Greg Lance – Watkins
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Adam Perkins’s book, The Welfare Trait, was published in December to little fanfare and barely reviewed. But last month, after a talk the lecturer in the neurobiology of personality was due to give at the London School of Economics was cancelled, Perkins’s arguments have provoked a small-scale media storm.
Several disability groups planned a peaceful protest before the talk, after which they planned to listen to Perkins’s speech and engage in debate with him. Perkins claimed he had been “no-platformed”, while the Daily Mail and the Spectator said he had been silenced for “daring to tell the truth” about the welfare state.
In his office at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, Perkins downplays the controversy. “Everything went smoothly until the last day, then there were some threats, though I didn’t get any. But it’s not my lecture theatre; it wasn’t for me to decide.”
The argument he sets out in his book, he tells me, is essentially that the welfare state “becomes a production line for damaged kids” and encourages unemployed households to have more children than families in work.
These households, in turn, breed what he describes as an “employment-resistant personality” that is characterised by low conscientiousness and agreeableness. “If you’re not conscientious in work situations, you’re not going to be conscientious in others, like managing your income to benefit your kids,” he says. “If we happen to have a welfare state that increases the number of children born into welfare households, they are more likely to suffer neglect. If you’re born into [one of these] households there’s a risk of personality damage.
“There are some problematic links between the welfare state and personality, and the welfare state can proliferate employment resistance,” he adds. “We found that women could have a kid, and increase their income by leaving the workforce.”
Perkins is not clear about how this last point does not simply suggest that low wages and high childcare costs force more families into subsistence, arguing instead that jobless families would rather not work. “If you have welfare policies that set up perverse incentives for children to be born into disadvantaged households, you’re causing children to be born into unfortunate circumstances,” he says.
Perkins concedes that he was sacked from a previous job as a warehouse stocktaker because he was “employment-resistant” and “rubbish”, but was hired back due to a lack of staff. His assertions that welfare benefits cause an employment-resistant underclass, and that benefit payments should be limited until a birth rate decline is seen in workless households, have been seized on by rightwing commentators and thinktanks.
Academic peers are less convinced. Essie Viding, professor of developmental psychopathology at University College London, for example, argues that Perkins fails to show causal links for his assertions, and says his proposals are more likely to harm, than help, children. “Childhood disadvantage is clearly not good for anyone, but the dots do not connect between the welfare state somehow inducing ‘employment-resistant parents’ to maltreat and neglect their children. The problem is that the constellation of traits that Perkins describes does not predict who will maltreat and neglect their children with any reliability. And having better welfare most certainly does not induce dysfunctional parenting, if anything the opposite.
“Children of the most vulnerable people in society run a higher than average risk of being maltreated or neglected, but the answer is not to increase the stressors to such families by cutting all financial support, the answer is to have more rigorous child protection and early intervention,” she adds. “Furthermore, there is no data on ‘employment-resistant personality’ and likelihood of maltreating/neglecting your children. Cumulative disadvantage in childhood is associated with poor long-term outcomes. The whole point of welfare is to mitigate such an effect.”
Perkins has a particular disdain for the social media site Twitter, where critics have poured scorn on him relentlessly, he says, and sought to discredit his reputation. “Twitter seems to have replaced peer review,” he jokes. One particularly vocal critic has been Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social research. He says Perkins’s data don’t add up. “Dr Perkins claims to have shown that ‘the higher the proportion of unemployed adults in a household, the greater the number of children – on average – it contains’. However, as Perkins belatedly admitted, this is true if, and only if, you exclude households that do not have any children. This is, I am afraid, not how you calculate an average. It is roughly equivalent to saying that Manchester City would have scored more goals than Arsenal per match this year if you don’t count the matches where they failed to score any [goals] at all. This is about as basic a data error as can possibly be imagined, and in itself entirely disqualifies Dr Perkins from being taken seriously on the issue of welfare statistics.” Perkins responds: “Having children is not like scoring goals, not everyone can score goals, and not everyone wants children.”
Perkins has also been criticised for relying heavily on studies of mice to prove his theories on “employment-resistant personalities”. He argues that “the neural pathways are almost identical”, while his critics point out that animal studies do not tell us anything about what makes people more likely to be unemployed or how parents on welfare influence their children’s personality development.
Perkins’s influences include Richard Dawkins, particularly his work in The Selfish Gene, and the late US behavourial geneticist David Lykken, who he describes as a genius. In 1998, Lykken advocated forcing people to apply for a licence before being allowed to have children, stipulating that being out of wedlock, out of work, or having a debilitating illness or disability would disqualify them: children born without licences would be taken away from their families under his proposal.
He is interested in Lykken’s argument that a small number of people are genetically programmed to be “well socialised”, no matter what their environment and upbringing, and the rest of society is either malleable, or hardwired to be psychopaths: “The kids with the very high dose of hard to socialise genes are the psychopaths. The sociopaths are the average kids who just happen to be born into a disadvantaged household, but I wouldn’t get too bogged down in that,” he says. To many, including disability groups, Perkins’s thesis appears to be nothing more than eugenics, a programme to try to “breed out welfare dependency” and, essentially, poverty, arguing that parents, rather than poverty, damage children.
“One of the reviewers said ‘This is just the same old tired argument we’ve had about IQ’,” Perkins says. “Personality is way more environmentally based, whereas eugenics is genetics. I don’t know Greek, but I think that’s what the name means.”
It actually comes from the Greek eugenes, meaning wellborn or of good stock. Perkins’s argument that breeding out what he considers personality defects isn’t eugenics because these are “environmental rather than genetic” traits doesn’t seem to address ethical objections to eugenics. The idea that some people possess undesirable traits that need to be winnowed out by forcefully controlling reproductive rights still seems, to all intents and purposes, a eugenicist argument.
The LSE has agreed to rearrange Perkins’s talk: perhaps his critics will get the chance to publicly debate his contentious ideas.
Lives South-east London.
Family Divorced, no children.
Education Exeter school; Cardiff University, BSc biology; Goldsmiths, University of London, MSc psychological assessment; Swansea University, PhD on the biological basis of personality.
Career 2013-present: lecturer in the neurobiology of personality, King’s College London; 2009-12: post-doctoral research worker, KCL; 2007-08: research assistant, Swansea University; 2004-07: part-time tutor, Swansea University; 1994-2004: various labouring/data entry jobs.
Public life Talking about science to school students, picking up litter around Catford.
Interests Hiking and biking.
• This article was amended on 15 March 2016. An earlier version quoted Adam Perkins as saying that a talk he was due to give at the London School of Economics was cancelled after threats were received about “smashing up the lecture theatre or something”. We subsequently learned that though some tweets called for the talk to be shut down and for “violent heckling”, none were seen that threatened to smash up the lecture theatre.
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