Why genetic determinism is inevitable in a meritocracy

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJun 10, 2006 11:25 PM


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Yes, the title is a bit asinine, but it got your attention didn't it? This post is a response to Chad Orzel's response to my response to his response to last week's "Ask a Science Blogger" where I allude to the benefit of tightening labor for our working classes (these United States). Chad states:

...the point is to make it possible for the children of the lower classes to become scientists and engineers rather than factory workers and farmers. Economic class should not be hereditary, and one of the purposes of public education is to keep economic class from being hereditary.

There is a major issue I have with Chad's assertion: social mobility when opportunities arise is inevitable when you transition from a non-meritocratic system to a meritocratic system. Over the generations one should see the movement to the "top" of the genetic cream, so to speak, and the "decline" of those who retained their elite positions due to custom and tradition. But,

subsequent movement should be dampened assuming that a large portion of the abilities that allow the attainment of high status are heritable

. Let me give you a concrete example: during the 19th century German Jews were emancipated and allowed to participate in public life as Jews (before, they had to convert to Christianity like Karl Marx's father). Jews swarmed institutions of higher education previously closed to them and were heavily overrepresented in many professions. But this was only a transient phenomenon, once the destitution of the German Jewry was alleviated by open opportunities pauper to professional stories became less common. Some of this is likely due to the capital, social and economic, accrued by professional parents passed on to their children, but some of it is surely due to the innate cognitive (intelligence and personality) traits of the individuals in question which span generations due to genetics. The recent hand-wringing about the high SES bias of Harvard students is in my opinion overwrought because the transition that the American elite experienced with the change from WASP oligarchy (and "gentlemen's C" students like George W. Bush) to a more open meritocracy (e.g., Bill Clinton) was a peculiar moment. An increase in SAT scores on the order of hundreds of points in the 1960s across the Ivy League was a reflection fo the transition from oligarchy to meritocracy. Over the longer term "snaps" in social structure pepper history, consider the cyclical nature of Chinese dynasties, which often started off with relative equality and a peasant-mandarin-emperor dynamic, but eventually shifted toward greater power toward well off peasants, who accrued more and more wealth to their own lineages at the expense of their peers and the central government. The point is that within the broad scope of Chinese history one could see the general cycles and epicycles. I suspect too many Americans extrapolate from the massive "uplift," both social and economic, that occurred between 1945 and 1965 as of a perpetual social revolution is inevitable, when stasis is also part of the eternal cycle. But, to a specific genetic point, I would like to offer a rough model for what is going on in America and why social mobility should decrease the more open opportunities we have over the generations. The key is the concept termed narrow sense heritability, or additive genetic variance. Additive genetic variance can be thought of as the parent-offspring regression coefficient, roughly, the slope of the line which is derived from plotting the values of the offspring vs. the parent on a given trait. On a molecular genetic level additive genetic variance can be conceived as deriving from the contributions of of a host of loci, genes, cumulatively to a given trait independently. As an example, consider a trait which a value of 100 (e.g., height?) controlled by 10 loci, in an idealized scenario each locus could contribute up to a value of 10 to the overall total (ergo, 10% of the variation would be attributable to any locus). Variation at the individual loci, which are independent, would result in a rough normal distribution of a given trait. I bring this point up to highlight the fact that as environmental variation decreases additive genetic variance should account for a greater proportion of the variation of any given trait in a population (height, IQ, even income). When it comes back to our example of a perfect meritocracy, if an elite education is open to all then the differences between attainment and outcome should be predominantly innate since the environmental variation is minimized. There is evidence that as socioeconomic status increases, the heritability of IQ increases. This means that among the affluent, differences in intelligence are more likely to be due to innate factors than amongst the poor. The reasoning is simple, the poor are buffeted by many more environmental factors which could decrease cognitive performance than the wealthy. Bill Gates might be worth billions of dollars, but the Harvard education that his children might be given will not be qualitatively different than that of a prosperous lawyer across town. In other words, the environmental inputs toward this trait probably hit saturation at some point in the upper middle class so that a threshold effect can be seen across the population. In a perfect meritocracy, where environmental variables are mitigated by equal opportunities the differences due to genetics would be paramount because those are the only major non-stochastic parameters. Additionally, social factors like assortative mating will also increase heritability. Models are models, and life is more complex. I'm not stating here that I believe non-heritable factors are trivial, though I think a lot of traits are compounded by gene-environment correlation. Rather, I think that we should take into account that the recent past is not always a good map of the future. The more open opportunities are present in American society, and the longer these opportunities are present, the more likely that generation-to-generation changes in class will decline, all things equal. Large scale uplifts, some of which we've seen in our own nation in historical memory, are the outcome of structural inequities being remediated and subsequent talent being unleashed. Addendum: My own opinion is that the difference between the super-wealthy and the upper-middle-class is in larger part due to stochastic factors, being at the "right place and right time." Most small business fail, but some succeed wildly, this is not necessarily always (or mostly) due to differences in individual talent. Rather, I am generalizing mostly about the "bottom" 95% of the population, where I believe non-stochastic factors are more important. Given a work ethic, moderate amounts of intelligence and a willingness to take on major debt for those without familial resources, it is truly not that difficult to become a professional. Similarly, I know of individuals of little talent who slowly run through their trust fund. Though they may ensure the affluence of their own lives, they often have little to give their own children because they do not have the abilities to build upon the capital which fortune provided them.

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