Saturday, March 22, 2014

Our Future Masters

"Mammoth productive facilities with computer minds, cities that engulf the landscape and pierce the clouds, planes that almost outrace time - these are awesome but they cannot be spiritually inspiring. Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material growth has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leave the person outside. The sense of participation is lost, the feeling that ordinary individuals influence important decisions vanishes, and man becomes separated and diminished." Martin Luther King, Jr

I listen to about 10-12 podcasts a week, and I rarely listen to the same podcast twice. Rarer still is the podcast that I'll listen to three times. Gregory Clark's recent talk to the RSA on The Truth About Social Mobility is a 'three-fer'. Clark sets out a meticulous case for why elites endure across centuries in every society - from free market America to socialist Scandinavia. The self-preservation powers of elites are quite extraordinary. They are capable of sustaining a privileged position for themselves and their offspring over the course of centuries. Clark illustrates this fact with reference to the surnames that keep showing up in elite colleges, leadership of political parties, major businesses etc.

However, the explanation for why elites preserve themselves so well across 20 generations and more is not about how they use their power. Power is a perk of belonging to the elite. Rather, Clark applies Occam's Razor and concludes it is mainly down to genetic inheritance:

The notion of genetic transmission of “social competence” — some mysterious mix of drive and ability — may unsettle us. But studies of adoption, in some ways the most dramatic of social interventions, support this view. 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. In America, for example, the I.Q. of adopted children correlates with their adoptive parents’ when they are young, but the correlation is close to zero by adulthood. There is a low correlation between the incomes and educational attainment of adopted children and those of their adoptive parents. 
These studies, along with studies of correlations across various types of siblings (identical twins, fraternal twins, half siblings) suggest that genetics is the main carrier of social status.
However, Clark does hold out the 'consolation' (for the rest of us) that all elites are subject to regression to the mean. In other words, over time, the off-spring of enough elite/non-elite parental pairings will dilute the genetic transmission of social competence and a new elite will emerge with a higher genetic quality than the regressing, old elite. Give or take 300 years or so...

This raises a couple of interesting issues. The first one is about inequality. Clark starts with the fact that you cannot legislate away elites (or even shoot them all, e.g.: the Chinese Communist Party is now dominated by people with surnames belonging to elite Chinese families in the 19th century, despite the Cultural Revolution etc). His view is that public policy must mitigate the worst effects of unavoidable elites on income distribution by following the Scandinavian model of focusing resources on the lowest status groups. Even if you know they'll never become part of the elite (though their great, great, great, great grandchildren might).

However, a more interesting question - that Clark prefers to avoids - is what might happen if contemporary elites becomes 'self aware' of the drivers of their own longevity as elites, thanks to insights from science and studies such as Clark's? A singularity for the aristocracy, if you like. Arguably it's already happening. In the United States, assortative mating (doctors marrying doctors rather than doctors marrying nurses) is a significant driver of rising income inequality.

But we're still only in the early days of the 'genetic singularity'. Even doctors who marry doctors will eventually see a regression to the mean among their descendants over just a few generations. Unless elites figure out how to reverse the regression. Which is where genetic engineering comes in. Brian Wang expects China's tiger moms - newly released from the constraints of the one child policy - to drive the demand for invitro fertilized (IVF) babies from about 400,000 worldwide at the moment to potentially 8 million in ten years time.

Wang references a large intelligence study of thousands of geniuses by the Beijing Genomics Institute. By identifying the alleles (there could be up to 1,000 positive and negative influences on intelligence) associated with IQ, it may soon be possible to screen human embryos for the least number of negative alleles. Indeed, a human with no negative alleles could - by Wang's rough estiimate - have an IQ of 550: about as rare as a 13 foot tall human...

China is only one of several countries taking the cultivation of an intelligent elite seriously. This from a fascinating article on the education of gifted children, and policies to identify them for special treatment:
Other countries are already making that bet. Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore have national laws requiring that children be screened for giftedness, with top scorers funneled into special programs. China is midway through a 10-year “National Talent Development Plan” to steer bright young people into science, technology, and other in-demand fields. In a 2010 speech announcing the scheme, former President Hu Jintao called talent “the most important resource and...a key issue that concerns the development of the Party and country.”
Should self-aware elites figure out a way to preserve their status indefinitely - by removing the random influence of genetics and regression to the mean - then the 'consolations of history' which Clark cites for the rest of us will no longer prevail. If we're lucky our future masters will be like those in Gattaca. If we're unlucky, they might be more like a smarter version of the Eloi...

Do listen to the podcast. Then listen to it again.


  1. Brave new world eh? Where's my Soma? (and don't indicate X-Factor please, if that is soma then I see no reason to continue).

  2. This is very deterministic. And the notion of screening for giftedness at a Chinese scale is unsettling. It will drive down to an age bracket that is too young and too irrelevant. Think of all those in Ireland who left secondary school with a mediocre Leaving Cert and then turned around and applied themselves in medicine once we opened up the system to that affect. When I was in school, only the "gifted" could get the 590 points to go on to become doctors.


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