Public Release: 

Genetics Debate Suffers From Misinterpretation, Scholar Says

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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."


Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.