The Inescapable Pull of Biology

This story is going hugely viral: In ‘Enormous Success,’ Scientists Tie 52 Genes to Human Intelligence

This comment stood out:

Ive known people who were related to certain very famous physicists and their intelligence was obviously much higher than most people. As in very conspicuous. There is no doubt thay intelligence is purely genetic. The difference between an ape, me amd my friend is genetic. Yes, environment counts but if you give everyone their own personal most ideal environment, they will all taper off at an intelligence level that is determined by their genetics. There is a popular myth that genetics arent everything when it comes to intelligence because it makes people uncomfortable. They dont want to believe that their own intelligence is deterministic. I think it has to do with the tendency of americans to never tell amyone how much money they make or anything else directly tied to their sense of self-worth. What a massive waste of time.

Genetic determinism causes unease because it an affront to ‘free will’, a belief which many Americans hold dear, as well as the belief that ‘all men are created equal’. Americans want to believe in upward mobility and the attainability of the mythical ‘American Dream’, but such mobility is often constrained by the barriers imposed by IQ, which is genetic.

IQ also may imply some are ‘born better’ than others, and as measured by socioeconomic outcomes and how high-IQ people contribute more to society in terms of innovation and creative output, there is perhaps gain of truth to this un-egalitarian observation. Even as recently as a few decades ago, IQ wasn’t so important, but in America’s increasingly technological, hyper-competitive post-2008 economy, it is more important than ever, from Post-2008 wealth creation boom: recap and why it will continue:

Also, like it or not, Charles Murray is right, and IQ will continue to play and increasingly important role in terms of who succeeds or fails in our post-2008 hyper-efficient, hyper-competitive economy.

There are major economic harbingers of this trend: First, the so-called hollowing out of the middle. Most of the jobs created since 2009 are in the low-paying service sector. The problem is the financial crisis permanently gutted a lot of good-paying middle-class professional jobs–jobs that only required an average IQ to attain:

Second, the income gap between college graduates and high school graduates has dramatically widened since 2009. Because educational attainment is correlated with IQ, the less intelligent are adversely affected by these trends. Real wages for non-graduates have plunged since 2008:

This also coincides with the burgeoning ‘anti-college movement‘, but the timing could not have been worse. Two or three decades ago, when good-paying jobs for all skill levels were abundant and capital was cheap to start businesses, yes, skipping college may have been viable, but not so much anymore. As shown below, the income gap between college graduates and non-graduates is far wider for millennials, than earlier generations:

Yet many college graduates, especially in the liberal arts, find themselves stuck in low-paying service sector jobs, working alongside high school dropouts and teenagers at Starbucks or McDonald’s, whereas as recently as a decade ago graduates would have much less trouble finding a comfortable, high-paying office job.

As Tyler Cowen famously said, Average is Over, meaning that to excel in America’s hyper-competitive post-2008 economy, one can’t be ‘good enough’; you must stand out among hundreds, if not thousands, of over-qualified applicants vying for a shrinking pool of high-status positions.

In today’s economy, in which ‘capital’ has completely crushed ‘labor’, it seems like it’s only the exceptionally intelligent, particularly in STEM, who are getting ahead, with high-IQ people making fortunes, seemingly overnight, in Bitcoin, the stock market, or private tech/app companies such Uber (now valued at $60 billion) or Whats App (acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $18 billion at a cost of $150 million/employee) as everyone else sits on the sidelines, just scraping by and encumbered with tons of student debt that their low-paying, low-status job barely makes a dent in. From Sorry Middle Class, You’re Just Not That Important Anymore:

Unless you’re among the cognitive elite (top 1-5% of IQ), you may need to lower your expectations, sorry. Foreign competition, along with automation and outsourcing, is creating a ‘hollowing out’ of the middle – a lot of low-paying service sector jobs, combined with self-actualizing jobs at the top, but not much for the middle.

As one Atlantic writer aptly put it, there is a war on stupid people:

This gleeful derision seems especially cruel in view of the more serious abuse that modern life has heaped upon the less intellectually gifted. Few will be surprised to hear that, according to the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a long-running federal study, IQ correlates with chances of landing a financially rewarding job. Other analyses suggest that each IQ point is worth hundreds of dollars in annual income—surely a painful formula for the 80 million Americans with an IQ of 90 or below. When the less smart are identified by lack of educational achievement (which in contemporary America is closely correlated with lower IQ), the contrast only sharpens. From 1979 to 2012, the median-income gap between a family headed by two earners with college degrees and two earners with high-school degrees grew by $30,000, in constant dollars. Studies have furthermore found that, compared with the intelligent, less intelligent people are more likely to suffer from some types of mental illness, become obese, develop heart disease, experience permanent brain damage from a traumatic injury, and end up in prison, where they are more likely than other inmates to be drawn to violence. They’re also likely to die sooner.

To say it’s a ‘war’ suggests it’s intentional; rather, it has more to do with autonomous economic factors, such as the push towards more productivity and efficiency, as described above.

Millions of people, if by no fault but their own genes, are predestined to mediocrity. This may seem bad, but society needs mediocre people in order to function; by statistical fact, not everyone can be exceptional. But maybe we need to dispel this infectious yet erroneous romanticism that equates success with hard work, when in reality luck–whether it’s winning the genetic lottery, being at the ‘right place at the right time’, or something else–plays a much bigger role. But then why do we tell ourselves (and our children, students, etc. ) these lies? Why do we keep spreading these success ‘creation myths‘?

As I explain in Malcolm Gladwell Continues to Lose Credibility, such myths are a coping mechanism and the lesser of two evils. Society has determined it is more polite to encourage people pursue their goals, however irrational or unattainable such aspirations may be, than confront biological reality.

But the problem is, telling someone who aspires to be doctor or some other high-IQ profession that they shouldn’t try, because they aren’t smart enough, may also seem cruel, so we settle on what we perceive to be lesser of two cruelties.

But rather than accept the unfair reality that some people are indeed ‘born better’ than others, we explain away these differences in outcomes by retelling these myths and fairy tales about IQ and talent, because the alternative challenges ‘free will’ and egalitarianism–beliefs many Americans hold dear. We explain-away biological reality by creating our own reality for why some are more successful than others: maybe it’s ’10,000 hours of practice’, an ‘unfair environmental advantage’, ‘fraud, cheating, or crony capitalism’, or ‘really, really, really good parenting and schools, and very, very, very early intervention’–never genes. To fulfill these rationalizations often means wasteful pubic policy at taxpayer expense, such as universal pre-k, intended to fix an achievement gap that is actually an IQ gap.

So what can be done? For better or worse, nothing. Biological reality will always win in the end, whether we choose to accept this now or later. Consider, for example, the the Black-White achivement gap, which has persisted for half a century despite tens of billions of dollars of education and welfare spending. And at the same time, why are some immigrants so overwhelmingly successful, yet millions of multi-generational American households are in permanent poverty? Why have some civilizations produced so much, and others so little? Biology again. By understanding this reality instead of fighting it, better policy can be devised than the wrong-headed approaches tried thus far.