Instability and Our Troublesome Inheritance

There have been many good reviews of Nicholas Wade’s recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, but Allen Orr makes a key point about the instability of traits that I haven’t seen elsewhere (boldface mine):

Conversely, it’s hard to see why profound instability in social institutions doesn’t trouble Wade more. He’s much taken, for instance, with the difference between tribal and modern societies, but one of the most tribal peoples on the planet, the Scots with their clans, are now identified with some of the most modern of ideas and attitudes. Were David Hume and Adam Smith precocious carriers of a mutation that swept Edinburgh?

Similarly, consider the immense institutional differences that distinguish North and South Korea, ones that appeared only decades ago. The people who live north and south of the thirty-eighth parallel have very similar genes, so why do their social institutions differ so dramatically? Wade doesn’t entirely ignore these sorts of examples (he mentions Korea) but it’s unclear why they don’t cause him to doubt the value of his project at least a little. If culture can so easily overwhelm genes—and Wade sometimes seems to concede that it can—why should we care about such pliant genetic predispositions, even if they were real?

In “A Modest Proposal: Alabama Whites Are Genetically Inferior to Massachusetts Whites (FOR REALZ!)“, I proposed the following:

NAEP math scores have been used as proxies for IQ (pdf, pdf). If we look at the NAEP 8th grade math data for 2011, when we compare students with college educated parents who aren’t poor, there is a about a twenty point gap in scores for any given socioeconomic group between black and white students (where a ten point difference roughly corresponds to one grade level). We know conclusively, based on studies in marginal journals edited by racists, that this racial difference is largely genetic (and we have controlled for a deleterious environment by excluding poor students and poorly educated parents). For instance, in Massachusetts, white students (with college educated parents who aren’t poor) have an average score of 312, while black students have a score of 291 (p less than 10-6). Meanwhile, Alabama whites score 293, with no significance difference compared to black students in Massachusetts (p = 0.49). The gap between Massachusetts whites and Massachusetts blacks is the same as the gap between Massachusetts and Alabama whites.

Ergo, Alabama whites are also genetically inferior untermenschen whom we should not waste our time trying to educate. Look, I’m just bravely telling it like it is. If it doesn’t fit for your conservative preconceptions, that’s too bad. We have to heroically follow the data where they lead us. And when you look at other states, it’s clear: ‘heartland’ whites are genetically inferior to Massachusetts (and Maryland) whites, and we need to fundamentally rethink our social policies accordingly.

Over the top snark aside, I’ve also been looking at the change in NAEP scores in Massachusetts from 1996 to 2005, as the 2005 cohort would be the first set of eighth graders who completely experienced the educational reforms of the 1990s (yes, I need new hobbies). In 1996, Massachusetts scores, when broken down by demographic group weren’t different from the national scores, but by 2005, most groups had increased by about 10 points (very, very roughly one grade level). Does anyone really think that difference is a result of a change in the genetic makeup of Massachusetts students over nine years? That hypothesis doesn’t strain credulity, it pulverizes it.

To add a small corollary to what Orr wrote, when you combine instability with the rapidity of change, a lot of these genetic hypotheses just don’t make a lot of sense.

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One Response to Instability and Our Troublesome Inheritance

  1. andrew gelman in slate obviously was alluding to this (though his examples were not as good, slate has a faster turnaround time than ny review of books).

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