Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Evolution of America's Cognitive Elite Through Assortative Mating

The cover story for the January 24th issue of The Economist is "America's New Aristocracy."  Although there is no reference to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994), what is reported in these articles confirm Herrnstein and Murray's controversial claim about the evolution of a cognitive elite in America, which is an hereditary meritocracy of intelligence.

In America's increasingly complex and technological society and economy, we see the increasing market value of brains, so that the top 5% of people in cognitive ability are becoming a new upper class that is isolated from the rest of America, while a new lower class is sinking into despair.  The separation in these classes is not just economic but moral.  Those in the cognitive elite show the moral virtues of self-discipline, hard work, stable marriages, and attentive parental care for children, but those in the new lower class do not.  This separation of classes is even becoming genetic insofar as the ruling class is arising through assortative mating, with those of high cognitive ability marrying others like themselves and thus passing on their cognitive endowments through their offspring.

One chapter of The Bell Curve was on racial differences in IQ scores, including the black/white gap in IQ, and this was enough to provoke the charge that Herrnstein and Murray were racists.  But it's clear in The Bell Curve and even more clear in Murray's later book Coming Apart that this separation of social classes based on cognitive ability is happening to white America, because over the past 50 years, a new white underclass of people with low cognitive ability is stuck at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

We have to wonder whether this contradicts the American ideals of Jeffersonian democracy.  Thomas Jefferson argued that liberty and equality in American life would support not an "artificial aristocracy of wealth and birth" but a "natural aristocracy of virtue and talents."  The problem, however, with America's new cognitive aristocracy is that it's a mixture of both, because it's rooted both in wealth and virtue and both in birth and talents.

Through the 20th century, the economy of the United States and other advanced economies has become based less on physical labor and more on intellectual achievement, so that economic success depends ever more on educational and cognitive achievement.  Those who lack the intellectual capital to handle mentally challenging jobs fall to the bottom.

The opening up of opportunities for women to enter the highest levels of academic and professional achievement has made it easier for pairs of young men and women with high cognitive ability to get together and marry.  They then pass on their cognitive ability to their children both through their genetic endowment and through the family environment that they create.  Between 1960 and 2005, the proportion of men with university degrees who married women with university degrees increased from 25% to 48%.  The young men and women with the highest intellectual capacity are recruited by the elite universities, while those of lesser capacities attend the non-elite universities, and those with the lowest capacities struggle to graduate from high school or a community college. 

Couples who meet at the elite universities tend to become wealthy, and they tend to conceive bright children and rear them in stable homes.  Only 9% of college-educated mothers who give birth each year are unmarried, in contrast to 61% of high-school dropouts.  College-educated couples also have low divorce rates.  The children of college-educated couples receive much more intellectual stimulation from their parents, who talk with them and read to them, than do the children of parents on welfare.  The college-educated couples can also use their greater wealth to pay for their children's education, ranging from elite kindergartens to elite universities.

In the United States, there is a strong correlation between average SAT scores and family-income.  Those people coming from the wealthiest families tend to score high, while those coming from the poorest families tend to score low.  The high-scorers will go to the best universities, develop the highest intellectual skills, enter the highest levels of professional achievement in mentally challenging jobs, and earn the highest incomes.  These children of the wealthy will then pass on their advantages to their own children.

Is such a cognitive meritocracy consistent with democratic equality?  If the ruling class really is a cognitive elite, then it seems that their wealth and power have been earned by talent and brain work.  But insofar as this cognitive ability has become heritable, it seems unearned and thus unfair.

Posts on Charles Murray's arguments can be found here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

"But insofar as this cognitive ability has become heritable, it seems unearned and thus unfair."
You need to stop being a Rawlsian and thinking that talents are separable from the self. Read Millikan's "The Tangle of Biological Purposes That is Us" in Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and Its Implications for a better understanding.

Larry Arnhart said...

In my chapter on Rawls in Political Questions, I argue against Rawls's claim that justice cannot be the rewarding of desert if desert is based on undeserved attributes. This would make impossible any conception of justice. Whatever claim a person might make to meriting or deserving some reward must ultimately rest on an unmerited, undeserved attribute. Because no human being is self-created, no person is ever completely responsible for the kind of person that he or she is. Children cannot be responsible for the genetic endowment or social environment that they have inherited from their parents.