How do these families keep producing such talent, generation after generation?

Saturday, January 21st, 2023

Reading about Galton’s disappearance from collective memory reminded me of Scott Alexander’s piece on the secrets of the great families, which included this brief description of Galton’s great family:

Charles Darwin discovered the theory of evolution. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin also groped towards some kind of proto-evolutionary theory, made contributions in botany and pathology, and founded the influential Lunar Society of scientists. His other grandfather Josiah Wedgwood was a pottery tycoon who “pioneered direct mail, money back guarantees, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, and illustrated catalogues” and became “one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the 18th century”. Charles’ cousin Francis Galton invented the modern fields of psychometrics, meteorology, eugenics, and statistics (including standard deviation, correlation, and regression). Charles’ son Sir George Darwin, an astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and another Royal Society fellow. Charles’ other son Leonard Darwin, became a major in the army, a Member of Parliament, President of the Royal Geography Society, and a mentor and patron to Ronald Fisher, another pioneer of modern statistics. Charles’ grandson Charles Galton Darwin invented the Darwin-Fowler method in statistics, the Darwin Curve in diffraction physics, Darwin drift in fluid dynamics, and was the director of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (and vaguely involved in the Manhattan Project).

How, he asks, do these families keep producing such talent, generation after generation?

One obvious answer would be “privilege”. It’s not completely wrong; once the first talented individual makes a family rich and famous, it has a big leg up. And certainly once the actual talent in these families burns out, the next generation becomes semi-famous fashion designers and TV personalities and journalists, which seem like typical jobs for people who are well-connected and good at performing class, but don’t need to be amazingly bright. Sometimes they become politicians, another job which benefits from lots of name recognition.

But I’ve tried to avoid mentioning these careers, and focus on actually impressive achievements that are hard to fake. And also, none of these families except the Tagores were fantastically rich; there are thousands or millions of families richer than they are who don’t have any of their accomplishments. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s many descendants are famous only for being very rich and doing rich people things very well (one of them won a yachting prize; another was an art collector; a third was Anderson Cooper).

The other obvious answer is “genetics!” I think this one is right, but there are some mysteries here that make it less of a slam dunk.

First, don’t genetics dilute quickly? You only share 6.25% of your genes with your great-great-grandfather.


The answer to the first question is really impressive assortative mating and having vast litters of children.

Take Niels Bohr. He’s a genius, but if he marries a merely does-well-at-Harvard level woman, his son will be less of a genius. But in fact he married Margrethe Nørlund. It’s not really clear how smart she was — she was described as Bohr’s “sounding-board” and “editor”, and that can hide a wide variety of different levels of contribution. But her brother was Niels Nørlund, a famous mathematician who invented the Nørlund–Rice integral and apparently got a mountain range named after him. He may have been the most mathematically gifted person in Denmark who was not himself a member of the Bohr family — so marrying his sister is a pretty big score on the “keep the family genetically good at math” front.

The Darwins were even more selective: they mostly married incestuously among themselves. Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood; Charles’ sister Caroline Darwin married her cousin Josiah Wedgwood III; their second, cousin, Josiah Wedgwood IV, married his cousin, Ethel Bowen (and became a Baron!)

When the Darwins weren’t marrying each other, they were marrying others of their same intellectual caliber. There is at least one Darwin-Huxley marriage: that would be George Pember Darwin (a computer scientist, Charles’ great-grandson) and Angela Huxley (Thomas’ great-granddaughter) in 1964. But also, Margaret Darwin (Charles’ granddaughter) married Geoffrey Keynes (John Maynard Keynes’ brother, and himself no slacker — he pioneered blood transfusion in Britain). And John Maynard and Geoffrey’s sister, Margaret Keynes, married Archibald Hill, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. And let’s not forget Marie Curie’s daughter marrying a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

If you find yourself marrying John Maynard Keynes’ brother, or Niels Nørlund’s sister, or future Nobel laureates, you’re going way above the bar of “just as selective as Harvard or Oxford”. In retrospect, maybe it was stupid of me to think these people would settle so low.

But also, all these people had massive broods, or litters, or however you want to describe it. Charles Darwin had ten children (insert “Darwinian imperative” joke here); Tagore family patriarch Debendranath Tagore had fourteen.

I said before that if an IQ 150 person marries an IQ 130 person, on average their kids will have IQ 124. But I think most of these people are doing better than IQ 130. I don’t know if Charles Darwin can find someone exactly as intelligent as he is, but let’s say IQ 145. And let’s say that instead of having one kid, they have 10. Now the average kid is 129, but the smartest of ten is 147 — ie you’ve only lost three IQ points per generation. And if you’re marrying other people from very smart families — not just other very smart people — then they might have already chopped off the non-genetic portion of their intelligence and won’t regress. This is starting to look more do-able.


One last thing, which I have no evidence for. Eliezer Yudkowsky sometimes talks about the idea of a Hero License — ie, most people don’t accomplish great things, because they don’t try to accomplish great things, because they don’t think of themselves as the kind of person who could accomplish great things.


It seems weird to think of “genius” as a career you can aim for. But maybe if your dad is Charles Darwin, you don’t just go into science. You also start making lots of big theories, speculating about lots of stuff. The fact that something is an unsolved problem doesn’t scare you; trying to solve the biggest unsolved problems is just what normal people do. Maybe if your dad founded a religion, and everyone else you know is named Somethingdranath Tagore and has accomplished amazing things, you start trying to write poetry to set the collective soul of your nation on fire.


  1. Jim says:

    I was obsessed with this question until I realized that I could simply clone myself.

  2. JT says:

    “Hero License — ie, most people don’t accomplish great things, because they don’t try to accomplish great things, because they don’t think of themselves as the kind of person who could accomplish great things.”

    I suspect this is most of it, since it also explains how some successful people come from nothing. Many successful people forge their own hero license out of rebellion/retaliation to their upbringing.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    A clone is as inbred as inbred gets. Don’t be surprised if your clone has a Habsburg Jaw and mental issues.

    Breeding for intelligence has a high failure rate, but you can make it up on volume.

    We don’t hear about the morons these families produced. The ones they locked in the attic. I suspect cherry picking.

  4. Freddo says:

    A literal clone would of course only be as inbred as the original.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    That’s not how genetic disorders work.

    It’s accumulated mutations. If you don’t compensate somehow — such as with interbreeding plus natural selection — they will cause ever increasing problems.

    A naive approach to eugenics is a recipe for disaster. So is cloning, for the same reason.

  6. Jim says:

    I’m sure I’ll be able to find an unmutated cell chilling out somewhere.

    Alternatively it’s entirely possible that courtesy of the present global clinical trial I myself will simply live forever.

    Hail Bourla! Hail Pfizer! *Heel click.*

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