Nature, Nurture, and Inequality

I almost always agree with John Derbyshire, and this post by him is no exception. But he does err in the course of the aforementioned post when he says:

The Left, which I am using to mean approximately people who want a more egalitarian society [a generous characterization], believe that the causes of human inequality are external to the individual human being. If you fix the external causes, then you get a more equal society. The Right, who are more tolerant of inequality, believe that components of human nature are innate. Customary and traditional social arrangements that are not obviously harmful shouldn’t be disturbed for projects of human improvement that are likely to prove futile.

Both sides have a case. The Left does have a case. Human nature has somewhat improved. Rigid hereditary social hierarchies of the kind that a conservative over 200 years ago would have fought to the death for, proved to be not as necessary as they thought. Most human beings in most places no longer enslave, eat, or publicly torture each other. So human nature does improve. Many of you have probably read Stephen Pinker’s recent book about the long term decline of violence. We’re kinder and gentler than our remote ancestors.

Pinker’s book is hogwash. I won’t repeat all of the reasons for saying that. Just go here and see for yourself. See also this excellent article by William Kirkpatrick.

Derbyshire soon gets back on track:

But the Right also has a case. And much of the strength of that case comes from the last few decades of research in the human sciences.

Individual personality seems to resemble what physicists call “shape memory alloys.” These are metal alloys that you can construct that remember their shape—you can take a bar of this stuff and bend it into a knot, and when you heat it up, it unbends itself and remembers its original shape. Human nature seems to be much like that. You can push people in certain directions during childhood and adolescence, but the finished adult human being seems to follow the Judith Rich Harris model: 50% heredity and the rest environmental.

I am sure that some of you know that last month [October 2014] was the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray‘s book, The Bell Curve. There have been a number of commemorative articles on human science websites. The grand metaphysician of the Human Biodiversity movement, Steve Sailer, published what I thought, was a very witty comment about it. He said that there had been a complete change in our understanding of, for example, educational attainment. Statistically, 20 years ago there was definitely a hierarchy of educational attainment. At the top you had Orientals, below them you had Caucasians, below them you had Chicanos, and below them you had Blacks on average statistical attainment. Now things are completely different. Now there is a new hierarchy. At the top you have Asians, second you have Whites, third you have Hispanics, and fourth you have African Americans.

So, bottom line there, not much has changed. Where the Left favors a belief in high levels of malleability, reality does not seem to agree.

But reality, as usual, eludes the left. Consider for example The Economist, which is a useful tool of the left. Here is Dr. James Thompson on the case:

There is much innocent fun to be gained from The Economist’s coy avoidance of the genetics of intelligence. They are mired in Blank-Slatism, but are cautiously tip-toeing towards admitting a few things, only to then back away again, thus taking them back to where they came from. This is not all bad: by conceding the importance of intelligence and then immediately saying it is driven by wealth they keep the Faith, whatever it is, but hint that they know more than they will let on in public….

…[I]n The Economist’s view brighter people marrying brighter people is not seen as a positive development, but a practice which “increases inequality”. Of course, duller people marrying duller people also increased inequality. In fact, couples assort themselves on intelligence more than anything else: ….

In a related article they spell out their concerns: An hereditary meritocracy: The children of the rich and powerful are increasingly well suited to earning wealth and power themselves. That’s a problem….

[T]he problem seems to be that they deserve to get ahead, the bounders! …

None of The Economist’s articles or the papers they quote make it clear that intelligence must be considered a driving force in economic life and, consequently, in earnings, social status and resultant wealth. Curious, isn’t it, that a magazine written by the smart fraction for the smart fraction cannot bear to mention the smart fraction in a positive light? Perhaps they fear they will be cursed by the deity, or slaughtered by the baying mob. Noblesse oblige.

[The quotations are from “The Economist Takes a Half Step Forwards,” Psychological Comments, January 23, 2015. Thompson refers to three articles in The Economist: “America’s New Aristocracy,” “Getting ‘Em Young,” and “An Hereditary Meritocracy,” all dated January 24, 2015.]

In the left’s demented view, it would be better if the human race were populated by seven billion equally stupid (and equally unattractive) persons, all scrambling for survival, than to allow the brightest to intermarry and produce a relative handful of intelligent producers whose efforts enrich the lives of the billions (or a large fraction of them). Heaven forbid that the relative handful should thus be rewarded with more than a “fair share” of the riches that they create.

I am certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the “smart fraction” would not want to live in a world where its superior intelligence glibness went unrewarded.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Academic Bias
Intellectuals and Capitalism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
The Fallacy of Human Progress
The Culture War
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Ruminations on the Left in America
McCloskey on Piketty
The Rahn Curve Revisited



  1. Your mention of Steven Pinker’s take on the decline of violence reminded me of a recent piece regarding the trade-offs of State enforced “reduction of violence,” and I quote, “What I want to say is something different: the decline of violence due to repression has a price … The power of the state is, as Pinker notes, used to reduce violence so that assets useful to the state (people) are not destroyed. But the state’s primary means of reducing violence is that it is much better at violence than individuals or small groups. People put up with living conditions and political conditions they would not put up with if they had recourse to violence…”

    The author, Ian Welsh, goes on about how State repression negatively impacts equality (though not equality in the liberal sense of the word). The comments following the article were thought-provoking as well.


  2. I understand and agree with the point that there’s less violence under a repressive state. (The exceptions occur when the state deliberately foments violence; e.g., Kristallnacht.) I’m not familiar with Welsh’s politics, so I don’t know his views about equality (in a non-liberal sense). Can you enlighten me?


  3. Thomas, when I read Welsh’s article, it didn’t seem like Welsh was referring to “social justice equality” or equality of outcomes since that kind of equality doesn’t seem to result when individuals are free to live according to more “natural laws” (as non-human animals form organic, shifting hierarchies in a state of freedom as well). So, I mean, I don’t think that he’s referring to everyone getting an equal slice of pie because the state of freedom would leave everyone to make different choices and experience different outcomes (which rightly promotes learning and advancement). So, that’s as far as I can get when I read that article.

    It (along with the comments) had thought-provoking points, but unfortunately Welsh doesn’t define what he meant by “equality” here. I read his articles sporadically and haven’t encountered his use of the term “equality” up until now, so I’m afraid that I can’t provide further clarification except for the fact that I can only say it’s “not X.” Beyond that, anyone’s guess is as good as mine. This is a libertarian newsletter so, in that context, I’m wondering how this fits with equal opportunity. This is one aspect about the article that I find lacking even if I find that the article contributes something in other ways. He really should have defined his terminology for his readers.


  4. Curiosity led me to do a bit of digging. Welsh seems to be a hard-core lefty. For example:

    So, he’s right about the connection between big government and violence (in my opinion), but I take his view of inequality to be the usual left-ish lament for lack of material equality. In fact, he seems to bemoan the inability of the “masses” to overthrow their “oppressors”:

    [A]ll other things being equal, a reduction in the capacity for non state/government/chieftain violence will generally lead to a reduction of equality…. [Emphasis added.]

    If he is any kind of libertarian, he is a left-libertarian. Which is to say that he’s not really a libertarian. As I say here: A left-libertarian wants “liberty,” but only if it yields outcomes favorable to certain groups, and to hell with the liberty and property rights of others.


  5. Thanks Thomas. I find that I run into that in other places. (Haven’t noticed Welsh’s writings on alternet though.) For example, there are some sites geared towards women libertarians (guess because that’s a rare combination) that I’ve visited and find that while some views are aligned with what I understand to be libertarianism, that there’s a curious attempt to blend ideologies – as in libertarianism plus the addition of trying to help certain groups.

    Since I’m here, there’s one other observation I wanted to make but neglected to the other day about the listing of groups of groups according to IQ and educational attainment by Derbyshire. Education institutions (which are leftist institutions because they’re top-down, collectivist style learning) tend to reward smart people who’re high in agreeableness, neuroticism (prone to worry and anxiety), and conscientiousness. (Hence there’s an argument that left-leaning people are drawn to learning in educational institutions rather than educational institutions *making* people more liberal.) I think that’s why Asians (and women as scientists have now been finding) excel in formal education. High IQ men tend to be disagreeable and less conscientious. So, if anything, I don’t think that list does justice to intelligent white men as a group. There are just different varieties of people with high IQ and those whose personalities are more agreeable, neurotic, and conscientious tend not to be the great innovators (and I think Asians as a group exemplify this). Great innovators (white men easily come to mind here!), on the other hand, have also shown a penchant for dropping out of school (this makes sense right?).


  6. The penchant of great innovators for dropping out of school makes a lot of sense. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are prominent examples. The innovator is impatient with structured, artificial environments — like formal education. He wants to do the real thing.

    Regarding the relationship between political ideology and personality, I just found this article: I haven’t read it carefully, but the authors’ conclusions are tantalizing. I’ll be interested in your reaction to the article, if you have time to read and comment on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The paper looks good so far. Just letting you know I’ll follow up here when I’ve given it my full consideration.

    Just to follow up on my previous comment though, I’d been wondering how those who put together a demographic study on IQ can even account for school drop-outs (if school is where they’re gathering their information). While there are certainly going to be those in the low range who aren’t represented, I can certainly see why people who’re high in IQ would drop out as well. This isn’t as intuitive to some people though. I’ve had a tough time trying to convince people who’re proud of being a “good student” (i.e. “Teachers approve of me, yay!) that some of the people who dropped out did so because school can’t accommodate gifted individuals of especially high intelligence and who’re driven by pure curiosity.


  8. Here’s one way to think of bright dropouts: Many athletes drop out of college and join professional teams because their talents are primarily athletic, not academic. Many bright persons drop out because their talents are primarily innovative, not academic. They are capable of succeeding academically (as are some athletes), but that’s not what they’re best at or find most rewarding (just like athletes who drop out).


  9. Yes, I can see that. I also keep hearing, anecdotally anyway, that educational institutions (even university-level and beyond) are generally geared towards people to about an IQ of 130, though people in the 140s may still be ok there or at least might be able to tolerate it. However, for those who’re beyond that, it’s a frustrating experience to have to go along with everyone else and/or to have your curriculum prescribed to you by teachers or professors who don’t seem all that intelligent to you. I have a relative who is autistic and beyond an IQ of 140 for sure and is geared towards advanced physics. School just drove him crazy (in a colloquial sense). Here’s why homeschooling is often a good option though I’ve encountered many lefties who think homeschooling is backwards.They had to take him out, and once people like him are out of the system then I’m supposing they’re not included in demographic IQ studies – though I suppose they’re in the minority, so unless there are extreme scores that pull the whole average up (and, though there are people purported to be at about 200, it’s supposedly difficult to accurately assess IQ beyond a level of 160 and above, I think?) then it wouldn’t change the picture all that much.

    Anyhow, I’ve come across one article which has managed to change the minds of left-leaning folks (though I still have to keep pushing them to read it at first) about throwing more money into the public education system. I think that high IQ people, especially, would do better with more autonomy.


  10. The article is a powerful and (to me) convincing indictment of public schooling in the United States. Public schools, especially since the advent of national standards and tests, have become one-size-fits-all daycare centers. Given the power of teachers’ unions and the slavish devotion of most teachers to by-the-book “education,” it’s unlikely that public schools will be reformed from within or through direct governmental action. It’s more likely that there will be a gradual (and only partial) flight from standard public schools because of homeschooling, and through local victories for school-voucher programs. The kicker, of course, is that the States will continue to control the curricula for home-schooling and private schools.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.