07/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Republican Albatross: Conservatives, Ideology, and the Human Condition As Seen By David Brooks

Apparently as a counterweight to its centrist liberalism, the New York Times keeps a few "house" conservatives writing on its Op-Ed pages. One of these conservatives, David Brooks, occasionally reports on the "human condition" from a conservative viewpoint. In a recent column (July 15, 2008) Mr. Brooks gives us ample evidence of one of the basic problems with conservative ideology: the dogma of American conservatism is to look backward, which means you're usually out of date in understanding progress and usually wrong in understanding the human condition.

In his recent column, Mr. Brooks offers us a belated revision of some of his old ideas about genes -- his old ideas that genes rule and that a search for genes that produce human behavior will lead anywhere useful. He has apparently changed his mind about a few things. He quotes a study by Eric Turkheimer, a study published five years ago that I wrote about here last year. Mr. Brooks suggests the Turkheimer study on contributions of genes and environment to variance in IQ shows us how complicated the "human condition" is, and he concludes from this that since we understand so little about the human condition, it's best to follow conservative ideology and do nothing about the differences in the cognitive performance of the underclass and overclass.

The problem is that not only is Mr. Brooks late in his understanding of what has been happening in the cognitive sciences, he's also so hog-tied by conservative dogma that he forces a twisting or even a complete neglect of realities.

Contrary to Mr. Brooks, it's not true that the 2003 study led by Eric Turkheimer on effects of environment on IQ does not suggest possibilities for intervention. As I've elaborated here before, the Turkheimer group found that in poor families nearly all the variance in IQ is accounted for by a combination of fetal and postnatal environments, and that the contribution of genes to IQ variance is close to zero in poor families. In contrast, in affluent families, the result is almost the reverse. What does it mean? As one might predict, Mr. Brooks says it means the human condition is too complicated for intervention.

Not so, Not so at all. One reasonable interpretation of the Turkheimer study is that among poor children genetic differences contribute almost nothing to the measured variance of IQ because environmental damage, both fetal and postnatal, overwhelms all other variables in accounting for IQ variation. In contrast, in the middle and upper classes, in which fetal and postnatal damage to the nervous system is much reduced and hardly variable from one family to the next, genetic differences account for most of the variation in IQ. In plain English, for middle and upper class children, differences in IQ can be explained mostly by genetic differences, while in lower class children, differences in IQ are explained mostly by non-genetic differences (fetal and postnatal environments). So if we ask about interventions, we should not be too quick to dismiss possibilities. The most reasonable preventive interventions are an improvement in prenatal care and a reduction in environmental toxins to reduce harmful fetal impacts. (There will be more about this in my forthcoming book: Changing Destiny: How the Fetal Environment Shapes IQ and Behavior. Oxford University Press, 2009.)

At the end of his analysis of the human condition, Mr. Brooks gives us a grand conservative mantra. He says:

"This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth -- that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws."

Not quite. There is no demonstrated ancient philosophical truth concerning severe limits to human knowledge. An argument is not a truth. In the realm of social interventions that move the human species forward, there's much to be done, many goals to achieve, and a focus on the so-called limits of knowledge is not useful to society. Philosophy may focus on limits, but science and engineering and medicine have no such focus. It's an irony that Mr. Brooks acknowledges "this age of tremendous scientific achievement" but fails to realize such achievement was possible only because no limits were accepted. Truly, with Brooksian "limits" we would still be in the Middle Ages.

As for the poppycock idea that "the best political actions are incremental" -- this is the usual conservative ideology and a silly idea in America given that we came into existence as the result of a sudden revolution. As was said years ago by Jean-Francois Revel, what America is all about is a continuing revolution without Marx or Jesus. America is a revolution in progress, but a revolution without any dominating ideology. If any idea drives us in our continual movement forward, it's the idea of simple pragmatism. Conservatives may hate the reality, but we will indeed move forward, and we will keep looking forward rather than backward.

The Republican Party is now America's conservative party. If Republicans are wiped out as a political party this November, they can lay the blame at the feet of its current conservative ideologues -- the people who promote the idea of limits to knowledge, who promote the idea that social intervention is futile, and who turn their backs on the future. That's the Republican albatross.