Culture, Resources, or Genetics

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Gregory Clark discusses social mobility — or the lack of it — and whether it comes down to culture, resources, or genetics:

DE: So social mobility does take place but over many generations. What are the mechanisms by which people revert to the mean?

GC: For me, as a social scientist, this is the most interesting part of the story. The question that really comes up is: is this a cultural phenomena? Is it a familial culture that is being passed on? Is it resources? Or is the basic genetics of inheritance? And if it’s cultural or resources, what it says is that societies are dramatically failing to achieve appropriate rates of social mobility; that it’s a number one problem for all societies; that President Obama is right to say that this is the problem his administration will tackle. If it’s just a basic issue of genetics and of assortative mating and then the transmission of certain types of abilities or competencies, then actually two things: one is we don’t have a problem. And the second thing is we shouldn’t devote enormous resources to trying to deal with it.

DE: So let me press you on that. So, one interpretation is that all that’s happening is that intelligent people are passing their genes on to intelligent people and so remaining in the elite. Another is that there are barriers to a meritocratic society. Which is it?

GC: My own personal bet is that genetics plays a much greater role in this than people have been willing to consider. One test would be, in cultural explanations, your grandparents; your cousins; your other relatives should all have some influence on your outcomes. If you’re from the Jewish community, for example, then being part of that larger community network should have significant influence on your outcomes. In a genetic interpretation, if we truly knew the status of your parents – the underlying status – that would be the only predictor of your outcomes. Your grandparents, all the rest of the stuff would not matter. And also, things like resource shocks should be relatively unimportant. And interestingly, again using Oxford and Cambridge data, we can actually test. do your parents only matter or does your more extended lineage matter to predicting future success?

And the answer is: it’s only your parents. If we can get the data, it’s only your parents that matter. Another test is a genetic explanation would say that any elite group that only intermarry internally would not actually regress to the mean. Because, the genetic information is not being lost from that group. And that, again, we can test by looking at various examples. And what we find then is that in societies with a high degree of endogamy, the rate of social mobility doesn’t seem to slow down. Another interpretation here would be that any elite group would simply have been selected from a larger population by some mechanism – or any underclass group. And we again can test this by looking at history and saying for example: Ashkenazi Jews are elite; Sephardic Jews are elite. Are they a subset of a larger population? And the answer overwhelmingly and very clearly is yes. Only a small fraction of the original Jewish population has survived as Jewish. The rest converted to Christianity. And, there’s very strong evidence that that was the elite share of the population.

And, we can also see in modern America that new social elites are actually being formed by immigration policy which means that people coming from areas distant from the US, without familial connections to the US, are being drawn from very high-level elites in those societies. So now, the super-elites in the US are Coptic Christians; Indian Hindus; Iranian Muslims; Maronites. And when you look across those groups, what you see is – culturally – an incredible diversity. The only groups that are not represented now in the modern US elites are protestant Anglo-Saxons. (Laughs.) So what you actually see when you look at this data, it seems to me, is that eliteness has nothing to do inherently with culture; it’s to do with the familial transmission of abilities.

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