Intelligence is just another privilege you inherited from mummy and daddy

16 October 2013

2:32 PM

16 October 2013

2:32 PM

I’m starting to get the impression that the Guardian isn’t very keen on Michael Gove, and may not give him the benefit of the doubt in their reporting. The latest offering was this, ‘Genetics outweighs teaching, Gove adviser tells his boss’, which was presumably designed to infuriate teachers, about an essay written by Dominic Cummings. This was followed up by a Polly Toynbee piece denying the role of hereditary factors in intelligence and claiming that it was all part of some government plan to keep the poor in their place.

Others have waded in, raising the spectre of eugenics, and I imagine someone is right now composing a comment piece about Dr Mengele’s legacy with the headline MICHAEL GOVE’s ‘FINAL SOLUTION’ FOR POOR CHILDREN.

Dominic Cummings had in fact used an accurate definition of heritability, as he states here, and the point he was making was that journalists routinely misunderstand genetics. What’s strange is that he was saying nothing that isn’t widely accepted; the very significant influence of heritable factors on differences in IQ within a population has been well known for four decades, and yet for political reasons it is ignored in education policy, both here and in the US.


The Guardian reporter called these findings ‘eye-catching’, yet there’s nothing remotely surprising that nature plays a large part in differences in intelligence, any more than it would do in height. Recognising that tall parents often have tall kids would not be to say that diet ‘doesn’t matter’, yet in the study of intelligence a false dichotomy is presented — nature v nurture, rather than nature and nurture.

For anyone with even the slightest interest in evolutionary biology it would be exceptionally strange if the human brain, uniquely among mammalian organs, was not affected by heritability, but had instead been created by a New York Times-reading God who thought that evolution was offensive. And yet this blank slate idea still directs policy, and the result is that teachers often get blamed when it all goes wrong.

Why is it that the reality-based community, which is so quick to jump on the creationism taught in a tiny number of schools, ignores another irrational idea that affects the entire educational system? It’s not just the half-life toxicity of Nazi eugenics. As Dr James Thompson of UCL cites here in this primer on intelligence, it is considered bad form for the clever to point out that their advantage is inherited.

Yet this has the effect of giving the intellectually privileged the false idea that they have earned their advantage, and eroding the feeling of noblesse oblige that the wealthy once felt when they knew their fortune depended on luck.

Rather we should regard intelligence as just another privilege you inherit from mummy and daddy, something Polly Toynbee — great-granddaughter of Arnold Toynbee and Gilbert Murray — should appreciate. That would make the world a more, not less, just place.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Dee



  • jnk9

    It seems to me that Ms Toynbee’s political views arise from a deep and thoroughly denied personal conflict about her own privilege. She is one of the 1%, and that is her personal tragedy; the 1% cannot afford to pay for the political programmes that she promotes, and so they send the bill to us, and that is our tragedy.

  • skadhithjassisdottir

    People like Toynbee are leftovers from the mid 20th century and their fear is doubtless rooted in the threat science poses to their own status as “intellectuals”. Back in the early 20th century most leftists were actually eugenicists of course. Then came the next generation of leftists losing power and trying to incite moral panics about child abuse in the Church, 1 in 4 women being raped etc. They only clutch at straws because they know their time is up.

    Oh yea leftists such as Che regarded abortion as anti-poor yet not many leftists are complaining about that the way Hitchens did. Like I said about the shift from supporting to demonising eugenics, times change even within political and social movements.

  • gwvanderleun

    “That would make the world a more, not less, just place.” Oh blow me you preposterous and preening and bloviating prat.

  • Eddie

    yep, but not just innate intelligence, which I agree is largely innate and fixed in early childhood.
    it is about connections and money too.
    plenty of poor kids are brighter than the rich kids, but they don’t get the breaks.

    The world (TV, the media, journalism, politics etc) is full of rich kids of mediocre intelligence who got opportunities denied others.

    Just look at the Theroux brothers (Westminster schoolm multimillionaire American dad), the Milliband brothers (sons of multi-millionaire Marxist); Harriet Harman (daughter to top surgeon) and on and on and on…

    In the past these people went into the Empire or foreign office – now they gravitate to the media where jobs are given via contacts and you have to work for free for years to establish yourself.

  • Angry Harry

    If it is true that the “richness” of the environment accounts mostly, or totally, for the development of intelligence in normal circumstances (which is the claim made by those psychologists supporting this view) then it follows that people who are not brought up in an enriched environment will have their intelligence retarded.

    As such, groups that have been oppressed will likely have lower intelligence.

    And, given that women have been oppressed for thousands of years, or so it is claimed, then one has to presume that, throughout history, women have been less intelligent than men.


    Which I don’t believe for one second.

  • rtj1211

    When Ed West is intelligent enough to evaluate how to evaluate ‘intelligence’, the debate might be worth having.

  • rtj1211

    What is not being discussed, which is the most important thing to discuss, is the usefulness of ‘IQ’ as a measure of potential, value or worth.

    It amazes me that a good little christian like you hasn’t ask the awkward question: ‘would you agree that most human evil on this earth was caused by criminal genii?’

    The IQ test is what it is because it can measure something measurable.

    The question to be asked is whether what it measures is useful or just a new way of entrenching prejudice about ‘potential’.

    • pp22pp

      I am sorry to be unkind, but you are a halfwit. IQ is a useful measure. It correlates strongly with successful outcomes in life. Of course, individuals with high IQ often fail dismally, but that does not invalidate the correlation. If you have nothing useful to add, could you go away.

  • Lee Moore

    “Why is it that the reality-based community, which is so quick to jump on the creationism taught in a tiny number of schools, ignores another irrational idea that affects the entire educational system?”

    Because – as Ed West obviously knows – progressives are not reality-based but “reality-based.” The association with reality is merely tactical, like the leftist commitment to disarmament, which didn’t apply to Soviet armaments. Science is a useful weapon when your opponents are putting prejudice ahead of science. But when you are doing so yourself, the less said about science the better.

    • rtj1211

      I am sure you will inflict genocide on your greater family if the US’ stockpile of nuclear weapons was far greater than that of the Soviet Union.

      Won’t you????

      Liars like you need to be held to account and you must die for your lies.

      Go on, go and kill yourself to atone for your lying evil.

      The world will be a better place without you….

      • William5279

        OK, I have replied to two of your comments but now I see that you are just a complete troll, stupid of me to fall for this, no more replies are required since you are undoubtedly impervious to intelligent argument.

        • Lee Moore

          It’s more likely to be output from an automatically generated nonsense programme, like the magnificent postmodernism generator

  • pp22pp

    I’ve seen rumours on the internet suggesting that Miliband only got into Oxford because he took a place reserved for poor kids. Apparently, a system had been introduced whereby they students could be accepted on an interview alone, if they came from a truly underprivileged background. Is there any truth in this? My guess is that the DM would have jumped on it if it had been true. Does any one know?

    • rtj1211

      It’s certainly true that Toby Young got in on false pretences.

      But fascists like you have to target the Left and not your own.

      Go to your headmaster for some corporal punishment….

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    According to some prescriptions, ” meritocracy” can trump both nature and nurture. But whether it does is down to luck and/or who you know, I suppose.

    • rtj1211

      Define ‘meritocracy’.

      • Wessex Man

        Something that wouldn’t involve you!

  • Angry Harry


    Another really bad consequence of lying to people about the inheritable nature of intelligence is that they are forever blaming their perceived poorer circumstances – whether real or imagined – as being the fault of others.

    “After all, if everyone can be a genius, then why can’t I? Why wasn’t I looked after properly? Who let me down?”

    And given that most of us probably feel that we deserve to be doing better, such an effect turns many people into perpetual grievance-mongers and victims.

    Which, amongst other things, is not good for our levels of happiness.

    • Angry Harry


      One of my favourite putdowns when I comes across people who believe that genes have precious little to do with intelligence goes something like this, depending on the circumstances …

      “Hmm. I see. So you reckon that you could have been a top-notch nuclear physicist or a rocket scientist. Or a famous artist like Renoir or Van Gogh. But, unfortunately for you, your educators and your parents let you down.

      “Goodness. You have certainly been poorly served by those people who were supposed to take care of you.”

      • rtj1211

        Your argument runs along the lines that genius needs no teaching whatever. Maybe not, but then you merely select out those prepared to endure more pain and suffering, not those with greater insight, since the road to enlightenment without teaching is long, hard and painful.

        Your argument runs that sitting in a useless school for 11 years has no effect.

        Your argument states that parents who couldn’t recognise talent push you into things you are useless at don’t have an effect.

        You are mentally ill if that is what you believe. Truly mentally ill.

        There is ultimate potential which is partly affected by genetics. There is realisation of potential, which is wholly determined by environment.

        Oh but thickos like you could understand that.

        • Wessex Man

          typical, you’ve no real arguement so you result to “You are mentally ill if that is what you believe. Truly mentally ill.” and “Oh but thickos like you could understand that.”

          I think that your use of these terms in your reply confirm you have that horrible left wing tendency to shout and swear when you lose an arguement.

        • William5279

          Again, straw man, ad hominem, wilfully misunderstand arguments, argue against what wasn’t said, you write well enough so are probably educated but lack a certain…..what could it be?

    • rtj1211

      Actually, the biggest predictor of wealth right now is amorality.

  • NinePillocksInARoom

    This is fun, Ed West sounding like a Rawlsian. (And yes, for the avoidance of doubt, my father is also a smart***e!)

  • Liberty

    The Left maintain that intelligence is environmentally determined because Marx said that ones social class is environmentally determined and that with the right economics, education, etc. it is possible to create an equal society. So to maintain their socialist integrity it is essential to believe that such important features as intelligence and character are environmentally determined and so they shouted downs the likes of Hans Eysenck in the LSE in the 60s and 70s for contradicting them lest he inform the masses. Denying reality, evidence and freedom of expression whilst shouting down those who disagree with them is the socialist way. It was ever thus.

    • Daniel Maris

      You’d have to define intelligence first. Can someone who can’t read and write and has had absolutely no schooling be “intelligent”? Well obviously yes in one sense they might be – they might still be good at visual pattern recognition, hand-eye-co-ordination and functional memory. But in another,
      their ability to manipulate complex concepts is going to be very limited.

      That’s why most of us want our children to go to school – not just for a day or a week but for 200 days a year for 14 years and then another 3 years at university.

      • Liberty

        Intelligence in not observable – but intelligent behaviour is. Generally, intelligence is believed to be what IQ tests measure. It is a little like mathematics; we all know that 2 and 2 = 4, it is not observable other than in doing things that involve counting, etc.It is a natural faculty of humans just as language and rational thought is – but some of us are better at it than others and where we are on the continuum of intelligent behaviour is evidence of a difference in intelligence.

        Education is good but some of us get more out of it than others and that is mostly down to intelligence. We all know that two 16 yr olds can have had much the same education and one may be functionally innumerate but the other can do calculus. It is mostly down to intelligence and – surprise, surprise, the clever kids usually have clever parents and vice versa.

      • rtj1211

        The first person to raise the awkward question of how you define ‘intelligence’.

        Good on you.

        • William5279

          God what a typical diversion tactic, pretend there is no such thing as intelligence and no way to measure it, therefore nullify the whole argument, it is a disingenuous response since you know perfectly well what is meant (or would if you had any intelligence).

          • Daniel Maris

            I didn’t say there was no such thing as intelligence. I said you could argue that complex visual pattern recognition, good hand-eye co-ordination and a capacious functional memory were all signs of “intelligence”. My point was that without education they amount to nothing in our society where all the emphasis is on complex cognitive development. In the 21st century it’s even doubtful whether someone who was completely computer illiterate could be considered “intelligent”. Certainly their gifts might easily be overlooked, given the extent of our reliance on computers.

            What you have to explain is why people in Britain were living in mud huts with virtually no written culture around 1000 AD and 500 years later were producing works of sublime perfection (I refer to Shakespeare, Marlowe and others). Did the gene pool really change that dramatically in that period? Or did society change?

            • Angry Harry

              Daniel. Excellent points.

              Just want to point out that William wasn’t replying to you.

            • David Ettinger

              I know the answer to that one, exponential technological growth.

              Technology was at first spurred at first by geographical advantage. Agriculture and the move away from hunter gatherer societies into stationary farming societies was the first step.

              If societies have episodes of mass social and structural woes such as disease and famine, then this technological growth pattern might decelerate somewhat.

              Technology provides the platform to create a societal environment conducive to technological and scientific work.

              Hunter gatherer societies didn’t have the societal stability to sit around and think about complex abstract concepts such as those found in scientific pursuits. Essentially evolutionarily novel thinking.

  • James Strong

    ‘keep the poor in their place’ ???
    FFS this makes me angry.
    It’s the Left that want to keep poor poor. Because they think that then they’ll keep the votes of the poor.
    Those of us on the Right would like everyone to be rich, and we think the way to achieve that is with much smaller government.

    • John Lea

      Totally agree – cui bono, as they say? It is in the interests of Labour to keep the poor not only poor, but jobless, dependent on the state, lacking aspiration. Who on earth would vote for them otherwise? (Excepting, of course, state workers and feminist academics working in the field of ‘social sciences’.)

      • rtj1211

        It is in the interests of the City to make billions and they do it by shafting everyone else, making them poor.

    • rtj1211

      I”m afraid evidence from the market disproves your contention.

      Don’t worry your deluded little head though.

      You’re just like the left, spouting claptrap and claiming truth.

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    Nice to see the Spectator discussion taking an intellectual turn!

    • Daniel Maris

      It did for about two seconds. LOL

  • Angry Harry

    “This was followed up by a Polly Toynbee piece denying the role of hereditary factors in intelligence ”

    The ideology of the Left is mostly constructed on the basis of what they want to inflict on society, not on what is true.

    They are liars through and through.

    It took me years to see through this because they controlled the mainstream media in the UK which, prior to the internet, more or less controlled us.

    Thankfully, their game is up.

    And they will soon be gone.

  • Pootles

    Of course, in dear Mary Louisa’s case (aka ‘Polly’ Toynbee) more concrete privilege came into play when she was a dear, gilded yoof, enabling her to ‘drift into journalism’ on the Observer. Can’t say I’ve ever enefited from that interesting happenstance.

    • skadhithjassisdottir

      These people are all trash, less than 3% of them have a working class bbackground and are concerned with chattering class First World Issues.

  • Smithersjones2013

    I thought it was accepted practice not to get out the ‘Wicked Hag Zombie Of The Left’ costume pictures until the end of the month? You might frighten the punters away otherwise (that picture gave me a nasty shock). Hideous!