Bryan Caplan  


Milton Friedman Day... Sounds Right to Me...

Claims about dysgenics usually quickly degenerate into a big debate about nature vs. nurture. Steve Sailer interestingly argues that both sides are missing the deeper point:

It's important to realize that for evaluating the likelihood of Idiocracy or Freakonomics, it doesn't particularly matter whether nature or nurture is the driving force in molding the next generation.

If dim people are having more babies than smart people, the average American in the next generation will end up with a relatively worse upbringing or worse genes or both. As I explained to Levitt in Slate in 1999, a long line of both conservative and progressive nail-biters have worried that a bourgeoisie that's self-disciplined and responsible enough to use abstinence or contraception will someday be demographically swamped by a working class too sexually indulgent and disorganized to prevent pregnancies.

The “eugenicists” feared the spread of the lower orders' inadequate genes. The “euculturalists” dreaded their cruder culture. And agnostics on the subject realized that while disentangling nature and nurture was extremely difficult, the precise mechanism mattered surprisingly little.

This is all obvious once you think about it, but I can't recall hearing it before. Ultimately, though, the Flynn effect ("countervailing but poorly understood" according to Sailer) is strong evidence that, conservative and progressive nail-biters notwithstanding, culture is getting better, or, to be more precise, smarter.

Absurd? Hardly. Would you rather be a nerd in 1987 or 2007?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Caliban Darklock writes:

The argument centers around a basic concept of evolution: survival of the fittest. Most people find it very very difficult to believe that it may be advantageous to be stupid, so they naturally refuse to accept the idea that we may evolve toward stupidity.

The "Idiocracy Scenario", or "Judge Hypothesis", neglects to account for how - nature and nurture aside - stupid people have smart children much more frequently than smart people have stupid ones. Regardless of why the children end up smart, whether because of the fantastic public school system or a strange double-negative interaction of parental genomes, there are a great many learned and distinguished young people who go home for the holidays to watch their family elders play "pull my finger" around the dinner table.

Scott Scheule writes:

Dennett addresses this in Freedom Evolves but for another purpose. His basic point is that genetic determinism is as unattractive as cultural determinism to incompatibilists.

Also, some nasty things about Gould.

Christina writes:

I believe that people are indeed more cosmopolitan than ever before, creating a generally smarter culture, insofar as we are just measuring general awareness to a greater variety of things. But I don't think that directly translates to smarter individuals. I think there is plenty of evidence that more people know pseudo-intellectual buzzwords, but very little evidence that they have a deeper understanding of the world around them.

For example, I'd personally be interested in knowing what proportion of registered voters know what a municipal bond is, since they so cavalierly vote in favor of more of them. It's that kind of willful ignorance that makes me sympathetic to poll tests.

Bob Knaus writes:

Caliban - do you have a reference for the greater probability of stupid people having smart children, than vice-versa? I have long assumed that regression to the mean is symmetrical. But perhaps I am wrong.

Victor writes:

I think regression to the mean is symmetrical, and I wouldn't have written what Caliban wrote, exactly...

but I think he's right in one way at least: since middle- or low-IQ people produce many more children than high-IQ people, they end up having a greater number of smart kids than high-IQ people have stupid ones (fanciful example: smart people produce 10 children and 3 of them are stupid; but less-smart people produce 50 children and 15 of them are smart).

Q writes:

Haven't low iq groups been having more children than high iq groups since the dawn of mankind? (obviously you would need a proxy for iq, possibly income?)

Seriously does anyone have any data to show that higher iq groups (income, or whatever proxy you think is accurate) have historically been the primary producers of children?

Just look at the middle ages, the smartest (male) Euros would typically became priests, non-child producers. The world didn't decay from that time period, it got better.

And to anyone who believes Protestantism (priests bearing children) is what lead to industrialization and growth, here (click on the word "here," the link is not showing) is evidence against that theory.

Sailer is a pessimist.

ben writes:


One of the points of the movie was that for most of human history, low iq people had more trouble subsisting and therefore fewer childer. I think its easier to think about if you have three groups low, average, and hi. The average group produces the most children because it has the most people.

As for the priest issue, I thought this was usually the second born son who didn't inherit any land. Because the older brother usually had large families anyway, that it didn't really affect the number of grandchildren for the grandparent...

k hagen writes:

Actually, I wish I'd have followed through on my early nerdish instincts in 1987, rather than way belatedly in the oughts. I'd have been a nerd/geek/coder with 8 years experience by the time of the Netscape IPO, rather than the flailing wannabe humanist I find my self today.

smrtr writes:

The Flynn effect ended around 1990.

If people who take Malthus's theories seriously have fewer children, maybe we're eliminating gullibility genes.

aaron writes:

Is it possible that biology has a mechanism for increasing the likelyhood of genes that are advantagous in the world the parents experience. Can certain hormone combinations increase the relative ratios of certain chromosones in sperm and move certain ova ahead in que?

Caliban Darklock writes:

> do you have a reference for the greater
> probability of stupid people having
> smart children, than vice-versa?

Not really; I just look around and think about what I see. I frequently meet smart people who have stupid parents, but I almost never meet smart people who have stupid kids.

Vincent has a slightly different idea of how this happens than I do. I think at any given point in time, the environment of that day encourages intellect more than the environment of twenty years prior.

So the nature element of the equation simply doesn't need to be as strong today as it would have needed to be twenty years ago. The nurture element compensates; it improves faster and more reliably than nature can counteract. Just having the books written over the last twenty years has improved the state of human knowledge immensely, and that's without considering any delivery mechanisms or cultural advances.

TGGP writes:

smrtr beat me to it on the Flynn effect. If you want to hear more about its progress (or lack thereof) you should watch the debate between Charles Murray and Flynn himself at the American Enterprise Institute. Sailer also examined the numbers to see how well the future predicted in Idiocracy matches up with American breeding patterns by IQ.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top