By Iain Brassington
Having staked out the claim in my last post that even if Toby Young’s claims about intelligence and embryo selection in his essay are eugenic, that’s not the end of the moral argument, I’m now going to have a quick look at the reasons why I think his claim does fail. The roots of the failure are in the section of just prior to the “progressive eugenics” part; I’m going to be talking here exclusively about the sections entitled “How high is the correlation between IQ and socio-economic status?” and “Has the meritocratic elite become a hereditary elite?”. As a precursor, I’ll note what I’m not going to be talking much about directly: Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve, a book upon which Young’s argument draws substantially. This book has proven controversial to say the least, and has been controversial since a long time before Young wrote his article. What I’m going to say runs alongside criticisms of that work, though. Having said that, Young does rely on The Bell Curve for a lot of his argument, so I’ll have to touch on it now and again.
One of the claims that Young takes from Herrnstein and Murray is this:
IQ is a better predictor of low socio-economic status – and the associated problems of poverty, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, criminality and drug abuse – than any competing variable, including parental socio-economic status. According to their analysis, someone with an IQ of 130 has a less than 2 per cent chance of living in poverty, whereas someone with an IQ of 70 has a 26 per cent chance.
At the pinnacle of American society, by contrast, there is a “cognitive elite”. Typically, members of this group possess IQs of 125 and above, have postgraduate degrees from good universities and belong to a handful of “high-IQ professions”, such as accountants, lawyers, architects, chemists, college teachers, dentists, doctors, engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, natural scientists, social scientists and senior business executives.
Let’s assume the figures are sound. What they won’t do, though, is feed neatly into an argument in favour of choosing IQ-maximising embryo-selection in order to help ensure as high a socio-economic status as possible. If we accept that a low IQ increases your chance of living in poverty, it doesn’t follow that a high IQ will increase your chance of being wealthy unless IQ is a cause of wealth. (Allow that in a system of perfect social mobility, having a low IQ will mean that you fall in social position; this is rarely acknowledged in policy debates, but it would presumably be a feature of true social mobility!) But there’s going to be some difficulty in establishing this. For one thing, how well you do on an IQ test isn’t necessarily going to tell us all that much about your intelligence: it’s a measure of intelligence, but measurements ought not to be confused with the thing being measured.
An important thing to remember is that wealth, like genes, is passed down the generations. And wealth tends also to correlate with things like education, exposure to certain cultural phenomena, and the like – all of which, we might think, allow the seeds of intelligence to burst to life. It would not be a huge surprise to find that someone born into a well-read household from an academic background, whose family has plenty of money to spend on things like trips to the theatre or museums in other cities, grew up to be highly articulate and able to engage fluently with all manner of intellectual pursuits without batting an eyelid. By contrast, if you’re born into a household in a deprived area, in which you have to share a bedroom with a sibling or maybe more, and in which money is tight, the chance that you’ll be able to go to somewhere quiet and read books is reduced. You may not have anywhere quiet to go, and you may not have the books. You may not be taken on trips to museums because of the transport costs. And that may mean that, at first glance, you’ll look less bright than you might. It doesn’t follow that you’re less intelligent, though.
Bluntly, someone might look stupid, but simply be stupefied.
Correspondingly, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be better educated; and that might well tell us something about how well you’ll do on IQ tests irrespective of the content of your bookshelf. You might well be less intimidated by tests and scientists, for example, and so more relaxed when you take them. A high IQ score might be something you have because you’re good at IQ tests, rather than wealth being something you get because of your intelligence per se.
Besides: being in a high-paying profession doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re enormously clever. I have a colleague in the Law School here at Manchester who will happily tell anyone who’ll listen, more-than-semi-seriously, that the only reason lawyers charge so much is to make it look like what they do is hard. Earning a high wage and holding down a prestige job may not always indicate that you’re the cleverest person on the tram to work.
But: OK – let’s allow for the moment that IQ and intelligence are the same, and that they facilitate success, and that they’re heritable. These would be ingredients in formulating an argument for “progressive eugenics”. But, even here, Young seems to be in slightly deeper water than he thinks. Take this, for example:
[P]eople to select their partners according to similar levels of intelligence, thanks to assortative mating or homogamy. This is a well-documented phenomenon whereby humans are more likely to mate with those who have the same characteristics as them, particularly IQ. Up until the 1950s, the impact of assortative mating on the stratification of society was kept in check by the limited opportunities for highly intelligent men and women to meet each other. However, as the best universities have become more and more selective, and as women have begun to be admitted in equal numbers, these opportunities have increased. If male and female members of the cognitive elite don’t pair up in college, they pair up afterwards in the high-paying firms and rarefied social environments that they gravitate towards. The result is that those on the far right-hand side of the IQ distribution curve have become much more likely to mate with each other and produce highly intelligent children.
Well, OK: but, again, so what? Allow that one of the things that drives mate-selection is how intelligent someone appears. Now, there’s a problem here inasmuch as that how intelligent someone appears and how intelligent they are might be different things. For the reasons I sketched above, someone might appear to be not-terribly-bright because they’ve been brought up without access to rich educational and cultural stimuli. Correspondingly, it might be that someone might appear very clever because of how their life has worked out, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not just very lucky to have been well-off from the get-go and a persuasive blagger. (Hi!) Of course, we might think that we could suss out fairly quickly when a person is much less clever than they seem, and that this’d make a difference to how attractive a potential mate they’d be. But we might be wrong. And – let’s be blunt – intelligence is at most a reason to find someone attractive. It’s not the only one.
There’s another consideration here, though, and it’s very important: it’s that there is reason to think that there is a link between poverty and low intelligence, but that that generates normative claims that are very different from what Young thinks they are, because he gets things the wrong way around.
I’m thinking here of work like this and this. What these papers purport to show is that cognitive ability is related to exposure to parasites. Bluntly, if your body is having to put energy into fighting off infections, it’ll have less energy to devote to things like cognitive development; and so if you’re exposed to a lot of pathogens, especially in early life, you might end up less smart than you otherwise would be. Infectious disease prevalence correlates inversely with intelligence.
Why does this matter here? Because exposure to infectious illness, and lacking the means to do much about it, correlates with poverty. That being the case, we would appear to have evidence not that low intelligence causes poverty, but that poverty may be a causal factor in low intelligence. (Note that much of the evidence cited by Young comes from the US; but the second of the papers just cited also relates to the US – a country in which, notably, healthcare is (a) very expensive, and (b) not universally available.)
This point is potentially very tricky for Young’s progressive eugenics, because it implies that, if we want to improve the lot of the worst-off, and to ensure that their children have the best opportunities, embryo selection is much less important than… well, than improving their lot. If there is a problem with low(er) intelligence and poverty, it is not that the former causes the latter, but that the latter does contribute to the former. It’s a social problem, which is – happily – fairly straightforwardly soluble; and that solution is social. Whatever reasons we have to select embryo A over embryo B, social mobility isn’t one of them. We can tinker with which embryos are implanted all we like; we could even faff around with particular genes if we wanted. But if we don’t get the broader context right, it’ll all be for very little result.
Being super-intelligent isn’t your route out of poverty if you don’t have the right social context; but having the right social context might well be crucial for anyone escaping poverty. Science, inasmuch as that it informs public health measures, can help here; but its role is at once much less exciting then embryo selection, and much more important. Young, I think, has fallen into the trap of thinking that whizzbang science is the solution to all our ills. And whizzbang science does have its place. But it’s not enough.
And, of course, looking at things this way reduces the chance that we’ll fall into one of the more pernicious implications of Young’s argument, which is that if we’re selecting as a matter of course and someone ends up poor all the same, then that is ordained by nature, and there’s nothing that we can, or even should, do about it. I don’t think that this is a claim that Young would want to endorse, and – as with the slippery slope from progressive to sinister eugenics I mentioned in the last post – it’s an argumentative move that noone is compelled to make and that is easily resisted. But the door is open all the same. If the good lord above and your parents’ insistence on natural reproduction made you a Delta, then there’s no point crying about it.
I don’t think we should resign ourselves to that kind of fatalism.
The take-home message from all this? Toby Young’s piece is mistaken, and any moral claim we take from it is likely to be wide of the mark. But the problem is not that it is eugenicist, progressive or not. It’s that eugenics is the wrong way to try to solve the problem of poverty and low mobility.