The Methods Man

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Proving the Superiority of Capitalism... with Genetics?

A new study suggests that meritocracy increased when the Soviets left Estonia, and that benefit is written in DNA.

Can we use the power of genetics to prove, using science, that capitalism is better than communism? I wouldn’t have thought so either, yet here we are with this paper, appearing in Nature Human Behaviour.

Protests for 

Here’s the setup. In 1991, Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union, converting itself from a communist to a capitalist society.

The authors wanted to test whether the post-soviet era was more meritocratic than the pre-soviet era. But how can that be measured with genetics?

Well, there have been several studies that have documented a relationship between genetics and ultimate socio-economic status. Twin studies have confirmed that while environment plays a major role in where people end up in life, genetics plays a role too.

The authors of the Nature study suggest that in a more meritocratic society, genetics will be more strongly associated with ultimate socioeconomic status than in a less meritocratic society, where the luck of your birth into a family with political connections or other dealings with the party in power dictate your ultimate success.

They genotyped 12,500 Estonians and looked at their socioeconomic outcomes.

Higher bars are better, right?  Right?!

The contribution of genetics to this outcome was significantly greater after the Soviet era than before. What you see here is that around 2% of the variance of educational attainment and occupational status was determined by genetics in the Soviet era, compared to almost 6% in the Post-Soviet era.

Now when I first read this, it irked me for some reason. I think my egalitarian mind didn’t like the implication that genetics should dictate future success.  But that said, if genetics shouldn’t, what should?  Hard work? Couldn’t part of an individual’s drive to work hard be genetic?

I love the whole Huxley family

Of course, taken to the logical extreme, these authors would need to argue that a perfectly meritocratic society would be entirely genetically driven – a concept we’ve seen before. It doesn’t work out well.

Moreover, in this framework genetic bias might show up as more meritocratic. Imagine a society that transitions from a truly egalitarian state to one that promotes people entirely based on height. After the transition, you might find that a large component of socioeconomic status is driven by genetics – height is largely genetically determined after all. Is that more meritocratic? Hardly.

The point is that genetics don’t exist in a vacuum.  When we measure the contribution of genetics to socioeconomic status we are measuring what genetics society values – and how much society values genetics. It’s an interesting question, to be sure, but one we should understand in order to find those individuals who are discriminated against for the wrong reasons, rather than promoted for the right ones.