Nature Is Unfair

The Almighty is not a liberal… The Almighty is the driving force for the entire universe and the universe is not a very liberal place. That is what the modern world seems not to understand….

Simon Mawer, The Gospel of Judas

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Matt Ridley‘s recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “A Truce in the War Over Smarts and Genes,” is about the heritability of intelligence. The article, which is behind WSJ’s paywall, is available on Ridley’s personal website, The Rational Optimist, under the title “Goldilocks Heritability.” Here are some relevant bits:

Hardly any subject in science has been so politically fraught as the heritability of intelligence. For more than a century, since Francis Galton first started speculating about the similarities of twins, nature-nurture was a war with a stalemated front and intelligence was its Verdun—the most hotly contested and costly battle.

So would it not be rather wonderful if a scientific discovery came along that called a truce and calmed all the fury? I think this is about to happen. Call it the Goldilocks theory of intelligence: not too genetic, not too environmental—and proving that intelligence is impossible to meddle with, genetically.

The immediate cause of this optimism is a recent paper in Molecular Psychiatry, which confirms that genes account for about half of the difference in IQ between any two people in a modern society….

So far, so good. But Ridley goes off the rails with this:

…Some of the more extreme “nurturists,” especially those who dominated the debate in the 1960s to 1980s, might not welcome the new confirmation of the nearly 50% role of genes in determining IQ differences, even though it has been blindingly clear for a long time now.

They should, though. A world in which intelligence is 100% genetic would be horribly unfair….

What does “fairness” have to do with it? Is there a master gene-dispenser in the sky to whom one can complain about not having received a “fair share” of smart genes? I think not.

There would be nothing “unfair” about a world in which intelligence is 100 percent genetic. That’s just the way it would be, and nothing could — or should — be done about it.

But that wouldn’t stop leftists from trying to do something about it. As I say here,

[t]he search for cosmic justice — the rectification of all that is “unfair” in the world — is relentless, knows no bounds, and is built upon the resentment and punishment of success.

“Unfair” is the battle cry of the envious and the rabble-rouser, who derive great satisfaction from apportioning blame where no blame is due. I expect better of Ridley.

Related posts:
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
Social Justice
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Intelligence as a Dirty Word
The Ideal as a False and Dangerous Standard
An Economist’s Special Pleading: Affirmative Action for the Ugly

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4 comments

  1. A world in which the heritability of intelligence is 100 percent would be the most fair world because everybody would reach their full genetic potential.

  2. I’m afraid that you’ve missed the point of my post, which may be my fault for not making it more clearly. The point is that when it comes to natural phenomena (of which genetic inheritance is one), there is no such thing as a “fair” or “unfair” outcome. It is what it is, as they say. Unless you believe that there is someone actively in charge of determining the outcomes of natural events — and that you are in a position to judge that someone’s actions.

    Even if intelligence were 100-percent heritable, it would vary considerably from person to person because of selection effects. In fact, the variation might be more extreme than it is now, as pairings of highly intelligent persons would produce only highly intelligent offspring, while pairing of low-intelligence persons would produce only low-intelligence offspring. Would you consider that “fair”? It would be neither “fair” nor “unfair,” of course, but leftists would use it as an excuse to forbid couplings of the kind I mentioned, to dictate state-enforced gene therapy, and so on — all in the interest of “fairness.”

    Anyway, reaching one’s “full genetic potential” does not depend on the heritability of intelligence. A person can reach his “full genetic potential” regardless of his innate (genetic) intelligence. If you mean that everyone should have the same genetic potential, then you’re putting yourself in the position of judging nature or the mysterious actor who hands out genes.

    In any event, reaching one’s “full genetic potential” is a matter of making the most of the abilities with which one is born. So, if “A” is born with more intelligence than “B” — and if “A” and “B” both reach their full genetic potential, that is, make the most of their respective levels of intelligence — it is likely that (other things being the same) “A” will become wealthier than “B.” That is a “fair” outcome because “A” and “B” are both able to realize their genetic potential. A leftist would call it an “unfair” outcome because “A” becomes richer than “B”; a leftist, in other words, judges outcomes that flow from natural differences as if he were the possessor of a universal “fairness” scale.

  3. I don’t disagree with you argument. My comment was more directed at Ridley who does not seem to understand what heritability means. If a society is very unequal — with many starving and not having access to even basic schooling while others have everything — heritability will be low. In contrast, if a society is sufficiently equal so that everybody’s basic needs get satisfied, heritability will be high. Contra Ridley, I don’t think the latter sort of society is “horribly unfair”, quite the contrary. With 100 percent heritability, there would still be large differences in intelligence (and social outcomes that are influenced by intelligence such as education and income), but the differences would not be due to unequal environments but innate genetic factors.

    Incidentally, I think the heritability of IQ in contemporary Western societies is closer to 100 percent than 50 percent. The study Ridley refers to sets a lower bound for the additive heritability of IQ; the broad-sense heritability is higher, perhaps 80 percent in adults.

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