Science says that success cannot be inherited genetically

An enduring source of amusement is watching people who have a scientific perspective (and oftentimes actual training in science) throw rocks at the religious for being irrationally dogmatic.

Part of the dogma of the politically righteous today in the U.S. is that success cannot be inherited genetically. The children of the rich tend to be rich, but that is because they got cash from their parents (Exhibit A: Donald Trump!), not because they have personal characteristics that resembles their successful parents’ personal characteristics.

When this has been carefully studied, e.g., in The Son Also Rises, it turns out that success does behave like other genetically inherited characteristics. The child of successful parents has roughly the same chance of becoming successful regardless of the number of siblings who are present to dilute any financial inheritance.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer is a great illustration of this dogma. The book goes on at length regarding things that can be inherited genetically. But then we get an economics lesson on inequality:

Raj Chetty, a Stanford economist, has estimated that Americans born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of making more money than their parents at age thirty. But Chetty and his colleagues have found that those odds then steadily dropped. Americans born in 1984 had only a 50 percent chance of making more than their parents. The shift was not the result of the United States suddenly running out of money. It’s just that wealthy Americans have been taking much of the extra money the economy has generated in recent decades. Chetty’s research suggests that if the recent economic growth in the United States was distributed more broadly, most of the fading he has found would disappear. “The rise in inequality and the decline in absolute mobility are closely linked,” he and his colleagues reported in 2017. Inheritance has helped push open that gulf. About two-thirds of parental income differences among Americans persist into the next generation. Economists have found that American children who are born to parents in the ninetieth percentile of earners will grow up to make three times more than children of the tenth percentile. This inheritance is not simply what parents leave in their wills but the things that they can buy for their children as they grow up. In the United States, affluent parents can afford a house in a good public school district, or even private school tuition. They can pay for college test prep classes to increase the odds their children will get into good colleges. And if they do get in, their parents can cover more of their college tuitions. Poor parents have fewer means to prepare their children to get into college. Even if their children do get accepted, they have fewer funds, and they’re more vulnerable to layoffs or medical bankruptcy. Their children may graduate saddled with steep college debts or drop out before getting a degree. The gifts that children inherit can keep coming well into adulthood. Parents may help cover the cost of law school, or write a check to help out with a septic tank that failed just after their children bought their first house. Protected from catastrophes that can wipe out bank accounts, young adults from affluent families can get started sooner on building their own wealth. Inheritance also goes a long way to explain the gap in wealth between races in the United States. In 2013, the median white American household had thirteen times the wealth of the median black household, and ten times that of the median Latino household.

Whites are five times as likely to receive major gifts from relatives, and when they do, their value is much greater. These gifts can, among other things, allow white college students to graduate with much less debt than blacks or Latinos. And the effects of these inheritances have compounded through the generations as blacks and Latinos were left outside the wealth feedback loop that benefited white families.

In looking at how the children of those in the top 10 percent do, the author does not consider the possibility that the parents reached the top 10 percent due to genetic fitness for the current economic environment. (e.g., a fondness for sitting at a desk looking at numbers on a computer screen!). So it is our cruel economic system alone that dooms children of the least successful parents to mediocre incomes. If a third generation of a family whose first and second generations were on welfare (public housing, Medicaid, food stamps, and Obamaphone) elects to continue the welfare lifestyle, this is because the parents and grandparents couldn’t provide an inheritance.

It is not the beliefs that are interesting so much as the fact that the author can’t see this dogma conflicts with all of the science that he presented in the previous pages. Perhaps the UC Davis econ professor who did The Son Also Rises got it wrong, but what’s interesting is that apparently nobody can dare to consider the possibility that he got it right.

13 thoughts on “Science says that success cannot be inherited genetically

  1. Your posts continually demonstrate flaws in human nature; that successful people, such as yourself, want to attribute their success to themselves and their actions alone. My genetics, my hard work, my good decisions and choices, me me me. Discounting and refusing to account for and acknowledge good fortune, privilege, and just plain luck. It’s perhaps useful to have a false sense of confidence in this regard, but it’s not honest or accurate. Philg, you might ask yourself how many traumas you experienced as a child. You might consider that some children who grow up less fortunate or less lucky, experience trauma’s, through no fault of their own, which greatly impact their lives. If you look at the behavior of successful parents, you’ll notice that they bend over backwards to give their children advantages. They betray their own conscious beliefs through their actions. Such as going to ridiculous lengths to provide the best education. Kindergartens and elementary schools with absurd waiting lists, tuition and attendance standards. Prompting their kids to learn an instrument or a second language. Summer camps. Having the time to help with homework. Tutors. Traveling and cultural experience. If your zipcode or school doesn’t matter, because only hard work matters, why don’t affluent kids goto inner city public schools? Why do private schools exist at all? You probably also underestimate the influence parents have on their children. How much of your work ethic, morals, wisdom, and good decision making can be attributed to your parents or other role models and examples from your childhood? Were you exposed to any mental illness growing up? What chance do kids who grow up in an environment of bad examples of thinking and decision making have to overcome that thinking on their own? Children are a reflection of their parents.

    • @senorpablo:

      underestimate the influence parents have on their children

      Could I gently suggest you look up what heredity means in a dictionary and then reread @philg’s analysis.

      [y]ou probably also underestimate the influence parents have on their children

      I’m lost at how you’d reach that conclusion from the passage, which I’d summarize as “success does behave like other genetically inherited characteristics”

      How did your parents do on the verbal section of their SATs?

  2. Would be interesting for someone to model how much time it would take for wealth distribution to revert to the status quo ante if all wealth in the US were equally distributed to all people living in the US.

  3. In a lot of cases I’m convinced that denialist academics and writers know exactly what is going on, but to avoid having their careers cancelled they make sure that there is at least one section of politically correct, quotable nonsense in everything that they write. Pinker, David Reich, even Plomin have such contradictory stuff in their books, and Reich wrote a nonsense opinion piece for the New York Times before his book was published for extra protection.

  4. It’s remarkable that we humans successfully breed plants and animals for a variety of purposes but strangely the same genetic mechanisms simply don’t operate in humans. We really are a unique species. Or perhaps not.

  5. “Miha on Science says that success cannot be inherited genetically”. This is called ‘taking a statement out of context’. No, I showed that the reverse is overwhelmingly the case unless humans are some kind of alien species not subject to the inheritance mechanisms which apply to plants and animals.

  6. If all of this is valid, some of the more important points are not being discussed. If income and wealth inequality has been increasing, has IQ inequality also been increasing? Is there any research on that?

    Some of the richest people in America work on Wall Street. So some of the great talent in their genes has to involve the ability to lobby DC to get giant federal bailouts roughly once a decade.

    The statements regarding the vast sums that rich people spend on their children’s education, including purchasing multi-million dollar houses in expensive neighborhoods, are certainly correct. I guess that we should also conclude that that money is wasted. So these smart, rich people just waste amounts of money that Joe Six Pack would consider to be a small fortune. That woman who wrote the tiger mother book also wasted a lot of time screaming at her kids to get them to study and whatnot. She wasted more time writing an editorial supporting Brett Kavanaugh. Her daughter has the good chromosomes and would have gotten a Supreme Court clerkship without her mother’s assistance.

    • Why can’t parents’ help AND good genes both be important?

      Arnold Schwarzenegger (white male) succeeded because he had good genes, AND access to gyms and nutrition. Same thing with athletes from a few African countries who dominate Olympic running etc. Both, good genes, and supporting infrastructure are needed.

      You can’t discount genes for athletic success. Then why isn’t that the case for brain? Isn’t it a part of body whose growth from embryo stage is also controlled by genes?

    • Phil says that that’s just dogma. Then again, I noticed something about this paragraph:

      In looking at how the children of those in the top 10 percent do, the author does not consider the possibility that the parents reached the top 10 percent due to genetic fitness for the current economic environment. (e.g., a fondness for sitting at a desk looking at numbers on a computer screen!). So it is our cruel economic system alone that dooms children of the least successful parents to mediocre incomes. If a third generation of a family whose first and second generations were on welfare (public housing, Medicaid, food stamps, and Obamaphone) elects to continue the welfare lifestyle, this is because the parents and grandparents couldn’t provide an inheritance.

      It’s unclear what the statement is here regarding the people on welfare. Are they genetically unfit, or are they just making a choice to live on welfare?

  7. I consider that Greg Clark got it right. So not nobody.
    The research by Professor Clark is a solid set of data, independent in method from classical genetics, which supports the idea of a heritable, trans-generational socioeconomic status influencing trait. This paper is also relevant. It’s by us, and open access: about social competence being transmitted to children via genes, and by parental environments

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/twin-research-and-human-genetics/article/social-competence-in-parents-increases-childrens-educational-attainment-replicable-geneticallymediated-effects-of-parenting-revealed-by-nontransmitted-dna/A3686F6B876F33BA210EEB178864A8C8

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