Sociologists should engage with behavior genetics

Over the last thirty years, behavior geneticists have examined the influence of genetics on dozens of outcomes of interest to social scientists. A fundamental conclusion of this research is that genes have non-negligible (and often quite substantial) effects on nearly every behavior (Turkheimer, 2000). For some outcomes, the effect of genes appears strong enough to account for the bulk of (measured) similarity between parents and their children (Rowe, 1994; Harris, 1999).

These conclusions would seem to warrant a paradigm shift in the field of sociology, a discipline that has long treated biological influences as irrelevant or negligible. Yet the core curriculum of sociology still makes little mention of biological influences. Biological theories are typically given relatively little attention in commonly used textbooks, and when such theories are considered, they are often portrayed as remnants of racist crack pot theories that lack an empirical basis.

But the foundation on which behavior genetic evidence relies is no less tenable — and no more tenable — than the evidence on which sociologists rely for many of their conclusions. In other words, twin studies are no more or less scientific than regression analysis. For this reason, I think sociologists should take behavior genetics more seriously. Seriously doesn’t mean “adopt it whole,” but instead to engage with it, present it as a viable theory in textbooks, attempt rigorous critiques of its assumptions, etc.

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