Earlier this week, Sandy Hingston reported on a new study by California economics professor Gregory Clark, which claims genes, not social factors, are why it’s so hard to move up the socio-economic ladder these days. Intrigued, I read Clark’s own recent New York Times column explaining his work, and a shiver ran down my spine.
Every year, I teach a course at Bryn Mawr College that examines poverty and social mobility throughout history. And every year, my students are shocked by a 19th Century Englishman named Francis Galton.
Galton founded the pseudo-science of Eugenics. He used a bastardized version of his cousin Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection to argue what Clark argues: that genetics explains why elite families and groups remain on top from generation to generation, while the rest of us have a tougher time.
Galton, whose work was highly influential in Europe and America, noticed that the same last names kept appearing in lists of award-winners at his alma mater of Cambridge. Similarly, Clark and his colleagues found that centuries-old elite surnames continue to show up disproportionately in the ranks of today’s elites. For Galton, this pattern couldn’t be the result of good education: It had to be the genes, or “stock” as he called it. Likewise, Clark reasons that since the world’s elite have remained on top despite governments’ attempts to increase social fairness, genes must be the answer.
My students know nothing of Francis Galton before entering my classroom, but they immediately see that he was blind to the complex web of cultural norms, family connections, wealth, political influence, and entitlement that shaped the self-image, aspirations, and opportunities of different social classes in England.
So, too, does Clark dismiss the social, cultural and economic dimensions of inheritance: how those at the top maintain status, gain advantages for their children, and inculcate traditions and vocations that appear as naturally “elite.” He also forgets what any Downton Abbey fan knows: that wealth is passed down generationally, just like genes, and with similar staying power.
And like Galton, Clark misuses evolution. He says social status must be genetic because it takes so long — 300 to 450 years — for elite groups to start to come down in the world, and for low ones to start to move up. But while that might seem like a long time to an economist, it’s the blink of an eye to an evolutionary biologist (not to mention anyone who knows anything about American slavery). If social status really were genetically based, it would take far longer for it to be “bred out.”
This understanding of our world is, in a word, stupid. It’s also dangerously naive.
Galton was not a hateful man. A child of the Enlightenment, he believed we could make things better. He lamented how Natural Selection promotes “the good of the whole with scant regard to that of the individual.” He argued that man has “the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.”
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Galton’s “mercy” entailed forbidding the poor and “unfit” from reproducing. Eventually history paved a path from his good intentions right into the ovens of Auschwitz.
Clark’s reasoning doesn’t lead anywhere near that. In fact, he supports social programs to compensate for what he sees as the genetic deficiencies of the unfortunate masses, and he says his research found “no evidence that certain racial groups innately did better than others.”
Yet, he still ends up in troubling territory. He says African Americans’ long, difficult struggle hasn’t been caused by discrimination. Because French Canadians also have struggled to progress, and have not faced racism, discrimination can’t be the reason African Americans have had trouble. Therefore, it must be a problem of genes.
Clark has every right to freely conduct his research and publicize his arguments. But in the name of sound policy, good scholarship, and an ethical society, his ideas should be critiqued and opposed at every turn. We can’t afford a 21st century Francis Galton.
Matt Ruben lives in Northern Liberties, where he serves as President of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. He teaches writing and public speaking at Bryn Mawr College. He is a former candidate for City Council-at-Large.