Friday, January 7, 2011

Idiocracy is always looming, but not because of genes

As the first day of the semester approaches and the clenching sets in, my mind digs up irksome questions that I’ve fielded in past classes. Usually I mentally rehearse how I can most awesomely answer them, but for one issue in particular I’m launching a pre-emptive strike right here.

In my course Human Origins: Intro to Biological Anthropology a student will no doubt insert the movie Idiocracy into a question. And this never fails to annoy and befuddle me.

And it’s not because of the self-righteous tone that so often accompanies mention of that movie. Though it doesn't help.

And it’s not because I don’t care for the movie. We bought the DVD and the dialogue has really spiced-up domestic banter. (Unfortunately all of our favorite quotes are inappropriate for this venue.)

It’s because, in an educational setting, Idiocracy opens up a huge can of worms, too sophisticated to properly address in the first few days of an introductory course. And yet the can of worms can't be ignored once it's open because Idiocracy's take on the heritability of intelligence bows to common misconceptions held by all sorts of people.

So it's a case of misconceptions being perpetuated by culture. And in our case the culture (movie) that is perpetuating the misconceptions happens to be satirizing the fact that culture perpetuates misconceptions. Trippy.

But like I said, it also plays on half-baked assumptions regarding genes and intelligence.

If you haven’t seen it, the movie’s plot is just about an average guy who finds himself 500 years in the future with the task of saving the world. That future world is Idiocracy where nothing works, where politicians are mere entertainers (um?), where pilots, lawyers and doctors are “tarded,” and where someone decided that sports drinks are better for crops than water. Yep, they’re so stupid that they killed their food and fertile soil. With his average intelligence from 25 generations ago, our hero shows these idiots how to fix their problems. All of this is based on a simple premise that’s briefly outlined in the first few moments of the movie:

IN A WORLD. where intellectuals have little reproductive success…. future generations are populated by non-intellectuals….and the cumulative result of each generation’s increasingly widespread stupidity is… Idiocracy.

By describing my own fertility when I explain reproductive success, students who are already privy to these sorts of demographic trends discover that I fit the norm for a female university professor. These real patterns are the basis for Idiocracy’s fictitious premise and lead me to unwittingly help my students connect dots that shouldn't be.

Also, it’s one of the few Hollywood films to conspicuously invoke evolution that my students have seen, so it’s a convenient mental touchstone while they experience my course.

I get it.

And here's why it's a problem...

If they take further classes in biology or biological anthropology then they will get a more sophisticated perspective and experience. But for first-timers to evolution (= many of my students) just taking one General Education course at a university is not enough. Chances are that they’ll actually buy into the movie’s premise after my course, simply because their radar's tuned to genes and evolution yet they aren’t solidly equipped with the tools to think critically about it all yet.

So, for the fun of it, let’s lay out the trouble with assuming that if the world’s intellectuals stop reproducing then future generations will be stupid.
  • A person’s intelligence (i.e. how it is greater or lesser than someone else’s within the normal range, however that may be quantified) is not significantly determined by genes.
  • People can improve their intelligence with training, practice, learning, etc... You don't come out of the birth canal all set to be Bill Gates or an astronaut. You need quite a bit of environmental impact to become anything that you are or might be. If you think of intelligence in terms of potential, most people on the planet never cultivate as much of it compared to what the privileged few are able to.
  • A person’s intelligence (again, within the normal range) does not correlate with the level of education they receive. Although people try to make it so. IQ, SAT, and other tests are (1) assumed to measure a person’s intelligence and (2) used overtly and covertly to discourage and encourage young people within the educational arena.
  • Education can improve your intelligence which can get you more education which can improve your intelligence which can get you more education which can improve your intelligence.
Given the tangled complexities of genes, intelligence, and education, would you assume that if highly educated people stop reproducing entirely that the next generation will be any less intelligent? NO!
What’s more, you can’t on the one hand assume that variation in human intelligence is determined significantly by genes and then on the other hand assume that you’re smarter than your parents.

Wouldn’t you agree that our individual intelligence has only increased compared to that of our ancestors? It’s not necessarily because alleles that code for greater intelligence have become more widespread than before. That may be true, but it’s undetectable…which doesn’t mean that genes are an insignificant contribution, but it supports the notion that they are not a large factor either.

You may be smarter than your parents or your siblings (or you may not) and that could have everything or nothing or betweenthing to do with genes.

Let’s go back deeper in time to our geologic parents. We share a common ancestor with chimps that lived 6 million years ago. We’re pretty sure we’re smarter than chimps. (This is according to cognitive measures that we’ve created, not them, but okay.) Thus, we assume that our ancestors were not as smart as us, yet we’re here today as these smart beings. Sure genomes have evolved during the last 6 million years, but is it really true that we're more intelligent today simply because the most intelligent individuals contributed to the gene pool during all that time?

(For a related treatment of human intellectual evolution click here.)

And back to the main point....Your particular level of normal intelligence hasn't been shown to be disproportionately impacted by anything that you inherit genetically from your parents.
Your intelligence is about (1) your genes that influence all sorts of interconnected machines and networks in your body, both outside and inside of your brain, (2) your environment’s impact on your body, including the establishment of neuronal networks (i.e. from family, teachers, stimulation, training, food, health, etc…), and (3) all the technology and innovation that has come before this very moment to which you may or may not have access.

Can you blame your parents’ genes for all of that? No. Intelligence is a complex trait with normal variation between you and your parents, me and my parents, and you and me that cannot be causally linked to the stretches of DNA that are either similar or different between us.

Now, without introduction, I ask you to perform a simple exercise…
Think of the smartest person you know.
Got it?
Now think of the wealthiest person you know.
Got it?
Okay, now scroll down…

Are they the same person?

For the majority of people (of whom I’ve asked this question), the answer is no.

Yet when you look at a globe, where are the strong economies? Where is the wealth?

The strongest economies and the wealth are located in regions of the world that are often considered (along a spectrum of naivete to racism) to harbor the most innately/genetically intelligent people.

For reasons that must be due to our evolved ability (sarcasm!) to seek out and dream up causative correlations, the global distribution of wealth leads so many of us to assume that (1) variation in innate intelligence is distributed in the same pattern, and that (2) intelligence causes wealth even though the reverse is also true: Wealth causes intelligence.

Wealth also causes wealth causes wealth causes wealth.
(And intelligence causes intelligences causes intelligence, too.)

Wealth also builds super-comfy superiority goggles. Even ones that fit snugly on the poor, undereducated folks within wealthy populations!

If you chose two different people for that silly exercise above, then you've helped to demonstrate that patterns and associations that we make between intelligence and wealth at the population level (e.g. Japan is wealthy because it's full of superiorly-genomed Japanese people) do not always fit those that we see in our daily lives. Yet we rarely question ourselves when we apply those causative patterns to populations. 

Accounting for individual variation among those we know is one thing we're good at, however, resisting the urge to generalize is not.

The misconception played-up by Idiocracy—that genes govern intelligence—is the basis for claims that biological “race" explains the distribution of wealth in the world. Philosophy like this has supported the killing of millions of people throughout our history.

This flow chart I've drawn for you describes this completely wrong view of genes, intelligence and wealth. (Click on the diagram to see it in full readable size.) We confound the accumulation and transmission of culture (knowledge and wealth) with the transmission of genes. And that’s not entirely due to our ignorance. These are complex issues!

But these are also very old mistaken ideas that persist despite generations of people living their lives and collecting their own experiential data and despite a couple hundred years of scientists and scholars professionally aimed at finding the causes of variation in intelligence, let alone the definition of intelligence.

You’d think we’d be further along than this...assuming so much even though we know only that intelligence is a complex trait. But that habit of ours of establishing causation for all correlations is mighty strong!
Especially when that convenient cause (our special personal genomes and our superior ancestral stock) makes us feel so good about ourselves.

Especially when that convenient cause lets us off the hook for helping the less fortunate because, well, they were born that way. Whaddya gonna do?

This second flow chart is a stab at a more realistic view of genes, intelligence and wealth. (Click on the diagram to see it in full readable size.) It’s not as gloriously and utterly hopeless as a previous flow chart I posted here, but I hope it reflects the complexity of the biological and cultural forces involved in intelligence.

Relative to the first flow chart above, this second one is not such a great recipe for a Hollywood plot is it?

Oh, c’mon... Idiocracy is still a hoot even if the biology's not true. I mean, who doesn’t adore Ghostbusters even though there is no such thing as ghosts?

Please go ahead and LOL and ROFL at Idiocracy... you just have to cleverly ignore its evolutionary ghosts.

And when the movie’s over, and you’re all done laughing, please heed the intended satirical message of the movie:

In a world... where the intellectuals (not an exclusive group!) are stopped from protecting knowledge and passing it down to future generations....future generations are intellectually compromised ....and they seem really stupid.... and they suffer terribly as a consequence.
See, the movie's not entirely a joke.

Idiocracy looms as a threat over all of our freakishly huge heads. And, yes, I mean to use that word exactly as Fox News does. It's a threat that humans have had to avoid ever since our ancestors fared better (i.e. they out-survived and out-reproduced others) if they passed knowledge down to future generations. This has probably been going on for a very long time given how many other animals learn behaviors from each other.

And this age-old threat, that we must keep up proper education or else suffer the consequences, is still here with us today.

And what are people without scholarly merit doing on our school boards? They're purchasing textbooks written by inept Googlers.

Too many science educators are teaching under fear of repercussion. Too many are asked to tolerate or even respect a specified few false folk biologies. While, as far as I know, not a single English teacher has been asked to tolerate or respect grammatical errors.

I mean, You better learn proper English or else go back to where you came from--

What about, You better learn proper science or else go back to being primordial goo?

And the breathtaking inanity of it all is that the ones issuing the threat of idiocracy are actually members of a species that has depended--more than any other organism on Earth--on the accumulation and application of knowledge!

Oh, I guess it's not so inane if you think intelligence and knowledge are innate, god's gift, mostly opinion, and come from the gut.

For many of us in education biz, the Apoca-Lapse of Reason that is portrayed in Idiocracy is even scarier than other doomsday scenarios we see on the big screen and read in books.

The Road
? Pshaw. At least I'd die pretty quickly. Living for fifty more years under an idiocracy? Now that's dreadful.

Perhaps I laugh so hard at
Idiocracy because if I didn’t laugh I’d cry.

Notes (added January 9, 2011)
1. I do not share commonly held views that IQ is a perfect measure of intelligence, that it is fixed sometime during development, or that mother nature would particularly care about what IQ tests measure (among "normal" people).

2. There is a body of literature on just about every single thing I discuss in the above and it is highly contentious, full of contradictory evidence and debate. However, you cannot dispute the role that status, stress, nutrition, wealth, culture (and more) play in the variation of IQ scores, educational success, and brain and body development... all three of which are involved in "intelligence."

3. There is good reason to believe that components of intelligence are plastic and can improve during life. (Intelligence must be plastic or else you'd have what you've got now as an embryo, but I mean during adulthood too.):

4. My use of "intelligence" is not scientific, but that does not make the concept insignificant. In this post, "intelligence" is what we're all able to assess in someone through interacting with them and I think this is a meaningful use of intelligence for this discussion even though it's not quantifiable.

Please read all the comments below by all, not just me. This post is not complete without them.


Henry Harpending said...

"A person’s intelligence (i.e. how it is greater or lesser than someone else’s within the normal range, however that may be quantified) is not significantly determined by genes."

Do you have a reference for this?

Thx, Henry Harpending

Holly Dunsworth said...

Ha ha. You hit me right at my sore spot. I've been feeling so vulnerable for not referencing anything this post! :)

The answer is no. I have a lack of references for that, which is negative support of it.

On the other hand, there are articles that estimate a heritability greater than zero for intelligence.

Does this mean that genes are significant determinants of intelligence?

Shall we post those articles out of scholarly responsibility?

I'm not even close to an expert on intelligence heritability, but I worry that posting a few papers that provide estimates of the genetic determination of a complex trait that's not easy to define or measure may actually be irresponsible, rather than responsible.


Holly Dunsworth said...

And here's my real sticking point:

Everything is genes (or other forms/types/incarnations of biological instructions/processes/rules).

Everything that we do comes down to that.

[This is when my students' faces get upset or surprised because I just told them that intelligence is more than genes.]

And what I mean is, learning is a biological process that is ultimately built/governed/run by genes (or other forms/types/incarnations of biological instructions/processes/rules).

Making memories? Biology/chemistry/physics.

If anything we are or do is is anything OTHER than biology, chemistry, physics, then we'd have to invoke supernatural explanations.

So intelligence, despite all its determinants, is ultimately biology/chemistry/physics.

Just like me typing this right now is something that boils down entirely due to biology/chemistry/physics.

Just like my preference for 4 cups of coffee every morning is due to biology/chemistry/physics.

Just like my love for rock'n'roll is...

Just like my scratching my nose is...

Ken Weiss said...

The nature of 'intelligence' is controversial to say the least, and without that being settled the degree to which what one wants to talk about is genetic is also controversial. Give me a measure and I'll give you a heritability estimate.

Whether it's 'important', what it means in society, and how it evolved (much less why -- such as the nature and strength of selection vs drift, and whether it had anything to do with what we currently are interested in regarding 'intelligence').

But we can be sure that any two groups that have been in isolation are going to differ on any reliably measurable trait. And most traits have substantial heritability. Values for G or other intelligence-related measures vary but are never zero as far as I'm aware. I think that's Henry's subtly phrased point.

Interpreting the difference and its origins are separate matters and of course they're politically charged.

We know, however, that societies have been inequitable in resources and achievement, which may or may not be highly correlated with inborn ability, and that probably is very contextual anyway.

We know also that reproductive output and exposure to risks have long been written about--back to Plato, which means probably much earlier in non-written discussion. Warriers are chosen as the cream of the crop, and wars were led, in person, by the rulers, lords, and so on. Reproduction among the lower social classes has been higher than among the wealthy, and I think that's so even if one considers survival to adulthood.

So it's not new to wonder why there is still variation today. Why isn't everyone stupid? Or, alternatively, are we already a lot stupider or less variable than we'd otherwise have been?

If selection is weak in this respect, as it most likely is, then there is lots of tolerance for variation, but clearly we're not depauperate of intelligence today. That suggests that for some reason the worries about the degradation of society are not very apt.

One explanation is that intelligence is complex and presents only an illusion of a single normal distribution given the way we measure it. Another is that genes 'for' it have more or less effect depending on what 'it' is: same gene may affect the way you play a dynamic game like hockey, or hunt, or do algebra or only some of those, or only under some environmental conditions.

Another likely fact that is that hundreds or more elements in the genome contribute, each somewhat variable in the population. Selection may work against those in one or the other tail of the distribution (smart but celibate people, stupid but dysfunctional people), leaving lots of variation in the middle. In that case, there's not as much meaning in all of the discussions about the importance of genetics and intelligence in an evolutionary sense, even if there were such effects on a social achievement scale.

Another possibility is that selection removes variation at a rate roughly comparable to the input of new variation by mutation or recombination each generation. This, too, leaves a mix of individuals mainly with similar fitness, and little effect on individual contributing genes.

So, to me, this is a long-winded way of saying that the idea that genes contribute to the trait, whatever it is, has to be accepted since genes contribute to everything. The discussion, and its political and social implications, how important genetic contributions are relative to other aspects of life, and whatever happened in evolutionary times are somewhat separate.

Ken Weiss said...

You carefully specify 'within the normal range' and this raises an interesting (to me) question. We know of many genes that when mutated can lead to all sorts of different mental dysfunction--from severe impairment to some highly focal losses. We also know there can be very unusual but 'pathological' superiorities ('idiot savants'), and we know of genetic contributions to highly variable traits like autism.

One might argue, but here with less clear evidence, I think, that 'genius' is genetic in meaningful ways, at what would society normally treats as the positive extreme of intelligence--though it's treated as within in the 'normal' range.

But what can the extremes tell us about evolution or the distribution of 'intelligence' in society? That's less clear. First, the tails of the distribution are very small. They may involve very rare mutants that would take thousands of generations to reach much frequency in complex societies on the positive side (though quickly purged at the negative).

If due to rare combinations of rare variants, they may have only trivial relevance to the evolution of 'intelligence' in society. We may pay attention or notice the extremes (institutionalizing at the lower, and going to concerts composed by the former), and we may think about evolution in their terms. But most of what goes on probably involves the murky middle where genetic contributions exist but are embedded in the things you describe, Holly.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Yes. I was only talking about the normal range of variation.

And it's our completely limited human perspective to think that there's some sort of signficant range of variation in intelligence (regardless of the cause) ...that the variation among "normal" people is actually biologically (or whatever) meaningful. Who's to say this is really true? How can we know how much variation is a lot or not when we are a sample size of ONE SPECIES that we can study for this trait?

And as long as so many factors of intelligence are NOT genetically set upon conception, then IT DOESN'T MATTER that we can't know the relative sizes of the inputs and we can be content with what we do know: Intelligence is a complex trait with so many identified influences that come from the environment (even if, ulitmately, they influence processes that are run by genes in the first place).

To me, the most controversial thing about intelligence is that we don't talk about it enough.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree, Holly. We generally hunger for simple answers and over- or under-interpret things in our self-interest or because it's more convenient than having to acknowledge the complexities.

As far a society is concerned, if we are provided a good environment we will develop more of what society thinks as 'good', as a rule, but that itself is as much cultural as genetic. Trying to say what this means in terms of evolution, besides just that brains have evolved, thinking abilities surely have evolved, but most genes are expressed in the brain, most of them also constrained by expression in other tissues, too, so evolution is slow and complex for such traits as far as we know.

Above all, making social judgments about these kinds of things, based on knowledge-of-convenience is poor policy (in my personal view).

Holly Dunsworth said...


James Goetz said...

I suppose the history of racism makes this a sensitive subject. I feel we can safely conjecture that there are both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to individual human intelligence. Also, I accept the fact that I never would've had Einstein's IQ if my mom had a better diet and listened to more Bach and Beethoven while I was in her womb and if everything else was perfect in my childhood. I feel no disadvantage about that. Conjectures like this about genetics shouldn't encourage racism or racist policy.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Lots of interesting bits in here:

Holly Dunsworth said...

And this is timely:

wumhenry said...

"Estimates in the academic research of the heritability of IQ have varied from below 0.5[6] to a high of 0.9.[9] A 1996 statement by the American Psychological Association gave about .45 for children and about .75 during and after adolescence.[10] A 2004 meta-analysis of reports in Current Directions in Psychological Science gave an overall estimate of around .85 for 18-year-olds and older.[11] The New York Times Magazine has listed about three quarters as a figure held by the majority of studies.[12]"
-from Wikipedia article, "Heritability of IQ"

You can argue that IQ is not a valid measure of intelligence, but then how do you account for its high heritability?

Holly Dunsworth said...

Does anyone else know another trait that becomes more heritable as we reach adulthood?

Ken Weiss said...

Many traits, I think, have decreasing heritability with age, because the older you are the more environmental effects may have accumulated. Blood pressure is an example. Adult blood pressure can't accurately be predicted from childhood, but it can from adolescence. I don't recall anything about traits increasing with age, but one can construct all sorts of arguments that would lead to this (and necessarily involving environments, since heritability is the ratio of genetic to overall (gene + environment) variation.

Every trait is affected by genes and hence by genetic variation. IQ is a socially devised measure of unclear meaning, which despite the ideologies at issue, is clearly true because people can't agree about it.

The fact that a fraction of the variation is due to genetic variation does not mean that specific genotypes that are responsible can be identified and account for the heritability (they can account for a fraction, and to date only a small fraction of heritability for complex traits for which it's been tried).

Even given this, nothing about heritability implies that a given individual's IQ can be predicted accurately from his/her genotype, nor what aspect of intelligence would be strong or weak, relatively, and so on.

These are elusive points, and again, there is no doubt that genetic variation is involved but this does not make IQ a very predictably or specifically 'genetic' trait.

wumhenry said...

There seems to be a suggestion here that unless and until all possible scientific doubt is resolved our default assumption, for all practical purposes, should be that variance in human intelligence is not genetically determined to any significant extent and therefore that an inverse correlation between intelligence and fertility cannot affect average human intelligence over time as depicted in the movie "Idiocracy." This assumption is counterintuitive, to put it mildly.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'm out. I'm not going round in circles again and again.

wumhenry said...

quoting Ken Weiss:
"Reproduction among the lower social classes has been higher than among the wealthy, and I think that's so even if one considers survival to adulthood.
So it's not new to wonder why there is still variation today. Why isn't everyone stupid? [snip]
If selection is weak in this respect, as it most likely is, then there is lots of tolerance for variation, but clearly we're not depauperate of intelligence today. That suggests that for some reason the worries about the degradation of society are not very apt."

1. It certainly seems to be true in modern times that reproduction in the bottom strata of society has outpaced that among the wealthy, but has that always been true? Is it not possible, or probable, that before some point in the not-too-distant past the wealthy produced more offspring per capita *that survived childhood* than the poor?

2. Disproportionately high reproduction among the lower classes will not have a dysgenic effect on average intelligence if there's no difference between average intelligence in the lower and upper classes. No ancient society that I know of was as meritocratic as the U.S. or other "Western" democracies have been in modern times. Therefore, even if we knew that the lower classes in ancient societies generally had a significant reproductive edge, it doesn't necessarily follow that continuation of that pattern in our society in the present time is innocuous.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Some relevant issues: Link text

Holly Dunsworth said...

There's a nugget of insight related to this post in this link:

Turing thinks a machine is sentient if it says it is... what's the difference? what's the big problem?

This is similar to my perspective on how we perceive intelligence among humans that we interact with. Are the differences that we perceive actually meaningful?