What Does Genetic Research Tell Us About Equal Opportunity and Meritocracy?

What Does Genetic Research Tell Us About Equal Opportunity and Meritocracy? By Robert Plomin.

Equal opportunity means that people are treated similarly, for example, everyone is given equal access to educational resources. Meritocracy only comes in when there is selection, for example, for education and employment. Meritocracy means that selection is based on capability and competence rather than unfair criteria such as wealth, prejudice or arbitrariness.

Although meritocracy sounds like an irresistibly good idea, both parts of the neologism “meritocracy” are loaded with unpalatable connotations. The noun “merit” refers to ability and effort but it also connotes value and worth. It is derived from the Latin word meritum meaning “worthy of praise.” The “—ocracy” part of “meritocracy” refers to power and governance. Putting these two components of meritocracy together with genetics implies that we are governed by a genetic elite whose status is justified by their ability and effort.

Instead, it could be argued that people who got lucky by drawing a good genetic hand do not merit anything. Their luck at learning easily and getting satisfying jobs is its own reward. And who says we should be governed by genetic elites? The populist strain of politics around the world suggests a desire for the opposite.

Three of the main findings from genetic research transform how we think about equality of opportunity and meritocracy. These findings are about heritability, non-shared environment and the nature of nurture. In summary, genetics provides most of the systematic variation between us, environmental effects are random, and our chosen environments show genetic influence. …

At first glance, genetics seems antithetical to equality of opportunity, violating the principle enshrined in the second sentence of the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal. However, the American founders did not mean that all people are created identical. They were referring to “unalienable rights,” which include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In less lofty terms, this means equal protection before the law and equal opportunity. But equal does not mean identical. If everyone were identical, there would be no need to worry about equal rights or equal opportunity. The essence of democracy is that people are treated fairly despite their differences. …

Will DNA advances lead to castes?

The DNA revolution will transform the selection process by introducing the most systematic and objective predictor of performance by far: inherited DNA differences.

At first thought, it might seem that, given free rein, genetics will limit social mobility and calcify society into genetic castes, as happened in India, where for thousands of years mating was limited to members of the same caste.

I would argue that this is not a problem in modern societies for two reasons. The first is simple: a lot of the environmental variation between us is not systematic. Random effects will not create stable castes. …

The second reason is that parents and offspring are only 50 percent similar genetically. … Most prodigies do not have prodigy parents. This is a statistical phenomenon, not a specific genetic process. …

Genetics predicts that the children’s average IQ will regress halfway from their parents’ IQ to the population average. For example, parents with an average IQ of 130 are expected to have children whose average IQ is 115, regressing halfway back to the population average of 100. This reshuffling of DNA differences in the genetic lottery prevents the evolution of a rigid genetic caste system. The flip side of this argument is that parents of average ability also have children with a wide range of ability, including children of high ability.