A few days back, Kevin Drum wrote a post about the future influence of genetic engineering on social policy. I’m going to leave aside the moral argument that everyone deserves a decent standard of living and focus on two of his assumptions.
- How much does parental upbringing affect any of this? I’m going to put my money on “not much,” but it’s hardly worth making guesses anymore. In a decade or two we’ll know.
- How much effect does the entire environment outside the womb have starting with the day a baby is delivered? I’m going to put my money on “some,” but that’s as far as I’ll go.
I strongly question his assertation that genetics and epigentics will be found to be overwhelming determinative of talent and skill.1 How will that square with studies that show children of wealthier and/or highly educated parents do better academically? Or that teachers grade girls’ math tests more harshly than boys’ when names are included, but the opposite when names are redacted?2 For a specific example3, Ta-Nehisi Coates attributes much of his success as a writer to his family having a ton of books around and his father’s philosophy that he should learn about Black and African history as a child. So it’s not simply wealth.
Also, while genes may somewhat affect effort and focus, there is truth to the saying “invention is 90% perspiration.” The Williams sisters were talented children, but their monomaniacal father’s emphasis on practice enhanced that talent. Bill Russell’s genes were probably not “worse” than LeBron James’s, but sports medicine, travel conditions, equipment4, quality of the competition, social mores, etc has vastly changed. Trying to project how Russell would perform today is really difficult, yet the genetic component is swapped by environmental factors.
Also, “talent” is most likely not measurable on a single axis. Many, if not all fields, depend on collaboration. Scientists work in large groups and it probably is hard to determine which skills are more important than others: the forward thinker may get first credit on the paper, but the quiet organizer may have been just as essential. And that doesn’t count paradigm shifts needing people who think outside the box while within paradigms/normal science, there must be people focused on advancing the current model. The performing arts is also utterly dependent on people bringing diverse crafts together: one can be the most brilliant film director in the world, but if one doesn’t have good designers, actors, etc, the films will suffer. And “good” means both talented and attracted to one’s style (a great blockbuster cinematographer would probably not mesh with Tarkovsky).
Human society is likely too complex for there to be a “best” genetic makeup. Will it even be possible to “max out” mental agility and organization and perseverance, etc at the same time? Even if it is possible, the influence of one’s family, peers, mentors will shape one’s own attitude towards one’s talents. Imagine if Donald Trump and Bill Gates both paid for “enhancing” their grandchildren. I have no doubt those children would develop differently even if they received the exact same “cocktail”. The incentives in a family without a moral compass, without curiosity, without emotional closeness are vastly different than a family who has donated a tremendous amount of money to diseases in the global south, who (I’m guessing) values the pursuit of knowledge, and who are surely more emotionally balanced than the Trump clan.5
Humans are tremendously social animals; it would be quite strange if the social environment did not continue to have similarly strong influence.
- Kevin himself is an advocate of the lead theory of crime. Given that lead is an environmental factor, it’s a bit confusing he downplays those here. ↩
- I really should find these studies and cite them. Sorry for being lazy; I’ll try to add some in a future update. ↩
- Yes, the plural of anecdote is not data. ↩
- The difference in something as simple seeming as shoes has had a massive effect. ↩
- No matter how callous Bill and Melinda may be, I have trouble imaging them being more instrumental about family relationships than Donald. In fact, in the Trump family, I might worry about having the next generation be too intelligent. They’d either react with horror and flee or be much better at backstabbing politics and displace the current members. Can you imagine the damage Donald Jr. could do to his father if he were smart? ↩
- Dan Swings and Whiffs—Savage Lovecast #610
- Such Disrespect!