Long read: the merit trap
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When I was 14 years old, before and after school, I collected a canvas bag full of the Morning Post or Evening Post and set off for an hour or so of delivering them around the streets near my home. The first quarter mile was an uphill stretch common to two different rounds and in the afternoons I usually set off with the boy who had the other route. His name was Alan Young, and we soon we fell into the habit of stopping, at the point where our paths split, to sit on our bags of newspapers and share a cigarette.
Had it not been for this little daily ritual, it is unlikely that I would have come to know Alan Young. I suppose I knew that my own background – a back-to-back terrace house in the cobbled streets of an industrial city in northern England – was working class. Both my parents and my brother had left school at 13 or 14, and my father worked almost all his life in a blanket mill. But the atmosphere of my childhood was not one of poverty. Our street was a community with all the usual feuds and friendships and, like many in the neighbourhood, our family belonged to the local Nonconformist church. As well as attendance on Sundays, ‘belonging to the church’ also meant Sunday School, the Men’s Institute (with its billiards and snooker teams), the Women’s Meeting, the Youth Club, the Scouts and Guides, and the annual Bazaar. The ethos of childhood – reinforced from all sides by parents, grandparents, neighbours, church and school – was that behaviour was to be guided by ‘do unto others…’ and that the rule-of-thumb was ‘what if everyone behaved like that?’ These maxims may not always have been observed. But they were always there.
Alan Young arrived at the newsagent’s each afternoon from a different direction. He lived with his mother and part-time stepfather on a council estate (the name of which was, in my parents’ circle, inseparable from the adjective ‘rough’). As far as I know, he had never set foot in a church or youth club. Cigarette by cigarette, I got to know a few details of Alan’s life. I learnt that he drank beer and belonged to a gang that was spoken of darkly around the streets where I lived. I also found out that on Friday and Saturday nights, after finishing his round, he would be sent out by his stepfather and told to be back before eight o’clock with at least £1 (which, I am astonished to realize, is more than £20 [$26] in today’s money). If he succeeded, there would be a shilling or so to get himself fish and chips. If he failed or was late, there would be a strapping with a belt. Once, sitting on our bags of newspapers, he had pulled up his shirt to show me the purple, yellowing welts around his waist and back. All this had been going on for some time, though the demands on him had been steadily increasing.
Then there was the fact that from the beginning I had found myself doing well at school. The praise and encouragement this had drawn had persuaded me to add effort to whatever abilities I had, and the result was that I sat on my bag of newspapers wearing a grammar-school blazer, the matching cap and tie stuffed down into the bottom of the bag. Every evening was dominated by homework. Every school day started with assembly in a hall lined with honours boards on which were inlaid, in gold letters, the names of former pupils who had won places at a university.
Alan Young, also 14, was in his final year at the local secondary-modern school where his attendance was already sporadic. He was amused by the idea of homework and had no thought of qualifications.
One day, Alan failed to appear at the newsagent’s. Another boy took his place and soon it was rumoured that Alan was in a young offenders’ institution. Later, as I was starting out at university, someone I knew on the estate told me that Alan was starting a sentence in Armley jail.
Even at the time, my brief acquaintance with Alan Young was disturbing. Specifically, I remember the disturbance of realizing that the difference between us – who and what we were, and were likely to become – could not be a matter of ‘merit’. Obviously I had not deserved the abilities with which I had been born, or in any way chosen or earned the kind of environment that had encouraged and developed them. It was also obvious, then, that to consider myself superior in merit – more deserving and entitled – could only be a self-serving deceit.
More than 50 years later – after all the reports read and written about the associations between childhood circumstance and later-life outcomes (Principally writing the annual UNICEF State of the World’s Children report from 1980 to 1996, and the Innocenti Research Centre Report Card series on child poverty in industrialized countries from 2000 to 2013) – I have come across no reason to change this view. However many anecdotal exceptions there may be – and however uncomfortable it may be for those who like to believe that their successes in life are due entirely to their own merit – the evidence says again and again that the opportunities of life are heavily circumscribed by the circumstances of birth.
In more recent years, advances in both the social sciences and in genetics, revealing ever more about the interactions between nature and nurture, have served only to make this conclusion the more inescapable. That the very different lives of those two adolescents, chatting for a few minutes each afternoon before going their separate ways, should be attributed to the greater merit of the boy in the grammar-school blazer seems to me an indefensible proposition. It did not make sense then. And it does not make sense now.
Similar wonderings and doubts must have occurred to millions of young people struggling to reconcile youth’s raw sense of fairness with a dawning awareness of the world’s realities. But such misgivings have a tendency to be pushed down as the pressures of life build, eventually becoming buried under other concerns. Thereafter it requires the wisdom of philosophers to excavate the truths that seemed to lie in the full view of youth. Here, for example, is John Rawls (in A Theory of Justice, second edition, 1999), one of the most influential political thinkers of the 20th century:
(Meritocracy) still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents. (It is therefore) arbitrary from a moral perspective. There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.
That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic… for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit.
Yet we do claim credit. ‘Natural assets’ of talent and character – whether originating in a fortunate genetic inheritance or a fortunate upbringing or in any combination of the two – are judged to constitute merit and used as criteria for the allocation of status and reward.
It is now 60 years since Michael Young, the Labour Party grandee who drafted the Party’s manifesto for the UK general election of 1945, coined the term ‘meritocracy’ to describe this process. Originally written for the Fabian Society (which refused to publish it) The Rise of the Meritocracy was intended as a warning that the restratification of society on the basis of ‘intelligence + application = merit’ would produce a society of arrogant, insensitive winners and angry, desperate losers. But to the author’s own dismay, the term that he had intended as a pejorative came to be embraced as an ideal across the political spectrum.
It may of course be argued that this is because there is no real alternative. A complex modern society needs its ablest people in the top jobs and without incentives of status and reward why would anyone bother? And if we reject the concepts of merit and blame, what happens to the sense of individual responsibility?
These are serious concerns. But they have nothing to say about the principle of the thing. Nor are they the only possible reason for the silence on meritocracy’s obvious flaws. Another possibility is that we are listening to the silence of the satisfied. The beneficiaries of the conventional wisdom on the relationship between ability, merit and reward have a vested interest in upholding that wisdom. And they are usually in a strong position to do so.
This is not to imply that such vested interest operates in conscious or conspiratorial ways. It is rather to suggest that the idea of ability not being ‘deserved’ may be psychologically difficult to accept. The economist JK Galbraith argued that one of the chief lessons of history is ‘that individuals and communities that are favoured in their economic and political condition attribute social virtue and political durability to that which they themselves enjoy.’ (His contemporary, the Nobel economist Paul Samuelson, put it even more cynically: ‘Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.’)
Vested interest, whether material or psychological, has always acted as a formidable buttress to conventional wisdoms; so formidable, in fact, that it has in the past enabled establishment beliefs to withstand the assaults of almost any amount of evidence. What else could explain why so many generations of apparently intelligent, fair-minded men of their day felt unable to entertain the idea that women might be their moral and intellectual equals? Or why whole nations, believing themselves civilized, could seriously believe that non-white peoples were so inherently inferior as to justify their enslavement? Or why so many leaders of 19th-century society – intellectuals and philosophers as well as industrialists and politicians – could so blithely accept a Malthusian wisdom which affirmed that any action to improve the condition of the poor could lead only to a deepening of their wretchedness, so rendering such action not only self-defeating but ultimately immoral?
It is tempting to believe that our more enlightened age offers no equivalents of these fallen monuments to follies long propped up by the vested interests of the past. Tempting, but surely hubristic. Is it not possible, for example, that one such equivalent might be the belief that intelligence and ability is deserved and therefore constitutes a fair basis for the distribution of status and rewards? Or, to put it another way, is it not possible that future generations will look back with patronizing incredulity on a society so blinded by the vested interests of its more successful members that it failed to recognize the fundamental injustice of taking the two 14-year-old boys with which this essay began – and the millions they represent – and deciding that the one merited much and the other little?
Unlike the class systems of the past – whether based on lineage, gender, skin colour or military prowess – ability has no obvious external signature. Instead, it must be identified by a series of sieves and filters beginning with the examinations and qualifications which have evolved in all meritocracies over the last century and a half, and which are now entering our children’s lives at ever earlier ages. But, once identified, those differences begin to operate in a similar way to the class distinctions of the past. For on them is likely to depend education and career, aspiration and self-image, income and status, the houses and communities we live in, the ways in which we speak, dress, behave and relate to others; even our health and longevity. And, as with class systems of the past, this process represents itself as being normal and necessary – just as the dominance of the aristocracy (or of males, or of those with paler skins) once represented itself as being in the natural order of things and necessary for the orderly functioning of society.
It is of course true that nations have always had different classes with different entitlements, and a system which allows people to rise by ability seems fairer and more likely to benefit society as a whole than one that fixes them in place by their birth.
But the transition to meritocracy goes deeper than merely changing one class system for a more efficient one.
Unlike the class divisions of the past, meritocracy has foundations in something real. ‘Blue blood’ and male or white superiority are myths. That some people have higher levels of intelligence, conscientiousness and capacity for application is not. Lacking any such foundation in reality, the class systems of the past had to be propped up by buttresses – often by violence or the fear of violence reinforced by the less expensive and more pervasive power of propaganda, mystique, pomp and circumstance, and appeals to divine authority. Meritocracy may still find use for such buttresses, but having foundations in real differences between people makes it much more formidable.
Those ‘real differences’ most obviously reflect real differences in the home and the wider environment, including the million ills born of discrimination and poverty. But, like all human traits and characteristics, they are also in part a reflection of differences in genetic inheritance.
In addition to the daunting fact that genetic differences probably account for approximately 50 per cent of differences in measured intelligence (see box, ‘Ability and Intelligence’) it is also clear that most advanced meritocratic societies today are well down the road towards ‘assortative mating’. This uncomfortable-sounding process means that young people are increasingly likely to choose their partners not from their neighbourhoods or from their own social class (in the old sense of the word) but from those whose levels of education and ability are perceived as being broadly similar to their own. On average, the children born to such assortatively mated parents are thereby more likely to inherit genetic advantage.
(Here it is important to add some obvious words of caution. First, to speak of genetic advantage is to speak probabilistically about populations, not deterministically about individuals. Second, the expression of genetic potential is influenced in countless complex ways by the environment in which that potential is developed. Third, the element of randomness in the transmission of genes means that ‘regression to the mean’ tends to mitigate the effects of assortative mating – the children of two parents with exceptionally high or exceptionally low intelligence will, on average, have an intelligence level closer to the average. Fourth, there is a vast amount about behavioural genetics that is simply not understood, especially in the area of random developmental effects.)
Assortative mating is today an imprecise, loosely organized and fallible process. But as more is learnt about the genetic sequences associated with intelligence, and as the possibilities open up for uploading polygenic scores to internet dating sites, the process may soon become much more efficient. Meanwhile, dating sites open only to graduates of elite universities are doing their best.
Over roughly the same time period, there has of course also been a steep rise in the rate of women’s participation in paid employment. And as more highly educated and high-earning individuals have increasingly tended to form partnerships with each other, this has meant a rise in households with two high-income earners (and of course in households with two low-income earners).
The next step in the argument is depressingly obvious. Given that parents with higher incomes and more education are, on average, in a stronger position to provide their offspring with a well-known array of other advantages – from better diets to better schools – this has the effect of conferring greater likelihood of both genetic and environmental advantage on the offspring of those who already occupy the higher rungs of the meritocracy.
Assortative mating is only one of the forces contributing to rising inequality over the past two generations, but it feeds into a spiral by which increasing concentration of wealth at the top translates into increasing influence over the political process – which in turn tends to lead to fiscal and regulatory changes that tilt the playing field ever further in favour of the advantaged(See Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, 2015, for an account of how this works in the United States).
Despite such concerns, political leaders of both Left and Right continue to march behind the banners of meritocracy and equality of opportunity as if this were all that is needed to achieve a fair society. If only all children are afforded the opportunity to develop to their full potential, the mantra goes, then fairness and social mobility will be the guaranteed outcomes.
So it is something of a puzzle that in most advanced meritocratic societies today, after several decades of progress, social mobility appears to be slowing down. The UK’s Social Mobility Commission reports, for example, that ‘Britain has a deep social mobility problem which is getting worse for an entire generation of young people’. Similarly, in the United States, University of Massachusetts economists Michael Carr and Emily Wiemers, using US Census Bureau data on the change in earnings mobility between 1981 and 2008, concluded (in Carr’s words, quoted in Alana Semuels ‘Poor at 20, Poor for Life’, The Atlantic) ‘…where you start has become increasingly important for where you end. The general amount of movement around the distribution has decreased by a statistically significant amount.’
Much of this sclerosis may be attributable to insufficient public investment in overcoming the obvious environmental disadvantages still faced by the children of the poorest (alongside increasing private investment in boosting the environmental advantages enjoyed by the children of the richest) (See Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, 2015).
But there is also another factor in the mix. Over time, the slowing down of social mobility is what should be expected when those identified as the most able are encouraged to rise to the top, find partners from a similar socio-economic level, and pass on to their children a greater probability of both genetic and environmental advantage.
In other words, the assumption that greater equality of opportunity will always lead to greater social mobility is true only in the earlier phases of progress towards meritocracy. This is the time when those of high ability – including many who were previously kept in their place by arbitrary, ascriptive class systems – are allowed to rise into positions that more closely correspond to their abilities. Even in self-proclaimed meritocracies, there is still a long way to go before this becomes anything like a reality, especially for those discriminated against by, for example, gender or ethnicity. But, as the ideal of meritocracy and genuine equality of opportunity slowly gets closer, mobility between the classes will begin to seize up as the most able enter the top echelons, pass on the probability of genetic and environmental advantage, and exert their influence in favour of their own children and their own class.
So increased social mobility is not a permanent characteristic of meritocracy but a stage on the way to creating a class structure that is less fluid than before. In the long run, equality of opportunity is likely to lead not to more social mobility but to less. And if we continue to equate a particular kind of ability with merit and to use this as the chief basis for apportioning society’s status and rewards, then equality of opportunity will eventually mean greater inequality of outcomes.
Looking at the same process another way, one of the chief characteristics of pre-meritocratic societies was an even distribution of intelligence and ability within and between the different classes. Excepting only the effects of childhood malnutrition, disease, exposure to toxic substances in the womb, or other severe environmental insult, there was simply no reason for ability not to be distributed evenly throughout the society. But the very aim and definition of a meritocracy is the concentration of ability at the top. That demands increased social mobility between the classes. But if and when equality of opportunity brings about this concentration, then social mobility is likely to decline because the random distribution of ability that made it possible in the first place will no longer apply.
A second fundamental difference between the new class structure and the old is that meritocracy has not only very different foundations but a different superstructure.
Most earlier class systems, whatever notions of supposed superiority they were based on, took the approximate shape of pyramids with an elite at the apex and a poor majority at the base – and this is still the case in some countries of the Majority World today. Under a meritocratic system, the pyramid gradually morphs into something more like a diamond, with a minority at top and bottom and a large majority somewhere around the middle. This change comes about because a merit-based class system will, by definition, tend to reproduce the normal distribution of ability. The diamond is therefore the equivalent of the statistician’s bell-curve in which the great majority occupy the middle range of the normal distribution. But whether diamond or bell, such representations do not take into account that those at the top are also able to use their influence in ways that distort the society’s shape ever more in their own favour. Today’s excesses of incomes at the top end of the scale, for example, represent a gross distortion of the normal distribution of ability.
This metamorphosis has obvious political implications. Until comparatively recent times one of the few sources of strength and protection for those at the bottom of the pile has been the fact that they have been a majority. Even in pre-democratic times, fear of the mass or the mob occasionally served to restrain the worst tendencies of the ruling class. Over time, this process became more formalized as the poor majority organized and gained a measure of economic and political representation to ensure that their needs and rights could no longer be ignored. The result, in most democratic societies, was decades of real and relative progress for a majority of those at the base of the pyramid.
But as meritocracy reshapes the class system to more closely reflect the distribution of abilities – the pyramid changing into a diamond – this source of strength and protection begins to diminish. If a political leader or party can command the support of a relatively comfortable majority at the top and in the middle, then it is less electorally necessary, and may even be a political disadvantage, to pay too much attention to the minority at the bottom. Indeed, it becomes ever more possible to ignore or blame the new underclass for their lack of effort or merit or both, to castigate and condescend, to dismiss them as ‘chavs’, ‘oiks’, ‘deplorables’, or to make reality entertainment out of their lives.
Adding to the problem, the transition to meritocracy is also a means by which those at the bottom are deprived of some of their most able members, including many of those who in the past have been the ones to articulate their claims and their contributions, to represent them in political and economic debate, and to provide leadership in the struggle for the recognition of their rights. (This process, too, should be recognized but not exaggerated: there are still many people of the highest ability in the lower ranks of the income scale, just as there are plenty of less able people in its higher echelons).
All of these processes represent partially completed, long-term trends and probabilities within which there are many exceptions and counter-currents. And it remains the case that the most obvious and ‘actionable’ barriers to a fair society are still the socially constructed injustices which discriminate against disadvantaged groups and allow the already advantaged to consolidate and perpetuate their privilege.
But at the same time it needs to be acknowledged that the long-term direction of ‘equality of opportunity’ meritocracy tends not towards greater equality and social mobility but towards a congealed, self-perpetuating class system characterized by many of the same injustices as the class systems of old. Lack of equality of opportunity – the denial of meritocracy’s promise – is still the problem facing many. But it is the realization of meritocracy’s promise that is the problem facing those who are told that they have been given an equal opportunity to be weighed in the scales but have been found wanting. And as more progress is made against the first problem, the second can only grow greater.
In sum, no-one should face discrimination that prevents or hinders the fulfilment of their individual potential. But, as that struggle continues, it is as well to be aware that, even if equality of opportunity were to be achieved for all, inequality of outcomes would remain massively and unjustifiably discrepant and that, for those at the wrong end of that discrepancy, the burden is the less bearable because of the pervasive assumption that society’s inequalities hold a mirror to human merit.
This brings us to a third underlying difference between meritocracy and its predecessors.
Under previous class systems, it was possible for those at the bottom to derive a degree of comfort from the fact that their status was the result not of any inadequacy of their own but of an unfair system which did not allow them to rise. Meritocracy strips away any such consolation. If you are not valued in a meritocracy, it is because you are not valuable; it is not because you and your kind are kept in your place by an accident of birth but because you yourself lack merit. Writing 40 years after the first publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy, Michael Young commented:
It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.
Some among the disadvantaged – for example, those denied opportunities by gender or ethnicity – may still retain some portion of this psychological shield. They have, at least, the knowledge that their position can be attributed to discrimination against their group rather than to their individual inadequacy. But for those whose low status rests solely on being judged of lower ability, there is no such consolation.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the meritocratic diamond, the same ‘all down to you’ ethos helps to convince the winners that their achievements are entirely the result of their superior merit, and that therefore they are fully deserving of the status and rewards to which they lay claim. By the same token, their attitudes towards those at the bottom of a meritocratic hierarchy tend to be that they, too, have ‘equal opportunity’ but have failed to progress because of lack of ability or application or both.
The result is a tendency for many among the meritocratic elite, slowly establishing itself as a largely hereditary upper caste, to feel more satisfied with themselves and to have fewer feelings of obligation towards others.
Although undeniably less harsh than the class systems of old in so many ways, meritocracy is nonetheless harsher in this one vital respect. And, unsurprisingly, the disaffection and resentment of the rejected is already beginning to find expression in the reaction against elites, experts, establishment institutions and conventional political parties. In other words, in what the winners condescendingly refer to as Populism.
A meritocratic class system, to return to the root of the argument, is ultimately based on the good or ill fortune of birth and circumstance. The first roll of the dice is for genetic potential; the second for the upbringing and wider environment that will so profoundly affect the expression of that potential; and the third for the random element in the non-home environment – the chance meeting, the exceptional teacher, the prolonged childhood illness, a particular peer group, the lucky break at the right time, even the train caught or missed – which can have such far-reaching consequences and which is so little acknowledged (See Robert Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, 2016).
Many will respond that confronting this unfairness must await progress against the injustices in the socially constructed environment which still deny meritocracy’s vaunted equality of opportunity to so many. But at some point it will become necessary to also pay attention to the fundamental flaws in the idea of meritocracy itself.
Among other things, this will mean letting go of the ‘blank-slate’ idea that differences in intelligence and abilities are attributable only to differences in environment. No matter how much we want that particular sandcastle to stand, it is facing an incoming tide. To date, the evidence that differences in ability have genetic as well as environmental origins has been more eagerly accepted by illiberal voices, who have seen in it an argument that the inequalities of meritocracy are justifiable and immutable – a part of the ‘natural order of things’. Instead, today’s knowledge of the degree of heritability in all human traits should be used to argue that the accident of being born with certain abilities, and the good fortune of an environment in which to develop them, does not constitute merit or deserving and should not be used to validate gross differences in entitlement.
In particular, we should contest the case that the abilities and achievements of those at the top are attributable only to their own talents and application, owing nothing either to good fortune or to the investments that society as a whole has made in the physical, educational, civil and legal infrastructures that make those achievements possible. We should also contest every case in which those ‘winners’ use their disproportionate influence to distort democratic politics to the further advantage of themselves, their children and their class.(See Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few
Nor should we accept the argument that without the incentive of higher status and rewards no-one would bother to cultivate their abilities, gain the skills and qualifications, compete for the promotions, and rise to the positions that complex modern societies require them to fulfil. For this assumes that material reward is the only or chief motivation for developing and applying one’s abilities. To see the clay feet of this argument, imagine a list of occupations ranked by how interesting, fulfilling and enjoyable they are as a way to spend one’s days. Now imagine that same list ranked according to the pay and rewards attached. Notice anything? To quote Galbraith (The Culture of Contentment, 2017) again: ‘It is a basic but rarely articulated feature of the modern economic system that the highest pay is given for the work that is most prestigious and most agreeable.’
In summary, we should accept that high levels of intelligence and ability are needed to fulfil certain positions in society, but not that this makes those who possess those abilities more valuable as human beings. And this, ultimately, is the notion that must be dethroned – the idea that the attributes of intelligence and ability are the sum and measure of human worth. Instead we should revive the idea that all people are of equal value and that a fair society is one that opens up the possibility of life-satisfaction, in all of its varieties, to all of its members.
This means that, as well as struggling against more obvious forms of prejudice, we should also be concerned about discrimination against those who feel devalued by society’s adoption of a particular kind of ability as the gold standard of human worth. Where, today, is our concern for the micro-aggressions that, in a million small, abrasive, daily ways remind those at the bottom of the pile that they are where they are because they lack sufficient levels of the ability that contemporary society defines as merit?
A fair and healthy society requires far more than is encompassed in the notion of meritocracy. It requires respect for all, regardless of ability. It requires a rejection of the notion of superiority on whatever basis. It requires a greater valuing of the skills and activities that contribute to others’ wellbeing rather than to economic output alone. It requires more humility in the face of achievement, more awareness of the role of chance, and less awareness of one’s own deserving. And it requires widespread support for sharing the benefits of material progress not on the basis of a flawed idea of individual merit but on the basis of the human and investment needs of the society as a whole.
On the present course, those who are the losers in the meritocratic scramble – those who feel rejected and looked down upon, those who are excluded from the endlessly vaunted lifestyles of the winners, those who daily feel the lash of being unvalued and unrespected, those who have begun to lose hope for their children – will come to define themselves more and more as a class. And it is this that is most likely to disturb the silence of the satisfied.
Michael Young’s original essay on the rise of the meritocracy presented itself as a social historian’s attempt to trace the causes of the great Populist Revolt that had broken out in the North of England in the year 2033. His analysis of its causes remains remarkably prescient, though the uprising itself may be occurring a little earlier than he expected.
Ability and heritability
The mere mention of measuring intelligence, let alone estimating its heritability, is to many the reddest of red rags. So much so that the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychiatric Association felt obliged to begin its 1995 report on ‘Intelligence: knowns and unknowns’ with the comment that:
…many participants [in the academic debate] made little effort to distinguish scientific issues from political ones. Research findings were often assessed not so much on their merits or their scientific standing as on their supposed political implications.
The incendiary nature of the issue may be because of its lingering associations with the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s. But it is also related to the long insistence of a generation of sociologists that the newborn human is a blank slate on which only socially constructed injustices can inscribe significant differences. A second line of defence has been that there is no such thing as general intelligence (known as g) and that attempts to measure it are, in any case, invalidated by cultural and linguistic bias. Moreover, the power of tests to predict educational and other outcomes is hardly surprising because intelligence tests, educational achievements, career successes and incomes are all essentially measuring the same thing – the abilities that a particular society has already decided that it most values.
Nevertheless, the great majority of scientists in the relevant disciplines are today agreed that there is such a thing as general intelligence, that it can be measured by means that are largely independent of culture and language, that it correlates well across a series of different measures, that it can predict a wide range of sought-after outcomes with reasonable reliability, and that – like all human traits and characteristics – it is in some degree heritable.
There have been several attempts to bring together a consensus view on what the scientific research actually says on these topics. In 1994, ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ was published in the Washington Post under the signatures of more than 50 leading academic researchers. Here, intelligence was defined as:
a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, ‘making sense of things’, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.
In other words, intelligence is, broadly speaking, what we all think it is. The second consensus point listed in ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ was that:
Intelligence, so defined, can be measured and intelligence tests measure it well. They are among the most accurate (in technical terms, reliable and valid) of all psychological tests and assessments. They do not measure creativity, character, personality or other important differences among individuals, nor are they intended to.
Since 1994, the major journals of the scientific community have accepted the conclusions on ability and intelligence. In May 2017, Nature reported that:
Despite claims to the contrary – some well-meaning and some merely ignorant – it’s well established and uncontroversial among geneticists that together, differences in genetics underwrite significant variation in intelligence between people.
In Scientific American, Professor Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading experts on behavioural genetics, has written:
Scientists have investigated this question for more than a century and the answer is clear: the differences between people on intelligence tests are substantially the result of genetic differences.
None of this is to deny the importance of the social environment in the formation of the human mind and personality. And none of it supplies ammunition for genetic determinism. The development and expression of genetic potential is intimately affected both by random events and by the environment with which that potential interacts. And the injustice, prejudice and discrimination that is too often present in that environment is as important a factor as it ever was in the struggle to progress towards a fairer society.
But the basic facts of intelligence as a variable human trait, its measurability, and its partial origins in genetic inheritance, are widely agreed upon. The problem with intelligence testing is not that the results are meaningless, but that they are too often misinterpreted and misused.
At first, the evidence for the heritability of intelligence – defined as the proportion of variation in intelligence that is explained by genetic differences – was drawn largely from twin and adoption studies (in which identical and non-identical twins were compared in order to examine the shared and non-shared environmental and heritable factors of a given trait). It was therefore possible to argue that the heritability of intelligence was not supported by any understanding of how the process worked at the molecular level.
That has changed. As New Scientist reported in March 2018, researchers using data from the UK Biobank have identified more than 500 genes that are linked to human intelligence and 187 regions of the human genome that are associated with cognitive skills. This is still a very long way from genetic-level understanding of exactly how potential intelligence is transmitted from one generation to the next, but it is no longer possible to say that there is no hard scientific evidence for the heritability of intelligence.
A second attempt to set out the scientific consensus was the already-mentioned study by the American Psychiatric Association. Authored by a task force of 11 experts (‘representing a broad range of expertise and opinion’) the unanimously signed report found that:
• Wherever it has been studied, children with high scores on tests of intelligence tend to learn more of what is taught in school than their lower-scoring peers.
• Intelligence scores are correlated significantly with social status and income later in life.
• Differences in genetic endowment contribute substantially to individual differences in (psychometric) intelligence.
• Standardized tests do not sample all forms of intelligence. Obvious examples include creativity, wisdom, practical sense and social sensitivity.