Subversive Science? On Progress and Pitfalls in Identifying Genes Associated with Human Behavior

April 06, 2023
Psychology 1312
Kathryn Paige Harden, University of Texas at Austin


Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden is a professor at the Department of Psychology and the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is the director of the Developmental Behavior Genetics lab, and the co-director of the Texas Twin Project. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Virginia, and completed her clinical internship at McLean Hospital / Harvard Medical School before moving to Austin in 2009. Dr. Harden’s research uses twin/adoption studies and molecular genetic tools to study how genetic differences and social contexts combine to shape child and adolescent development, with a particular emphasis on understanding the emergence and canalization of individual differences that have consequences for social and health inequalities across the lifespan. She is the author of The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality (Princeton University Press, 2021) and was profiled in the New Yorker for her public-facing work on the ethical and social implications of human behavioral genetics. She is currently working on her second book.

This lecture will take place at 4 pm in Psychology 1312 on the UCSB campus and is free and open to the public.


The ability to measure the human genome cheaply and noninvasively has led to an explosion in genome-wide association studies (GWASs), which aim to find specific DNA variants that are associated with differences in human health, disease, and behavior. In this talk, I will describe results from our GWAS of approximately 1.5 million people that identified genetic variants associated with externalizing problems, a constellation of behaviors, psychiatric symptoms, and personality traits that are frequently the objects of social sanction. I describe follow-up work tracing how externalizing genetics are associated with human behavior and disease across the lifespan: From conduct problems in childhood, to opioid use in young adulthood, to cirrhosis of the liver in late life. I then discuss how results from the externalizing GWAS, and from other studies linking DNA variants with socially valued behavioral phenotypes, are frequently interpreted as “subversive science.” I conclude with a consideration of the ethical and social risks of behavioral genetic research, but also of its promise for advancing progress in the behavioral sciences and in biomedicine.