Friday, March 16, 2018

Biosocial criminology: Pulling Back the Curtain on Heritability Studies in the Post-Genomic Era

It turns out there are serious scientists who are criticizing biosocial criminology. I found a paper called Pulling Back the Curtain on Heritability Studies in the Post-Genomic Era by Callie H. Burt and Ronald Simmons. Available online here for free.

Burt seems to be an especially good source for refuting hereditarianism as demonstrated on her blog, which unfortunately is not updated as often as I would like. Co-author Ronald L. Simmons has an interesting bio:
He received a Ph.D. in Sociology from Florida State University and completed his post doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin.
But based on the age given on his Wiki entry, he left FSU long before Kevin Beaver rolled into town.

Unlike the biosocial criminologists, Burt and Simmons don't have celebrity Steven Pinker promoting their work, and so I wasn't aware of this paper, and in fact I heard of it through one of the biosocial criminologist papers' reference.

The abstract is not kind to world of biosocial criminality:
...This study provides a critique of heritability study methods and assumptions to illuminate the dubious foundations of heritability estimates and questions the rationale and utility of partitioning genetic and environmental effects. After critiquing the major models, we call for an end to heritability studies. We then present what we perceive to be a more useful biosocial research agenda that is consonant with and informed by recent advances in our understanding of gene function and developmental plasticity.
 The paper includes some interesting commentary:
We are surprised that these somewhat astonishing findings reported in recent studies,
such as the reports of more than 50 percent heritability for such complex social behaviors as crime and victimization, have not generated more critical attention in criminology.
We also are perplexed by the lack of response to the heritability study finding that
so-called shared environmental factors play a minor role in explaining variation in crime  related phenotypes (e.g., Barnes, Boutwell, and Fox, 2012; Beaver et al., 2008; Beaver, Ferguson, and Lynn-Whaley, 2010; Boisvert, Wright, et al., 2013). Indeed, the conclusion from many of these heritability studies that little—if any—of the variance in criminal behavior is due to shared environments, often interpreted to include parenting and community factors, contradicts a wealth of research conducted during the past century as well as the major theories of crime. As the renowned psychiatrist and behavioral genetics practitioner Michael Rutter (2006: 11) noted, “[The] sweeping assertions on the irrelevance of the family environment are not supported by research evidence. It is quite striking that behavioral genetics reviews usually totally ignore the findings on environmental influences. It is almost as if research by non-geneticists is irrelevant.”
...most of the arguments in this article are not original but are those of prominent scientists, many of whom we cite, whose criticisms have been largely unheeded by the criminological community in recent years. We hope to renew a dialogue in criminology about heritability studies and stimulate what we view as a much-needed debate about the utility of heritability studies for crime and related phenotypes...
The paper also raises issues about Kevin Beaver's methodology used for twin and adoptions studies, something I have done about his claims about race:
...those respondents who had no knowledge about their biological parents’ jail or prison
status—almost certainly those who had the least contact with their biological parents
(and could not be influenced by potential labeling processes involved in having a criminal parent)—were not included in the analyses. This same Add Health adoption subsample and model also was used to “estimate genetic influences on victimization” (Beaver et al., 2013: 149). 
In sum, the adoption method was promoted as a powerful model for separating genetic
and environmental influences that avoided limitations of twin studies by “more cleanly
[separating] genetic and environmental influences” (Raine, 1993: 60; also Mednick and
Kandel, 1988; Plomin and DeFries, 1985) and as such has played a crucial role in bolstering findings from twin studies. It is clear, however, that the adoption method suffers from several of its own invalidating flaws, which—like twin studies—seem to bias estimates systematically toward genetic influences and against shared environmental ones (e.g., Joseph, 2004; Stoolmiller, 1999).
Most interesting of all to me:
Research has evinced that human behavior is a function of the interplay of biology and
the environment. As we have argued, we believe that this evidence clearly demonstrates
that quantitative genetics is a misguided endeavor that asks the wrong questions and uses flawed methods to try to answer them.8 
What remains unclear is why this enterprise continues. The question of nature versus nurture no longer makes any sense whatsoever in the context of modern genetics. These recent advances in molecular genetics “really should be the final nail in heritability’s coffin” (Crusio, 2012: 362).
What remains unclear is why this enterprise continues. I have a few ideas. This paper was published in March 2014.

Brian Boutwell first appeared in Quillette, in November 2015 and accused Burt and Simmons of trying to smear his colleagues and himself:
They maintain outmoded understandings about where crime comes from and generally reject the science suggesting that their knowledge base is wrong. Does this actually translate into real attempts to silence our work? It does. Just last year (2014) an article [7] was published in our flagship journal calling for studies examining the heritability of antisocial traits (i.e., the genetic contribution to those traits) to be ended and expelled from the discipline. 
While the suggestion to effectively censor research was bizarre, the ability of the authors to make such a suggestion must be defended on the grounds of academic freedom. They were well within their rights to mount such an argument. Yet, the fact that their solution was outright suppression of a certain form of research speaks to the deep animosity for biosocial scholarship that still exists in the field. And make no mistake, their arguments were not simply rooted in methodological nuance regarding whether heritability estimates are accurate or not. No, they were careful (in a subsequent article) to artfully link our work with the dangers of eugenicists of the past, conveniently reminding our colleagues (in case they forgot) what mark we bear on our forehead [8,9,10]. They wore the white hat and we wore the black hat.
Anybody who reads the paper will see that the argument to end heritability studies is based on the contention that those studies are simplistic, use poor methodology and are out-of-date thanks to new genetic research. Not because they are trying to "suppress" it.

Burt and Simmons don't speculate why "this enterprise continues" but I think it's pretty obvious why it does: those who promote the enterprise have a political agenda. And they know they are guaranteed a large and enthusiastic, if ill-informed, audience online.

The readership of alt-right Quillette wasn't enough for the biosocial criminology bros, and so they took their arguments to an even more ill-informed and blatantly racist audience. Boutwell's article was reprinted a month later in white supremacist American Renaissance, although it has since been removed from its web site. The evidence of its publication can be found via the Wayback Machine.

In May 2015 we see Kevin Beaver appearing on alt-right racist Stefan Molyneux's Youtube channelHe appeared again in 2016 and Brian Boutwell appeared in 2017.  John Paul Wright also appeared in 2017.

Clearly the hereditarians, whose twin studies are documented and critiqued in the Burt/Simmons paper of 2014, have no qualms whatsoever about the racism of Stefan Molyneux or American Renaissance.

And of course Steven Pinker has frequently promoted the work of these hereditarians when they have published in Quillette. And they are just a few of his many alt-right racist connections. Which makes Pinker's claim that academia and the media are "radicalizing" the alt-right so hypocritical, if not grotesquely cynical: in fact it's Steven Pinker and his hereditarian gang who are radicalizing the alt-right, providing American Renaissance and Stefan Molyneux with "scientific" reasons for their hatred of blacks.