Andrew Sullivan has devoted a lot of the last two editions of The Weekly Dish to the genetics of intelligence, perhaps because he’s taken a lot of flak for supposedly touting The Bell Curve and the genetic underpinnings of IQ. Now I haven’t read The Bell Curve, nor the many posts Sullivan’s devoted to the genetics of intelligence (see the long list here), but he’s clearly been on the defensive about his record which, as far as I can see, does emphasize the genetic component to intelligence. But there’s nothing all that wrong with that: a big genetic component of IQ is something that all geneticists save Very Woke Ones accept. But as I haven’t read his posts, I can neither defend nor attack him on his specific conclusions.
I can, however, briefly discuss this week’s post, which is an explication and defense of a new book by Freddie DeBoer, The Cult of Smart. (Note: I haven’t read the book, either, as it’s just out.) You can read Sullivan’s piece by clicking on the screenshot below (I think it’s still free for the time being):
The Amazon summary of the book pretty much mirrors what Sullivan says about it:
. . . no one acknowledges a scientifically-proven fact that we all understand intuitively: academic potential varies between individuals, and cannot be dramatically improved. In The Cult of Smart, educator and outspoken leftist Fredrik deBoer exposes this omission as the central flaw of our entire society, which has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability.
Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. Instead, it teaches our children that hierarchy and competition are natural, and that human value should be based on intelligence. These ideas are counter to everything that the left believes, but until they acknowledge the existence of individual cognitive differences, progressives remain complicit in keeping the status quo in place.
There are several points to “unpack” here, as the PoMos say. Here is what Sullivan takes from the book, and appears to agree with:
1.) Intelligence is largely genetic.
2.) Because of that, intellectual abilities “cannot be dramatically improved”.
3.) Because high intelligence is rewarded in American society, people who are smarter are better off, yet they don’t deserve to be because, after all, they are simply the winners in a random Mendelian lottery of genes fostering high IQ (I will take IQ as the relevant measure of intelligence, which it seems to be for most people, including Sullivan).
4.) The meritocracy is thus unfair, and we need to fix it.
5.) We can do that by adopting a version of communism, whereby those who benefit from the genetic lottery get taxed at a very high rate, redistributing the wealth that accrues to them from their smarts. According to DeBoer via Sullivan,
For DeBoer, that means ending meritocracy — for “what could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?” It means a revolutionary transformation in which there are no social or cultural rewards for higher intelligence, no higher after-tax income for the brainy, and in which education, with looser standards, is provided for everyone on demand — for the sake of nothing but itself. DeBoer believes the smart will do fine under any system, and don’t need to be incentivized — and their disproportionate gains in our increasingly knowledge-based economy can simply be redistributed to everyone else. In fact, the transformation in the economic rewards of intelligence — they keep increasing at an alarming rate as we leave physical labor behind — is not just not a problem, it is, in fact, what will make human happiness finally possible.
If early 20th Century Russia was insufficiently developed for communism, in other words, America today is ideal. . .
Sullivan adds that the moral worth of smart people is no higher than that of people like supermarket cashiers, trash collectors, or nurses. (I agree, but I’m not sure that smart people are really seen as being more morally worthy. They are seen as being more deserving of financial rewards.)
6.) Sullivan says that his own admitted high intelligence hasn’t been that good for him, and he doesn’t see it as a virtue:
For me, intelligence is a curse as well as a blessing — and it has as much salience to my own sense of moral worth as my blood-type. In many ways, I revere those with less of it, whose different skills — practical, human, imaginative — make the world every day a tangibly better place for others, where mine do not. Being smart doesn’t make you happy; it can inhibit your sociability; it can cut you off from others; it can generate a lifetime of insecurity; it is correlated with mood disorders and anxiety. And yet the system we live in was almost designed for someone like me.
This smacks a bit of humblebragging, but I’ll take it on face value. It’s still quite odd, though, to see a centrist like Sullivan, once a conservative, come out in favor of communism and radical redistribution of wealth. So be it. But do his arguments make sense?
Now Sullivan’s emphasis on the genetic basis of intelligence is clearly part of his attack on the extreme Left, which dismisses hereditarianism because it’s said to imply (falsely) that differences between groups, like blacks and whites, are based on genetic differences. It also implies (falsely) that traits like intellectual achievement cannot be affected by environmental effects or environmental intervention (like learning). Here Andrew is right: Blank-Slateism is the philosophy of the extreme left, and it’s misguided in several ways. Read Pinker’s book The Blank Slate if you want a long and cogent argument about the importance of genetics.
But there are some flaws, or potential flaws, in Sullivan’s argument, which I take to be point 1-5 above.
First, intelligence is largely genetic, but not completely genetic. There is no way for a given person to determine what proportion of their IQ is attributable to genes and how much to environment or to the interaction between the two: that question doesn’t even make sense. But what we can estimate is the proportion of variation of IQ among people in a population that is due to variation in their genes. This figure is known as the heritability of IQ, and can be calculated (if you have the right data) for any trait. Heritability ranges from 0 (all variation we see in the trait is environmental, with no component due to genetics) to 1 (or 100%), with all the observed variation in the trait being due to variation in genes. (Eye color is largely at this end of the scale.)
A reasonable value for the heritability of IQ in a white population is around 0.6, so about 60% of the variation we see in that population is due to variation in genes, and the other 40% to different environments experienced by different people as well as to the differential interaction between their genes and their environments. That means, first of all, that an appreciable proportion of variation in intelligence is due to variations in people’s environments. And that means that while the IQ of a person doesn’t change much over time, if you let people develop in different environments you can change their IQ in different ways—up or down. IQ is not something that is unaffected by the environment.
Related to that is the idea that a person’s IQ is not fixed at birth by their genes, but can be changed by rearing them in different environments, so it’s not really valid to conclude (at least from the summary above) that “academic potential cannot be dramatically improved”. Indeed, Sullivan’s summary of DeBoer’s thesis is that the difference in IQ between blacks and whites (an average of 15 points, or one standard deviation) is not due to genes, but to different environments faced by blacks and whites:
DeBoer doesn’t explain it as a factor of class — he notes the IQ racial gap persists even when removing socio-economic status from the equation. Nor does he ascribe it to differences in family structure — because parenting is not that important. He cites rather exposure to lead, greater disciplinary punishment for black kids, the higher likelihood of being arrested, the stress of living in a crime-dominated environment, the deep and deadening psychological toll of pervasive racism, and so on: “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it in our investigations of the racial achievement gap.”
Every factor cited here is an environmental factor, not a genetic one. And if those factors can add up to lowering your IQ by 15 points, on what basis does DeBoer conclude (with Sullivan, I think), that you cannot improve IQ or academic performance by environmental intervention? Fifteen points is indeed a “dramatic improvement”, which according to DeBoer, we’d get by simply letting black kids grow up in the environment of white people. (I note here that I don’t know how much, if any, of that 15-point difference reflects genetic versus environmental differences; what I’m doing is simply asserting that even DeBoer notes that you can change IQ a lot by changing environments.)
Further, what you do with your intelligence can be further affected by the environment. If you’re lazy, and don’t want to apply yourself, a big IQ isn’t necessarily going to make you successful in society. So there is room for further improvement of people by proper education and instilling people with motivation. This doesn’t mean that IQ isn’t important as a correlate of “success” (however it’s measured) in American society—just that environmental factors, including education and upbringing, are also quite important.
What about genetic determinism and the meritocracy? It’s likely that many other factors that lead to success in the U.S. have a high heritability as well. Musical ability may be one of these, and therefore those who get rich not because they have high IQs, but can make good music that sells, also have an “unfair advantage”. What about good looks? Facial characteristic are highly heritable, and insofar as good looks can give you a leg up as a model or an actor, that too is an unfair genetic win. (I think there are data that better-looking people are on average more successful.) In fact, since nobody is “responsible” for either their genes or their environments, as a determinist I think that nobody really “deserves” what they get, since nobody chooses to be successful or a failure. Society simply rewards those people who have certain traits, and punishes those who have other traits. With that I don’t have much quarrel, except about the traits that are deemed reward-worthy (viz., the Kardashians).
This means, if you take Sullivan and DeBoer seriously, we must eliminate not just the meritocracy for intelligence, but for anything: musical ability, good looks, athletic ability, and so on. In other words, everybody who is successful should be taxed to the extent that, after redistribution, everyone in society gets the same amount of money and the same goods. (It’s not clear from Sullivan’s piece to what extent things should be equalized, but if you’re a determinist and buy his argument, everyone should be on the same level playing field.)
After all, if “the smart don’t need to be incentivized”, why does anybody? The answer, of course, is that the smart do need to be incentivized, as does everyone else. The failure of purely communist societies to achieve parity with capitalistic ones already shows that. (I’m not pushing here for pure capitalism: I like a capitalistic/socialistic hybrid, as in Scandinavia.) And I wonder how much of Sullivan’s $500,000 income he’d be willing to redistribute.
If you think I’m exaggerating Sullivan’s approbation of communism, at least in theory, here’s how he ends his piece, referring to his uneducated grandmother who cleaned houses for a living.
My big brain, I realized, was as much an impediment to living well as it was an advantage. It was a bane and a blessing. It simply never occurred to me that higher intelligence was in any way connected to moral worth or happiness.
In fact, I saw the opposite. I still do. I don’t believe that a communist revolution will bring forward the day when someone like my grandmother could be valued in society and rewarded as deeply as she should have been. But I believe a moral revolution in this materialist, competitive, emptying rat-race of smarts is long overdue. It could come from the left or the right. Or it could come from a spiritual and religious revival. Either way, Freddie DeBoer and this little book are part of the solution to the unfairness and cruelty of it all. If, of course, there is one.
Let’s forget about the “spiritual and religious revival” (I wrote about that before), and realize that what we have here is a call for material equality, even if people aren’t morally valued as the same. And why should we empty the rat-race just of smarts? Why not empty it of everything that brings differential rewards, like writing a well-remunerated blog? In the end, Sullivan’s dislike of extreme leftism and its blank-slate ideology has, ironically, driven him to propose a society very like communism.