Do Wealthy People Have Better Genes Than the Rest of US?
The critics of behavioral genetic research and theories do not earn high incomes for what we write. Most of us have “day jobs” (in my case, as a clinical psychologist), hold tenured academic positions based on other work, or are retired. We expect, at least for now, that much of what we write will be ignored, dismissed, or distorted in the mainstream media, in mainstream academics, and in the social media. Our books do produce periodic royalty checks, which at times might cover a full breakfast and a single-latte at the local diner. Notice I didn’t say double-latte. Yet according to the latest research that serves as the backdrop of this article, we critics may lack genes for intelligence and other positive attributes that high-income earners possess.
As has long been recognized, people can do different things very well, or perform their jobs in a similarly excellent way, and yet get paid very differently. At major U.S. universities the head football coach’s salary, literally, could be 100 times greater than that of a physics professor. These salaries are based on the supply and demand of skills that produce high revenue-producing activities. High school teachers in Luxembourg are paid almost seven times more than high school teachers are paid in Lithuania. Genes have nothing to do with it.
The bogus “scientific” argument that the upper classes have better and smarter genes than the rest of us goes all the way back to Francis Galton’s 1869 book Hereditary Genius, where Galton, the founder of the eugenics movement, attributed to heredity his observation that British judges, commanders, scientists, and the members of other highly regarded professions tended to produce highly achieving offspring.
Fast forward 150 years, where the authors of a molecular genetic study claimed to have found genetic loci associated with income and “observed socioeconomic inequalities.” In this study, which was published in its final form on December 16th, 2019 in Nature Communications (an earlier version had been published online on 3/12/19), W. David Hill and colleagues claimed that they had “discovered 149 genetic loci associated with income.” They concluded, “These results indicate that, in modern era Great Britain, genetic effects contribute towards some of the observed socioeconomic inequalities.” I am not here to analyze this particular study, but instead to use it as an example of the false genetic claims that produce headlines helping to legitimize the power and profits of the rich and powerful.
“Association” is of course synonymous with “correlation” in this context, and in genetic studies correlation does not imply causation. Human possession of a Y chromosome has always been “associated with” much higher income, privilege, and power compared with humans lacking a Y chromosome. This doesn’t mean or even suggest that males are smarter, or possess a superior income-producing genetic makeup, than females possess. The association is due to political policies, social struggle or a lack thereof, oppression, and other non-genetic factors.
The title of a 3/24/2019 article in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sunday Times about the Hill et al. study read, “Scientists Find 24 ‘Golden’ Genes that Help You Get Rich.” The article speculated that “Britain’s richest man [James Ratcliffe] could have some of the 24 key genes.” (Undoubtedly, Murdoch himself possesses all of these “golden” genes.) Because the general public is now less likely to accept that the world’s 2,153 billionaires, who at the beginning of 2020 owned as much wealth as the poorest 4.6 billion people on Earth, obtained their wealth “by the grace of God,” they must now try to sell us on the idea that they attained and deserve their wealth and status “by the grace of the genes.”
Molecular Genetic Fool’s Gold
Hill and colleagues’ “genes for income” study must be evaluated in the context of countless other “genes for behavior” claims that have appeared since the 1960s—claims that have fallen by the wayside because they almost always produce only false positive genetic fool’s gold.
The online journal Molecular Psychiatry has been around since 1997, and has been publishing false-positive “findings” of genes associated with psychiatric disorders ever since. For those who doubt this, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in a statement by David Kupfer in an official 2013 press release, admitted that genes for psychiatric disorders had not been found, and that “we’re still waiting” for gene and biomarker discoveries. According to the APA, therefore, all gene-discovery claims published in Molecular Psychiatry and elsewhere, at least up to 2013, did not hold up. The articles containing these false-positive claims published between 1997 and 2013 can be found in the Molecular Psychiatry online archives. Although the titles of these articles sound very scientific, what they found turned out to be genetic fool’s gold.
Turning to behavioral genetics, a field that focuses more on cognitive ability (IQ), personality, and other areas of behavior, a similar pattern emerges. In his 2018 book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, leading behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin admitted that decades of studies up to 2015-2016 had failed to produce the expected genes for behavior and IQ, and that he was ready to throw in the towel and take up sailing in his retirement. In this case, we can consult the archives of the journal Genes, Brain, and Behavior (G2B). Because gene discovery claims up to at least 2015 were false positives, as Plomin admitted, the G2B online archives through at least 2014 provide another treasure trove of false-positive behavioral gene discovery claims. Genetic fool’s gold, once again.
Molecular genetic studies of behavior, then, have been characterized by decades of false-positive non-replicated results. This has been due largely to systematic error, the misguided acceptance of genetic interpretations of previous twin studies, publication bias in favor of positive findings, and a reliance on false assumptions and dubious “heritability estimates.” This is the most likely explanation for Hill and colleagues’ “genes for income” finding. As science writer John Horgan wrote in 2013, in words that continue to ring true,
“Over the past 25 years or so, [researchers] have discovered ‘genes for’ high IQ, gambling, attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, alcoholism, heroin addiction, extroversion, introversion, anxiety, anorexia nervosa, seasonal affective disorder, violent aggression—and so on. So far, not one of these claims has been consistently confirmed by follow-up studies.”
“Follow-up studies that fail to corroborate the initial claim,” Horgan wrote, “receive little or no attention, leaving the public with the mistaken impression that the initial report was accurate—and, more broadly, that genes determine who we are.”
Researchers develop new gene discovery methods after the previous methods failed, but these newer methods eventually produce similar negative results. The most recent claims are based on the “polygenic score” (PGS) method, which Plomin championed in his book, but this method is problematic for several reasons (critiques of the PGS method can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE).
Based on a half-century of false-positive behavioral gene discovery claims, the proper reaction to new claims should be extreme skepticism and caution—similar to the “oh no, not again” skepticism and caution that Peanuts comic strip character Charlie Brown responded with whenever Lucy van Pelt asked him to kick the football she was holding. History demands that we must view all new behavioral gene discovery claims, and polygenic scores, as false-positive findings until proven otherwise.
The U.S. corporate media, on the other hand, usually reports gene discovery claims as if this history does not exist, similar to the way it reports on politics, foreign policy, and wars. Most people understand that politicians frequently break campaign promises after taking office. Yet the media typically describes politicians’ “plans,” promises, and “party platforms” as if this long history of lies and broken promises did not exist. Corporate media coverage of electoral campaigns, foreign policy, the drive to war, and gene discovery claims have in common that they are sold in part by obscuring the history of such claims. Statements such as “Candidate X promises not to raise taxes or cut Social Security,” “Pentagon sources tell us…,” “Weapons of mass destruction,” and “Scientists have discovered genes for schizophrenia” are sold by the corporate media as if there were no history of previous unsubstantiated claims and outright lies.
Despite the decades-long failure to discover genes that play a direct role in causing human behavioral differences, corporate media writers often react to new behavioral gene discovery claims similarly to the way a three-year-old child reacts on Christmas morning after being told that Santa just came down the chimney. But even in the unlikely event that predisposing or behavior-causing genes are eventually found, society and science could still choose to focus attention and funding on reducing or eliminating the numerous adverse conditions and experiences that cause human suffering and psychological dysfunction.
Although technology has changed dramatically since Galton’s time, the needs of the propertied classes to promote fake “science” in support of their wealth, profits, privileges, and wars, and to claim that social inequality in general is rooted in biology and nature, has not changed. The current U.S. President and members of his Cabinet are wealthy high-income earners, who supposedly possess an abundance of the coveted “golden genes.” Yet even with ample warning, they committed the world-historic blunder of doing little to stop a dangerous disease from spreading throughout the country and endangering hundreds of millions of people, not to mention the possibility of triggering a total economic collapse, with the President saying on February 26th, 2020 that “the risk to the American people remains very low”!
Given the dreadful track record of “genes for behavior” claims dating back to the 1960s, Hill and colleagues could have framed their “genetic loci associated with income” claims in the context of this dreadful track record. Instead, they produced a study financed by government and corporate industry grants that was published by a Nature journal. They did discuss the “limitations” of their study, and added additional cautions in a supplementary “FAQs” section, but researchers’ cautions usually get lost in the hoopla, and the authors of subsequent review articles and textbooks rarely mention them. In the “genes for income and socioeconomic status” context, the goal of research funding sources and leading journals seems to be the production of studies and headlines that help justify the status and privileges of the wealthy, to help keep the rest of us passive and divided so that they can become even wealthier.