I’ve finished reading Richard Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, which is a wonderful counterargument to Charles Murray’s (and others’) genetic conservatism (my phrase, not Nisbett’s): intelligence, typically ascertain using IQ, is highly heritable, so there’s little point in spending excessively (whatever that means) on educating most people, since it won’t make a difference.
Nisbett demolishes this argument in detail (I’ve also touched on some of these issues in the context of obesity), so I won’t rehash the book here, except to note that when one closely examines the adopted twin studies often used to support the genetic conservatism argument, they are really weak and unduly overemphasize the role of (additive) genetic variation. (Go read the book, since Nisbett makes the argument far more cogently that I can).
What I find obnoxious whenever I listen to or read Murray and his genetic deterministic ilk is the implicit assumption that, you, Dear Reader or Listener, are part of the genetic overclass; it’s those other people, not in attendance, who are the lumpen üntermenschen. Not only is this one of the oldest rhetorical cons going, it’s incredibly arrogant.
Which, for me, inevitably raises a question that mysteriously is never asked:
What is the genetic heritability of being an asshole?
Granted, being an asshole isn’t a very precise trait, so let me be specific, since there are many different kinds of assholery. Here’s a few:
1) What is the heritability of grandiose delusion? (Randians seem particuarly afflicted by this). Seriously, what is the variation in narcissism and is there a genetic component?
2) What is the heritability of greediness?
Could we do something to help Goldman-Sachs CEOs? Maybe some kind of genetic viral therapy?Kidding aside, someone should be looking at this.
3) What is the heritability of sociopathic behavior? According to The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout about four percent of the U.S. population has strong sociopathic tendencies*. While this seems high, keep in mind that slightly over one percent of the U.S. population is schizophrenic–and schizophrenia is arguably far more debilitating. And as Stout points out, in ‘limited doses’, sociopathic detachment can be useful (both “clinical detachment” and military training are exercises in learning how to reduce empathy). If this is a quantitative trait, which manifests itself in a lack of empathy for others, to what extent is this genetically controlled?
But it’s interesting how these questions are never asked, even though these are as much as result of the gray matter between one’s ears as IQ is. Perhaps these questions might cut a little too close to the bone.
Maybe the ‘greed is good’ crowd is genetically determined. Perhaps some people are just born arrogant and obnoxious, or callous toward the suffering of others. Maybe they just can’t help themselves. But I think, perhaps, with early intervention, Charles Murray might not have become an asshole.
Of course, I’m a squishy liberal, so I’m probably wrong, and maybe Murray was born an asshole.
Note: I’m not arguing that the metric of IQ doesn’t have a genetic basis (although what IQ means, particularly in the non-outlier range, is not particularly clear). But Murray’s nightmare vision of a genetically stupid underclass is belied by the data: the heritability of IQ among lower socioeconomic status groups is very small, albeit significant (~0.1). This means there is much we can do to improve IQ, especially on the lower end of the range.
*Japan, meanwhile, has a forty-fold lower incidence of clinical sociopathy. If narcissism runs at comparable rates, we are one seriously fucked up country. Or maybe we’re genetically inferior to the Japanese. Or something.