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Genetics and social class
  1. N A Holtzman
  1. Institute of Genetic Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr N A Holtzman, Genetics and Public Policy Studies, The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, 550 North Broadway, Suite 511, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 21205–2004;
 holtzman{at}jhmi.edu

Abstract

Objective: To assess claims that genes are a major determinant of social class.

Design: Using genetic epidemiological principles, five claims on the role of genes in determining social class are examined: (1) traits that run in families are usually inherited; (2) complex traits can be explained by alleles at a single gene locus; (3) complex traits are transmitted intact from one generation to the next; (4) natural selection explains social advantage. (5) Heritability estimates provide a valid estimate of the importance of genes in explaining complex human traits or behaviour.

Results: (1) Traits that run in families can result from environmental exposures that differ by social class. (2) The protein encoded by any single gene has too narrow a range of biological activity to explain traits as complex as social status. (3) Because alleles at different gene loci are transmitted independently, genetic inheritance cannot explain why offspring display the same complex traits as their parents. (4) The propagation of mutations that might result in a selective advantage takes much longer than the time for which any social class has achieved or maintained dominance. (5) Heritability measures are accurate only when environment is maintained constant. This is impossible in evaluating human traits.

Conclusions: The roots of social class differences do not lie in our genes. Consequently, genetics cannot be used as a justification for maintaining a ruling class, limiting procreation among the poor, or minimising social support programmes.

  • genetics
  • social class
  • heredity
  • environment
  • equality
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