On Boris Johnson and intelligence: it’s not clever to pretend IQ doesn’t matter

Boris Johnson in a bike helmet
Boris Johnson has been criticised for his views on intelligence, but we can’t deny its effects. (Photo: PA)

There’s a double standard that has always confused me. Society is contemptuous of people who make their money using their looks – the celebrities and glamour models and reality TV show winners and so on – but impressed by people who make money using their brains. And yet the people who make money with their brains – whether they’re CEOs or scientists – are just as much winners of the genetic lottery as is any bosomy Page 3 girl or chisel-jawed Calvin Klein model. Why do we admire one, but mock the other?

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and Daily Telegraph columnist, has been musing on this subject recently. Delivering the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London, he said: “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.” The free market is a “violent economic centrifuge”, he said, “operating on human beings who are far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth”.

The idea that humans have different natural abilities – that intelligence is partly genetically dictated – is not scientifically controversial, but is fantastically so in public debate, as the furious backlash that followed Boris’s comments demonstrates. Studies on twins and adopted siblings have shown that intelligence – and personality traits, and political views, and tendency to religiosity, and many other things – are partially heritable: that is, influenced by genes. In the case of intelligence, it’s even more striking: the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin points out that twins raised apart are just as likely to be similarly intelligent as are twins raised together, and adopted siblings are no more likely to be similar than are complete strangers.

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And, of course, how intelligent you are – like how good-looking you are, or how tall you are – is correlated to how successful you will be in life. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, because it has shades of what was once known as “Social Darwinism”: the idea that the poor are poor because they’re stupid, and the rich are rich because they’re intelligent, and we should just accept that and move on. As Steven Pinker says in his book The Blank Slate: “Because of a fear of Social Darwinism, the idea that class has anything to do with genes is treated by modern intellectuals like plutonium.”

More on this story:

Of course we should discriminate by intelligence
Thank goodness for Boris Johnson
A decade after The Blank Slate, why is human nature still taboo?

And yet it is, to some degree, an unavoidable fact, if we accept – as we surely do – that ability, including intelligence, is partly genetic. Few people would argue that Lionel Messi’s talents are nothing to do with his genes; no doubt it helped that he received intensive training from an early age at Barcelona’s La Masia facilities, but so did many others. In combination with his genes, the training allowed him to become the best player in the world, which meant that Barcelona were willing to pay him a quarter of a million pounds a week to play football. However hard I trained, or from how young, it is unlikely that they would pay that for me. Messi’s genes have clearly influenced his ability to earn money. Less dramatically but equally obviously, people with dyslexia are more likely to be unemployed and to earn less. Dyslexia is a highly heritable condition. The genes of someone who suffers from dyslexia are likely to have affected their earning potential. The same applies to intelligence: it is affected by your genes, and how intelligent you are affects your earnings, so your genes affect your earnings.

What this doesn’t mean is that poor people are stupid or that rich people are clever. It may mean that there is a statistical correlation between wealth and IQ – but then studies have found a correlation between height and IQ, and no one would suggest that all short people are thick. It is a tendency, nothing more, and tells you nothing about the intellect of any given individual.

And more importantly, what it doesn’t mean is that this state of affairs is morally laudable, which is where the Social Darwinists got it wrong. People who are more intelligent are more likely to do well in their jobs – and that’s good, because they’ll probably do them better, and the rest of us will benefit from receiving the fruits of their labour. But it doesn’t make those people superior to the rest of us. They got lucky in the genetic raffle, and good luck to them. Thomas Jefferson knew that humans had a “natural aristocracy” of talents, but still wrote in the US Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” – not in talents or virtue, but in human worth, and in the eyes of the law.

We live, to some degree, in a meritocracy, or rather a talentocracy. It’s not perfect – some stupid people do well and clever people do badly – and anyway, it’s not fair: the clever are not more deserving. But it’s strange to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

More by Tom Chivers

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How instant messaging has created a new English
Is the stigma of mental illness lifting?

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