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your ancestors, your fate or social-darwinism is the scientific equivalent to the myth of the american dream

February 26, 2014

From the New York Times:

Your Ancestors, Your Fate

One the one hand, I think this it’s an interesting study of social mobility that counters the myth of the easily obtainable ‘American Dream.’ In my opinion, the ideology of social mobility inherent in the myth of the American Dream is something that’s been used to pacify those experiencing socio-economic inequality and vindicate those on the opposite end of the spectrum, by framing the narrative of social and economic inequality in terms of personal failings, i.e., the idea that, if you’re not successful, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough, you didn’t work hard enough, you didn’t work smart enough, etc. because we all have an equal chance of becoming successful in a capitalist society. The most salient paragraph is:

To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents’. The recent study suggests that 10 percent of variation in income can be predicted based on your parents’ earnings. In contrast, my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.

That said, I strongly disagree with the Social-Darwinian conclusion of Gregory Clark that, “In modern meritocratic societies, success still depends on individual effort. Our findings suggest, however, that the compulsion to strive, the talent to prosper and the ability to overcome failure are strongly inherited. We can’t know for certain what the mechanism of that inheritance is, though we know that genetics plays a surprisingly strong role.”

For one, I think that it ignores the incestousness of the ruling class in any society. Even when things like heredity aristocracy are no longer vogue, ruling elites tend to remain a social class brought together (albeit loosely) by their material class interests, which mainly revolve around the ownership of property and material wealth that directly or indirectly gives them access to political power. And while Clark tries to suggest that’s not really a factor in determining the statistical success of children born within that class, I think he fails to do so conclusively. The reality is that there are a number of fairly well-documented socio-economic advantages for those of more privileged backgrounds, as well as barriers for those at the bottom of the social ladder.

It also ignores that the aid given to the poor isn’t comparable to the wealth and other material advantages of elites. Clark argues, for example, that, “The societies that invest the most in helping disadvantaged children, like the Nordic countries, have produced absolute, commendable benefits for these children, but they have not changed their relative social position.” But this is a vulgar and superficial comparison, in my opinion, that disregards a host of other factors that go into social status and relations in capitalist society (and all the countries mentioned are capitalistic in some shape or form).

I think a more compelling comparison in this instance would be between poorer children in countries who receive the most help and those in countries who receive little to none, rather than between poorer children get food stamps and possibly a decent education if they’re lucky and wealthy children who general start out with more and have to do less to get the same opportunities. Is it really all that surprising that a poor kid on food stamps living in a poor neighborhood with likely higher crime rates and shittier schools won’t statistically do as well as a kid from a wealthier family, who probably lives in a nicer neighborhood and goes to a better and less crowded school? It’s mainly just a genetic thing?

Another thing that troubles me is that Clark notes a “number of studies of adopted children in the United States and Nordic countries show convincingly that their life chances are more strongly predicted from their biological parents than their adoptive families,” but he doesn’t put those statistics into any kind of context, i.e., there’s no evidence supporting that this statistic in and of itself points to predominately genetic factors rather than a complex array of genetic, cultural, socio-economic, etc. factors. It assumes all things being equal when in fact they’re not, or at least aren’t shown to be.

Here, I think a comparison of children from ‘higher-status’ families raised by ‘lower-status’ families and vice-versa is be needed to help rule out the influence other socio-economic factors before we can comfortable conclude that it’s all in the genes. Do children adopted by higher-status families perform worse than biological children of higher-status families, for example? Do children adopted by lower-status families perform better than biological children of lower-status families? The data’s most likely available, but I’m skeptical that it’d show a statistically significant difference (which could possibly be why Clark ignores it).

While I think the study of social mobility is interesting, I think Clark draws incredibly broad conclusions from cherry-picked and ‘noisy’ data, especially after noting the difficulties of quantitatively studying the issue. In my opinion, the advantages of familial socio-economic resources (including early childhood nutrition, which is important for brain development), social networks, etc., not to mention other environmental factors like what neighborhood one grows up in and the kinds of peers one grows up with, etc., are basically written off by Clark, and genetics given centre stage for what I suspect to be more ideological reasons rather than purely scientific ones. It’s the scientific equivalent of the myth of the American Dream.

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