Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control

Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control

Michael Shermer
Michael Shermer
14 min read

Social justice activists have issued a challenge to “check your white privilege.” Inasmuch as I oppose the inherent racism ingrained in such expressions of Identity Politics, my initial replies were of a snarky nature, such as “It’s doing just fine, thank you.” But as I engaged the task more seriously it wasn’t my “white privilege” that I discovered so much as it was my good fortune. This led to my November 2017 column in Scientific American, in which I enumerated a few of the ways that luck has favored many people (myself included) that led to their success, much of which was not “earned” in the purist sense that conservatives conceive of it, in which the successful merited it and the unsuccessful deserved it. The deeper I looked into the matter of how lives turn out, in fact, the more I realized how much is out of our control.

Let’s begin with a question: Why do some people succeed in life while others fail? Is it because they are naturally smarter and harder working, or is it because they were raised to be ambitious and disciplined, or could it be that they were simply lucky along the way and got all the good breaks? For centuries, philosophers, theologians, scholars, and ordinary people have speculated on these and related questions, for example, why there are class differences between people, why some people seem to have more power, wealth, and privilege than others, and what’s the best way to structure political and economic systems in order to create a fair and just society in the teeth of such obvious inequalities of natural ability, drive, and chance.

As with so many issues today, these are not ideological-free questions. Conservatives, for example, tend to embrace a Just World Theory of how lives turn out: If you are rich and successful, it is because you are hard working, intelligent, creative, risk-taking, and justly rewarded with happiness for your discipline and self-control; if you are poor, it is because you are lazy, ignorant, unimaginative, risk-averse and duly punished with unhappiness for your lack of will power and self-persuasion. In other words, for conservatives, the world is already just, so any injustices are the result of the natural order of things, which should be left well alone. People get what they deserve, so a just society is one in which there are equal opportunities for natural inequalities to form, so let the chips fall where they may.

By contrast, liberals tend to hold an Unjust World Theory of how lives turn out: If you are successful, it is because you were fortunate to be born in a stable family that inculcated into you the virtues that produce behaviors that translate into hard work, creativity, and risk-taking, and you were nourished along the way by people who enabled your success, or at forks in the career road were nudged down the right path by well-connected friends or family; for those people who did not have the good fortune to have been born into wealth, stable families, nurturing communities, and safe environments, we have a moral obligation to alter society in a manner to level the playing field and to allow all members of our community or society to flourish to the best of their natural talents.

These differences in how conservatives and liberals see the world very much determines their attitudes toward social policies that effects how lives turn out for the citizens of a society. Believing that the world is already just, conservatives emphasize institutions and traditions, faith and family, nation and creed, and they want to maintain the order and stability of the present structure of society even at the cost of those at the bottom falling through the cracks. Believing that the world is unjust, liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, often flout faith and tradition, and they want change and justice even at the risk of political and economic disorder.

One’s vision of human nature also determines how one approaches the subject of how lives turn out. Conservatives, for example, tend to see human nature as constrained while liberals see it as unconstrained (in Thomas Sowell’s configuration in his book A Conflict of Visions), and these differences account for the different positions people hold on a number of seemingly unrelated social issues, such as immigration, health care, welfare, taxes, criminal justice reform, police, and war.

If human nature is constrained by our biology, the narrative goes, then there isn’t much anyone can do to change people’s lives, short of locking up the criminals and disciplining the downtrodden. If human nature is unconstrained, the narrative continues, then social inequalities are primarily the result of bad or broken families, inadequate healthcare and education, or repugnant social policies that must be changed. “In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment,” Sowell explains. “But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.”

Which of these theories of human nature you believe to be true will largely shape which solutions to changing how lives turn out will be most effective, such as the size of the government, the amount of taxation, immigration, healthcare, environment, crime, the constitution, trade, and others.

In my 2011 book The Believing Brain, I sought a non-political perspective and presented evidence for a “Realistic Vision” that human nature is relatively constrained by our heredity and biology, along with the constraints from our families, communities, culture, and society. How lives turn out very much depends on both heredity and environment, genes and culture, our evolutionary history and our life trajectory, and how they all interact. People are not blank slates so malleable and responsive to social programs that governments can engineer their lives into a great society of its design, yet we are not so biologically programmed that there is nothing for anyone to do to help those who cannot help themselves.

A “Realistic Vision” of human nature recognizes the importance of family, custom, law, and traditional institutions for social harmony, as well as the need for strict moral education through parents, family, friends, and community. We are born with a dual human nature of competing motives: selfish and selfless, competitive and cooperative, greedy and generous, and so we need rules and guidelines and encouragement to do the right thing. A “Realistic Vision” also recognizes that people vary widely both physically and intellectually—in good part because of natural inherited differences—so the goal must always be to create environments and societies that are truly fair and just where those who can help themselves can rise (or fall) to their natural levels, and those who cannot help themselves can get the help they need.

In addition to the role of chance in how lives turn out, there is the related concept of contingency, or an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, which is slightly different from how we usually think of chance as randomness. Contingency may be contrasted with necessity, which is in the domain of natural law. In a model I developed in the 1990s to explain how history unfolds—the Model of Contingent-Necessity1—I defined contingency as: a conjuncture of events occurring without design; and necessity as: constraining circumstances compelling a certain course of action.

Contingencies are the sometimes small, apparently insignificant, and usually unexpected events of life—the kingdom hangs in the balance awaiting the horseshoe nail. Necessities are the large and powerful laws of nature and trends of history—once the kingdom has tipped far enough toward collapse the arrival of 100,000 horseshoe nails will not save it. The past is composed of both contingencies and necessities. Therefore, it is useful to combine the two into one term that expresses this interrelationship—contingent-necessity—taken to mean: A conjuncture of events compelling a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions. In other words, we are not free to do just anything we like because there are constraining prior conditions compelling our future actions, but neither are we completely determined by everything that came before since there is an element of self-aware volition in human lives—we can become aware of our genes, environment, and luck and tweak the variables going forward to initiate a different life outcome within the walls of our unique channels. What follows are some of the many ways that both contingency and necessity influences how lives turn out.

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At a campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama hinted at the role of the environment and society in helping shape the outcome of lives:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.2

Although Obama was making a larger point about the power of collective action, conservative heads exploded at the central sentiment. “I did build that!” is an understandable rejoinder to which I can relate. I research my books, edit my magazine, teach my courses, and write my articles for journals and my monthly columns for Scientific American. If I don’t make them happen nobody else will. But then I started thinking as a social scientist on the role of chance and contingency in how lives turn out. It’s a sobering experience to realize just how many variables are out of our control.

There is, of course, the luck of being born at all. The ratio of the number of people who could have been born to those who actually were born is incalculably large—trillions to one. Then there is the luck of being born in a country with a stable political system, a sound economy, and a solid infrastructure, rather than, say, in lower caste India, war-torn Syria, or anarchic Somalia. If you were unlucky enough to be born in one of those countries, you can hardly be blamed for a life outcome of poverty and destitution, and if you managed to get out of such a horrific environment there’s a good chance that in addition to being intelligent, creative, and a high-risk taker, you probably had some help along the way.

As well, there is the luck of having loving and nurturing parents who raised you in a safe neighborhood and healthy environment, provided you with a high quality K–12 education, and who instilled in you the values of personal responsibility. If your family was also financially successful that’s an added bonus because one of the best predictors of someone’s earning power is that of their parents. If you were unlucky enough to be raised in an impoverished home by a single parent in an unsafe neighborhood with subpar schools, you can hardly be blamed for not waltzing your way into Harvard followed by a six-figure corporate salary with country-club privileges. If you did manage to pull yourself up by your bootstraps into such a privileged world out of such an impoverished environment, there’s a good chance that in addition to being intelligent, creative, and a high-risk taker, you had help along the way.

Then there’s the luck of attending a college where you happened upon good or inspiring professors or mentors who guided you to your calling, along with a strong peer cohort to challenge and support you, followed by finding a high-paying job or a fulfilling career. If you were unlucky enough to have never been mentored by nurturing educators, did not befriend smart and ambitious peers in your age range in school, could not land a high-paying job out of school, and never found your calling in life that could be converted into a lucrative career, the fault is not entirely in your stars; it is, in fact, more prudently found in your background, including and especially the constraining prior conditions, both biological and environmental.

Let’s not overlook the luck of being born at a time in history when your particular aptitudes and passions fit that of the zeitgeist. Would Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin be among the richest and most successful people in the world were they born in 1873 instead of 1973? Both are brilliant and hard working, so they would probably have been successful in any century, but at the equivalent of $35 billion each? It seems unlikely. If you had the misfortune to have the talents and interests in a subject for which your society has next to no interest, you can hardly be blamed for that. That’s contingency.

Today’s most popular personality trait theory is what is known as the Five Factor Model, or the Big Five, given in the acronym OCEAN: (1) openness to experience (fantasy, feelings, values), (2) conscientiousness (competence, order, dutifulness), (3) extroversion (gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking), (4) agreeableness (trust, altruism, modesty), and (5) neuroticism (anxiety, anger, depression). Decades of research on the Big Five by behavior geneticists leads to the unmistakable conclusion that these personality traits are at least 50 percent heritable, so although this leaves much room for environment and volition (50 percent room in fact), the luck of the genetic draw also plays an undeniable role in temperament, which itself shapes life outcomes.

In these and many other ways do chance and contingency shape how lives turn out. But by now you must surely be asking, “What about intelligence and hard work?” As with personality traits, behavior geneticists tell us that at least half of intelligence is heritable, as is having a personality that is high in openness to experience, conscientiousness, need of achievement, and risk-taking, all factors that shape success. The non-genetic components of aptitude, scrupulousness, and ambition matter too, of course, but most of those environmental and cultural variables were provided by others or circumstances not of your making. If you wake up in the morning full of vim and vigor, bounding out the door and into the world to take your shot, you didn’t choose to be that way.

By contrast, and as a test of sorts, there are the counter examples of über-smart, creative, hard working people who never prosper. If genes and environment are everything (or nearly so), then why do so many people with good genes and lugubrious environments fail (or at least fail to succeed, if only living mediocre lives)? We cannot simply employ the hindsight bias by taking only successful people and looking to see what they did to become successful, and then back-engineer those traits, package them into a program (or self-help book!), and dispense it into the world for consumers to imbibe and prosper. That’s not how science works. I call this the “biography bias,” evident in the reception of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs. Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computers? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddy in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them. But venture capitalists (VC) have data on the probability of a garage start-up becoming the “next big thing,” and here the survivor bias is of a different sort. David Cowan, a VC at Bessemer Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California (and a good friend), told me in an email:

For garage-dwelling entrepreneurs to crack the 1 percent wealth threshold in America, their path almost always involves raising venture capital and then getting their startup to an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or a large acquisition by another company. If their garage is situated in Silicon Valley they might get to pitch as many as 15 VCs, but VCs hear 200 pitches for every one we fund, so perhaps 1 in 13 startups get VC, and still they face long odds from there. According to figures that the National Venture Capital Association diligently collects through primary research and publishes on their web site, last year was somewhat typical in that 1,334 startups got funded but only 13 percent as many achieved an IPO (81 last year) or an acquisition large enough to warrant a public disclosure of the price (95 last year). So for every wealthy startup founder, there are 100 other entrepreneurs who end up with only a cluttered garage.5

Consider the plethora of business books readily available in airport bookstalls that feature the most successful companies. In the 2001 book Good to Great (over four million copies sold), for example, the author Jim Collins culled 11 companies out of 1,435 whose stock beat the market average over a 40-year time span, and then searched for shared characteristics among them that he believed accounted for their success. Instead, as the Pomona College economist Gary Smith explained in his 2014 book, Standard Deviations (Overlook), Collins should have started with a list of companies at the beginning of the test period, then employ a set of criteria to predict which 11 companies should do better than average. To do otherwise—to summarize the characteristics of the companies that did best after the fact—is not prediction; it’s postdiction. In fact, as Smith goes on to show, from 2001–12, the stock of six of Collins’ 11 “great” companies did worse than the overall stock market, meaning that this system of post hoc analysis is fundamentally flawed. Smith finds a similar problem with the 1982 book In Search of Excellence (over three million copies sold) in which the authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified eight common attributes of 43 “excellent” companies. Since then, of the 35 companies with publicly traded stocks, 20 have done worse than the market average.6

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There are, as well, additional factors that determine life outcomes over and above genes, environment, and chance. Here I must briefly engage with the contentious issue of free will and determinism, and consider the role of volition in any evaluation of life outcomes. In brief, I believe I have worked out how one can accept the fact that we live in a determined universe without that assumption precluding us from making volitional choices and thus retaining personal responsibility and moral accountability for our actions. Here are my four compatibilist workarounds: (1) modular mind—even though a brain consists of many neural networks in which one network may make a choice that another network finds about later, they are all still operating in a single brain; (2) free won’t—vetoing competing impulses and choosing one thought or action over another); (3) choice as part of the causal net—wherein our volitional acts are part of the determined universe but are still our choices; (4) degrees of moral freedom—a range of choice options varying by degrees of complexity and the number of intervening variables.

Underlying these four factors is a fifth, deeper layer of self-awareness, and awareness of the influencing factors that shape how your life turns out. How? Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and selecting paths more likely to result in the desired effect, you can become aware of the internal and external influencing variables on your life, and self-aware of how you respond to them, and then make adjustments accordingly, however restrictive the degrees of freedom may be. I realize that this will not satisfy determinism purists, but then I contend that they don’t act like determinists anyway, given that the illusion they think free will is, is so powerful that—like placebos—it can effects life outcomes.

In the end, if the cosmic dice rolled in your favor, how should you feel? Modest pride in one’s hard work is no vice, but boastful arrogance at one’s good fortune is no virtue. Cultivate gratitude. What if you’ve been unlucky in life? There is consolation in the fact that studies show in the long run what’s important is not success so much as living a meaningful life, which is the result of having family and friends, setting long-range goals, meeting challenges with courage and conviction and, as Polonius advised (Hamlet Act 1, scene 3): “this above all: to thine own self be true.”


1 “The Chaos of History: On a Chaotic Model that Represents the Role of Contingency and Necessity in Historical Sequences.” Nonlinear Science. Vol. 2, No. 4. 1993: 1-13; “Exorcising Laplace’s Demon: Chaos and Antichaos, History and Metahistory.” Invited paper for History and Theory. Wesleyan University. Vol. 34, No. 1. 1995. 59-83; “The Crooked Timber of History: History is Complex and Often Chaotic. Can We Use This to Better Understand the Past?” Complexity, Vol. 2, No.6. July/August 1997: 23-29.


3 Sulloway, Frank J. 1996. Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. New York: Vintage Books, 73.

4 Sulloway, Frank J. 1990. “Orthodoxy and Innovation in Science: The Influence of Birth Order in a Multivariate Context.” Paper presented at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New Orleans, LA, February 16.

5 Personal correspondence, June 7, 2014.

Smith, Gary. 2014. Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie with Statistics. New York: Overlook Press.

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Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, host of The Michael Shermer Show podcast, and a presidential fellow at Chapman University.