Are the Nature vs. Nurture Wars Over?

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Matt Ridley has an odd column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend called “A Truce in the War Over Smarts and Genes.” He’s optimistic that a recent discovery in molecular genetics conclusively demonstrates that intelligence does indeed have a genetic basis but also that it doesn’t matter that much:

The immediate cause of this optimism is a recent paper in Molecular Psychiatry, which confirms that genes account for about half of the difference in IQ between any two people in a modern society, but that the relevant genes are very numerous and the effect of each is very small.

….It turns out the genetic differences may have been all just below the measurement radar. A new technique, which can now detect very slight genetic influences, has succeeded where the old techniques failed. The genes for intelligence are there, but there are thousands of them and each has only a tiny impact….So the old terror, which so alarmed many psychologists and educationalists, that one day people—or governments—would use genes to decide whom to kill, sterilize or prevent being born because of their intelligence, suddenly looks a lot less scary. There are just too many genes.

I don’t get this. First, it’s been a very long time since I’ve read anyone suggesting the existence of “an IQ gene.” The proposition that intelligence and other cognitive traits are the product of lots of different gene complexes has been pretty well accepted for decades, even if definitive proof was lacking. So although this new result may be important, it doesn’t seem all that earthshaking in the context of the nature/nurture wars.

Second, the reason that nature vs. nurture has been such a nasty battle hasn’t really been due to fears of a new eugenics movement breaking out. It’s been due to fears that if intelligence has a genetic basis, then it’s also conceivable that different races have different inherent IQs. That’s where the emotional core of the war has resided since at least the 50s and 60s, and it remains there whether intelligence is the result of one gene or thousands.

But I confess that I haven’t paid very much attention to the nature/nurture debate over the past decade or so. So maybe I’m wrong about this. Anyone care to weigh in on the current state of the controversy?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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