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Publisher's Summary

This audiobook narrated by Katherine Fenton makes a provocative and timely case for how the science of genetics can help create a more just and equal society

In recent years, scientists like Kathryn Paige Harden have shown that DNA makes us different, in our personalities and in our health - and in ways that matter for educational and economic success in our current society.

In The Genetic Lottery, Harden introduces listeners to the latest genetic science, dismantling dangerous ideas about racial superiority and challenging us to grapple with what equality really means in a world where people are born different. Weaving together personal stories with scientific evidence, Harden shows why our refusal to recognize the power of DNA perpetuates the myth of meritocracy, and argues that we must acknowledge the role of genetic luck if we are ever to create a fair society.

Reclaiming genetic science from the legacy of eugenics, this groundbreaking book offers a bold new vision of society where everyone thrives, regardless of how one fares in the genetic lottery.

©2021 Kathryn Paige Harden (P)2021 Princeton University Press

Critic Reviews

“This brilliant book is without a doubt the very best exposition on our genes, how they influence quite literally everything about us, and why this means we should care more, not less, about the societal structures in which we live.” (Angela Duckworth, author of Grit)

“To me, the aim of genetic research should be threefold: to find out which differences between people are real, which of those matter, and how to use that knowledge to get the best outcomes for all people. This fascinating book is a step toward that goal.” (David Epstein, author of Range)

“Harden expertly explains what we can - and importantly, can’t - take away from genetic research, and does so without shying away from the complexities or controversies. Nobody should be allowed to opine about genetics in public until they’ve read this book.” (Stuart Ritchie, author of Science Fictions)

What listeners say about The Genetic Lottery

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Mix of Genetic Science and Ideology

The science in the book is spot on. The author conveys the extent to which genes influence outcomes, and the role environment plays as well.

I found it a bit contradictory when she says race is a social construct that is completely meaningless, but then says most genetic studies have been done on European populations, which are so different they can't be compared with non-European ancestry. Can't really blame her for side-stepping the racial discussion after seeing how Charles Murray has been treated though.

The biggest leap is going from the science to politics. Because genes are unfair, we need the government to re-balance the scales. We have to choose between equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome. To me, there's a clear 3rd option, the utilitarian ideal to do the most good for the most people. That might mean accepting the Mathew effect and triaging lost causes. I want the best surgeon, and I don't care if he's only the best cause of his genes or if he makes 5x as much as I do.

11 people found this helpful

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Required reading for any socially minded responsible adult

I approached this book looking for a better understanding of the role genetics plays in our society. I came here after reading a review from The New Yorker on this book and the author. This book is the antithesis of eugenic proponent author Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve.” In chapter after chapter, line by line Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden destroys the pseudoscience of self-proclaimed proponents of the “irrefutable” science of genetic superiority of some groups of people in comparison to others (pro-eugenic ideology). Dr. Harden’s own intelligence and exquisite understanding of polygenic indexes far outpaces other contemporary authors on the subject while her grasp of social inequity places her at the leading edge of social equity science and program development. She seeks, with outstanding prose, to walk the line between her colleagues who, fearful of a eugenic resurgence, deny the culpability of genetics in social outcomes (income, educational attainment, susceptibility to abuses) and those who express a skewed belief that some people are genetically superior, more intelligent, earn higher income and generally perform better in society due to their more advanced genetic evolution (eugenic). She clearly articulates how both viewpoints are incorrect and represent an underdeveloped understanding of both polygenetic indexes and the current structural downsides inherent in attempts to create social equality. She illustrates the value of understanding and approaching social equity informed not just by environmental factors, but also with genetic data which, in a more perfect Union, create a society engineered with agency to help all members, not with a blanket solution, but dependent upon their environmental as well as their genetic inheritance, of which every child has absolutely no control.

Personal Reflection: I sit here in my comfortable apartment understanding that I’m fortunate through no merit of my own, understanding that I am a product of environmental and genetic circumstances over which I had no control. This book is humbling because it helps strip away the illusion that intelligence makes one superior to those whom we deem less intelligent. This book pleads, more so than anything I’ve read, for people to understand that capitalism as an economy, is not a moral guiding light. It has not and will never produce a meritocracy where the fruits of labor produce a bounty for the worker equal to his/her effort or that educational outcomes are solely dependent on the effort one places on schoolwork. For those that continue to believe that, enjoy your short-lived fantasy and the illusion of control you have over your situation, predicament, or attainment. This book strips away that illusion through sound science, well informed reproducible statistics, and through the voice of an author who truly shines a guiding light welcoming every reader to join in the creation of a more perfect Union where we all have what we need.

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Deep ethical questions that cannot be ingnored

I read Plomin’s Blueprint, which was a great introduction; this was a fascinating further discussion on how to use the insights of behavioral genetics. Largely well-reasoned. Undoubtedly, will be a major text for understanding a field that can only be on the ascent. A bit cloying at times, but that’s probably just about my high polygenic scores for eye rolling. [Also, annoying that the reader mispronounces several words that get repeated.]

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thought provoking

I'm going to recommend this widely. it's critical to social justice work and to preserving democracy

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Very interesting book clarifying lots of myths

The book is great at dispelling some of the myths of genetics and also of explaining the concepts of eugenics and the opposing visions

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intelligent and informative

Although much of this book is overly complicated and not exactly meant for those who do not study genetics, it is still worth a listen to gain a better understanding of the future of the science behind the subject. Certainly something that society should no longer turn a blind eye to.

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Strong case for destigmatizing genetic research

It seems she has two stated purposes. First, to reclaim the field of genetics from eugenicists, in fact, to establish the moniker of "anti-eugenicist" (in an appropriation of Ibram X. Kendi's "anti-racist.") Her second goal is to create, or at least call for a recognition of, a universal moral based on the philosophy of John Rawls (veil of ignorance).

On her first point, the book is potent and effective. Much research is not pursued because of troubling conclusions and other research is neglected because of poor rational leaps about the implications. Genetics weigh heavily on social order, but they are not fatalistic. E.g. your eyesight is determined by genetics and environment, but a pair of glasses can correct many genetic disadvantages from nature. I believe this was the primary thrust of her book and the point was well-established and defended.

On her second point, I'm not sure that a universal moral order can be established in a book of this nature or of this length. What she does accomplish is to refute the notion that just because some people read genetics to mean eugenics is not a necessary conclusion. She does not prove, philosophically speaking, that her position is a necessary conclusion from the study of genetics, but tries to paint it as the more desirable conclusion (which it is.)

In the end, she operates from Rawls's Justice of Fairness, but she does not argue FOR the philosophy as much as she simply argues FROM it. This is what I would expect from a social scientist, that being said she shows much more awareness and intentionality with her philosophy than many other books in her field.

To be clear, I agree with her premise and her conclusions, but her argument is far from airtight. I'm reluctant to criticize since I agree so naturally with her. The social science aspect of this book gets a 5 out of 5, the philosophy gets a 2 out of 5.

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Interesting spiritual tome

This was an interesting mixed bag of a spiritual book presented as scientific, but good for consideration and variable enumeration.

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Important addition to the field of intelligence

The book is an important addition to the field of intelligence and IQ. A controversial field with little published material. A serious book with a noble mission. I think it is must read. It is not easy to read at times and there is tendency for repetition. The narration is robotic.

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Excellent overview of advances in genetics

Harden, who was recently featured in The New Yorker, does a crystal-clear introduction for laypeople to recent advances in high-quality research linking genes with outcomes like school completion that matter deeply for the social hierarchy. These influences are the aggregate consequences of a huge number of minor genetic variations, but they match classic social science variables like parental income in effect size. Harden argues both against conservative genetic determinists who claim human worth is hard-wired and against liberals who want to pretend genes make no difference at all to social stratification. She argues for a Rawlsian framework based on the fact that no one really deserves their "draw" in the genetic lottery, whereas we all benefit from the intricate social cooperation on which our society is built and so owe it to one another to manage inequality in the service of all.

Harden's account is scrupulous about the complexities of genotype-phenotype correlations, pointing out the many ways they dependence on social context. Along the way, she delivers a sparkling description of causality that I have been hunting for, without success, for over a decade now. She also tells the brutal story of how, right from the start, Anglo-American scholars in particular seized on genetics as a way to ratify their racist and Social Darwinist instincts. (This work helped inspire Nazi racial ideology.)

Harden's work is an excellent complement to David Reich's Who We Are and How We Got Here. It's required reading for intellectuals who want to try to come to terms with this important emerging field of knowledge.

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  • Megan
  • 12-23-21

An annoying book but with some merit

I found much of this book annoying, and other parts interesting and rationally argued. I suspect that the author may have felt the need to demonstrate her left wing credentials to explain genetics, because she would otherwise risk being called a eugenicist. In fact, Ruha Benjamin has already called her a eugenicist, for daring to suggest that genetic information should be collected to determine how much of educational attainment is due to environment and how much due to genes, with the aim of reducing inequality of outcomes.

My advice is to grit your teeth through the annoying bits and listen to the science. In the coming years, knowledge about genetics may revolutionise the way we live and we need to think about how to build a better society to deal with that revolution.

The subject matter of this book was covered, albeit much more elegantly, comprehensively and more dispassionately, by Stephen Pinker in his book, “The Blank Slate”. What Kathryn Paige Harden adds is some useful and interesting additional information about recent developments in genetics, but also some doctrinaire left wing material, unwarranted conclusions and distortions. She is at her strongest when she is talking about science, and scientific research. She can talk intelligently about rational choices, such as the costs and benefits of diverting educational resources from those who have high polygenic scores associated with going further in education to those who do not. There were points when I agreed with some of her personal moral judgements, such as when she talks of explaining to her children the plight of homeless people living under a highway bridge, there simply because of bad luck, much of it, possibly, genetic.

But there are many places where her generalisations, emotive and accusatory language, and frequent distortions and unwarranted conclusions called her objectivity into question for me. Sometimes I wondered who her target audience was, both because of the left wing assumptions that she seems to take as common cause, and because of feeling that my intelligence was insulted - for example by her analogies, which went on too long and seemed too simplistic to me, of genetics with restaurant recipes.,

Here are some of the things that she said that I thought were examples of her unwarranted generalisations, emotive and accusatory language:

- She expressed “disgust” at Jeff Bezos adding billions to his wealth. She doesn’t explain how he added to his wealth - was it simply by benefitting from an increase in the price of Amazon shares? He owns a large proportion of Amazon shares, because he started the business. Why should a share price increase prompt such a violent somatic reaction? If this is a figure of speech, there is no need to express your disagreement by expressing revulsion, as if you have been forced to eat something rotten or poisonous. You would be more persuasive by expressing in rational terms why an alternative system that you envisage would be better and the problems with the current system.

- She cites an outdated and discredited research paper that suggested that a single gene caused depression, and says that only a fool would believe that hypothesis. I do not see why she felt it necessary to discredit someone in such terms. Science involves making hypotheses and testing them. Sometimes scientists get the answers wrong. It does not mean that we need to make a laughing stock of those who in good faith get it wrong, and there was no indication of malice in the researcher concerned, at least none that she presented. One gets the feeling that she does this because she does not understand the arguments very well. Sometimes her best arguments against ideas is that you would be a fool for thinking that thing and you may be a eugenicist.

- She indicates that she believes that people with white skins doing research on the genetics of people with black skins invalidates that research. This does not seem to follow any rules of logic or reason.

I do not believe that she has the breadth of mind to tackle the wider issues to society that arise from genetics. She focusses on fairness but does not appear to understand economics or scarcity, or the impacts of incentives. If peoples’ incentives are removed, it seems likely that we would all be less well off. And if you have redistribution with a completely open system of immigration, which is what the left appears to advocate, then you give away your wealth to the whole world. It seems to me that she will have a hard time influencing people to do that.



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  • Amazon Customer
  • 11-30-21

Great read (or listen)

While it is quite technical in some parts (which I like) the points of this book are laid out clearly and the science is explained wonderfully. I may not 100% Agree with the prescriptions but the values are well thought out and definitely gives food for thought in how we take into account our luck with regards to genetics

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  • aroyi48
  • 10-22-21

A good book on genetics and social inequality

I really enjoy this book, well researched and thoughtful. And I agree with the author's philosophical view on how genetics studies should be used to address social inequality.The book used results from research studies and statistics to make her points, unlike many of the popular psychology books in which statements are made without good evidence.