I occasionally read articles from Mauldin Economics, a financial website. That is because my dad sends me them. Much of the economics has a neoliberal bent with that slight edge of right-wing libertarianism. But there is also a large helping of the cynical realpolitik of game theory and geopolitics (George Friedman is partnered with Mauldin Economics). Some of the pieces are better than others, occasionally venturing into more socio-cultural territory such as generations theory. I read them partly out of curiosity.
The last piece my dad sent me is Geek Squad by Jared Dillian. I totally get why my dad liked it, as he is a social and fiscal conservative. Dillian brings up Charles Murray’s infamous take on intelligence, which is the kind of thing that resonates for my dad. Older white male middle class conservatives (specifically of the Silent Generation) have much in common beyond just demographics, as the period of their youth was highly conformist — although that same generation, on the other side of the aisle, produced some of the most radical leaders of the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and civil rights movements; e.g., Martin Luther King, jr.
I’ve written about Jared Dillian before (Frrrreeeeeddoommmm?????) and I can’t say that I’m overly impressed. He is of my generation, maybe a few years older than me (see the About page on his website). That generational detail does seem relevant.
Certain kind of older white conservatives have more of a paternalistic undertone that can soften their ideological stances, such as Murray’s paleolibertarianism that leads him to both condescendingly criticize the poor and argue for a basic income to take care of those who are genetically or culturally inferior, an interesting mix. It’s for similar reasons that my dad donates money and volunteers his time to help the those in need, even as he argues that they don’t deserve his tax money — unless it is to either put them in prison or send them off to war (my dad hasn’t yet quite been convinced by Murray’s far greater paternalism). It’s a concern of moral accounting that is of less of a priority to the the more neoliberal Republicans of Generation X who came of age under the Reagan administration. Someone like Dillian represents more of what the conservative movement has become in recent decades.
Here is the main thing that caught my attention in Dillian’s piece, a point where he finds agreement with Murray, despite other conflicts between the worldviews of neoliberalism and paleolibertarianism:
“Years ago, Murray predicted that society would become stratified by intelligence, and that we would be ruled by a “cognitive elite.” All of this has come to pass.”
It’s sad that people still believe that. Intelligence hasn’t been stratified, at least not in the way that is being implied. Rather the class-based and race-based conditions that promote and suppress neurocognitive development have been stratified. This is not even up for debate and very little speculation is required. We have the historical record to explain what happened and the social science research to explain its implications (research has proven that poverty, especially in a society of high inequality and segregation, stunts/alters brain development and functioning; because of social stress, lack of learning resources, nutritional deficiencies, lead toxicity, limited healthcare, etc).
Speaking of a “cognitive elite” is pseudo-meritocracy on steroids. Conservatives are always blaming liberals for wanting an intelligentsia to rule the world, but some conservatives not so secretly fantasize about an intellectual elite, even if they imagine these inellectually superior people coming from the business sector.
Here is more of Dillian’s wisdom:
“Rewind to a few decades ago. Colleges suddenly became more meritocratic, admitting people on the basis of grades and test scores, instead of other criteria. So the smartest people got into the smartest schools, the less smart people got into the less smart schools, and dumb people didn’t get into schools at all. The results of that sociology experiment are fascinating: the smart people in smart schools started marrying each other and having smart children…”
Tell that to the vast majority who aren’t legacies into ivy league schools, no matter how smart they are. Tell that to the vast majority of kids with immense genetic and neruocognitive potential but were forced to struggle against poverty, racism, segregation, oppression, violence, school-to-prison pipeline, heavy metal toxicity, etc. I’m sure that Dillian considers himself as part of the “cognitive elite” and so that makes his ignorance all the more inexcusable and morally reprehensible. As one commenter put it (Garret Batten):
“Jared – I really enjoy The 10th Man. You have excellent insights into the markets and related issues. However, as a trained sociologist, I must object to your analysis of class, college selection, elties, and intelligence. You extrapolate from a claim about education being more meritocratic (more maybe at the college level but not even close to meritocratic and what about high school and middle school), but the increasing lack of mobility in the United States cannot be explained by smart people marying other smart people. As with Murray, these are highly problematic claims with the implication being that the very wealthy deserve as well as the poor derve their lots in life. I would urge you to stick with markets etc.”
To continue with the article:
“People don’t talk about this. We are obsessed with racism, but people of differing socioeconomic status just do not mix.”
He maybe should actually read Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and put it in context by reading Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Then put both of those books in an even larger context of info. But the point is that both Murray and Putnam grew up in small factory towns where the poor and wealthy lived together as neighbors — going to the same stores and churches, sending their kids to the same schools, and having the same access to cheap higher education. Is it surprising that socioeconomic mobility was higher at that time? No. Is it surprising that so many poor kids of low IQ, uneducated parents got high school degrees and went off to college? No.
Writing about Putnam, Richard Reeves stated that,
“The concatenation of advantages and disadvantages is visible in economic sorting at the neighbourhood level, leading to social sorting in terms of schools, churches and community groups. Putnam writes: “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us.” This represents, he warns, “an incipient class apartheid”.”
That’s a different perspective. Putnam is making the point that this stratification didn’t happen by divine decree or according to the laws of physics. These are social results of social causes. Not all societies have seen such stratification. In fact, the high levels of stratification in the US are extremely unusual, one might even say abnormal. Using the word ‘apartheid’ is not hyperbole, as a permanent underclass (or undercaste) is forming. We don’t yet have eugenics-level of stratification. But if this trend is allowed to continue over centuries, eventually there would be ever more genetically distinct populations. The eugenics vision of a cognitive elite is not a description of reality but more of a rationalization and an aspiration. It doesn’t seem like a direction we would want to head toward as a society.
Sara D. Sparks articulates Putnam’s central point:
“Mr. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at declining civic ties among adults, argues that students in poverty growing up in the middle of the last century had greater economic and social mobility than their counterparts do today in large part because adults at all socioeconomic levels were more likely then to see all students as “our kids.””
It’s a bit of a chicken or egg dilemma. Did the increasing inequality/stratification and segregation/apartheid cause our society to become a culture of mistrust that no longer had a shared vision of public good, as once was seen in functioning communities of neighbors who cared about each other’s children? Or did changing values in our society cause the worsening divides and divisiveness?
I’d argue that it is both, as part of a vicious cycle. American society was built on a problematic social order of genocide, indentured servitude, slavery, etc and so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the long term consequences. American history has had a clear trajectory of ever greater concentration of wealth and power, with a momentary blip of equalization because of two world wars and a major depression. It’s not like the colonial aristocracy wielded so much power in the early federal government because they earned their social position through meritocracy nor that Africans were enslaved because they didn’t go the best schools with other smart kids. School tracking is probably not a useful metaphor for understanding the worsening stratification that began during the colonial era.
More from the article:
“This all came to a head in the 2016 election, where we threw out the smart people in academia and journalism and finance and technology and politics—the so-called “experts.””
One thing research shows is that smart people aren’t smart in all ways. For example, high IQ people are worse about certain areas of personal finance. They tend to overspend. This also relates to the smart idiot effect, which is called that because smarter people are more prone to this bias. I’d also throw in how upper class people have less cognitive capacity for certain basic skills, such as being able to accurately discern and empathize with what others experience.
So, smart upper class people are like Trump in that they tend toward being sociopaths that lack many basic practical and social skills, as they are used to others taking care of their problems for them. Those aren’t the kind of people that should be ruling a society. It’s important to note that most Americans didn’t vote for either choice of plutocrat, Clinton or Trump.
Here are some commenters to the article who made similar points:
email@example.com: “I am a physician, graduated MIT in 1966, Ohio State Med school in 1970. My observation about the smartest of the smart, insofar as medicine is concerned, is that being too smart can be a serious handicap. The uber performers often missed the common ailments while exploring the more esoteric diagnoses. We called it “thinking zebras, when hearing hoof beats.” I agree wholeheartedly that the next months and years will be interesting, but I doubt that the elite will be any more successful in the long run.”
firstname.lastname@example.org: “interesting post – however there is one shortcoming with the most “intelligent” will rule effect (which I agree is definitely happening) is that being learned and being wise are two entirely different things. Also it is my observation that the ability to learn comes at the expense of the ability to think. The more “learned” people (and systems) there are running the planet seems to result in less sensible (and moral) people running it. If you said that higher tendency for sociopathy was becoming stratified at the top I think you would need to look no further than Washington or Wall St for convincing proof”
Back to the article:
“Mark Zuckerberg, who is probably going to run for president, made a splash in his Harvard commencement speech when he called for a universal basic income. But I don’t think you’re doing anyone any favors when you give them free money to sit at home and play Xbox.”
Yet more ignorance. This is actually a good example of smart idiot effect. Dillian thinks he is so smart that he perceives his opinion as so worthy as not to require informing himself about the topic before coming to a conclusion. He just knows, because he is smart and educated. He is one of the “cognitive elite,” after all.
But if he were to inform himself, he’d find out that universal basic income experiments have shown that it doesn’t increase unemployment. That is because most people want more than barely surviving and making ends meet while sitting on the couch picking their nose. This is the problem of rich people who actually believe this is an accurate view of poor people. It demonstrates how disconnected from reality they are.
He goes on:
“Cognitive stratification is not stopping any time soon. Cities will get richer, towns will get poorer, a handful of companies will get even more powerful. If you feel like you don’t have a say in any of this… that will probably continue. I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.”
Dillian admits that our response to this problem matters. Yet he acts as if fatalistically there is nothing we can do about it.
About stratification of intelligence, you’d think smart people talking about such a topic would at least know some basic info that is relevant to the opinions they offer. Consider the following bit from a book I was reading yesterday, although the research mentioned is something I’ve come across many times before (by the way, do I have well informed opinions because I’m smart or because I read books to inform myself before opinionating?).
The book is Linguistic Relativity by Caleb Everett (he is the son of the infamous Daniel Everett, the family having spent several influential years among the Pirahã). The book is specifically about linguistics and the quoted passage is discussing culture, but what is being pointed to are the complex web of causal and contributing factors within the larger environmental conditions. Here is the relevant part (p. 44):
“As a final example of cross-population variation in cognition, consider the example of IQ heritability. There is a strong assumption among some that measures of IQ are primarily determined by genetic factors rather than those associated with family environment. Even within American society, however, socioeconomic status appears to play a significant role in the extent to which IQ is heritable. Turkheimer et al. (2003) present data on twins representing divergent socioeconomic statuses, and these data suggest convincingly that genetic factors play a much more prominent role in IQ variation among members of higher socioeconomic status, whereas factors associated with family environment play a comparatively greater role in those of lower status. The influence of socioeconomic status on heritability of IQ suggest that even cognitive processes with clear genetic influences remain susceptible to contextual influences and, more specifically, that IQ is affected by environmental factors with a western culture. The latter point is perhaps unsurprising but nevertheless worth stressing. If something like IQ, which is associated with an assortment of cognitive processes, can be affected by contextual factors within a given culture, it seems fair to assume that the cognitive processes in question would vary in accordance with the even-wider range of contextual factors evident in multiple cultures. After all, the differences between the childhoods of Americans from lower and higher socieconomic statuses, respectively, pale in comparison to those between childhoods in western industrialized societies and, for example indigenous societies.”
This would be wisely framed within another point made by the author, in quoting from “Beyond Human Nature” by Jesse Prinz (the quote is on p. 48 of Everett’s book). Prinz states that, “Human beings are genetically more homogenous than chimps, but behaviorally more diverse than any other species.” That is to say that the vast social and individual differences seen within human populations can’t be solely or primarily blamed on genetic variation. The just-so stories of arrogant elitists, race realists, and human biodiversity advocates don’t offer any real understanding — just more dogmatic ideology to obfuscate public debate and undermine political action.
It is hard for me to understand how articles like Jared Dillian’s are still being written and taken seriously. Yet hundreds of such articles pop up on the internet on a daily basis. Considering Mauldin Economics is apparently operated as a business, obviously there is profit to be had from pushing genetic determinism. Rationalization as it is, these just-so stories are simply too compelling in how they explain away the oppression and injustices of our society. It might not be so bad if all such genetic determinists were paternalistic enough as Charles Murray to promote basic policies of social democracy and a social safety net, such as a basic income. But most people who are attracted to Murray’s argument aren’t willing to follow it to his conclusion.
I’m not sure how to read Dillian’s conclusion: “I wonder about what it will be like to live in a world ruled by people who have won the genetic lottery.” Does that express doubt about a world dominated by genetic determinists or an earnest sense of curiosity to see such a world play out? Is he feeling uncertainty or anticipation about his role as one of the potential ruling elite who has won the genetic lottery?
* * *
If you’re interested in Eric Turkheimer, I’ll share some previous posts of mine where he is discussed. I’ll also include an article by him and some relevant passages from two books.
Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ
by Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, & Richard E. Nisbett
Murray takes the heritability of intelligence as evidence that it is an essential inborn quality, passed in the genes from parents to children with little modification by environmental factors. This interpretation is much too strong — a gross oversimplification. Heritability is not a special property of certain traits that have turned out to be genetic; it is a description of the human condition, according to which we are born with certain biological realities that play out in complex ways in concert with environmental factors, and are affected by chance events throughout our lives.
Today we can also study genes and behavior more directly by analyzing people’s DNA. These methods have given scientists a new way to compute heritability: Studies that measure DNA sequence variation directly have shown that pairs of people who are not relatives, but who are slightly more similar genetically, also have more similar IQs than other pairs of people who happen to be more different genetically. These “DNA-based” heritability studies don’t tell you much more than the classical twin studies did, but they put to bed many of the lingering suspicions that twin studies were fundamentally flawed in some way. Like the validity of intelligence testing, the heritability of intelligence is no longer scientifically contentious.
The new DNA-based science has also led to an ironic discovery: Virtually none of the complex human qualities that have been shown to be heritable are associated with a single determinative gene! There are no “genes for” IQ in any but the very weakest sense. Murray’s assertion in the podcast that we are only a few years away from a thorough understanding of IQ at the level of individual genes is scientifically unserious. Modern DNA science has found hundreds of genetic variants that each have a very, very tiny association with intelligence, but even if you add them all together they predict only a small fraction of someone’s IQ score. The ability to add together genetic variants to predict an IQ score is a useful tool in the social sciences, but it has not produced a purely biological understanding of why some people have more cognitive ability than others.
Most crucially, heritability, whether low or high, implies nothing about modifiability. The classic example is height, which is strongly heritable (80 to 90 percent), yet the average height of 11-year-old boys in Japan has increased by more than 5 inches in the past 50 years. A similar historical change is occurring for intelligence: Average IQ scores are increasing across birth cohorts, such that Americans experienced an 18-point gain in average IQ from 1948 to 2002. And the most decisive and permanent environmental intervention that an individual can experience, adoption from a poor family into a better-off one, is associated with IQ gains of 12 to 18 points.
These observations do not undermine the conclusion that intelligence is heritable, but rather the naive assumption that heritable traits cannot be changed via environmental mechanisms. (Murray flatly tells Harris that this is the case.)
Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined
by Scott Barry Kaufman
In 1990 the behavioral geneticist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota published a striking finding: about 70 percent of the differences in IQ found among twins and triplets living apart were associated with genetic variation. 8 What’s more, the identical twins (whose genes were assumed to be 100 percent identical * ) were remarkably similar to identical twins reared together on various measures of personality, occupational and leisure-time interests, and social attitudes, despite spending most of their lives apart.
This study, and the hundreds of twin and adoption studies that have been conducted since then, have painted a consistent picture: genetic variation matters. 9 The studies say nothing about how they matter, or which genes matter, but they show quite convincingly that biological variation does matter. Genes vary within any group of people (even among the inhabitants of middle-class Western society), and this variation contributes to variations in these people’s behaviors. The twin findings shouldn’t be understated; it counters many a prevailing belief that we are born into this world as blank slates, completely at the mercy of external forces. 10
The most important lesson researchers have learned from over twenty-five years’ worth of twin studies is that virtually every single psychological trait you can measure— including IQ, personality, artistic ability, mathematical ability, musical ability, writing, humor styles, creative dancing, sports, happiness, persistence, marital status, television viewing, female orgasm rates, aggression, empathy, altruism, leadership, risk taking, novelty seeking, political preferences, television viewing, and even rates of Australian teens talking on their cell phones— has a heritable basis. * Because our psychological characteristics reflect the physical structures of our brains and because our genes contribute to those physical structures, it is unlikely that there are any psychological characteristics that are completely unaffected by our DNA. 11
Unfortunately there is frequent confusion about the meaning of heritability. The most frequent misunderstanding is the purpose of twin studies. Heritability estimates are about understanding sources of similarities and differences in traits between members of a particular population. The results apply only to that population. The purpose is not to determine how much any particular individual’s traits are due to his or her genes or his or her environment. Behavioral geneticists are well aware that all of our traits develop through a combination of both nature and nurture. Heritability estimates are about explaining differences among people, not explaining individual development. The question on the table for them is this: In a particular population of individuals, what factors make those individuals the same as each other, and which factors make them different?
Therefore, twin studies aren’t designed to investigate human development. In recent years developmental psychologists, including L. Todd Rose, Kurt Fischer, Peter Molenaar, and Cynthia Campbell, have been developing exciting new techniques to study intraindividual variation. 12 Intraindividual variation focuses on a single person and looks at how an integrated dynamic system of behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and other psychological processes change across time and situations. New intraindividual techniques allow researchers to focus on a single twin pair and see how nature and nurture interact in nonlinear ways to explain both their similarities and their differences. 13 Both levels of analysis— twin studies and developmental analysis— are informative, but the results from the one do not apply to the other. 14
Many people also confuse heritability with immutability. They hear the word “heritable” and immediately think of “genes,” which then conjures up pictures of a fixed trait that can’t be altered by external forces. In contrast, many people hear the word “environment” and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking the trait is easily modifiable. This requires quite a strong faith in social engineering!
Just because a trait is heritable (and virtually all of our psychological traits are heritable) doesn’t necessarily mean that the trait is fixed or can’t be developed. Virtually all of our traits are substantially genetically influenced and are influenced by environmental conditions. Even though television viewing has a heritable basis, 15 most people don’t think of the activity as being outside our personal control. Indeed, parents frequently control (or try to control) the length of time their children spend sitting in front of the tube.
Another source of confusion is the role of parenting in the development of traits. A common finding in twin studies is that the environments experienced by twins (or any two siblings) do little to create differences in intelligence and personality as adults. In other words, the heritability of traits tends to increase as one ages and escapes the influence of parents. 16 Judith Rich Harris showed that peers exert a greater influence in creating differences in personality among adolescents than parents. 17 But do these findings mean that parents cannot effectively help their child develop their unique traits? Absolutely not. That’s like saying that water has no influence on a fish’s development because all fish live in water. A nurturing family environment is a necessity to help the child flourish, just as a fish needs water to swim and survive.
Just because a variable doesn’t vary doesn’t mean it has no causal impact on a particular outcome. Genes could “account for” 100 percent of the variability in a trait in a particular twin study, but this does not mean that environmental factors, including parental quality, are therefore unimportant in the development of the trait. Instead it turns out that parenting matters in a way that is different from what was originally assumed: Parents matter to the extent that they affect the expression of genes. Parents can exert important influence in the child’s development by nurturing productive interests and helping the child channel destructive inclinations into more productive outlets.
The importance of parenting becomes more salient when we look at a wider range of environments. Only a few of the twins in Bouchard’s original study were reared in real poverty or were raised by illiterate parents, and none were mentally disabled. This matters. Consider a recent study by Eric Turkheimer and colleagues. They looked at 750 pairs of American twins who were given a test of mental ability when they were 10 months old and again when they were 2 years. 18 When looking at the group of kids aged just 10 months, the home environment appeared to be the key variable across different levels of socioeconomic status. The story changed considerably as the children got a bit older and differences in education became more pronounced. For the 2-year-olds living in poorer households, the home environment mattered the most, accounting for about 80 percent of the variation in mental ability. For these kids, genetics played little role in explaining differences in cognitive ability. In wealthy households, on the other hand, genetics explained more of the differences in performance, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all the variation in mental ability.
Prominent behavioral geneticists, including Bouchard, eventually realized that it was time to move on from simply calculating heritability estimates . In a 2009 paper entitled “Beyond Heritability,” researchers Wendy Johnson, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, and Bouchard concluded that “given that genetic influences are routinely involved in behavior,” “little can be gleaned from any particular heritability estimate and there is little need for further twin studies investigating the presence and magnitude of genetic influences on behavior.” 19
The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ
by David Shenk
Kindle Locations 1003-1031
But the nature of that genetic influence is easily— and perilously— misinterpreted. If we are to take the word “heritability” at face value, genetic influence is a powerful direct force that leaves individuals rather little wiggle room. Through the lens of this word, twin studies reveal that intelligence is 60 percent “heritable,” which implies that 60 percent of each person’s intelligence comes preset from genes while the remaining 40 percent gets shaped by the environment. This appears to prove that our genes control much of our intelligence; there’s no escaping it.
In fact, that’s not what these studies are saying at all.
Instead, twin studies report, on average, a statistically detectable genetic influence of 60 percent. Some studies report more, some a lot less . In 2003, examining only poor families, University of Virginia psychologist Eric Turkheimer found that intelligence was not 60 percent heritable, nor 40 percent, nor 20 percent, but near 0 percent —demonstrating once and for all that there is no set portion of genetic influence on intelligence. “These findings,” wrote Turkheimer , “suggest that a model of [genes plus environment] is too simple for the dynamic interaction of genes and real-world environments during development.”
How could the number vary so much from group to group? This is how statistics work. Every group is different; every heritability study is a snapshot from a specific time and place, and reflects only the limited data being measured (and how it is measured).
More important, though, is that all of these numbers pertain only to groups— not to individuals. Heritability, explains author Matt Ridley , “is a population average, meaningless for any individual person : you cannot say that Hermia has more heritable intelligence than Helena. When somebody says that heritability of height is 90 percent, he does not and cannot mean that 90 percent of my inches come from genes and 10 percent from my food. He means that variation in a particular sample is attributable to 90 percent genes and 10 percent environment . There is no heritability in height for the individual.”
This distinction between group and individual is night and day. No marathon runner would calculate her own race time by averaging the race times of ten thousand other runners; knowing the average lifespan doesn’t tell me how long my life will be; no one can know how many kids you will have based on the national average. Averages are averages— they are very useful in some ways and utterly useless in others. It’s useful to know that genes matter, but it’s just as important to realize that twin studies tell us nothing about you and your individual potential. No group average will ever offer any guidance about individual capability.
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the twin studies themselves. What’s wrong is associating them with the word “heritability,” which, as Patrick Bateson says, conveys “the extraordinary assumption that genetic and environmental influences are independent of one another and do not interact. That assumption is clearly wrong.” In the end, by parroting a strict “nature vs. nurture” sensibility, heritability estimates are statistical phantoms; they detect something in populations that simply does not exist in actual biology. It’s as if someone tried to determine what percentage of the brilliance of King Lear comes from adjectives. Just because there are fancy methods available for inferring distinct numbers doesn’t mean that those numbers have the meaning that some would wish for.
Kindle Locations 3551-3554
“The models suggest,” Turkheimer wrote, “that in impoverished families, 60% of the variance in IQ is accounted for by the shared environment, and the contributions of genes is close to zero; in affluent families, the result is almost exactly the reverse.” (Italics mine.) (Turkheimer et al., “Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children,” p. 632.)