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What Does Genetic Research Tell Us About Equal Opportunity and Meritocracy?

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. For a review of Blueprint by Gregory Cochran, see here. For a piece by Toby Young on the book, and a wider discussion of social genomics and why it attracts the hostility of some academics, see here.

If schools, parenting and our life experiences do not change who we are, what does this mean for society, especially for equality of opportunity and meritocracy? In particular, does it mean that the genetically rich will get richer and the poor poorer? Are genetic castes inevitable? What does this say about inequality?

These questions have been bound up in the topic of meritocracy, which is not the same thing as equal opportunity. Equal opportunity means that people are treated similarly, for example, everyone is given equal access to educational resources. Meritocracy only comes in when there is selection, for example, for education and employment. Meritocracy means that selection is based on capability and competence rather than unfair criteria such as wealth, prejudice or arbitrariness.

Although meritocracy sounds like an irresistibly good idea, both parts of the neologism “meritocracy” are loaded with unpalatable connotations. The noun “merit” refers to ability and effort but it also connotes value and worth. It is derived from the Latin word meritum meaning “worthy of praise.” The “—ocracy” part of “meritocracy” refers to power and governance. Putting these two components of meritocracy together with genetics implies that we are governed by a genetic elite whose status is justified by their ability and effort. Instead, it could be argued that people who got lucky by drawing a good genetic hand do not merit anything. Their luck at learning easily and getting satisfying jobs is its own reward. And who says we should be governed by genetic elites? The populist strain of politics around the world suggests a desire for the opposite.

Three Findings from Genetic Research

Three of the main findings from genetic research transform how we think about equality of opportunity and meritocracy. These findings are about heritability, non-shared environment and the nature of nurture. In summary, genetics provides most of the systematic variation between us, environmental effects are random, and our chosen environments show genetic influence. These findings have different implications for equal opportunity and meritocracy.
At first glance, genetics seems antithetical to equality of opportunity, violating the principle enshrined in the second sentence of the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal. However, the American founders did not mean that all people are created identical. They were referring to “unalienable rights,” which include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In less lofty terms, this means equal protection before the law and equal opportunity. But equal does not mean identical. If everyone were identical, there would be no need to worry about equal rights or equal opportunity. The essence of democracy is that people are treated fairly despite their differences.

The most important point about equality of opportunity from a genetic perspective is that equality of opportunity does not translate to equality of outcome. If educational opportunities were the same for all children, would their outcomes be the same in terms of school achievement? The answer is clearly ‘no’ because even if environmental differences were eliminated genetic differences would remain.

What follows from this point is one of the most extraordinary implications of genetics. Instead of genetics being antithetical to equal opportunity, heritability of outcomes can be seen as an index of equality of opportunity. Equal opportunity means that environmental advantages and disadvantages such as privilege and prejudice have little effect on outcomes. Individual differences in outcomes that remain after systematic environmental biases are diminished are to a greater extent due to genetic differences. In this way, greater educational equality of opportunity results in greater heritability of school achievement. The higher the heritability of school achievement, the less the impact of environmental advantages and disadvantages. If nothing but environmental differences were important, heritability would be zero. Finding that heritability of school achievement is higher than for most traits — about 60 percent in Western countries — suggests that there is substantial equality of opportunity.

Environmental differences account for the remaining 40 percent of the variance. Does this imply inequality of opportunity? To the extent that environmental influences are non‐shared, this means that they are not caused by systematic inequalities of opportunity. However, genetic research on primary and secondary school achievement is an exception to the rule that environmental influences are non‐shared. For school achievement, half of the environmental influence — 20 percent of the total variance — is shared by children attending the same school. This finding implies that up to 20 percent of the variance in school achievement could be due to inequalities in school or home environments, although this effect mostly washes out by the time children go to university.

The third finding, about the nature of nurture, is also relevant to understanding the relationship between equal opportunity and outcomes. What look like systematic environmental effects in fact reflect genetic differences. For example, the socioeconomic status of parents is correlated with their children’s educational and occupational outcomes. This correlation has been interpreted as if it is caused environmentally. That is, better‐educated, wealthier parents are assumed to pass on privilege, creating environmentally driven inequality in educational opportunity and stifling what is called intergenerational educational mobility.
Genetics turns the interpretation of this correlation upside down. Socioeconomic status of parents is a measure of their educational and occupational outcomes, which are both substantially heritable. This means that the correlation between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s outcomes is actually about parent–offspring resemblance in education and occupation. Phrased as “parent-offspring resemblance,” it should come as no surprise that genetics largely mediates the correlation. Parent-offspring resemblance is an index of heritability, and heritability is an index of equal opportunity. So, parent-offspring resemblance for education and occupation indicates social mobility rather than social inertia.

Gene-Environment Correlations

A more subtle way to think about the nature of nurture and its relationship to equality of opportunity is gene-environment correlation, which means that our experiences are correlated with our genetic propensities. Genetic differences in personality, psychopathology and cognitive ability make us experience life differently, as we saw in relation to the nature-of-nurture phenomenon. In relation to education, more highly educated parents provide both nature and nurture that work together to affect their children’s chances to do well at school, for example, in reading and their general attitude to education. Schools select children into streams on the basis of heritable traits such as ability and previous achievement. These are examples of what behavioral geneticists call passive and reactive gene-environment correlation, respectively.

The most important type is active gene-environment correlation. Children actively select, modify and create environments correlated with their genetic propensities. For example, genetic differences in children’s aptitudes and appetites affect the extent to which they take advantage of educational opportunities. This is why equal opportunities cannot be imposed on children to create equal outcomes. Genetic differences in aptitudes and appetites influence the extent to which children take advantage of opportunities. To a large extent, opportunities are taken, not given.

It would be a mistake to see gene-environment correlation as inequality, because it is, ultimately, based on genetics. For this reason, gene-environment correlation is difficult to disrupt. We can’t stop parents from providing correlated nature and nurture to their children unless we adopt children away at birth. We could outlaw selection in schools, but in the classroom it is impossible as well as undesirable for teachers to treat children the same, regardless of their genetic differences. Finally, trying to stop children from actively seeking experiences correlated with their genetic appetites and abilities is futile.

What this means is that high heritability of school achievement indicates that educational opportunities are substantially equal. Attempts to increase equality of opportunity should focus on reducing shared environmental influence, although shared environment at most accounts for 20 percent of the variance in school achievement. Non-shared environmental influences are out of reach because they are unsystematic and we don’t know what they are. Correlations between opportunity and outcome are genetically driven. This is another way in which DNA makes us who we are.

It is worth reiterating that this genetic research describes the mix of genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in school achievement in specific samples at specific times. Most of the research comes from developed countries, especially Europe and the US, in the 20th century. The results could be different for different countries in different times. Our focus here is on the effects of equal opportunity on individual differences in school achievement. As access to education broadens, heritability would be expected to increase. The first twin study on this topic found that heritability of educational attainment increased and the impact of shared environment decreased in Norway following WWII, when access to education expanded. Subsequent studies in several countries also found increased heritability and decreased shared environmental influence after WWII, as equality of educational opportunity increased. Some recent evidence suggests this might be going in reverse in the US in the 21st century, with decreased heritability and increased shared environmental influence on educational attainment, which suggests there is greater inequality of educational opportunity.

School Selection

In contrast to equal opportunity, the concept of meritocracy is relevant only when there is selection, for example, selecting children into certain schools. At the level of primary school in the UK there is little selection because most parents send their children to a local school. Equal opportunity in this case means that children at different schools receive equally good education.

Selection becomes more of an issue at the level of secondary school. Students vie to get into the “best” secondary schools, which leads to selection. The issue of meritocracy is about the extent to which selection is based on ‘merit’—in this case, on the students’ ability, prior achievement and other predictors of success.

In the UK the biggest average difference in student achievement is between state-funded non‐selective schools, or comprehensive schools, and selective schools, which include state-funded grammar schools and privately funded schools. The average GCSE scores for children in selective schools, whether grammar or private, are a whole grade higher than for children in non-selective schools.

This average difference in achievement between selective and non-selective schools has been assumed to be caused environmentally—selective schools are assumed to provide better schooling. However, genetic research shows that this difference cannot be credited to better education in selective schools. By definition, selective schools select the most competitive students, choosing meritocratically on the basis of students’ prior achievement and ability and, less meritocratically, on family wealth. For example, at the top secondary schools students are interviewed and tested for several years before they are admitted. In addition, parents and students select the “best” secondary schools in part on the basis of these same factors. That is, if students have not performed well on tests of school achievement in primary school, they are not likely to aspire to high‐flying secondary schools.

So it should come as no surprise that students in selective schools perform better than students in non-selective schools, because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that the students selected by selective schools for their school achievement do better in their exams at 16, known in England as GCSEs. When we control for the factors that are used to select students the average difference in GCSE scores is negligible and overall GCSE variance explained by school type shrinks to less than one per cent. In other words, selective schools do not improve students’ achievement once we take into account the fact that these schools preselect students with the best chance of success.

This is another example of gene-environment correlation, in that students select schools and are selected by a school in part on the basis of the students’ prior school achievement and ability, which are highly heritable. This explains what would otherwise appear to be an odd result: Students in selective and non-selective schools differ in their DNA. Because the traits used to select students are highly heritable, selection of students for these traits means that students are unintentionally selected genetically.

If better achievement by students in selective schools than by those in non‐selective schools were due to value added by selective schools, this would imply inequality of educational opportunity. But because the difference in achievement disappears after controlling for selection factors, we can conclude that selection is meritocratic. For this same reason, differences in GCSE results for selective and non-selective schools are not an index of the quality of education the schools provide. An attempt to create a fairer comparison was implemented in England in 2017 by correcting GCSE scores at the end of secondary school for achievement at the end of primary school at the age of eleven. This innovation was sold as an index of the value added by schools, which is called ‘progress’. However, we have found that this measure of ‘progress’ is still substantially heritable (40 percent), which means that it is not a pure index of students’ “progress” or schools’ added value. How is it possible that this measure of “progress” is so heritable? The answer is that correcting for school achievement at the age of eleven does not correct for other heritable contributions to performance on the GCSE test such as intelligence, personality and mental health.

Private Schools

Even though schools have little effect on individual differences in school achievement, some parents will still decide to pay huge amounts of money to send their children to private schools in order to give their children whatever slight advantage such schools provide. Even for state-supported selective grammar schools, some parents who can afford to do so will pay a premium to move house to be within the catchment of a better school. I hope it will help parents who cannot afford to pay for private schooling or move house to know that it doesn’t make much of a difference in children’s school achievement. Expensive schooling cannot survive a cost-benefit analysis on the basis of school achievement itself.

There may be benefits of grammar and private schools in terms of other outcomes, such as better prospects for university, making connections that lead to job opportunities later in life, and imbuing students with greater confidence and leadership skills. For example, although only seven percent of students in the UK attend private schools, their alumni notoriously dominate the top professions—over a third of MPs, over half of senior medical consultants, over two-thirds of high court judges and many top journalists.

But are these advantages merely another example of the self-fulfilling prophecy of selecting the best students in the first place? In the case of the difference in GCSE scores between selective and non-selective secondary schools, we have seen that the difference disappears after controlling for factors used in selection. We have found similar results for university prospects. That is, students from selective secondary schools are much more likely to be accepted by the best universities, but this benefit largely disappears after controlling for selection factors. In other words, the students would have been as likely to be accepted by the best universities if they had not gone to a selective secondary school. Indeed, changes in selection criteria for the best universities actually favor a student who does well at a comprehensive secondary school.

It seems likely that the other potential advantages of selective schooling—such as occupational status, income and personal characteristics—are also self-fulfilling prophecies rather than value added by selective schools. Finally, it should be emphasized that if all secondary schools were equally good, there would be no need to select students in the first place. If there were no selection, there would also be a lot less stress for students and their parents. In addition, neighborhood schools foster social integration and a sense of community.

Occupational Status and Income

We have used education as an example of the links between opportunities, capabilities and outcomes, but the same issues apply to occupational status and income. Here, as long as getting a high-status job and making lots of money are priorities, selection is necessary, which raises the issue of the criteria used for selection. As in the example of the over-representation of private schooling among MPs, medical consultants and high court judges, is selection for occupational status and income based on advantage or ability?

Both occupational status and income are substantially heritable, about 40 per cent in more than a dozen twin studies in developed countries. This should not be surprising, because occupational status and income are related to educational attainment and intelligence, which are heritable traits. Similar to the argument we made for education, heritability is an index of meritocratic selection for occupational status and income, so we can conclude on the basis of substantial heritability that selection is considerably meritocratic. Unlike education, shared environmental influence for occupational status is negligible, which means that environmental influences are random and that most of the systematic effects on occupational status and income can be attributed to genetics.

Anyone who has interviewed candidates for a job knows the complexity and capriciousness of selection. In the first place, you can only select from people who applied for the position. In addition, interviews are notoriously poor predictors of performance. These and many other unsystematic factors, including chance, contribute to individual differences in occupational status and income. These factors are not meritocratic, but they do not represent systematic bias.
The nature-or-nurture issue is also relevant for occupations. What look like systematic environmental effects are reflections of genetic effects. An important example is the similarity between parents and their offspring in occupational status and income. As examined earlier in relation to education, parent-offspring resemblance for occupational status and income cannot be assumed to arise from environmental advantages passed on from parent to child. The correlation is chiefly caused genetically, which indicates that the systematic effects of selection, including self-selection, are substantially meritocratic. The same is probably true for the ostensible effect of private schooling on occupational success, as noted earlier.

I would argue that anything that increases the heritability of occupational status and income makes the selection process more meritocratic. The absence of shared environmental influence implies that there are few systematic environmental inequities in the population as a whole, which means that environmental levers for change are not within our grasp. Inherited wealth, which is the epitome of inequity, can be changed, for example, by taxing wealth rather than income. However, inherited wealth is not much related to occupational status or to income, at least as income is currently defined by tax authorities. So, tackling inherited wealth will not make much difference in occupational status or income per se. One thing that would make a difference is to make selection processes more effective in predicting performance, because this would reduce unsystematic influences on occupational status and income. The DNA revolution will transform the selection process by introducing the most systematic and objective predictor of performance by far: inherited DNA differences.

A Genetic Caste System?

At first thought, it might seem that, given free rein, genetics will limit social mobility and calcify society into genetic castes, as happened in India, where for thousands of years mating was limited to members of the same caste. I would argue that this is not a problem in modern societies for two reasons. The first is simple: a lot of the environmental variation between us is not systematic. Random effects will not create stable castes.

The second reason is that parents and offspring are only 50 percent similar genetically. Their genetic similarity means that, on average, brighter parents have brighter children. But their 50 percent genetic dissimilarity means that children of brighter parents will show a wide range of ability, including some children of lower-than-average ability. If you take pairs of individuals randomly, their average difference will be 17 IQ points. First-degree relatives—parents and their offspring or siblings—differ by 13 IQ points on average. This allows plenty of room to go down as well as up the ladder.

In addition, children of high-IQ parents will on average have lower IQ scores than their parents for the same reason that tall parents have taller-than-average children but those children are less tall than they are. For the same reason, most prodigies do not have prodigy parents. This is a statistical phenomenon, not a specific genetic process. That is, the same phenomenon would occur if individual differences were due to systematic environmental factors indexed as shared environment. However, genetics, not shared environment, is the systematic source of individual differences, and it is genetics that leads to concerns about castes.

If children were genetically unrelated to their high-IQ parents, as is the case for adopted children and their adoptive parents, the children’s mean IQ would be expected to be 100, if the adopted children were representative of the population. Because children are 50 percent similar genetically to their parents, genetics predicts that the children’s average IQ will regress halfway from their parents’ IQ to the population average. For example, parents with an average IQ of 130 are expected to have children whose average IQ is 115, regressing halfway back to the population average of 100. This reshuffling of DNA differences in the genetic lottery prevents the evolution of a rigid genetic caste system.

The flip side of this argument is that parents of average ability also have children with a wide range of ability, including children of high ability. Because there are many more parents of average ability than of high ability, this guarantees that most of the individuals of highest ability in the next generation will come from parents of average ability, not from the most able parents. As long as downward social mobility as well as upward social mobility occurs, we do not need to fear that genetics will lead to a rigid caste system.

Fatalism and the Status Quo

Even though most of the systematic differences between people are genetic in origin, this does not mean that we need to be fatalistic and accept the status quo. One reason is that genetics describes what is—it does not predict what could be. You can beat the genetic odds. But it is not fatalistic to recognize that DNA matters and to appreciate genetic differences between our children and between ourselves. It seems only sane to suggest that, when you can, try to go with the grain of genetics rather than fight against it.

A second way to avoid fatalism is to deny the value system that drives the debate about meritocracy and social mobility. It assumes that the point of education is to get better test scores in order to get a better occupation and that the point of an occupation is to achieve high status and make lots of money. Another way of looking at education is as a time to learn basic skills and to learn how to learn and to enjoy learning. It is a decade of their lives when children can find out what they like to do and what they are good at doing, where they can find their genetic selves, which may not dispose them towards higher education. Everyone should be given the chance to learn at school, but not everyone will choose (or can afford) to go on to university.

Similarly, with occupations, where selection cannot be avoided, we will end up with a lot of frustrated people if we only value high-status occupations. Society needs people who are good care workers, nurses, plumbers, janitors, policemen, mechanics and public servants. What I want most for my children is that they are happy and that they are good people. It would be a terrific bonus if they like what they do.

Self-selection is an important factor to the extent that people are free to choose what they do to earn a living. Self-selection involves listening to genetic whispers, not just about intelligence but also about personality and interests. These options include choosing a job that just pays the bills rather than a high‐income occupation that might come with a high‐stress price tag, or an especially enjoyable vocation that might not pay the bills. Beyond the money needed to get by, letting money define success in life does not achieve happiness, enjoyment or goodness. In a just society, jobs that require less “merit” would nonetheless be rewarded monetarily so that they provide a reasonable standard of living.

We could also deny the value system based on money at a more political level. Much of the concern about inequality and social mobility is about income inequality. Individual differences in income are, like everything else, substantially heritable, about 40 percent. Income correlates with intelligence, and genetics drives this correlation. But this does not mean that higher intelligence merits more income. I would argue that genetic wealth is its own reward. If society really wanted to reduce income inequality, it could do so directly and immediately with a tax system that redistributes wealth.

A Just Society

My value system suggests that we need to replace meritocracy with a just society. Although rigid genetic castes will not come into being, social mobility creates genetic inequality, which leads to an inherent inequality of opportunity. That is, children dealt a lucky genetic hand have a better chance of doing well at school and getting a better job and making more money. This inequality in outcome is not going to be tackled indirectly through the educational system. As mentioned, if all children were taught exactly the same, their genetic differences would still lead to differences in their achievement, which would lead to differences in occupational outcomes. Again, economic inequality could be dealt with directly through a redistributive tax system that reduces the gap between rich and poor.

I think people are more concerned with fairness and a just society than with economic inequality per se. It seems unfair that 60 percent of the increase in US national income in the last three decades went to just the top one per cent of earners, primarily due to soaring salaries at the top end of the pay scale. However, I would argue that more important than the relative inequality of income for this top one per cent is the absolute inequality of the bottom third, whose debts exceed their assets.

Equality of opportunity, income inequality and social mobility are some of the most critical issues in society today. They are hugely complicated topics that heavily depend on values. My objective has been to look at these issues through the single lens of genetics, to show how DNA makes us who we are. However, no specific policies necessarily follow from genetic findings, because policies depend on values. My values, not my science, lead me away from meritocracy towards a just society.

 

Robert Plomin is a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London.

36 Comments

  1. Jezza says

    Guess what? We are all going to die! How equal is that!

  2. Fascinating that here at Quillette, there is an article decrying Harvard’s bias against Asians, premised on the idea that admittance to an elite college is Important, critical to providing a pathway to success in life.

    Yet here we have Dr. Plomin assuring us that the selection of college isn’t really so important after all. Apparently those with superior genes will do just fine, whether they get admitted to Harvard or not.

    Somewhat facetiously, I could make a modest suggestion that we identify those with superior genes, and strictly exclude them from any university, and use higher education for the rest to balance things out, on the grounds that the superior gene carriers will fend for themselves without any help.

    • Edward says

      Plomin is very careful not to go beyond the data in this piece, perhaps because he knows he’ll get misrepresented. Yet, you went ahead and misrepresented him anyway.

      Firstly, he states quite clearly that at GCSE level in the UK (age 16), the shared environment explains around 20% of the variance in academic performance. I recall one study by Plomin and his colleagues which put that figure at around 30%, in fact.

      GCSEs can influence one’s future path: many universities require minimum grades in core subjects, while the University of Oxford puts a lot of weight on GCSEs in its admissions process. Thus, I think Plomin would be quite happy to acknowledge that the shared environment can be important in determining life outcomes.

      Now, most studies specifically looking at the effect of schooling on academic performance find that it accounts for around 10% of the variance in academic grades. Yet, here we have Plomin telling us that it doesn’t matter at all whether people go to a grammar/private school or a state school in the UK.

      As it happens, I do think that in some of his past statements to the media on this topic, he has gone a bit too far. He has indeed stated that the school you go to doesn’t matter at all for academic grades, based on this research.

      This is unlikely to be true. By controlling for genetics and IQ, Plomin and colleagues look at how pupils with the same genetic profile and IQ perform in different school settings: non-selective state-schools vs. selective schools. And it’s true that once controlling for these factors, selective school pupils perform no better than their controls in non-selective schools.

      Yet, this is likely because their controls in non-selective schools are disproportionately middle-class and affluent, and likely go to relatively decent state schools which don’t curtail their “genetic potential”. It’s well-known in the UK that the non-selective state school system is heavily stratified by class.

      Following on from this, it’s likely that taking a smart working-class child from a poor non-selective state school to a selective school (or indeed a relatively decent non-selective school) will boost their academic performance. But because there aren’t that many students who fit this profile, it’s not going to show up in the data. Indeed, other studies with different methodologies have found that smart working-class children benefit from going to grammar schools, though the children left behind in the non-selective system seem to suffer as a result.

      And, as Plomin’s work does tell us, grammar/private schools aren’t going to be much benefit to those who would have gone to relatively decent non-selective state schools anyway (i.e. most people who actually do go to grammar/private schools) due to being from a middle-class background.

      • I find it interesting that the article on Harvard noted that one reason Asians are dis-proportionally accepted to Harvard is the ferocious pre school regimen by the “Tiger Moms” starting in pre-school.

        Are we to conclude that this regimen, and the family atmosphere that places such a high priority on educational achievement, has less effect than genetics?

        • block says

          Dude if you want to comment on Asians/Harvard, why don’t you do it in the comment section for that article? And for that matter, if you don’t like the ideas you come across on Quillette, why do you bother to read the articles (and comments) at all?

          • Actual Яussian Troll says

            @block
            “Dude if you want to comment on Asians/Harvard, why don’t you do it in the comment section for that article?”

            We politely asked him to leave the Asians/Harvard comments section. He was asking too many rhetorical questions.

          • Afrosapiens 🇪🇺🇫🇷 says

            I believe Chip is what some call a “wisdom troll.” These fine fellows frequent the comments section of publications they find distasteful (Fox News, Breitbart, Nazi Field and Stream) and pose devastating rhetorical questions to stun our Neanderthal minds.

            Chip says he’s from Los Angeles, so we probably should listen up and try to decipher the meaning in the “I find it fascinating…”s. Living in the Thirty Mile Zone makes one preternaturally smart on all matters. Haven’t you noticed that TV actors and singers of 3-minute ditties who live in LA always know how the rest of the nation and world should comport themselves? It’s remarkable. Here’s a known fact: Washington and the UN would cease to function without the political wisdom of Chelsea Handler and Snoop Dogg.

            OMG. What if “Chip” is Morgan Freeman! Isn’t that his nickname to friends? As in, “Hey Chip, stop endorsing sugary soft drinks in Super Bowl commercials and encouraging millions of black children to get early-onset diabetes, you greedy prick?”

            Heads up, we might be in the presence of greatness…

        • Epicuria says

          I think of it as hardware (genetics) / software (family environment ) Asian families do push their kids, but these kids have the capacity to take advantage of all the extra effort.

        • Daniel says

          I would assume that it might not make much of a difference for a given child, but taken as a group it might. When you have a large demographic of people emphasizing and seriously focusing on something, it adds up to a measurable difference.
          I suspect — though I don’t know — that this difference is most clearly apparent at the high end. Consider Jamaican sprinters. Not every Jamaican sprints, but they sure love running, and put more cultural emphasis on training for running. I wouldn’t be surprised if the average Jamaican was not much different from average citizen of another country in terms of 100m speed, and yet, this cultural value manifests disproportionately at the extreme end.

    • Heike says

      It’s almost as if Quillette provides a platform for different ideas! Go figure! And those ideas disagree with each other! What a trip!

      Seriously, it’s telling you expect ideological conformity by default.

  3. Edward says

    Fantastic, detailed and nuanced stuff from Robert Plomin here. I’m looking forward to getting the book, and thanks to Quillette for publishing this — it’s Quillette at its best.

  4. Very interesting article. A mostly positive review in the Guardians offers this takeaway:

    “If we do manage to iron out environmental differences, Plomin notes, we then have to accept the genetic differences that remain. Because, the more we reduce environmental differences, the more we highlight genetic differences. In other words, if we want equality of opportunity, then the price is having to acknowledge a genetically loaded inequality of outcome.”

  5. “Heritability of outcomes can be seen as an index of equality of opportunity.”

    insightful, troubling, fascinating stuff, worth reading twice! thank you quillette.

  6. Farris says

    Many of the articles on the topic of genetics reference studies involving twins but rarely is the reader informed if these twin studies involve fraternal or identical twins. Is the reader to infer just twins in general? Fraternal twins would appear to be of the greatest interest since they generally have the same environment but greater genetic variability.

    • Epicuria says

      The twin studies look at the reverse: twins adopted into different families. So relying on identical twins makes it easier to isolate genetic influences.

  7. Heike says

    Meritocracy isn’t bad in and of itself. As long as they run society for the benefit of everyone and maintain a sense of noblesse oblige, things are generally OK.

    We don’t have that any more. Our elites maintain a sense of noblesse malice, the belief that it is their responsibility to do us harm. They have defined us as their outgroup, and transmuted all of their outgroup hatred to the American people.

    This has accounted for the rise of populism, as people vote for their own interests. The new rulers then set out to benefit the people at the cost of the elites. Elites are outraged that anyone would do this – doesn’t everyone know that the entire point of government is to benefit themselves? The idea that their ingroup would be disadvantaged is outrageously unfair to them.

  8. The main reason that results are better in selective schools is that kids are allowed to get on without being held back by the thugs, brutes, footballers and other denizens of the lower IQ spectrum. Plus, the teachers are more committed to getting the best from their students rather than the run of the mill dross who infect the comprehensive system with the socialist desire to level everything down to an equality of zero. Trust me. I was 25 years in the education game.

    • E. Olson says

      Very good comment. “Bad” teachers or schools get blamed for the bad test scores of their students, but the problem is almost always that they have bad students. Low IQ students in themselves aren’t bad is they are motivated to learn and not disruptive of other’s learning, but unfortunately lower IQ students often are not motivated to learn and are disruptive, which decreases the teaching effectiveness and learning environment the other non-disruptive students get in the same classroom. These negative effects are further magnified when schools are reluctant to expel or discipline problem students, typically because of fears that such actions will be labelled as racist.

      • And such disruptive students often have parent(s) who don’t prioritize education.
        Any society that grows without the notion of meritocracy will find itself falling behind a competitive world where other nations won’t suffer a preference for equality of outcome at the expense of innovation and learning.

  9. E. Olson says

    This essay provides a very good example of how expertise in one area does not automatically lead to expertise in another. Professor Plomin does an excellent job of summarizing the implications of heritability on school/occupation outcomes and the implications for equality and meritocracy, but falls down when attempting to prescribe economic solutions. The value of meritocracy to society is that the best people get the jobs they can generate the most value from. For example, putting people with poor aptitudes for teaching or finance into the teaching or banking professions will not generate the same value to society as when people with better skills and abilities are given the jobs. In relatively free market economies, salaries are to a large extent based on supply and demand for particular talents and the value that society places on the output of different occupations. If salary levels become regulated to reflect someone’s definition of “fairness”, and as a consequence low skill professions get higher salaries and high skill or difficult/dangerous jobs get lower salaries, then the efficiency elements of meritocracy will break down. Fewer people will decide to go to medical school, or study engineering because the payoff is reduced, while more people will decide they want the “fulfilling” life of an artist or author because even those with poor talent are subsidized. In the end you end up with too few “makers” and too many “takers”, and Venezuela or Cuba results.

    • Capitalism and evolution both put a premium on fitness for the current time and place over any notion of centrally controlled design and authority. But we fight these notions daily, with redistribution and regulations on capitalism and focusing limited resources on the weakest and sickest. Empathy on a personal level is remarkable; when coerced by government, your future will be less bright.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Well said david of kirkland.
        People who talk of ”society” so often conflate it with the State.

    • DuppyConqueror says

      The best strategy depends on the environment, and the collective decisions of all the other monkeys around you constitute a powerful and ever changing variable in that environment. It’s possible to become a victim of your own success just by incentivising others to flip the board.

  10. Andrew says

    The Bell Curve Reigns Supreme.

    My father graduated with the highest GPA ever at a top business school in the US. He went on to work on the RJR Nabisco takeover in 1991 and was president of 5 NYSE companies through leveraged buyouts and head of a submarine robotics company, the largest in thee world at the time. A narcissist at heart, he had me take an IQ test when I say 7 years old and it suggested I was severely handicapped. So I went through a battery of tests that concluded I had a learning disability, atleast one. Nevermind all that, ten years later I was accepted at Oriel College at Oxford, and ended up at Georgetown for my JD/MBA. Later on I took a couple of official IQ tests which suggest I was around 130. I work in finance and do very well but it could be said that I am an underachiever, given a couple of my close friends and constituents with similar board scores are worth tens of millions of dollars now. Perhaps an issue with my mother’s epidural cost me millions in IQ points?

  11. Edward says

    I hesitate to challenge Professor Plomin on this, but I am not quite so optimistic that a genetic caste system has not already been established (and will not be established in the future).

    Why? Assortative mating. Gregory Cochran (who has written for this publication before) explains this very well indeed:

    “Imagine someone with a +4 SD IQ score (160). On average, that person will have a higher than average value for both genetic and grab-bag components: +3.2 SD for genotypic expectation and +2.4 SD in the miscellaneous component.

    Suppose that two people like this marry (a most unusual pairing). Their kids will have an genotypic expectation of +3.2 SD and an average of +0.0 “miscellaneous”, for an IQ averaging +2.56 SD. If two people with that kind of ancestry married, their kids, the next generation, would also have an average IQ of 2.56 SD.

    They’re different from the typical kid with an IQ of +2.56 SD. His genotypic expectation will be +2.048 SD, while he’ll have +1.536 SD in the misc component. In other words, with the the typical kid with an IQ of +2.56, a lot of it is luck. Marry two like this and their kids will regress towards the mean (down to +1.6384 SD).

    Families will vary. Some parents have high genotypic expectations and hardly any luck: their kids won’t regress much. Others, whose high IQs depended a lot on luck, will have kids that regress a lot.”

    https://westhunt.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/breeding-value/

    Now, some may say that assortative mating is not that strong. Yet in his book ‘The Son Also Rises’, the economic historian Gregory Clark shows that social status runs in families for many generations. Across countries and across time, he finds that social mobility rates have been stable and low. Why? Genetics. Like Sir Francis Galton, he uses surnames to look at high- and low-status families and their prevalence within high-status occupations and educational institutions.

    Of course, we tend not to know people’s genotypes so the next best step, as the Breeder’s Equation implies, is to look at the phenotypes of an individual’s family. What is the educational and occupational status of his family members? What is the average IQ of his grandparents? This tells us whether an individual has a high IQ because of “luck”, or due to genes.

    In other words, the drastic regression to the mean posited by Plomin is not inevitable, and it’s part of the reason why children of very smart parents tend to be (at least in my experience) much smarter than Plomin’s regression to the mean calculation would suggest. If regression to the mean did occur like this, then evolution wouldn’t be possible either.

    As Cochran states:

    “it also explains why the professors’ kids are a disproportionate fraction of the National Merit Finalists in a college town – their folks, particularly their fathers, are smarter than average – and so are they…”

    https://westhunt.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/the-breeders-equation/

  12. mike otter says

    Very interesting – the London Times did a piece on Plomin a week or 2 ago in its magazine amongst the adverts for incontinence pants and holidays no-one can afford. From that piece i found myself thinking – another eugenicist, enough already. It goes to show how simplified the MSM has become. Great to see that Plomin understands genetics as a physical phenomena that interacts with other physical phenomena such as environmental factors – illnesses etc, and ideas of equality and opportunity which are political, and therefore metaphysical phenomena which have a bearing on the material as well. His work should make it easier for the soft brained liberals to understand that equal outcomes cannot be enforced – eg we found a man with no arms or legs so have to cut everyone elses off to get equality – and to help simplified libertarians to realise that we start with a hand of cards, which no one said would be fair, and the fittest survive at the expense of the rest will actually become a race to the bottom as braun and brain combine to beggar thy neighbour. Well done Plomin.

  13. I truly enjoyed this article. Thank you Quillette. I will look forward to reading Plomin’s new book when available. I ponder if redefining wealth would be more palatable than redistributing wealth.

  14. “does it mean that the genetically rich will get richer and the poor poorer? Are genetic castes inevitable? What does this say about inequality?”
    It means that the multi racial utopia has failed. America and Europe should have remained racially (genetically) homogeneous. Race does matter. The importation of low IQ peoples was a mistake, the destruction of social cohesion.
    The current system in the west is “top and bottom against the middle”, or rich whites helping poor browns to enslave middle/working class whites out of white-on-white racism. Populism is the overthrow of this.

    “To a large extent, opportunities are taken, not given.”
    – finally someone recognizes the role of the student in his/her own education. Typical western attitude is that education is given or purchased, which was always false. It was an excuse of stupid people to blame others for their own (or their protected pet class’es) failures.
    “It would be a mistake to see gene-environment correlation as inequality, because it is, ultimately, based on genetics.” – actually it is an amplifier of genes. People with bad genes dont get anything amplified, so they prefer to drag down other more able people to their level, out of envy and resentment. In meritocracy, the most able people earn their spots, create companies and lift everyone’s tide. Without the top 10% most able people, humanity would still live in stone age, the less able people should be very thankful for what they have been given already.
    The highest achievers at work are all self-taught, not trained. Most people who know everything they know from their mentor/teacher are typically mediocre performers.

    The latest pet peeve of leftists is to put unqualifying people into high paying jubs. In reality these unqualifying people do not produce economic value as much as they are paid in salary, and may cause financial damage due to mishandling of expensive resources. Diversity in the workplace causes this. Whenever they say diversity, they mean un-merited. The enemies of meritocracy are forced-diversity, nepotism and chroniism. If you want to fight for justice, fight against these 3.

    “Again, economic inequality could be dealt with directly through a re-distributive tax system that reduces the gap between rich and poor.”
    – theft is a sin is a sin. Envy is a sin too. Both are mentioned in the Ten Commandments. What is just: people are paid for the value they provide to their employer. Corporations already practice redistribution, they pay the 10x-engineer within 5% the same salary as the incompetent colleagues get paid. This is unjust.

    “It seems unfair that 60 percent of the increase in US national income in the last three decades went to just the top one per cent of earners, primarily due to soaring salaries at the top end of the pay scale.”
    – the cause of that is corporatism, that includes the assumption that all value is created only by (top) managers, and all non-managers are just stupid slaves. This ignores the contributions by high achieving non-managers. For example an engineer on $150k salary invents a new product, he gets a $20k bonus, but his boss’s boss gets a $5M bonus for the invention (done by the employee). So, with MORE meritocracy, that inequality could be reduced. So, inequality between top/middle are not caused by meritocracy, but by corporatism.

    Anyway, all this will be ignored by leftist pundits and politicians. Their career depends on it.

  15. Peter from Oz says

    The 20% variation that can arise because of environmentmental factors is quite large.
    It is to be expected that a bright pupil put into a class with other bright pupils will do better than if that pupil were put into an average class. It is the same with private schools. Expectations are higher in such schools, and the pupils gain useful connections for later in life.
    As to brain function. It has been shown that the brain can adapt to certain kinds of knowledge by growing. Thus London cabbies, who undertake rigorous training in relation to hundreds of routes through the capital, have enalrged hypocampthi.

    • The point of leftist education strategy is to put bright and dull students into the same class, so the bright students will lift the dull students on the expense of their own future. Wealth redistribution, even before earning that wealth. The exact opposite of realizing your potential, if you are a rich (meaning working/middle class) white kid. They call it s justice, or equality.

  16. Rob K says

    Unfortunately I think the math tends to get ignored in much of the research. It’s OK to argue 60% of the increased wealth in the last few decades went to the top 1% because of corporate salaries, but I would suggest that ignores the fact that most of the substantial increase in averages is due to the enormous wealth accumulated by the pioneers, the mega billionaires such as the inventors of our modern society. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon etc etc.
    Gates & Bezos would probably trash the calculation with just their own wealth.

  17. 1) You get more of what you subsidize.
    2) You get less of what you tax.
    3) Noblese Oblige is voluntary, redistribution is slavery. Social insurance and permanent intergroup welfare subsidy are different things.

    If you subsidize low IQ, then each generation will have more surviving children of the low IQ. Perhaps more saliently, global IQ is generally low and these people will cross borders to receive welfare. Even within countries you see such welfare migration (lots of blacks moved from the south to abuse generous welfare systems in the upper midwest).

    If you tax the high IQ they often respond by not having children. You can’t tax these people to the point they can’t afford to form families, or each generation will have fewer high IQ productive people.

    This phenomenon becomes self reinforcing. The more low IQ people you get the more political support there is for policies that create/attract more low IQ people while suppressing the fertility of the high IQ.

    This is especially the case when there is a kind of high TFR vs low TFR ideological war amongst the middle/UMC class.

    Lastly, redistribution should not be confused with charity. Why should someone be forced into effective slavery against their will to support a permanent parasite class? Especially one that is fundamentally hostile to their way of life and give support to their ideological opponents? What is the moral justification for this enslavement and lack of self determination among the “genetically blessed”?

    People support social insurance and will accept a little welfare smuggled in to their social insurance, not permanent transfer payments to hostile outgroups. Especially if those out groups are expected to grow and bankrupt the system in the long run. Maybe you can overwhelm them with numbers but that isn’t a formula for a good society.

    The sad fact is that these high IQs in the first world came from mass starvation of children. As Gregory Clark showed, it was literally the fact that successful high IQ people with middle class values had about a 1000 year period where they had more surviving offspring than their genetically less gifted countrymen. Everything we have comes from the fact that despite whatever charity they did, despite whatever Christian goodwill they had, when push came to shove they saved their food and means to supply to their own offspring and let the weak die off generation after generation.

    I agree we shouldn’t be ruled by a genetic overclass (mostly because they are bad at ruling), but generally in America we used to have an Overton Window that hovered around the median taxpayer (say and employed middle aged white parent with a slightly above average IQ but not necessarily a college grad). Now its ruled by a small cadre of elite technocrats from one side of the political spectrum backed up by a growing army of low IQ welfare vote banks.

  18. cardiffkook says

    Overall this is a great article. However, I would like to make a few important points to the author.

    First, we must be careful to avoid making the mistake of confusing statistical classes with people. They are not the same thing. For example, over the course of a decade, over ten percent of people spend at least one year in the top one percent, and very few spend all ten years there. For the top quintile, over half of all people make it to the top fifth for part of their life. The point is that people are constantly moving up and down in income and statistical ranking. Referring to the top one percent or lower class tends to bury or distort this truth and leads to incorrect analysis and conclusions.

    Second, and even more importantly, it is essential that we recognize the purposes of public education. One purpose is to develop experts in specialized fields who can create value for — not just themselves — but for others in society. Inventors, entrepreneurs, doctors, architects, scientists, engineers, artists and so on at the cutting edge don’t just create value for themselves, they create value for society at large. We are part of a mutualistic complex adaptive system where the outliers of creative brilliance add disproportionately to the human endeavor.

    To be specific, it isn’t just, or even primarily, the excellent graduate who benefits from education. It is us. The median (IOW all of us) benefits from the excellence of an Einstein, a Bourlough, an Edison, a Gates more than do the brilliant ones themselves. An education system aimed at equality of outcome would thus reduce median welfare. Those of us that are average depend on the mutualistic breakthroughs of those at the extreme of ability.

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