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December 01, 2013


Mark Wadsworth

"young people have an incentive to chase celebrity or longshot chances of success, rather than the sort of academic merit that'll give them a higher chance of a middlingly good income."

T'was ever thus.

Reminds me of that study out a while back saying people who had stupid maths or similar at Uni had the highest average earnings later in life.

Well obviously, because the mathematically minded are most likely to calculate that a sure-fire well paid job is a better bet than a one in a million shot at superstardom etc.

Mark Wadsworth

"stupid" should be "studied", dunno what happened there.


A few reactions:

1. Character is not as malleable as some suppose. Didn't the Comrades think that a new mode of production would create New Soviet Man?

2. Gregory Clark's economic history Farewell to Alms from a few years ago argued that through the English middle ages character was altered -- not by schoolmarms or incentives but by genetic selection. It weeded out many of the idle and the violent so increasing the proportion of the prudent and the industrious. The result: capitalism!

3. "Character skills [such as conscientiousness, sociability and perseverence] change with age"

This does not necessarily show the social malleability of character. It may be due to gene expression kicking in at different ages.

For instance, under-30s are more idealistic than us cynical over-30s. Likely reason: idealism helps attract mates and friends, cynicism helps protect established families. Different character traits are adaptive at different ages.

4. Genes influence personality, but parenting makes no difference. (As adoptive twin studies show.) Lesson: don't sweat the parenting!


@Martin - worth noting that Gregory Clark's economic history was deeply flawed. There are a bunch of good critiques of both his methodology and inferences out there.


@Metatone - I'll take the middle position that the Clark thesis has neither been refuted nor confirmed.

It seems reasonable, though, in view of the fact that personality is (partly) heritable.

Maybe one day we'll have historical DNA data that could either support or undermine it.


@Martin- "Genes influence personality, but parenting makes no difference. (As adoptive twin studies show.) Lesson: don't sweat the parenting!"- Would you be able to share some links/papers on this? As a father of a 4yr old daughter giving me sleepless nights, this sounded like music to my ears :-) Thanks.


The affirmation that genetic selection can happen in a few hundred years only sounds plausible whilst remaining inside a very opaque bubble of wishful thinking; taking a look at how little genetic makeup changed on human cultures that were isolated for much longer periods of time in much more unforgiving climates proves that such large and specific genetic trait changes don't occur in such small periods of time.

It is actually implying that societies can cleanse themselves genetically over a few hundred years from the riff raff, with the assumption that other societies that haven't done so are inferior and more brutal; a rhetoric that has been heard from semi-anthropological racialist theories in a pre-DNA 19th and 20th Centuries to justify, well, a lot. Dangerous, dangerous falsehoods.

Funny that someone coming from a town so close to Glasgow would even think of presenting the theory that the British society is any way less violent or more literate than the rest of the Western world.


@Andy - I read Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption, when my daughter was young:


It is NOT a parenting advice book (a genre I avoid) but a piece of psychological research.


@PBelling - genetics and economics are possibly the two most reviled and detested sciences. If economics is the dismal science, then genetics is the evil, nazi, eugenic, social-darwinist science.

That's why John Maynard Keynes, a strong proponent of eugenics and leading member of the Eugenic Society, was an evil nazi. Or something.

Myself, I'm just trying to satisfy my curiosity, using the best intellectual tools at hand, such as economics and genetics.


3 quick points:
1. In saying that character is shaped by the environment, I'm not denying a role for genes or anything else that contributes to a portion of fixedness in personality; we're not arguing either/or here.
2. We should distinguish between deliberate and non-deliberate shaping. Parents and schools try the former - but it needn't follow that they succeed, and their failures don't suffice to prove that personality is fixed.
3. It's possible that genetic inheritance is one way thru which environments shape character - if, say, they cause some types to have more kids than other types. Clark's history may be controversial, but the general mechanism surely isn't.


Thanks Martin for the Judith Harris link! And Chris for this amazing blog!


@Chris - True, you don't deny a role for genes, but your bias seems generally to downplay it. A case of variable omission bias?

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