The still above is from the movie The Time Machine based on H.G. Wells’ book. It’s the scene where the uber-Morlock meets the time traveling human, who had been hanging out with the Eloi. This dystopia came to mind as I was thinking about Razib Khan’s post “The end of environmental inequality means the rise of genetic inequality”. I want to shamelessly steal from Khan’s post to do my own version, since it’s a disturbing way to think about rising inequality. In fact the title of this post is a shortened version of Khan’s last sentence: A perfect meritocracy would replace cultural class with biological caste.
Let’s start with Khan’s analysis of height, and use what we learn to talk about intelligence. What’s great about height is it’s easy to measure and has long historical records. It turns out that ”[t]he greatest social gradient in height ever recorded was found in early industrial England, where the difference between the upper and lower class 15-year-olds reached 20 cm.” So most of the variability in height in Industrial Revolution era England was driven by Malthusian differences in nutrition. Social class dominated genetic caste.
Today it’s different. Food and nutrition are far better for everyone, so environmental factors impact height less. In the US only 20% of height differences are due to environment, the larger 80% portion is determined by genetics. As a thought experiment, let’s see where this is headed. Assume we reach a perfect progressive world, where everyone has identically excellent health care and nutrition. In this theoretically perfect world of health equality, environments are all the same, so genes completely determine height. Height heritability reaches 100%. This is a world where (for height) we have social class replaced by biological caste. The chart below makes this a bit easier to see.
Note that genetic variation remains fixed. It’s just that as you remove the environmental variation all you have left is genetics. In fact, if you flip your thinking, you can see that a high heirtability of height implies we are approaching the theoretical limit of nutrition policy. Of course in reality we can never hit 100% because uncontrollable environmental factors like accidents, disease and health during pregnancy will always vary. But 100% heritability is clearly the end game for a progressive program of equality, which we approach with diminishing returns over time.
Let’s move on to intelligence, keeping the height example in mind. I’m not going to argue for the heritability of intelligence since you can look it up on wikipedia. It’s about 75%, similar to height. So if we take heritability of intelligence as a given, then all the same effects come into play. The closer we get to environmental equality, the less impact environment has and the higher heritability gets. Progress moves us closer to a world where intelligence is completely determined by genes. This is a bit worrisome by itself.
But there are more factors at play here. Add on top of heritability a progressively perfect meritocracy, where we sift the entire population to put the best and brightest into elite schools, using SAT scores as entrance criteria. Then add assortive mating into the mix, where like marries like. The result of this thought experiment is a horrible dystopia right out of H.G. Wells. Not to mention Charles Murray. Of course a lot of people find Murray and his arguments racist and incorrect. But this dystopia could be multi-racial and just as horrible. In fact the whole edifice requires rather mundane assumptions: heritability, continued progress on educational equality, assortive mating, and meritocracy based on test scores. It’s all here right now. Though we can certainly argue about how far we’ve gone down this path. The irony is that modern meritocratic progressivism, which desires equality for all, has an innate tendency create a genetic caste system if left unchecked.
Obviously we’re not going to see any real Morlock and Eloi, at least outside the movies. And the way out of this dilemma is clear enough, which is to recognize that meritocracy has a darker side. And that moral character and hard work have a big role to play. In fact, from a pure genetics point of view, the moral choices people make by changing their circumstance show up as environmental variability. So that’s a good kind of environmental variability. With that said, remaining oblivious to the worst tendencies of progressive meritocracy means we’re not alleviating them.