respective states, they have a massive personal self-interest (subconscious more than conscious) in rationalising and defending its role, self-image (as our “nation”) and ideologies (social, political, economic and racial, formerly religious), on which the state bases its claim to moral and knowledgeable authority.

            Post-racial multiculturalism is, in effect, a modern secular replacement for the power-political role of medieval church ideology, with “original sin” (disobedience of divine, i.e. priestly/state authority) replaced by xenophobia (a natural human response to strangers) and “racial prejudice” (the natural human inclination – like original sin – to identity with members of one’s own tribe, race or ethnic group, which absurdly was made responsible for the Holocaust and equated with the evils of Nazi racism), which only submission to priestly/academic/political/state ideology and authority can save us from eternal damnation for, not as heathens and heretics, as in the past, but as “bigots” and “racists”.

            Your professors will demonise me as the devil himself for calling their ideology and authority into question, but it is for you to decide who is on the side of truth and reason. Probably, you will play safe and go with your professors, but if you are interested in my “devilish” ideas, check out my blogs, which I’ve already linked to, but there’s no harm in me doing so again: http://unapprovedcomments.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/the-wests-overreaction-to-nazism.html

            P.S. You don’t need a degree in human evolutionary biology (in fact, it may be better not to have one) to realise that Homo sapiens evolved as an inherently and intensely tribal animal, which interestingly is given very little serious attention and study. Instead, we are subliminally taught to trivialise, ridicule or demonise it. Why would that be? Perhaps, so that the state is able to manipulate and exploit it for its own power-political purposes?

          • Crenando

            “the exact but equally extreme and insane opposite of Nazi racial ideology” hahaha fuck off, propaganda victim

            Skin color is a tiny fragment of DNA, the fact you think race is a real thing that exists is proof your ignorance.

          • hahaha fuck off

            What kind of a response is that?

            Try thinking about what I say, and if you still don’t agree with it, just say so, and perhaps why.

          • Barzini

            In a society with plenty of racial diversity and no discrimination by race, would men of West African origin still, on average, perform better at 100m sprinting than men of Pakistani origin?

            Would hormones like testosterone still vary by race?

          • facefault

            >would men of West African origin still, on average, perform better at 100m sprinting than men of Pakistani origin?

            Only if there kept being cultural differences in participation. Lots of people have looked for genetic explanations, but those explanations haven’t held up to scrutiny.


            The countries that dominate particular sports are the countries where those sports have a culture that encourages elite performance built up around them. For most of the century, the best submission grapplers came from Japan. Then for a while from Brazil. Now from the US. It’s very easy to think that who’s good at what right now is fixed and eternal.

            >Would hormones like testosterone still vary by race?

            Testosterone levels vary massively with environment, particularly exposure to competition. It is unparsimonious to think there must be a genetic component to higher testosterone levels in one group that has to struggle more than a different group.

          • Barzini

            The reason men of West African origin completely dominate 100m sprinting as opposed to men of Pakistani origin is cultural?

            The reason that the 100m sprint teams of predominately white nations such as the US and the UK are completely dominated by men of West African origin is cultural?

            The reason that men of West African origin dominate 100m sprinting whereas men of Kenyan origin are far stronger at long distance running is cultural?

            I don;t for a single second believe that you actually believe any of that.

          • Chaim Goldberg
          • Chaim Goldberg

            Also multiple studies have found that Blacks are more likely than Whites to carry a genotype which produces an androgen receptor which will make them more sensitive than average to the effects of testosterone. So even if you managed to prove that racial differences in testosterone are solely due to the environment (you haven’t), it still wouldn’t matter.







          • Chaim Goldberg

            Usually the people saying race isn’t important are either liberal whites, Jews or mixbreeds mongrels. Which are you? I’m just curious.

            Please go to a BLM group and tell them that race isn’t important. Why don’t you go to people who advocate for affirmative action and racial hiring quotas and tell them that race isn’t important.

        • Crenando

          “Race is not a belief, but rooted in biology” Haha so pretentious, you actually think you understand anything about science.

          ” academic attempts to make us believe that it is just a “social construct”, in order to please their state employers. IT’S A LIBERAL CONSPIRACY hahahaha you are pathetic.

    • Crenando

      “the exact but equally extreme and insane opposite of Nazi ideology”

      Wow, Godwin’d in like ten minutes.

      “the taboo needs to be lifted” Get lost, scientismic charlatan.

      • How long were the Nazis in power? From 1933 to 1945 – just 12 years. And still we live in a world that is dominated by them. Not directly, of course, but indirectly, by the overreaction to them, and its power-political exploitation by moral supremacists.

  • Cogra Bro

    The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA) demonstrated years ago that genetic inheritance is much more influential than is environment on intelligence and other characteristics.

    How on earth any reasonable person can deny this in the face of such evidence is beyond me,

    • But are these correlations and similarities significant? All siblings with the same parents share 50% of their parent’s genes. So what? This is meaningless and determines nothing unless a serious genetic illness is inherited, but as for personality and decision-making, the genes do nothing. Examine the different life-paths of siblings – surely their experiences differ far more than their genes.

      • facefault

        Actually, a big problem with twin studies is that they tend to overestimate heritability because twins’ environments are often more similar than the study’s stats assume. A couple good summaries: http://bactra.org/weblog/520.html ; https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/heritability-a-handy-guide-to-what-it-means-what-it-doesnt-mean-and-that-giant-meta-analysis-of-twin-studies/

        • David Whitlock

          One of the biggest problems with Plomin’s twin studies and other GWAS studies is the use of the ACE model, where all variance is modeled as the linear and purely additive sum of genetics, environmental and noise.

          In other words, any variance due to genetic-genetic interactions and genetic-environment interaction is imputed to be zero. We know that can’t be correct. Each trait requires both a genome and an environment, and it makes no sense to allocate a fraction of a trait to one or the other.

          With that model, they don’t find that there are any “genes” (as in whole protein coding DNA bits) that are responsible for more than a few percent of variance. What they do find is “many SNPs of small effect”.

          My hypothesis is that these “many SNPs of small effect” are proxies for ethnicity and what they are “really” showing is that ethnicity affects all of the things they are looking at to a gigantic extent. My hypothesis is that the effect is mediated through discrimination based on ethnicity.

          I have seen no analysis that refutes my null hypothesis (that the many “SNPs of small effect”) that what they are finding are markers for discrimination and low SES based on discrimination.

          The brain actually does start out as a “blank slate”. The time to start considering the brain as blank or not is not “at birth”, but “at conception”. When the new organism is still just a single cell, the brain most certainly is a “blank slate”. You can’t have a brain that is any “blanker” than having zero cells. Every trait that the future brain will have depends on the patterns of proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis that go on as the brain grows from zero cells to 10^11 cells (about the size of the brain at birth). During that time, some individuals do end up without brains, anencephalopathy.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            I agree about the problem of gene-gene and gene-environment interaction. Unfortunately few researchers in this field seem to understand the problem, or to know how to model it (Kathryn Roeder is an exception). Beyond saying that an ‘interaction’ must exist, there are few inquiries into what this consists of. The Caspi study (much criticised) at least tried to address the problem, but precisely how stress ‘interacts’ with a variant promoter to produce antisocial behaviour was not followed up.

          • David Whitlock

            There is a new technique that I just learned of yesterday, Mendelian randomization.


    • Jeffrey Vernon

      The Minnesota study included only 25 twin pairs, and the study team have never published all the control data. Other studies have found that adopted children with IQ as low as 50 can improve into the normal range. This is not to say that everyone is the same, or that I wish they were; it only means that, expectedly, most people fall somewhere between 85 and 115, and that the area under the curve is not totally determined by biology.

    • Simon Walker

      MZ twin studies have lots of problems. Timing of twinning, the uterine environment (which varies according to amniotic/ placental arrangement). means that MZ twins have been found to differ on a number of phenotypes including laterality, handedness, hair-whorl, body spots etc. Also, concordance for a given phenotype (lets take foetal alcoholism as an example) does not imply that the cause is genetic, in this case it is entirely environmental.

  • Cogra Bro

    The long-debunked idea that we are blank slates has been a disaster for humanity. Individuals are then thought of as bringing nothing themselves to their own capabilities and personalities.

    It reduces people to mere vessels to be filled by others, thereby licensing every leftist with an urge to boss others about and mold us – for our own good, naturally. We are to be made equally happy and happily equal by these control freaks.

    However, because we are claimed to be nothings in ourselves, it has produced horrendous Marxist regimes from the Soviet Union to Mao to Pol Pot which have had no compunction in murdering millions.

    The blank slate notion is the foundation of leftist oppression which sees any excellence of groups as deriving from the unequal and unjust power relationships / oppression of others.

    Unfortunately for leftism, hundreds of studies into IQ, traits of temperament and other characteristics are undermining this foundation of the leftist project,

    Leftism as we know it is a doomed ideology. No wonder leftists fight tooth and nail to deny the march of science, which they otherwise hang their hat on, in this area of study.

    • Well there is a problem with your wholesale rejection: any baby brought up in any linguistic context learns that language regardless of the language of their ancestors. So, in the case of language learning, we are in fact a blank slate and we can in fact and do in fact learn whatever language is present. I see little reason to make an exception for the many other aspects of experiential learning – unless of course you care to explain!

      • tabulanotsorasa

        Of course children are not born with genes for Scandinavian or Japanese language.
        But the fact that a child can learn a language in the first place and other animals cannot strongly suggest that something in the genetic make-up of humans is different from any another animal.

        • David Whitlock

          Yes, humans are different from other animals.

          But since essentially every human formed, from any two haploid gametes, from any two extant humans, can learn to speak (or sign) essentially any human extant human language as a first language with no accent; what is the basis for saying that differential human genes are “important” for differences in human cognition?

          Particularly since during the period of early childhood plasticity, essentially any language can be learned. Most adults can’t do that. The ability to learn a first language (or generate one de novo in concert with a cohort of other children) goes away in adulthood.

          Do adults have different genomes than children?

      • Shatterface

        Humans have a genetic predisposition to language acquisition, not specific genes for English, Welsh, etc.

        If you think language acquisition isn’t genetic try teaching a monkey to speak.

        • Of course there is a genetic predisposition to learn language, but the language learned is based on environmental stimuli. No one is born to speak only a specific language and no other. In this sense, we have a certain genetic capability, what happens to it depends on the environment. In this sense, we are a blank slate.

          I was pointing out to CograBro that this lacunae in his understanding of the blank slate was a problem. However, the blank-slate notion from Locke is an ideological illusion which disguises ascriptive traits which are related to nutrition, early experiences, educational opportunities, etc with achievements. On the one hand, we like to say in our democracy that we recognize merit and achievements but on the other hand certain ascriptions like status, socio-economic status, race/class/gender are irrelevant due to the blank-slate notion. So, it is not the left which uses the blank slate to deny ascriptions, it is the right which claims the lower classes are not achieving properly!

  • So, experience, learning and environment are pipe-dreams of causal efficacy.

    Stuart Ritchie says, “A glance at the studies shows the absurdity of the extreme blank-slate position advanced in Not In Your Genes: environments clearly matter, but so does DNA, and the perversity of denying this becomes ever more acute with each new genetic discovery.”

    So, we are stuck with random segregation of chromosomes during meiosis, no environmental influence, and total genetic determinism of al of our traits, no effects from experience or learning. I think that a bit more explanation is needed to assert these RIDICULOUS CONCLUSIONS!

    If geneticism is correct, then why should we worry about what we eat or whether we exercise, or smoke, or take drugs, since our genes are determining everything including our health and lifespan? It looks like the genetic determinism approach is missing a few nuts and bolts from the deduction side of theory formation!

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      I think you have answered your own question. I doubt very much that we can change our health outcomes by going to the gym, eating antioxidant smoothies and fretting about cholesterol. Most of us will live to 80 whatever we do. Stuart Richie is talking not, however, about physical measures, but cognitive and psychiatric ones; unlike him, I think these are largely plastic. I have seen too much anecdotal evidence of changed people produced by changed circumstances to think that my children’s personality or abilities have been transmitted to them by their four grandparents.

      • I have to disagree: smoking causes cancer, eating high cholesterol foods leads to plaque in the arteries and cardiovascular disease, not exercising and overeating can lead to diabetes and other diseases. So, experience is very important – exposure to toxic substances counteracts genetics and leads to disease. It is not a question of environment OR genetics, it is a question of their interaction, therefore, no biological process like genetics can be explained without the environmental factors playing a role and having effects.

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          About 14% of smokers get lung cancer; this is roughly 10 times the rate for a nonsmoker. No other lifestyle factor is associated with a disease to this extent, but the belief that we are killing ourselves by diet or vices remains influential. There is no evidence at all that high cholesterol diets lead to cardiovascular disease (and you may have noticed that the British gov has recently begun to campaign against salt instead). CV patients sometimes have high cholesterol, but this is due to the production of cholesterol in the liver – dietary cholesterol in humans is excreted efficiently, and the French (who eat a high-cholesterol diet) have rates of heart disease among the lowest in the world. We still have no idea what causes diabetes, even though thousands of patients are available for studies; while we insist that it’s all a matter of diet we are not going to find out. Indians and British get diabetes at exactly the same rate, even though their diet is quite different.

          • Your figures seem quite low and disingenuous. Smoking, and exposure to other toxic chemicals, is THE cause of cancer. Avoiding smoking and smokers, avoiding toxic chemicals is much more likely NOT to result in cancer. Cancer is widespread and it is directly related to smoking, food, and exposure to toxic chemicals in the water and air. Minimizing the frequency of cancer by giving a number like “14% of smokers….” is a gross denial of the facts. Most cancer patients are smokers or in smoking environments and are overweight and not living an active lifestyle. You make it seem like the cause of cancer is a matter of “belief” or a genetic process in a vacuum disconnected to environmental triggers. So, I think you are uninformed about biological processes and fail to see the biological systems which include environmental pressures.

            We do know about the causes of diabetes: a high caloric, especially, a high sugar intake, and alcohol is a sugar. Most diabetic patients are overweight and sedentary. Yes, there are different kinds of diabetes and some forms are birth-defects, but the problem is adult onset because ADULTS DON’T EXERCISE!

            The current situation with cholesterol is the opposite of your assertion: after age 50, anyone with a blood test indicating one point over the acceptable range, and your Dr. writes you a prescription for a statin – one of the most prescribed medications given. Ignoring cholesterol, the causal factor of CVD, is a huge mistake.

            Smoking, sugar, cholesterol and failing to exercise are great ways to get a prescription, surgery, or a shorter lifespan!

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            My 14% figure is not controversial, and you are merely restating the received wisdom about cancer, CVD and diabetes. If it was all really as cut and dried as this, we would have cured them all long ago. You must publish your finding that exercise prevents diabetes. My doctor writes a prescription for statin because he’s had a circular from the Department of Health telling him to. I told him that my cholesterol was not in the ‘high’ range; he said that the government has moved the bar. This means that what is statistically NORMAL cholesterol is now counted as high, and nearly everyone over 50 will get statins. Statins lower the risk of a second heart attack, but do not prevent the onset of heart disease. And although they lower cholesterol, this is not the reason for their effect on the circulation – this is rather due to the interaction of statins with the nitric oxide pathway. Even if cholesterol was the major factor, I could nothing about this by changing my diet, as the French evidence shows – this is the kind of environmental data that you are not so keen on, I suspect. I want you to show me a representative group of healthy 80 year olds and find out what lifestyle factors they all have in common. Some of them will have spent their lives doing the wrong thing.


            The risk of developing lung cancer is about 23 times higher for current smokers than for those who have never smoked. Smoking accounts for 30% of all US cancer deaths. Tobacco use is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the US.

            Overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for developing many cancers: breast, colon, rectum, endometrium, kidney, pancreas and adenocarcinoma of the esophagus,

            Alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer. Alcohol use combined with smoking increases the risk of cancer more than alcohol or smoking alone.

            Other Cancer Risk Factors are exposure to chemicals, estrogen, HPV infection, radiation, smokeless tobacco, and sunlight.

            Diseases of the Heart is the #1 cause of death in the US, Cancer #2, Stroke #5, and Diabetes #7. 65% of people with diabetes will die of some form of CVD. Smoking, Obesity and physical inactivity are all risk factors for Coronary Heart Disease.

            Quick cure for diabetes: stop eating and start exercising – burning the blood sugar with activity saves the expenditure of insulin.

            If YOU want to understand cholesterol: get a blood test and find out what your levels are, then go vegetarian for 3 months and test again to see if there was any difference between dietary intake of cholesterol and your persona genetic production of cholesterol. Cholesterol should rise from eating animal products and should lower by not eating them. Cholesterol is a risk factor for CVD/CHD.

            The biological facts and the medical practitioners’ motivations may be quite different, but the point is that cholesterol is considered a risk factor, like blood sugar, and smoking, nutritional intake, and activity!

            If you want a conundrum to dream about, consider why so few adults exercise?

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            The risk of developing lung cancer depends on the intensity of smoking. British smokers on average have 14 cigarettes a day. For this group, relative risk is about 8-fold. The classic Richard Doll study that first established the link between smoking and lung cancer found an 11-fold relative risk for all smokers. Alcohol raises the risk for cancer of the oesophagus, but not (on present evidence) for any other kind. A small number of very heavy drinkers will get cirrhosis of the liver, much the best documented pathology from alcohol. There is also a link between alcohol and female infertility. Your cholesterol-lowering experiment will not work, and is in any case not necessary – I refer you again to the French example. A small number of people with hereditary high cholesterol are at high risk of heart disease, but this has nothing to do with their diets.

          • You are in denial.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            Well, I reckon that’s better than self-denial.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            I reckon that’s better than self-denial.

    • Barzini

      oh look, a huge straw man

      • No one knows what you are talking about because you are trying to get attention with a sound bite. Next time, try to provide a more elaborate description of your standpoint!

  • Jeffrey Vernon

    I concur with Stuart Ritchie’s low estimation of coffee-table psychology books, but I fear that he wants to replace one dogma with another. The schizophrenia example is a particularly bad one for his argument. Every time a genome-wide association study produces yet another list of 20 schizo genes, rarely overlapping with the previously published list, the prospect of replicating the findings in a new set of patients becomes more remote. Come to that, the ‘genes’ are in nearly all cases variants that occur in the ‘junk’ DNA, thousands of bases away from the coding regions. This need not rule them out, but it makes their biological effect, or their relevance to individual difference, hard to validate. Most cases of schizophrenia are not inherited within families; there may be familial forms of the disease, as suggested by twin data, but these will not be relevant to most patients. Finally, the GCTA method, which can bump up the estimated heritability from 4% to 25% or so, has come on stream only in the last 5 years, and appears prone to sampling errors that are only now being discovered: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4711841/

    • MeMow001

      That paper has been widely critiqued by experts

      • Jeffrey Vernon

        The perfect paper has never been published, and it would be unsurprising if Tuljapurkar’s article criticising GCTA attracted no objections. The only one I have seen, which is circulating in manuscript, is from Peter Visscher’s group, the originators of the method. The dispute is partly about the distribution of the data in the Framlington Heart Study; Tuljapurkar say they are skewed, and that Visscher’s calculations illegitimately remove this feature. I should point out that researchers in schizophrenia have been polite but agnostic about the original Visscher paper claiming high heritability; they’d like it to be true, but we’ve all been here before, and there are rival methodologies. However, my point is not to take sides in an argument about matrix algebra, but to insist that the proof must be empirical. Before we can say that GCTA really can identify a set of SNPs that account for the ‘hidden’ heritability in this or that disorder, then we need to see how it performs on an independent sample: do the identified correlations transfer to a new set of people? For conditions with a significant environmental component, this is almost guaranteed NOT to happen. For at least one condition where the risk to relatives is well-known from family studies, the variability found by GCTA over-estimates the likelihood of an affected cousin (for example), and has no predictive or diagnostic value.

        • Michael Smith

          I have to admit, you certainly get a better class of below-the-line commentary in the Spectator Health section….

  • form

    Our bodies, right down to the cellular level, change and are changed by our social environments. Very young people are, much more often than not, going to be the consumers, rather than the producers of the social environments they live in and try to make a difference in. Their lives are TOTALLY controlled by adults, and, in particular, by parents. Oliver James is right and, one day, science will PROVE him right. I hope I live to see the day when a scientist finds the genes which are present and active inside the bodies of people like Mr. Ritchie and that are responsible for those people’s pathological immorality and senselessness. Only the very sick tickets in our world have the audacity to pathologize the collapse of people’s psychological defenses against acts of evil that are perpetrated upon themselves or their loved ones.

  • Simon Walker

    Both Stuart and Oliver are cut from the same cloth. Both are strict adherents to the ideologies that are best aligned with their own career and/or research/clinical interests…Should we be surprised that either are so strident in their positions? I think no. The ‘truth’ of the matter is that the causes of psychological distress are likely multifactorial, and not only vary across each diagnostic construct but each affected individual to a greater or lesser extent.

    Am I impressed with Oliver’s overuse of anecdote…? No. Am I impressed with Stuart’s tendency to refer to performance on a small number of cognitive tests as ‘intelligence’…? No.

    Perhaps this issue can be resolved by a new research focus? One that looks into whether there are genes that account for believing that genes account for psychological distress.

  • David N. Andrews MEd, CPSE

    I’d expect that sort of bollocks from Oliver James. He is a psychoanalyst – no respecter or actual science and evidence.

  • Maureen Fisher

    As a relative involved in caring for a mentally ill person and in his recovery and care, this man is deeply offensive and pernicious to families who have done nothing wrong. Undoubtedly there are families who have harmed children but there are many families who deeply care about their afflicted relatives. No doubt his pernicious theories based on Freud from the last century and the weird stuff of the sixties fomented by R.D Laing will cause lasting suspicion and damage between medical professionals and loving families.

  • Jeff

    Gated Communities

    Gated communities are taking on an important role in modern politics. Donald Trump grew up in a gated community, and made his fortune building gated communities that illegally exclude African-Americans. Trump’s approach is not based on ideology, but on consumer demand, and in particular, the demand of the working class to live in a place where there are no minority groups, criminals, wierdos or politically correct (Catholic educated) people.

    A gated community has a number of characteristics. There is ideally a six metre high concrete wall to keep out intruders. When the wall surrounds a very large number of houses, the average cost of the wall becomes insignificant. Getting past the security guards is like going through customs. Hence there is no crime in a gated community, and children can roam unsupervised in complete safety. Parents can be sure their daughters will not encounter males that would be unsuitable sons-in-law.

    Allotments are typically quarter-acre or five acres (one-tenth or two hectares). Houses are fireproof and of a similar appearance. Services are provided by underground ducts, including pneumatic mail delivery. Television and internet are unobtrusively censored.

    There is a shopping centre with a supermarket and other key shops. Prices are controlled to prevent gouging. There is a club for men and older boys from which women are excluded. On the top of the shopping centre is a hospital and old people’s home overlooking a race track and playing fields.

    There is a non-denomination church, which has leather sofas instead of pews, and wallpaper with pictures of saints like in an eastern orthodox church. The priest is a family man employed by the management committee. There is a co-educational school, so that if children conceive a passionate desire for a classmate, it will be someone of the opposite gender. The school has international baccalaureate and no homework.

    Once people move into a gated community, it occurs to them that, instead of their having to move into a gated community, it would be better if the “undesirables” were forced to live in ghettos, or were kicked out of the country altogether. No doubt this is what Donald Trump has in mind. The Conservative Party should take on board this trend in modern living and become the party for people who live or would like to live in gated communities. ez

  • Bonedagger

    Oliver James is a Trofim Lysenko for millennial halfwits.

  • Snickers

    This is a rehash of nature vs nurture. Having training in both Biology and Psychology, I fall on the side of nuture. While nature gives us potential, nurture shapes that potential. Evidence for thus abounds in the world. From the rhesus monkeys that grow up anxious without a soft and comforting monkey mom, to the infant who is diagnosed with failure to thrive because thay have no stimulation snd their social needs are not met and they fail to bond to other human beings, to the lodgepole pine tree that grows straight and talk in Eastern Oregon and short and misshapen on the Oregon Coast evidence for the interaction between nature and environment is clear. Environment trumps nature.l

  • gacl

    No, the Blank Slate was definitely not arguing against a straw man.

    This issue of biological human differences is wildly controversial and people often have absurd beliefs that are fueled by ideology and political viewpoints. When people are highly motivated by ideology they can bend evidence and reality to fit their ideology.

    I know PhD academics who consider Stephen Jay Gould’s, The Mismeasure of Man to be the authority on these issues. I consider that book debunked, but they would consider my ideas debunked.