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Boris, genes and class

2 December 2013
Appeared in BioNews 733

'Although Jefferson regarded the truth of human equality to be self-evident there is remarkably little positive evidence for the Jeffersonian theory, and its interest is, I think, mainly historical'.

No, that isn't taken from London Mayor Boris Johnson's recent speech that touched on genes and IQ. It's a reflection on the American Declaration of Independence by geneticist, and Marxist, JBS Haldane, writing during the 1930s. Haldane was a firm believer in innate human differences.

However, he also argued that this had limited consequences for the organisation of society. Specifically, reflecting his own interests, he argued that neither the doctrine of socialism nor communism should be troubled by innate differences because neither was based on ideas of innate equality (Haldane incorporated genetic differences into differences in the 'ability' part of 'from each according to his ability to each according to his needs').

Readers may wonder why I am travelling back in time. Well, as will become clear, Boris and his critics have done much the same and, suitably modified, Haldane's approach has much to recommend it.

Back to the present: in a speech last week at the Centre for Policy Studies titled 'What Would Maggie do Today?' Boris Johnson did his usual thing of praising former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the City of London (while also mocking bankers a little), attacking the Left and, oh yes, discussing genetics and IQ. The last element was a little unusual for him, but as usual with genetics and IQ it attracted a lot of attention.

His argument proceeded via an analogy with shaking a packet of cornflakes, which precipitated some mockery, and no little confusion. But his serious claim was (probably) this: differences in IQ scores are in part innate. In a globalised and increasingly competitive capitalist world these differences matter. Those from poorer backgrounds with innate ability need to be helped to succeed through the creation of more educational opportunities (e.g., grammar schools). Those from poorer backgrounds with less innate ability should be helped through the philanthropy of the rich and the taxes paid by the successful (who deserve knighthoods for their benevolence). He didn't say much about the not so innately clever but inherently rich. Presumably they can look after themselves or get someone to do it for them.

Boris Johnson, Margaret Thatcher, bankers, left-bashing, genetics and IQ – light the blue touch paper and stand back. Leading the charge as one might expect were assorted columnists on The Guardian, culminating in an editorial on the subject. The editorial writer reached back for a Marxist starting point, but alighted on Stephen Jay Gould rather than JBS Haldane. Referencing his famous The Mismeasure of Man (1981), The Guardian argued that Johnson had repeated the errors long-since refuted by Gould. That a certain percentage of people score above a particular level on tests and a certain percentage below another level conveys, according to The Guardian, 'no information about anything except the way that IQ is defined. Any idea that they say anything about "our species" is, well, specious. An intelligent man (which Mr Johnson undoubtedly is, whatever his IQ) ought not to claim they are "relevant" to debates about pay'. Further: 'If intelligence is the ability to solve problems quickly, the relevant problems will depend on the context ... Test setters retain influence over what counts, and there is no adjusting for test-takers' inclination to apply themselves – or not' (1).

I can only offer a 'plague on both your houses' in response to this. Gould made some great points in his book, especially about the early history of IQ tests (although some have raised questions). However, numerous studies in the modern era, most persuasively for me adoption studies, have demonstrated a significant contribution of genetic variation to overall variation in IQ scores. Gould and The Guardian are right, IQ tests are a social construction in part, but then so are many kinds of tests that capture something important about the 'real world' (space limits prevent a long essay on the character of social constructions).

As Asbury and Plomin argue in their recent book G is for Genes, school attainment tests show similar levels of heritability to IQ tests (and fairly significant ones at that). If Boris had said school tests instead of IQ tests, would The Guardian have made the same points? I guess they might have. But the data should give pause for thought, and should not be dismissed out of hand. While the correlation is not high, IQ and school test scores have a bearing on income and other measures of success in later life. For sure, as The Guardian editorial argued, 'surviving and thriving in a university or profession may require different skills from getting by in the inner city, and the practical cerebral challenges in both will surely be different again from a life spent foraging in the jungle'. But then the nearest most of us come to a life spent foraging in the jungle is catching the latest developments on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

So we should perhaps focus on life in the modern capitalist world. And in doing so the salient points are these: although genetics makes a significant contribution to variation in IQ scores, it is striking how little insight this continues to provide us with, about the specifics of the genes involved, about the nature of intelligence and about the prospect of genetics improving education or educational policy. In the unlikely event that the polygenic mode of inheritance of IQ does yield some useful human applications (personalised education? gene therapy? drugs to enhance general cognitive performance, maybe?), let's consider them. But it is important to keep this kind of discussion grounded and not to indulge in fantasy.

Further, we do not live in a meritocracy today and we won't do if the Government brings in a few more selective schools. Belief in genetic differences can be used for apologetic purposes (as the critics of Johnson claim he does), but, as Haldane argued, accepting their reality has limited, if any, consequences for the kind of economics and politics we have or choose to pursue. Greed is Good? From each according to his ability to each according to his needs? More bonuses for bankers or string them up? In practice and in principle genetic differences do not and should not matter to how we divide on these issues.

1) Boris Johnson: Intellectually Questionable
The Guardian |  28 November 2013
6 July 2015 - by Dr Katie Howe 
A large-scale review of genetic data from a number of different studies has suggested that diverse parental genes can lead to offspring who are taller and have increased cognitive ability...
17 February 2014 - by Chee Hoe Low 
A gene associated with thinner grey matter, which contributes to lower intellectual ability, has been identified by scientists...
16 December 2013 - by Dr John Gillott 
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee, Professor Robert Plomin made some very important points. But he needs to rein in the hyperbole if he wants to make headway in political and policy worlds...
16 December 2013 - by Rhys Baker 
Genetics may have a greater impact on the differences between students' GCSE results than upbringing or teaching, according to research from King's College London...
4 November 2013 - by Matthew Thomas 
Underlying the genetics of intelligence debate is our strong attachment to the idea of 'potential' and freedom to fulfil it. This blank slate approach to achievement is seductive, but is it based in fact?...
28 October 2013 - by Dr John Gillott 
Dominic Cummings and Robert Plomin are claiming a great deal about the effect of genetics on intelligence, some of which is sound, some of which is not and some of which is very speculative...
21 October 2013 - by Sandy Starr 
An adviser to the UK Government has provoked an outcry by arguing that there is a significant genetic basis for children's educational achievement...
2 July 2012 - by Dr Iain Brassington 
Back in my bar-tending days, we had as regular customers a small group of men who would spend the evening huddled around a table talking at volume about current affairs. We used to eavesdrop on their conversations: it was hard not to. For the most part, what they tended to say was robustly weird, with essays into the profoundly bizarre. Reading John Glad's 'Future Human Evolution', I couldn't help but think of them...
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