The IQ trap: how the study of genetics could transform education, New Statesmen

In response to the excellent New Statesmen article The IQ trap: how the study of genetics could transform education, Steven Pinker tweeted:

It’s sometimes said that the whole notion that intelligence has a genetic component is anathema to the liberals and left-wingers who dominate education. Young reliably depicts the extreme version here, saying “liberal educationalists… reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis [and] prefer to think of man as a tabula rasa, forged by society rather than nature”. He’s not alone, though. The psychologist Jill Boucher of City, University of London has lambasted what she calls “the unthinkingly self-righteous, hypocritical and ultimately damaging political correctness of those who deny that genetic inheritance contributes to academic achievement and hence social status”. Teach First’s suppression of Young’s article contributed to that impression: it was a clumsy and poorly motivated move. (The organisation has since apologised to Young.)

In today’s increasingly competitive, winner-take-all economy, IQ inequality is becoming tantamount to wealth inequality. One can liken it to a ‘revenge of the nerds’ economy, in which high-IQ people tend rise to the top and the less intelligent are stuck in low-paying, low-status jobs that don’t keep up with inflation–a trend that has been amplified due to technological, economic, and social factors. But in fairness, it’s not just the left that opposes this, but biological determinism conflicts with the belief held by many on the right that poverty and low-achievement is a choice (the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” idiom) rather than destiny.

Other highlights from the article:

But now it’s possible to look directly at people’s genomes: to read the molecular code (sequence) of large proportions of an individual’s DNA. Over the past decade the cost of genome sequencing has fallen sharply, making it possible to look more directly at how genes correlate with intelligence. The data both from twin studies and DNA analysis are unambiguous: intelligence is strongly heritable. Typically around 50 per cent of variations in intelligence between individuals can be ascribed to genes, although these gene-induced differences become markedly more apparent as we age. As Ritchie says: like it or not, the debate about whether genes affect intelligence is over.

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but the evidence seems clear: “SES is partly heritable,” Asbury and Plomin say. Genes can explain 40 per cent of the variability in people’s job-related status, and 30 per cent of income differences. In a 2016 study using GPSs, Plomin and colleague Eva Krapohl found that about half of the correlation between educational achievement and SES of British 16-year-olds could be ascribed to genetic factors.

And it’s not just about measuring how good you are at spatial puzzles and mental arithmetic. “IQ correlates with other aspects of a person such as personality or motivation, and these factors are likely to make a difference to education and life outcomes, too.” The problem is not the use of IQ testing but how it is interpreted. IQ, Asbury and Robert Plomin say, is “just one predictor of achievement – albeit a strong one”.

It’s understandable how IQ makes some people unconformable, as that little number sure predicts an awful lot. It’s not just about the ability to perform puzzles or make inferences isolation under controlled settings, but such ability manifests itself in the ‘real world’ too. A strong working memory means improved ability to take instruction, which means better job performance and hence higher wages and lower unemployment. It’s intuitively obvious, yet a major source of controversy.

It’s common for successful, high-IQ people to post-hoc downplay the role of IQ in their success. Successful people want to believe that their success is mostly due to effort, skill, and hard work, not genes, because the latter somehow implies that they did not ‘earn’ their success. This is wrong–high-IQ people must also work hard to succeed, because they are competing with other high-IQ people in the same domain. High-IQ physicists compete with other physicists to find discoveries and grants; high-IQ programmers compete with other programmers for scarce but high-paying job positions; high-IQ law school candidates compete with other candidates, and so on.