I am very smart and it isn’t fair (to other people)

Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias have alerted me to the fact that Ben Bernanke just gave a speech denouncing meritocracy. Here’s Bernanke:

We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.

This is a good opportunity for me to make a point I’ve been meaning to make about the genetics of intelligence ever since the thread on Star Trek and human enhancement.

Here’s the thing: I have been acutely aware of being much smarter than most of the people around me since grade school if not earlier. What does that mean? It means getting a nice mix of As and Bs in school without ever working especially hard. In fact, while being downright lazy. With the exception of first semester organic chemistry, almost all the (limited) difficulties I’ve ever had in school have been the product of my own laziness.

And when I talk about laziness… the baseline of “easy” for me is when, on a freshmen honors chemistry example, I saw a problem involving quantum chemistry and realized, “oh great, I don’t actually have to know any chemistry for this problem, I just have to solve some differential equations.” This was not a sarcastic thought. It was the classes where I couldn’t just solve some equations (equations that were no doubt giving my classmates headaches) and actually had to learn some significant amount of new stuff where my laziness sometimes caused me problems.

Oh and then there’s getting a 1590 on my SAT (back when the SAT was out of 1600) without really doing anything to prepare, and getting a 1600 on my GRE with modest preparation. Little things like that.

Some of my smartness may be environmental. Both of my parents are well-educated (PhD in biochemistry on my mother’s side, dentist on my dad’s side). My mother read to me when I was a kid, explained evolution and negative numbers to me before school had gotten to them, kept books around the house, limited my TV and video game time, and made sure I did my homework. Those things probably helped. And then there’s things like good childhood nutrition, pediatric care, and not living in a house with flaking lead paint.

But I have a hard time imagining they account for all of my smartness. After all, I have a lot of smartness. And I’ve read that while about 50% of the variation in people is genetic and 50% is environmental, the environmental 50% is mostly not parents but maybe peer group (and I didn’t have an especially smart or studious peer group). So my guess is that at least 50% of my edge over other people is genetic (update: see also Wikipedia on the heritability of IQ), and in any case none of the plausible environmental explanations are things I can claim any credit for.

The reason the “Star Trek and human enhancement” thread got me thinking about this is because of a comment by James Croft:

Intelligence is not a generally well understood concept nor an uncontroversial one/ I’d say we would need to know an awful lot more than we know currently about how human cognition works before we can even speculate as to what might be a desirable use of any enhancement technology of this sort we might develop.

We may not understand everything about intelligence, but we know enough to know that some people (like me) start life, or at least leave early childhood, with a huge advantage over everyone else that they did not earn. If you could somehow isolate that advantage in pill form, and the pill had no side-effects, what would be the objection to doing so?

In the name of full disclosure, I should mention that if I found a pill that would make me even smarter and I knew that there would be no side effects, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it, moral qualms about fairness be damned (though I’d want other people to have access to the pill too; I wouldn’t be so unfair as to try to keep it to myself). But for those who are particularly worried about the “fairness” aspect of human enhancement, why aren’t you worried now about the current problem of some people being a lot smarter, no thanks to anything they did themselves?

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