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"Middle class children have better genes"

A while back I wrote this about "Blair's Meritocracy":

Dig down a bit, however, and I suspect you’ll find yourself harbouring a slightly less savoury view. It’s not just that we middle classes are the fortunate beneficiaries of better life-chances and a better education. Yes, there may be one or two bright people living on that council estate, but generally speaking, we’re a breed apart, aren’t we? Something akin to natural selection has divided society roughly along class lines into the more and less able. That’s what many right-wingers believe, though they generally admit it only to each other. And it is, I suspect, what the rest of us broadsheet readers believe too, if we're honest with ourselves. Go on. Tell the truth. Isn’t that what you really think?

Today I discover it's what Blair's old school inspector Chris Woodhead really thinks:

Middle-class children 'have better genes', says Chris Woodhead
Children from middle-class families do well at school because they have "better genes", according to Chris Woodhead, the former head of Ofsted.


The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

This post reminded me of a fascinating extract in Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The gist of that chapter can be found in the following article from the USA Today:
Joe Otten said…
Why is it unsavoury to believe this?

If it were unsavoury and true, should we try to delude ourselves?
Larry Hamelin said…
Your own ideas about meritocracy, though, would seem to imply that the differences exist, they have just not been sorted accurately.
Joe Otten said…
Actually I'm going to elaborate on that without waiting for your answer.

It seems to me that some people believe that genetic equality is the basis for political equality. This is a terrifying notion - it suggests a very fragile commitment to political equality. And it leaves political equality apparently open to the possibility of empirical refutation by value-free science.

Clearly in the past (and present) notions of superiority have been used as an excuse to keep the rabble down and the chinless wonders up. But when this is stopped we should still not expect everyone to follow the same sort of course in life.
Steven Carr said…
It should be obvious to anybody that poorer ante-natal care, poorer post-natal care, poorer diet during pregnancy, worse environment to live in (main, polluted roads against leafy suburbs) - none of this has any effect whatever on intelligence.

If it did have any effect, children from wealthier backgrounds with parents who had access to better medical care and diet during and after pregnancy would be more intelligent than children from poorer backgrounds.

And we know this is just not true.

Incidentally there have been studies showing that the first born in each family is likely to be more intelligent than its siblings, because of environmental factors.

However, if I understand correctly, this effect disappears for children in black families, as environment has no effect on their IQ - black children are just as intelligent as white children, regardless of environmental factors.

I doubt if natural selection has divided society along class lines, as cultural selection must be more important.
Steven Carr said…
It seems to me that some people believe that genetic equality is the basis for political equality.

Joe is quite correct. The basis for political equality is not and should never be genetic equality.
Nick said…
Whether middle-class children on average have better genes or not (however we might define 'better' in this context) is a matter for empirical research. It may or may not be true, and whether we find it distasteful or not is irrelevent to its truth or otherwise.

This has shades of the 'Bell Curve' controversy about whether different races (a difficult thing to define in any useful way) have different average IQ's. Again, this is a matter for empirical research, and whether we find it distasteful or not has no bearing upon its truth or otherwise.

Trying to argue for moral or ideological reasons that middle class children cannot on average have better genes than working class ones (or that races have different average IQ's, for example) is a mistake, because if the empirical evidence goes against one's argument then one's moral position regarding the treatment of these people collapses.

Rather, we need to realise that having 'better' or worse genes is not generally a relevent criterion for how one is treated morally (it may be relevent in certain specific circumstances e.g. if one has a defective gene that renders one blind, then one should not be allowed to drive). Equally, in general, having a higher or lower IQ is not a relevent criterion for one is treated morally.
anticant said…
His name should be blockhead.
Anonymous said…
Yes, Stephen, it is what I really think.

It seems we're all in agreement that "in general, having a higher or lower IQ is not a relevent criterion for one is treated morally."

Leaving that aside, everything Woodhead says is correct. See also
I didn't spot anything he is quoted as saying that I disagreed with.

Steven Carr: "If it did have any effect, children from wealthier backgrounds... would be more intelligent than children from poorer backgrounds.

And we know this is just not true."

You are mistaken. IQ and wealth are correlated.

This is the sort of thing that is obvious to people who don't consider it too unsavoury to think about. We can't test for "good genes" directly. But we do know that IQ is about 50% genetically hereditable. And we do know that IQ is a very good predictor for many life outcomes including wealth. Therefore wealthier parents must, on average, have smarter children. (And that's not even including inheritance of environment.) Surprise surprise, the data shows this.

"black children are just as intelligent as white children, regardless of environmental factors."

You are mistaken. Average American-black IQ is one standard deviation lower than average white IQ. This is uncontroversial amongst people who study it.
Stephen Law said…
Well it is good that people are being honest about what they believe. That's what I am encouraging. I am glad Woodhead is being explicit about what he believes, though I wish he would have been explicit back when he was actually Blair's main education guy influencing and indeed determining policy.

Now it may or not be true that working class kids are genetically "inferior" on average re IQ. I very much agree that we should believe, and shape policy based on, what's true, rather than what we'd prefer to be true.

However, I can't say I am yet convinced it is true. And my limited experience (which doesn't count for much, I admit) suggests to me it's not (or more accurately, it suggests to me that genetic endowment re intelligence has comparatively little effect on your position in the social hierarchy).

I would really like to see research carried out in this area. We certainly should not shape policy based on the unwarranted assumption that it is not true, but then neither should we based on the unwarranted assumption that it is.

The following argument for the conclusion that it is, is rather weak, surely (from anonymous):

"But we do know that IQ is about 50% genetically hereditable. And we do know that IQ is a very good predictor for many life outcomes including wealth. Therefore wealthier parents must, on average, have smarter children."

Stephen's reply: Wealthier parents do have kids with higher IQs, I'm sure. However, to what extent is their kid's greater wealth due to genetic factors? The above argument does not establish a strong causal effect.

It might well be that the 50% of IQ that is not inheritable is heavily shaped by upbringing and education (surely it is), which is in turn also heavily correlated with wealth (surely it is). In which case, kids with an innate IQ advantage but poor parents may well end up with an average or lower final IQ (and also be unlikely to become wealthy), while kids with an average or lower innate, genetic IQ but rich parents may end up with an average or higher final IQ (and do pretty well).

That's to say, the correlation of wealth with final IQ may have much more to do with wealth shaping final IQ, than to do with genetic IQ shaping wealth. It does not follow from your premises that genetic IQ has a major effect on wealth.

To put it yet another way: the part of IQ that correlates with wealth may not be the genetically inherited part.

The effect of genetic IQ on level of wealth could still be pretty negligable, even if the statistics you cite are accurate.
Joe Otten said…
The video I linked to in my second comment refers to studies on adopted children that seem to confirm the importance of genetic inheritance.

But I don't see why we need to base our policies on the answer to this question whatever it is. Shouldn't we simply try to give each child the best education we can? However much or little ability nature and nurture combined have given them. The state has no business whining about either the genes or the nurturing skills of parents.
Anonymous said…
Atheist Missionary,
Thanks for that article. I find it funny they managed to get through the whole article without mentioning the word "genes", which is clearly what they meant.


"But I don't see why we need to base our policies on the answer to this question whatever it is. Shouldn't we simply try to give each child the best education we can?"

Correct. However, this sort of knowledge is useful when trying to see how well a policy is performing. Here's an analogy: many people see facts like "more men than women are bankers" and conclude that because the ratio is not exactly 50:50, this is prima facie evidence of bad discrimination. But it isn't. (Women investment bankers earn more than men, as long as they don't go and have children.)


Your question is: how much is due to nature, and how much nurture? We find out by using adopted twin studies, where both twins are adopted by different families. Herrnstein and Murray examined this in The Bell Curve.

In this book, they criticise both twin studies and adopted twin studies (Danziger and Haveman: Understanding Poverty, page 152).

Obviously we can't use anything other than twin studies. I'm not sure to what extent the criticisms make twin studies unreliable. They're not totally useless, surely. I'm not aware of more recent surveys of the literature.

The Bell Curve came in for a lot of criticism, of course, but it's a pretty good book. Charles Murray's other essays on the subject are fairly good too. "The Bell Curve Debate" is a fairly good attack on it. Gould's "Mismeasure of Man" 2nd edition is pretty terrible, and dishonest, in my opinion.

Lynn and Vanhanen: IQ and the Wealth of Nations extends this whole argument to nations: that richer countries have more intelligent people. and the Wealth of Nations is a good summary of both sides. and Global Inequality
Anonymous said…

As far as I can tell, IQ explains a significant part of inheritance of income, most of it is due to other things.

Indeed, Bowles and Gintis: The Inheritance of Inequality
says that genetic inheritence of IQ is not very important. But one of the links above doubts how unimportant.

Everyone seems to agree that there's plenty genes can't explain.

And finally...
"public school kids are better looking than state school kids"
No evidence here, just a bit of fun.

NB The third comment:
A few years back, Warwick uni turned up with interesting research findings on degree classes of university students who had attended fee-paying schools and their degree classes on graduation:

"The UK's most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research. An eight-year study of graduates' results by researchers at the University of Warwick suggests that the more parents pay in school fees, the less chance their children have of getting a good degree."

That could connect with the fact that the two maintained (meaning non-fee-paying) selective schools within walking distance of where I sit achieve better A-level results than Eton.

For interest, this is the latest schools league table based on A-level results:"
Martin Gifford said…
There are many assumptions in all this, but the three that I am interested in are:

1. What is intelligence, and is IQ the best measure of it?

2. What does "better genes" mean?

3. Would an intelligent person aim to be middle class or automatically act in ways that lead to middle class status?

My general comment is that maybe the most intelligent person sees through all of society's illusions and isn't motivated to achieve middle class status.

I think many middle class people are dumb (in some sense) because they work 40 hours per week, vote for stupid politicians, take this miraculous world for granted, read newspapers, believe and obey fools, etc.

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