Dalton Conley & Jason Fletcher on how genomics is transforming the social sciences

GenomeSocial sciences have long been leery of genetics, but in the past decade, a small but intrepid group of economists, political scientists, and sociologists have harnessed the genomics revolution to paint a more complete picture of human social life. The Genome Factor shows how genomics is transforming the social sciences—and how social scientists are integrating both nature and nurture into a unified, comprehensive understanding of human behavior at both the individual and society-wide levels. The book raises pertinent questions: Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes? Recently, The Genome Factor‘s authors, Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher, answered some questions about their work.

What inspired you to write The Genome Factor?

JF: Our book discusses how findings and theories in genetics and biological sciences have shaped social science inquiry—the theories, methodologies, and interpretations of findings used in economics, sociology, political science, and related disciplines —both historically and in the newer era of molecular genetics. We have witnessed, and participated in, a period of rapid change and cross-pollination between the social and biological sciences. Our book draws out some of the major implications of this cross-pollination—we particularly focus on how new findings in genetics has overturned ideas and theories in the social sciences. We also use a critical eye to evaluate what social scientists and the broader public should believe about the overwhelming number of new findings produced in genetics.

What insights did you learn in writing the book?

JF: Genetics, the human genome project in particular, has been quite successful and influential in the past two decades, but has also experienced major setbacks and is still reeling from years of disappointments and a paradigm shift. There has been a major re-evaluation and resetting of expectations the clarity and power of genetic effects. Only 15 years ago, a main model was on the so-called OGOD model—one gene, one disease. While there are a few important examples where this model works, it has mostly failed. This failure has had wide implications on how genetic analysis is conducted as well as a rethinking of previous results; many of which are now thought to false findings. Now, much analysis is conducted using data 10s or 100s of thousands of people because the thinking is that most disease is caused by tens, hundreds, or even thousands of genes that each have a tiny effect. This shift has major implications for social science as well. It means genetic effects are diffuse and subtle, which makes it challenging to combine genetic and social science research. Genetics has also shifted from a science of mechanistic understanding to a large scale data mining enterprises. As social scientists, this approach is in opposition to our norms of producing evidence. This is something we will need to struggle through in the future.

How did you select the topics for the book chapters?

JF: We wanted to tackle big topics across multiple disciplines. We discuss some of the recent history of combining genetics and social science, before the molecular revolution when “genetics” were inferred from family relationships rather than measured directly. We then pivot to provide examples of cutting edge research in economics and sociology that has incorporated genetics to push social science inquiry forward. One example is the use of population genetic changes as a determinant of levels of economic development across the world. We also focus our attention to the near future and discuss how policy decisions may be affected by the inclusion of genetic data into social science and policy analysis. Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence do we have that demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes?

What impact do you hope The Genome Factor will have?

JF: We hope that readers see the promise as well as the perils of combining genetic and social science analysis. We provide a lot of examples of ongoing work, but also want to show the reader how we think about the larger issues that will remain as genetics progresses. We seek to show the reader how to look through a social science lens when thinking about genetic discoveries. This is a rapidly advancing field, so the particular examples we discuss will be out of date soon, but we want our broader ideas and lens to have longer staying power. As an example, advances in gene editing (CRISPR) have the potential to fundamentally transform genetic analysis. We discuss these gene editing discoveries in the context of some of their likely social impacts.

Dalton Conley is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His many books include Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask. He lives in New York City. Jason Fletcher is Professor of Public Affairs, Sociology, Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He lives in Madison. They are the authors of The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future.