Ed West

Intelligence is just another privilege you inherited from mummy and daddy

Intelligence is just another privilege you inherited from mummy and daddy
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I’m starting to get the impression that the Guardian isn't very keen on Michael Gove, and may not give him the benefit of the doubt in their reporting. The latest offering was this, ‘Genetics outweighs teaching, Gove adviser tells his boss’, which was presumably designed to infuriate teachers, about an essay written by Dominic Cummings. This was followed up by a Polly Toynbee piece denying the role of hereditary factors in intelligence and claiming that it was all part of some government plan to keep the poor in their place.

Others have waded in, raising the spectre of eugenics, and I imagine someone is right now composing a comment piece about Dr Mengele’s legacy with the headline MICHAEL GOVE’s ‘FINAL SOLUTION’ FOR POOR CHILDREN.

Dominic Cummings had in fact used an accurate definition of heritability, as he states here, and the point he was making was that journalists routinely misunderstand genetics. What’s strange is that he was saying nothing that isn’t widely accepted; the very significant influence of heritable factors on differences in IQ within a population has been well known for four decades, and yet for political reasons it is ignored in education policy, both here and in the US.

The Guardian reporter called these findings 'eye-catching', yet there's nothing remotely surprising that nature plays a large part in differences in intelligence, any more than it would do in height. Recognising that tall parents often have tall kids would not be to say that diet ‘doesn't matter’, yet in the study of intelligence a false dichotomy is presented — nature v nurture, rather than nature and nurture.

For anyone with even the slightest interest in evolutionary biology it would be exceptionally strange if the human brain, uniquely among mammalian organs, was not affected by heritability, but had instead been created by a New York Times-reading God who thought that evolution was offensive. And yet this blank slate idea still directs policy, and the result is that teachers often get blamed when it all goes wrong.

Why is it that the reality-based community, which is so quick to jump on the creationism taught in a tiny number of schools, ignores another irrational idea that affects the entire educational system? It’s not just the half-life toxicity of Nazi eugenics. As Dr James Thompson of UCL cites here in this primer on intelligence, it is considered bad form for the clever to point out that their advantage is inherited.

Yet this has the effect of giving the intellectually privileged the false idea that they have earned their advantage, and eroding the feeling of noblesse oblige that the wealthy once felt when they knew their fortune depended on luck.

Rather we should regard intelligence as just another privilege you inherit from mummy and daddy, something Polly Toynbee — great-granddaughter of Arnold Toynbee and Gilbert Murray — should appreciate. That would make the world a more, not less, just place.