Bryan Caplan  

Seven Hypotheses About Environmental Bias

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My impression is that most people suffer from "environmental bias." At least when they are talking about human beings, they overrate the importance of environmental factors, and underrate the importance of genetic factors. Why would they do this? Joseph Buckhalt offers an original and thought-provoking list of possible explanations:

I have tried to understand why we are so resistant to accepting the idea that intellectual ability and other human characteristics are heritable to a significant degree, and here are a few hypotheses:

a. Democratic values: Individual and group differences run counter
to our egalitarian ideals, and to reduce cognitive dissonance, we
use denial.

b. Genes are invisible: Although genes are becoming increasingly
"visible" through modern science and technology, environmental
differences are much more available to us.

c. Parent-child similarity: Most persons aren't aware, or choose
not to remember, that their children are products of the
(invisible) genotypes of their parents, rather than their
phenotypes.

d. Extended families: Extended families in America tend less and
less to grow up and live near enough one another for family
resemblance to be noticed in extended kin.

e. Rapid cultural change and slow genetic change: Our environments
have changed so fast during the last century due to rapid
technological advances, that we over-attribute the influence of
environment and under-attribute to genetic change, which is
exceedingly slow relative to a human lifespan.

f. Non-agrarian society: Unlike the majority of the last 10,000
years when humans were involved in growing plants and raising
animals, and the even longer span of millions of years when we
coexisted in habitats with plants and animals, agriscience and
technology have enabled us to escape our direct connection to
nature. Americans of just a few generations ago might have
understood implicitly that many traits are the joint product of
breeding and husbandry.

g. Religious myths: The myth that humans are somehow separate and
above other species on earth continues to persist and thrive. Even
if we all understood Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution,
many would resist the idea that human traits are subject to these
natural laws due to their special status as creations in God's
image.

I don't know if it's true, but I find (f) to be the most intriguing. Are farmers more hereditarian than urbanites? Are more agricultural countries more hereditarian than industrial countries? Anyone?


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

8. Advice books for parents are written for parents of their first child, who naturally tend to overrate their own influence on their child because they don't have a control group to compare the child with. When parents have a second child, then they realize how different children are, but by then aren't much of a market for parenting advice.

9. IQ elites find it useful to attribute their success to environment. For example, Harvard has been notorious for decades for having professors who are research superstars and are bored with teaching undergraduates. Stanford has been notorious for grade inflation. Berkeley has been notorious for gigantic class sizes and lecturers with incomprehensible accents. There's no evidence that you get a better education at these elite colleges. Yet, these colleges continue to get ever more applicatons for undergraduate education because getting in certifies you as smart and hardworking. Then, these vastly influential institutions fight against alternative ways to certify young people as smart and hardworking.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Perhaps Buckhalt would make a more convincing case if he understood the difference between "genetic" and "heritable."

Ramon writes:
I have tried to understand why we are so resistant to accepting the idea that intellectual ability and other human characteristics are heritable to a significant degree

People in general are not resistant to believe that smart parent produce smart children or that children are smart/stupid for genetic reasons.

When I was a kid (70's in rural Mexico) it was natural to talk about a child "coming out" smart or dumb. People had no problem characterizing general behavioral traits as inherited from parents.

My impression is that the "environmental bias" is a cultural feature of more egalitarian societies but not necessarily a product of genetics itself. So I vote for (a).

Anonymouse writes:

10. 50 years of pathologization in media, academia and entertainment of anyone who thinks nature has as much (or more) to say in the debate than nurture.

Biopolitical writes:

The evidence for substantial heritability of interesting mental traits is extremely thin. For saying this, and despite not having mentioned the word "environment," you probably think I suffer from an "environmental bias."

Biased or unbiased, I do not fit in the seven hypotheses. I am no egalitarian and I support individual freedom over democratic control. I am a biologist and have always been quite fond of genetics (i. e., I am "aware" of genes). I have spent much of my adult life doing ecological research in the field, where I feel quite "connected with nature." I live in the countryside and grow food in my backyard, as do all my neighbors. I live in Spain, where extended families remain quite close. I am in a good position to be "aware" of genetic and nongenetic similarities because I adopted a child (who has much much darker skin than my wife and me). And I have been an atheist all my adult life.

c. Parent-child similarity: Most persons aren't aware, or choose not to remember, that their children are products of the (invisible) genotypes of their parents, rather than their phenotypes.

I am not aware of such thing because it is false. Children are not products of the genotypes of their biological parents, even if heritability were 100%.

Anonymouse writes:

"The evidence for substantial heritability of interesting mental traits is extremely thin."

I don't know what you mean by "interesting mental traits," but if you think the case for substantial heritability of intelligence is "extremely thin," you're extremely wrong. To those in the field, the question is no longer even considered very interesting. Nature is somewhere around 40-75% heritable (it likely varies for different groups).

Only a politicized media -- backed by a few politicized scientists -- propagates the myth that intelligence in not highly heritable. Based on the subtitle of your blog, I suspect you might be among them. You don't have a photo of Dick Lewontin on your office wall, do you?

back40 writes:

Epigenetic effects make things complicated in that the expression of a genome depends in part on the environment of previous generations. You are what your grandmother ate, to some extent.

dearieme writes:

Long ago, as a rustic freshman amongst urbanites, I noticed that it was not their instinct to check assertions about humankind against knowledge of animalkind.

Bob Knaus writes:

Being the son of son of a farmer I can tell you that agrarians absolutely think more in terms of family traits than do urbanites.

My aunts and cousins used to joke about the "Knaus walk" that the men had. (It is rather ape-like). Small-town newspaper clippings from a century ago routinely mentioned the longevity and mental alertness of the Knaus patriarchs. Pictures, Civil War records, and family history all point to a clan that was larger, stronger, and smarter than average. Good attributes to have on the Missouri frontier.

I myself am a gangly shadow of my ancestors, due no doubt (in the minds of the oldsters) to 2 or 3 generations of breeding with effete Easterners.

This mindset had (has?) some strongly negative effects which I think animates much of what Brian calls "environmental bias" today. Jim Crow laws, patriarchal religions, Main Street merchant cliques, xenophobia, and many other social ills that we associate with rural America drew at least some of their strength from the conviction that "people are born that way".

Seeing the outcomes, it's no wonder people recoil from the assumptions.

Tom West writes:

I think Bob Knauss hits it on the head. The problem with assuming genetics is that if the belief becomes widespread, we *know* the policy that will follow, and it ain't pretty.

This especially because (as a whole) society does link intelligence and "worth". Add in racial differences, and we're on a path to branding whole groups of people as less worthy even before they're born, and that's a road that no-one with sense wants to travel down.

There are those who claim that this time we'd handle the "truth" rationally and calmly, but I doubt many believe it (including most of those espousing the need for their "truth" to be known).

Bill writes:

Well, sure, genetics would have something to do with it, but I would argue that this would make a very slight difference overall. My opinion is that any differnce would be very marginal, so that holding all else equal, two kids of identical physical upbringings and different genes taking a difficult timed math test would display only slightly different results. It is one thing to be born with raw materials, but these materials take cultivating. Look at dogs. I have noticed that a lot of people who work all day have stupid dogs. I think this is because the dogs' minds are not stiumulated, they just sit in their cages or the laundry room for the majority of the day. I don't want to compare kids with dogs, but if a child is parked in front of the T.V. all day, or not challenged at every step of life, like being made to calculate a tip at the restaurant, or asked if he/she nows how to get home from the grocery store, or taught how to tell time, or read to early, then their brains won't develop as much or as fast. Again, I am not saying genetics has nothing to do with it, but I think if you had to qualify kids in only three ways: dumb, average, and smart, the overwhleming majority of the "dumb" kids would be both disadvantaged environmentally and genetically, the "average" kids would be disadvantaged in two ways, just one way, or advataged in one way or two ways, and the majority of the "smart" kids would be both environmentally and genetically advantaged. I think the key here is that the vast majority of all kids would be average, and the majority of the kids on the extremes would have their corresponding environmental factors working for or against them.

I'm reminded of the notorious paper "Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" somehow...

Dog of Justice writes:

There are those who claim that this time we'd handle the "truth" rationally and calmly, but I doubt many believe it (including most of those espousing the need for their "truth" to be known).

I think Steven Pinker was essentially correct when he concluded his recent talk on Jews, genes, and intelligence with the thought "intellectual life is not at present prepared to deal with this topic".

But I might add the qualification "Western" in front of "intellectual life". Everything I know about what's going on in China suggests that those folks are prepared to tackle the subject head-on.

This may put the West on a clock.

MoBo writes:

Excuse me, but I think to be much more intellingent than my parents!

anon writes:

Bill said:

My opinion is that any differnce would be very marginal, so that holding all else equal, two kids of identical physical upbringings and different genes taking a difficult timed math test would display only slightly different results.

Well, so far the best test we have of this is from twin studies. And measured iq, performance on other tests and even, I believe, college performance, of twins separated at birth are all more closely correlated than the same measures for each twin and the unrelated siblings they are raised with.

For someone trained in economics, it is worth pointing out that even if the role of genes and heritability were a mere 5% of the total, comparative advantage and specialization due to competition might easily lead to observed outcomes that are vastly different. In which case genetics would be hugely important even if its measured effects were "small".

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