What’s obvious?

John Stuart Mill wrote: “Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.”

Adam Smith said: “The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.

When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were a, perhaps, a very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents. ” –Adam Smith Wealth of Nations, 1.2.4-5.

Fairly often I end up asking myself what the word ‘obvious’ even means. It seems to me that nothing could be more obvious than the existence of very substantial inborn, heritable differences in cognition and personality. Growing up, I knew a couple pairs of identical twins: you could hardly tell them apart. That’s not just something that happened to me – twins aren’t a new thing. How was it possible to not notice family resemblance and clustering of traits in siblings? My geometry teacher expected me to do well because he’d taught my mother. Which wasn’t crazy, but why could he see what Mill and Smith couldn’t?

If people didn’t have roughly correct ideas about this, how did they ever breed different kinds of dogs, cows, and horses? I’m guessing that both Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill had at least heard of Thoroughbreds.

Every stock-breeder knew this, going back thousands of years. Every mother-of-several children knew it.

Both Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill were childless: likely this had something to do with their illusions on this issue. But is living a truth the only way to understand it? Don’t we have books?

Plenty of people today would support what Mill and Smith said: they’re wrong, and probably crazy. You have to wonder what’s going on in their pointy heads: what kind of fools are they?

Darwin had it right: “The ignoring of all transmitted mental qualities will, as it seems to me, be hereafter judged as a most serious blemish in the works of Mr. Mill.” – C. Darwin.

Blemish? More like a zit the size of the Ritz.

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133 Responses to What’s obvious?

  1. Not having children might account for a lot of this, because children are good at interrupting adult fantasies.

    • The Z Blog says:

      I used to think this, but I have liberal friends who swear sex is a social construct, despite having had girls and boys. It’s as if they did not notice their kids growing up in front of them.

      Belief is powerful magic.

    • pyrrhus says:

      Indeed, children are the ultimate red pill….

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        I think children can have both effects. For most people they’re a red pill – especially on gender differences – but the same effect can force some true believers to react in the opposite direction and become more extreme to suppress the dissonance.

  2. Henry Scrope says:

    Inherited differences would have been somewhat less obvious to them than to us as both the gentlemen lived in homogenous societies.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I grew up in a small town. Pretty homogenous. But people varied, and the differences were familial, to an extent. Noticeably so.

      • Henry Scrope says:

        Yes you have a point. Thinking back to my own childhood, certain families were known for certain things and pretty accurate predictions could be made.

    • Jeff R. says:

      They both grew up in an era of hereditary aristocracy, too. Maybe their views were informed by the recognition that, say, the average Duke’s son wasn’t nearly so much smarter than the average porter’s son as their disparity in social position and standard of living would suggest? Just a thought.

      • bomag says:

        average Duke’s son wasn’t nearly so much smarter than…

        Also might have been turned off by the excesses of the aristocracy. A few years earlier, some pretty smart guys intoned that, “all men are created equal” while they no doubt knew otherwise, but the king was an a-hole, and that was a good way to insult him.

        • Smithie says:

          “The Federalist Papers” contain some real howlers, like the prestige of the Senate being a check on the behavior of senators. I can’t tell if Hamilton, Madison, and Jay actually believed those things or not. But I seem to recall Madison grew up in a sort of bubble.

    • Nomen Est Omen says:

      Britain has never been homogenous. I get a very strong sense of genetic difference among the “white British” when I move around the country and if you read British magazines like Punch from the nineteenth century, you’ll see that the middle class viewed their servants almost as a separate species. Galton saw the differences:

      He even made a beauty map of Britain, based on a secret grading of the local women on a scale from attractive to repulsive (the low point was in Aberdeen).

      In a letter to Nature in 1879 entitled The Average Flush of Excitement, Galton recounts a visit to the Derby. He noted that while he was there he was able to assess what he called “the average tint of the complexion of the British upper classes” by observing the distant crowd through his opera glass.

      He observed that after the race started, the crowd became “suffused with a strong pink tint, just as though a sun-set glow had fallen upon it”. Galton found that he could work out the mood of a mass of people even without being able to distinguish one person from the next.


  3. The Monster from Polaris says:

    I don’t want to brag, but…
    If Adam Smith were right, there shouldn’t have been much difference between me and my classmates. We received the same education, after all.
    Actually the differences were glaringly obvious. I did much better than they at subjects requiring brainpower — and much worse at sports. (I was also much taller up to the age of 14, at which age I stopped growing, so they caught up with me).

  4. Nomen Est Omen says:

    I think Mill’s Hajnal line was showing. In his favor, he reasoned well here:

    But, when a people are ripe for free institutions, there is a still more vital consideration. Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the working of representative government can not exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another. The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, do not reach them. One section does not know what opinions or what instigations are circulating in another. The same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect them in different ways, and each fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state. Their mutual antipathies are generally much stronger than jealousy of the government. That any one of them feels aggrieved by the policy of the common ruler is sufficient to determine another to support that policy. Even if all are aggrieved, none feel that they can rely on the others for fidelity in a joint resistance; the strength of none is sufficient to resist alone, and each may reasonably think that it consults its own advantage most by bidding for the favor of the government against the rest.

    Considerations on Representative Government (1861)

    • gcochran9 says:

      So he thought that every kid could have learned to read Greek at the age of three? Mill’s father deliberately tried to create a prodigy, maybe that confused Mill – plenty of other people have tried to create a prodigy without succeeding.

      • Thiago Ribeiro says:

        “So he thought that every kid could have learned to read Greek at the age of three? Mill’s father deliberately tried to create a prodigy, maybe that confused Mill – plenty of other people have tried to create a prodigy without succeeding.”

        Most fathers trying it (and talking about biological dispositions, it seems to be always fathers) are not James Mill. Or László Polgár. Or Boris Sidis. Or Earl Woods.

      • Ian says:

        William McDougall writing in 1921:

        J.S. Mill himself had been most carefully educated from his earliest years by his father; and he attributed his own achievements in the intellectual sphere wholly to that fact, overlooking a still more important fact, namely, that he was the son of his father, a man of great intellectual vigor and capacity.

        • gcochran9 says:

          In much the same way, P.A.M. Dirac blamed his own strangeness on the way his father raised him. Most likely, he inherited those qualities.

          • Yes, Dirac was extremely bitter about his father, almost delusional about it. Meal times a particular bone of contention. Genes never mentioned. Pinker, on the other hand, after recounting the changing point in his young life (reading a New York Times article about Noam Chomsky on grammar, and wanting to research that himself) was open to my later suggestion that genetic knowledge meant that we now had to rewrite our biographies, and conceded that the main thing in his life was that his parents were the sort of parents who took our a subscription to the New York Times.

      • Nomen Est Omen says:

        Mill’s father deliberately tried to create a prodigy

        I assume the fathers who try that kind of thing tend to be both highly intelligent and weird, so the kids are are more likely to be both those things too. I wonder whether Mill and Smith missed genetics because they were “on the spectrum.” Utilitarianism is like libertarianism: it appeals to autistics and people who prefer abstractions to messy reality.

    • Are you using ‘Hajnal line’ as a metaphor?

      • Nomen Est Omen says:

        Are you using ‘Hajnal line’ as a metaphor?

        Yes, I meant he was individualistic and lacking in ethnocentrism. I can’t imagine many people outside the Hajnal saying what he and Smith said and meaning it. Gould, for example, probably had a very strong sense of the importance of heredity, which is why he denied its importance.

        • Jaakko Raipala says:

          The Hajnal line is a historical pattern in age of marriage – Western Europeans tended to marry exceptionally late in life. All the stuff about it having anything to do with “ethnocentrism” is a blog invention with nothing whatsoever to support it. It’s extremely typical pseudoscience – you cite a published author while making claims that have nothing whatsoever to do with the authors work, relying on nobody in your echo chamber even wanting to debunk your stuff.

          Plenty of Russian writers from Christians to communists said the same stuff about how horrible the idea of heredity is and under Stalin they threw geneticists in camps. There is also zero evidence of a lack of “ethnocentrism” in Westerners – sure, currently Westerners like to claim so, but their revealed actions speak otherwise as the Westerners who claim to love ethnic diversity withdraw from diverse cities into homogeneous suburbs.

          • Nomen Est Omen says:

            All the stuff about it having anything to do with “ethnocentrism” is a blog invention with nothing whatsoever to support it.

            There’s a correlation between the Hajnal line and individualism, lack of ethnocentrism, etc. What causes the correlation is another question.

            There is also zero evidence of a lack of “ethnocentrism” in Westerners – sure, currently Westerners like to claim so, but their revealed actions speak otherwise as the Westerners who claim to love ethnic diversity withdraw from diverse cities into homogeneous suburbs.

            Yep, Mutti Merkel and the German elite open Germany’s borders and enrich other members of their ethny with diversity, but avoid said diversity themselves. This proves that Mutti et al are really profoundly ethnocentric.

            Are you a Freudian, by any chance? If so, what do you make of the Japanese and Israeli elites’ behavior compared to the German, British, American elites’?

          • DataExplorer says:

            “the Westerners who claim to love ethnic diversity withdraw from diverse cities into homogeneous suburbs.”

            Those kind of people withdraw to the suburbs to get away from crime and dilapidated neighborhoods. If they could find well kept, crime-free neighborhoods that were ethnically diverse they would have no problem moving there. So they are not ethnocentric on a conscious level.

  5. dearieme says:

    School teacher to me at about age 15: “You still finding that everything comes easy?”


    “Lucky bugger.”

    It ain’t fair but it’s how it is.

  6. Charles Murray says:

    I’m not sure it’s so odd. Recall how much intellectual talent was in occupations like porters in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how often the aristocrats were twits. So both Smith and Hume would often have encountered people in laboring occupations who were really smart and people occupying high positions who were incompetent. For them to generalize from that was incorrect, but you can see where they got the idea.

    • gcochran9 says:

      We have dynastic idiots today. That’s evidence for hereditary influence, not against it – it just says that society’s sorting function isn’t very efficient.

    • pyrrhus says:

      There’s an app for that, “The Son Also Rises”, by Greg Clark, which demonstrates that the influence of prominent families lasts many generations….

    • Yudi says:

      Are you THE Charles Murray?

    • bomag says:

      In Smith and Mill’s day, the received wisdom was that aristocrats were meant to rule. Independent thinkers with a contrarian streak were prone to suggest other arrangements.

      Today, officialdom has installed various racial/sexual orientation groups as aristocrats. If any little kids suggests that these new, aristocratic emperors have no clothes, the kids are attacked by a mob.

  7. AppSocRes says:

    Both Smith and Mill are victims of the ideology in which they were raised, classical liberalism, the foundation of Whig thinking. The origin of classical liberalism is John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”. Locke also had a theory of personality and human development, which he explicated in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”. This is where Locke develops the idea of the human mind as a “tabula rasa”. Locke’s thinking forms a unified way of looking at human nature, societies, and governance. It is an ideology just as much as communism and fascism. Smith and Mill were stewed in this ideology so it’s not all that surprising that it warped their ability to draw honest conclusions from observation. Much as liberals, even classical liberals, may deny it, liberalism is an ideology and it straitjackets certain thoughts in certain ways. The inability of both men to deal with obvious, inborn, individual variations in human personality and intellectual capacity is one obvious example.

    • catte says:

      This is cartoon history. Nobody was “steeped in an ideology” in those days. There was vigorous debate on these issues and Mill and Smith would have been at least familiar with the opposing viewpoints.

      • Catte

        It is simply silly to call this “cartoon history”, everything that AppSocRes has written is true.

        Mills was raised to be exactly what he became, a Liberal philosopher, so yes he was steeped in an ideology. An ideology that he believed, supported, propagated and lived.

        Smith was a leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment. While both he and Mills certainly knew of opposing viewpoints, it is important to know that they rejected those viewpoints.

        Mark Moncrieff
        Upon Hope Blog – A Traditional Conservative Future

      • JerryC says:

        In light of his upbringing, I think it would be hard to name someone more steeped in ideology than John Stuart Mill.

        • Thiago Ribeiro says:

          “In light of his upbringing, I think it would be hard to name someone more steeped in ideology than John Stuart Mill.”
          Kim Jong-un? Lev Sedov (Trotsky’s son and aide)? Any mango worshipping Chinese? The average Mormon?

          • reiner Tor says:

            Kim Jong Un was not steeped much in the Juche ideology, since he spent a fairly large portion of his education at a Swiss boarding school.

          • JerryC says:

            Obviously lots of people grow up steeped in ideology, but moreso than Mill? That’s a high bar to clear.

            • Thiago Ribeiro says:

              He at least had more opportunites from seeing opposite views (not all British were liberals) than the average children of Politburo members or the average Brazilian when Portugal banned printing presses in the colony. Much more than the average Mango worshipper. Or people who panicked when Khruschev said Stalin was not so cool after all.

    • dearieme says:

      “it warped their ability to draw honest conclusions from observation”: why do you think they were dishonest, rather than being simply wrong?

  8. IC says:

    When I read this part from Adam Smith, my thought was Dunning-Kruger effect.

    As highly intelligent person, Adam Smith over-estimate people’s ability to do different things.

    “Conversely, highly competent individuals may erroneously assume that tasks easy for them to perform are also easy for other people to perform, or that other people will have a similar understanding of subjects that they themselves are well-versed in.[2]”

    Funny thing is that stupid people actually get this part partially right.

    “people of low (mental) ability suffer from illusory superiority, “

    • IC says:

      A while ago when my stock investment return had surpassed my job income, I believed this was so easy to get rich. So I told my colleagues (physicians):” If I can do it, you can”.

      Only after bunch of them suffered some financial loss, I realized my mistake of Dunning-Kruger effect.

      “It’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.” Charlie Munger

      Now, I become wise. I will not consider stock investment as “easy”. Maybe “easy” for me, but not for others. I stop recommending stock investment as way to get rich for most people.

      • j says:

        Till a few years ago I suffered from the cognitive error described above by IC. My “aha!” moment came when I started to grade written exams. Students “brilliant” in class produced moronic papers, which forced me to accept the obvious. Regarding stocks, I still consider investing to be easy. I was managing my daughers’ savings too, with the same good results, but professional advisers convinced them that I was taking crazy risks with their money and dismissed me. IQ is not the main issue in stocks. I am still waiting for my “money, aha” moment.

        • IC says:

          Each transaction of stock is intellectual judgment against each other between buyer and seller. They both think their own judgment better than other. But only one is right, smarter here. It is pure game of IQ against each other among investors.

          • IC says:

            The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith is actually guiding principle for my tock investment.

            I figured a lot of stuff out on business and economy at both micro- and macro- levels on my own. The knowledge from the Wealth of Nations only reaffirmed what I already believed. Certainly some part I disagree with like the one presented here by Greg. But such mistake is trivial and in no way to deny the genius of Adam Smith. If you truly understand the knowledge in the book, you have an edge over others without such knowledge in the investment world.

      • You can get middling rich by investing in an index tracker. See Warren Buffet’s advice to his wife, as to how to invest her money when he dies. You may need some intelligence to understand the negative impact on compound interest of high management fees, but not all that much, I would guess.
        OK, perhaps I’m wrong, and the benefits of a plain vanilla index tracker are too complex for most people to understand.

        • Pincher Martin says:

          I’ve tried to explain the benefits of low-cost, no fee investing in broad market indices for years. Most college-educated people don’t get it. Or at least they don’t immediately apprehend it.

  9. pyrrhus says:

    These family clusters of ability are so obvious to teachers that they don’t even arouse comment..What would arouse comment would be a child who doesn’t share the mental abilities of his brothers and sisters. In one case I remember, it turned out that the child was adopted….

    • Smithie says:

      There’s just enough variability within families for some to make the wrong interpretation.

      The valedictorian of my class went on to Harvard, and his father was a scientist. But his brother was sort of an idiot. Not retarded, but probably at least 2 SD lower in IQ. The family resemblance was strong, and the dull brother was only a year older. He was chubby as well. Not a bad guy, but definitely not bright.

      Two guys grow up in the same household, but have different outcomes despite one not being a readheaded stepchild. Should probably increase the idea of heritability. But that’s just not how egalitarians process info.

      • pyrrhus says:

        Sure, we all know families where one of the kids is on a different level from his siblings…That’s why heritability of intelligence is probably around 70%, not 90%.

  10. Jane Walerud says:

    Until the 50’s, there was little cognitive sorting for occupations. Only a small percentage of jobs required high IQ, and people seem to have accepted mediocre performance from, say, white shoe law firms.

    Then came the Sputnik and the American race to put a man on the moon and an emphasis on not wasting intellectual talent. Cognitive sorting began.

    Charles Murray wrote that the average SAT for incoming Harvard freshmen increased dramatically in the 50’s. That money quote came early in The Bell Curve. He’s been depressingly right about the evolution of society and the results of generations of assortative mating so far. Coming Apart is pretty much a recap of parts of The BellCurve 18 years later.

    ‘”Meritocracy” is turning out about the way Michael Young envisioned it. Pitchforks ain’t the half of it.

    I saw a YouTube video a few years ago of Cochrane and Harpending talking about the breeders equation and the effects of assortative mating: two or three generations and they start to look like very different groups. For that result, I think they used a lower IQ heritability co-effecient than is currently estimated for adults.

    • krakonos says:

      I am not sure about lack of assortative mating in the past. Looking at my schoolmates I noticed that even though they came from various backgrounds, their ancestors had been well-to-do in those fields. Even when most people were locked to a land in villages, there were noticeable differences.
      E.g., you can be a butcher with a small shady shop or you can be well-off with a house(s) and employees/helpers. As for agriculture, you could have just a small plot behind a shack or you can farm on dozens of hectares.
      There used to be a strong family pressure to marry someone from family with similar assets/money (a proxy for intelligence & other traits). Hard to quantify whether it was stronger or weaker than today.

    • E. Olson says:

      Lots of people say that assortative mating is greater today, and give the example of the business executive or doctor marrying his secretary years ago, but marrying another executive or doctor today. What they forget, however, is that career possibilities for most people were very limited until recently, particularly for women and minorities. Thus you could have a secretary who was very smart, but couldn’t afford higher education or wasn’t allowed in the “boys” club and hence could not rise to the level of her competency, but if she marries her smart boss the effects would be the same as today’s executive marrying another executive. The one new issue, however, is that women tend to want to marry up by mating with a man that has even more money, education, and status than she does, and such men become hard to find when more and more women have fancy degrees, and a high paying and high status job themselves.

  11. John says:

    To the faux rationalist the idea of Free Will is far more comforting than is Determinism. Free Will allows you to believe that a dedicated committee, sufficient resources, and a thick enough policy document can make many a silk purse out of sows ears. But real rationalists acknowledge the sometimes uncomfortable truth that much about us is biologically determined. Unfortunately too many lazy ‘thinkers’ opt for the comforting option.

  12. Jim says:

    Yes it is very strange that people can believe the mental endowments of all people are identical while they have no problem understanding the large variation in physical abilities. Even more bizarre is that some individuals who will acknowledge the variation in intelligence among individuals in various populations nevertheless believe that there is some universal constant that is the average cognitive level in the more than 6500 different ethnic groups on this planet.

    People have a magical view of reality not a scientific view. They believe in a world run by gods who might decree that every race or ethnic group be equally endowed with the same average mental capability. Obviously in a world run not by gods but by natural laws there is no more chance that every population has the same average IQ than that every population has the same average stature.

  13. “Darwin had it right: “The ignoring of all transmitted mental qualities will, as it seems to me, be hereafter judged as a most serious blemish in the works of Mr. Mill.” ”

    Darwin was a man of his time: he was thus inclined to civility to other [rational] minds and towards arguments or opinions at variance to his own. He seems to have been particularly averse from ad hominem attacks. A “most serious blemish” is, in this context, a severe judgement.

    Darwin’s entire circle would probably have been aware of another of Mills views:

    We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still…
    The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed…

    John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.

    Nonetheless Darwin was right.

  14. Philip Neal says:

    Adam Smith is talking mainly about differential ability between high and low status professions, and in his day there must have been far more intelligent working men than there are now. Even in my own youth, Irish labourers were noticeably cleverer than their English counterparts because they grew up with fewer opportunities for self-advancement, but since Ireland became the economic equal of England this has ceased to be true.

    • ghazisiz says:

      My personal experience of third world village life suggests that societies without much upward mobility will have some unusually intelligent people among the poor (also a lot of dumb ones, of course). So I would guess that the British lower orders in the 18th and 19th centuries contained many talented people. Upward social mobility has since allowed most of the talented to rise, taking their genes with them, leaving behind the untalented, who have tended to breed with each other. Today, after four or more generations of upward mobility, it would be correct to consider most of the lowest strata as irredeemably destined to be at the bottom.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Downward social mobility is a big part of why there was so much talent in the ‘lower orders’. If upper-middle-class farmers overbred their niche, those extra kids had to go somewhere. At the same time, landless laborers were probably reproducing at less than break-even rates. In some countries, like Poland, nobles overbred their niche, until many were small farmers with a famous name. If you’re not careful, you can end up in a situation where every man’s a potential king.

  15. The Z Blog says:

    There’s something to say for experience. I no longer recall the personal details of Smith and Mill, but my vague recollection is both were born into what passed for the upper middle class of their day. As a result, their formative years were not spent around the sons of porters, hod carriers and stock breeders. Egalitarianism is a luxury good that you take for granted when born into luxury.

    I grew up in the underclass. It was not hard to see the diversity of man at an early age. Playmates in my class the first few grades, were separated out, eventually ending up in one of the trailers out back of the school for the special kids. Some excelled and wound up in the other special classes. Both tails usually had the same things in common. You come away with a realistic view of the human condition when you see it at a young age.

    The more I hang around the sort of people inclined to notice the diversity of man, the more I notice that the bulk of the noticers are men who experienced it in their formative years. Maybe it was travel. Maybe it was working menial jobs in school or college. Maybe it was growing up poor. In almost all cases, the noticer is someone who had a chance to notice early in life.

    • Abelard Lindsey says:

      Some of us notice the diversity of man a bit later in life. Living in Malaysia was instructive for me. As you may or may not know, Malaysia is the only multiracial country in Asia, with Chinese, Indians, and Malays living together in one country. The fact is, they really do live together and the performance varies radically between these different groups. Anyone who does not believe in the diversity of man ought to spend some time living in Malaysia.

  16. PhilippeO says:

    Because they Classical Liberals at age where heredity is important concern. ? Its time when Nobility belief that such character as bravery, politeness and estate management is inherited.

    Smith and Mill come in age when changing society enable one to raises to nobility, son of farmer to become lawyer, etc. So they assume its education like Oxbridge which enable someone to become noble or lawyer. And with low standard of profession at that time, They might be Right.

  17. anonymousfunk says:

    What was the education system like in their time? Were there what are effectively large dataset experiments going on from which “teachers” could have shared their wisdom?

    Was the society heterogenous enough that the IQ distribution was different? So that, for instance, the “Smiths” didn’t consistently cluster around a different mean from the “Mills” or the “Jones”?

  18. Esso says:

    I’m sure the modern obliviousness to heredity is almost completely independent of Mill and Smith. This goes for modern economists as well. Rather, there seem to be common reasons that dispose people towards the study of economics and cause them to abstract biology away. You have talked about selection effects in academy yourself.

    Contra Darwin, my biggest issue with Mill (and Smith) is the success of their philosophy in politics and how easy it is to game that philosophy to exploit ordinary decent people. The art is to subtly switch between modes of “free actors pursuing their self-interest” and “the greatest good for the greatest number” while obfuscating the question of the voter’s own interests.

    The success of the “bike cuck” meme gives some hope though.

  19. spottedtoad says:

    Before mass media, universal education and various kinds of (real or fake) commitments to meritocracy, heritability was probably lower and the contribution of shared environment/resources to outcomes probably bigger than now. We’ve equalized much of the important parts of environment, but there was a reason apart from genes George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were over six feet at a time when most Englishmen were under 5 foot 7.

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  21. arch1 says:

    The Mills quote, which only makes sense if there is an implicit “solely” between “character” and “to”, doesn’t show that Mills disbelieved in “very substantial inborn, heritable differences in cognition and personality”.

    (I’m ignorant of what Mills believed, just commenting on what can be concluded from the quote).

  22. Darwin himself may originally have held views not too different from Mill’s and Smith’s, and had his mind changed by Galton’s work. Here’s from his letter to Galton, as he was reading Galton’s “Hereditary Genius” (1869):

    “You have made a convert of an opponent in one sense, for I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work.”

    For what it’s worth, as far as we know Galton had no offspring.

    • dearieme says:

      Proposal: at school and at both his universities, Darwin may have confounded ability and hard work simply because students of lower ability might have found their subjects both disagreeable and too difficult for them. They would therefore slack. He would attribute their failure to lack of work, missing the cause (or a major cause) of their laziness.

      • Thiago Ribeiro says:

        Wasn’t Darwin himslef king of a slacker at Classics at grammar school?

        • When I left the school I was for my age neither high nor low in it; and I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once said to me, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

          Darwin, Autobiography

    • DataExplorer says:

      “For what it’s worth, as far as we know Galton had no offspring.”

      Just done some research on this. He married Louisa Jane Butler in 1853, after returning from his Africa expedition. She was already 31 by that time. The Origin of the Species, which is the book that got Galton interested in heredity, was not published until 1859, by then his wife was 37 years old, which is close to the end of the healthy child bearing age. Too much time exploring the natural world, but too little time exploring the most important aspect of it.

  23. Could the Protestant Reformation and it’s implied egalitarian view of salvation etc. have had some influence on their views. I often think that religion and specifically the Protestant Ethic have had significant influence on existentialism. Am I wrong?

  24. Grumpy Old Man says:

    If you’ve raised two more children, you know that many aspects of temperament differ almost from birth–irritability, sociability, the setting of the internal metronome, auditory and visual acuity, musicality, etc. I have two girls 16 months apart. Different learning styles, different character. Grew up in the same house with the same parents, same diet, health conditions, etc.

    This one case is of course anecdotal, but I don’t think any parent of more than one kid or anyone who knows babies and toddlers would doubt the significance of inheritance.

    Then there are adoptees who are reunited with birth parents. The resemblances in spite of separation, are impressive.

  25. Greying Wanderer says:

    “If people didn’t have roughly correct ideas about this, how did they ever breed different kinds of dogs, cows, and horses?”

    Ideological egalitarianism from the enlightenment onwards has been driven by the conflict between an emerging urban middle class and the previously dominant heredity based aristocracy and to win that battle the urban faction needed to undermine the entire concept of heredity. It’s a rationalization of a political viewpoint for a political end i.e. undermining hereditary aristocratic power.

    Using cultural warfare to undermine an existing power structure is a substitute for or a precursor to physical transformation: French revolution, Bolshevik revolution and Anglo liberalism are all part of that centuries long transformation – either an actual or an ideological guillotine.

    (Cultural Marxism is another example of this process.)

    When an idea supports a particular political interest some people will promote it even if they know it’s not true – people who are mostly honest will rationalize it first to prevent dissonance while people who are mostly dishonest people will simply lie.

    • ghazisiz says:

      I agree with this. It was a truism in early modern Europe that “breeding” mattered. Smith and Mill were among those pushing back against this idea. The political objective, at least in my opinion, was commendable: better treatment for ordinary people.
      Today, of course, the truism is that breeding doesn’t matter. Most of us here push back against that idea. Our political objectives are no doubt various, but surely also commendable. I, for one, would like to see the end of futile, expensive, and ethnocentric education policies designed to turn little black children into little white children.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        yep – reaction to one bad thing goes too far leading to a new bad thing which leads to a reaction to the new bad thing – but if none of these various bad things or the reactions to them end in the complete destruction of a society then eventually they make it stronger.

      • dearieme says:

        ‘It was a truism in early modern Europe that “breeding” mattered.’ This is complicated by the fact that many people confuse two uses of the word in English. “Breeding” in the sense of bloodlines – as in dogs – and “breeding” in the sense of upbringing and education. A ‘well-bred’ man meant someone who had been well raised, with good manners, and the accomplishments that mark a gentleman. The son of a Duke could be ‘ill-bred’ because of loutishness and laziness.

        Perhaps the distinction is clearer in other languages.

    • pyromancer76 says:

      It’s important to note the different purposes of the different revolutions. Bolshevik and Cultural Marxism are designed to put an elite ruling class in charge of everything with death to the opponents and relative or acutual impoverishment.

      The French Revolution thought it was for freedom, but like French DNA, they always revert to authoritarian solutions.

      The American Revolution is the only one that provided an opportunity for freedom for that intelligent DNA to surface, no matter what class or background it came from. There is something unusual in that Anglo liberalism, reconstituted on the North American continent, that permits recognizing differences as well as providing a challenge to the current order, so that new intelligence can start its own new tradition of entrepreneurial creativity.

      We almost lost it to cultural Marxism and global one-world elites — that push of the successful to totalitarianism (usual with a moral cover). Perhaps the American experiment of freedom for the intelligent (a merit base) will survive. And what is that love of absolute power all about?

  26. PhilippeO says:

    many Modern People also held this belief, look at : 10,000 Hours Rule, College for All initiative, and almost all parenting book. So Smith and Mill could be hardly blamed.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I surely can blame them. They were supposedly smart. I guarantee there were rich kids that drove their tutors mad, that did not and could not learn a thing, back then. Did Smith and Mills never know of such examples? Were they hermits?

      Only a loon could believe that unlimited practice could turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. It’s falsified every day: there are kids who try and try and try and can’t hack algebra or calculus while others sail through it as if remembering the subject from a previous life.

  27. Fitz says:

    No doubt Mill’s claim is false in general. But that quote is specifically in reference to the Irish:

    “Is it not, then, a bitter satire on the mode in which opinions are formed on the most important problems of human nature and life, to find public instructors of the greatest pretension, imputing the backwardness of Irish industry, and the want of energy of the Irish people in improving their condition, to a peculiar indolence and insouciance in the Celtic race? Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences. What race would not be indolent and insouciant when things are so arranged, [under a cottier system of land tenancy] that they derive no advantage from forethought or exertion?”

    And the Irish are an interesting case, no? They’re one of Ron Unz’s favorite anti-hereditarian examples:

    “So we are left with strong evidence that in the early 1970s, the Irish IQ averaged 87, the lowest figure anywhere in Europe and a full standard deviation below than that of Irish-Americans.”


    • gcochran9 says:

      Ron was fishing for outlier results. You could just as well argue that Portugal suddenly became dumb around that time.

      As for Mexican immigrants catching up, that would be nice. I’m all for it. But it isn’t happening, nor is it happening in any mestizo population. Nowhere in Central or South America is it happening. Too bad.

      It’s pretty obviously not happening in New Mexico, our most Hispanic state [ the future!], which is now 50th in the nation on some standardized test or other. Since about half of the Hispanics (and their ancestors) in New Mexico have been in the US since the Mexican War, almost 170 years, with no sign of catch-up, Ron felt the need to make a special side hypothesis about massive New Mexican brain-drain in an attempt to rescue his main thesis. Something like Kepler’s idea that you could predict the radii of the known planets by nesting the five perfect solids: when Jupiter’s orbit didn’t fit, Kepler said: “nobody will wonder at it, considering the great distance.” Fortunately, when Uranus was discovered, Kepler was safely dead.

    • Smithie says:

      It is my belief that Daniel O’Connell rose to prominence in life, in no small part, because his uncle was a smuggler, and thus could make his fortune outside the law.

      Henry Adams travelled to San Francisco early in the city’s history. He noted differences between a French congregation and an Irish one, unfavorable to the Irish. I’m broadminded enough to think he probably was observing in a fairly neutral way, but I do think he reached the wrong conclusion. Heredity, when it was probably more circumstances. There were decades when priests were hunted down and killed in Ireland, probably has a longterm effect on how refined the service is. Of course, in addition to other factors.

      I think Ron Unz is demonstratively batty with his comparison though. Nobody has ever talked about the Irish gap and how to close it.

    • Bob says:

      Incidentally, Smith noted in the Wealth of Nations that the most physically robust and beautiful people in the British dominions were the lowest class of Irish, which he attributes to their diet of potatoes compared to the cereal eating Scots and English. Smith might not have been off the mark here, as potatoes are a fairly nourishing starch that can be eaten exclusively while cereals have antinutrients and will cause things like rickets if eaten exclusively. At any rate, Smith and Mill may have had in mind similar groups like the Irish rather than being full fledged extreme anti hereditarians.

      “In some parts of Lancashire it is pretended, I have been told, that bread of oatmeal is a heartier food for labouring people than wheaten bread, and I have frequently heard the same doctrine held in Scotland. I am, however, somewhat doubtful of the truth of it. The common people in Scotland, who are fed with oatmeal, are in general neither so strong, nor so handsome as the same rank of people in England who are fed with wheaten bread. They neither work so well, nor look so well; and as there is not the same difference between the people of fashion in the two countries, experience would seem to show that the food of the common people in Scotland is not so suitable to the human constitution as that of their neighbours of the same rank in England. But it seems to be otherwise with potatoes. The chairmen, porters, and coalheavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be the greater part of them from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root. No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.” (Wealth of Nations, I.11.41).

  28. IC says:

    The Wealth of Nations.

  29. RCB says:

    I think I picked up on heredity early partly because of my own characteristics and partly because of church. I was usually smarter and faster-running than other people, and it was pretty clear to me that it wasn’t due to hard work on my part. And at church you get to become familiar with a lot of families at a young age. It’s easy to notice, then, how some of the families seem to be smart, while others are athletic, or outgoing, etc.

    But here’s the thing. Are the findings of the behavioral genetics literature therefore obviously true? Well, no, not really – otherwise we wouldn’t need the science. For example, the smart families might all be smart because of common family environment and cultural practices. That’s totally consistent with my childhood observations. Separating genetics (which is not at all an obvious process) from common family environment requires some control over them. Most people never think to make a detailed comparison of the variation between MZ twins as compared to DZ twins, nor have the means to do that study anyway. But that’s what it really takes if you want to know.

    Have you ever thought something to be obviously true that turned out false?

    • gcochran9 says:

      If it wasn’t obvious that you could select dogs and horses for size, speed, and disposition, how did people manage to do it thousands of years ago? Exactly the same things are possible with humans, only A. it takes longer, too long and B. they kick in the traces.

      You need behavioral genetics to get more exact numbers.

      In my one-stoplight high school, we had five national merit scholars in about six years. Two pairs of brothers accounted for four of them. I knew the other pair of brothers pretty well. We used to weaponize model rockets together.

      What are the odds? And it’s not as if either family was an academic pressure-cooker. My little sister was getting straight A’s in high school and one teacher commiserated with her about all the ‘pressure’ she was under. She said ” what pressure?”

      Of course it could be cultural practices. All five were in the same Sunday school: teachers found us difficult. I have trouble imagining what those cultural practices were, though. Royal jelly on our morning toast?

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “like father like son”
      “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree”
      “he has his father’s nose”

      people always knew but that knowledge was inverted for political reasons, originally anti-aristocracy.

  30. spandrell says:

    Schopenhauer was also childless; and he understood heredity quite well. Although he believed quirky superstitions of the age: intellect coming from the mother, etc.

    I’d say blank slate-ism correlates better with being Anglican than being childless, but still. Having a family surely helps in seeing what’s in front of your nose.

  31. IC says:

    Adam Smith said: “The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; ”

    Adam Smith did not deny the difference of natural talents. He just thought the his contemporaries made too much of it.

    • gcochran9 says:

      He was wrong. People make too little of it, likely because it’s not as visible as height or muscles.

      • IC says:

        Agree with you here. Indeed, Adam Smith made too little of it. Not sure about his contemporaries (likely they made big deal about it so there was hereditary social classes and slaves).

        The very difference in natural talents in people is the driving force for division of labour and trade. Only trade takes advantage of the difference and gets bests of such difference.

        Bigger the difference, larger the profit margins.

        • IC says:

          The invisible hand that drives the economic activity is the profit.

          “With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10% [profit] will ensure its employment anywhere; 20% certain will produce eagerness; 50%, positive audacity; 100% will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300%, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.” – Karl Marx

          People are willing to die for the profit.

  32. moscanarius says:

    Three thoughts, if any of my… hum… personal experience with these beliefs is relevant:

    They both probably believed – in a very literal way – in the existence of the soul. You point out that people who breed animals know they can breed all sorts of traits, but most people believed (believe?) that humans are just different due to their God-given souls. Once one believes this, he can easily start to ignore evidence for the heritability of mental attributes, as they crash with his understanding of where Reason comes from. Sure, people still notice: but they don’t go too far on noticing and they don’t develop the more biological model; it would be too conflicting.
    As other commenters pointed out, they lived in times where a lot of intellectual potential went on wasted as many smart people were tilling the ground. I can definitely imagine the philosopher recalling his equally smart childhood friends who became menial workers 90% of the times, and imagining that every other kid would be as smart as his clique was, with all the divergence being due to accidents of education.
    To some extent, they were contrarians. They saw some clearly-not-smart pig herders and clearly-not-as-smart-as-they-thought-themselves minor aristocrats believing everything was inherited, and of course they took the opposite road. And being smart fellows, of course they found clever ways of bringing down common wisdom and asserting almost everything is nature. Even smart and generally honest people can do this, especially if they are not very willing to think in terms of effect sizes.

    • Ian says:

      People have believed in the soul for millennia: why is it not until Locke, Hume, Mill, et al. that we start getting this garbage that man is a blank slate?

      Until Descartes, the soul was just regarded as the principle of life. Humans had them of course, but so did animals and plants. NB: there were differences in kind between each type of soul. Man’s soul was termed the rational soul.

      Descartes redefined the soul as a substance in its own right, as the thing that thinks, with no necessary connection to the body. This was new. Since animals couldn’t think, he regarded them as soulless and literally regarded them as machines, devoid of conscious experiences.

  33. enkypala says:

    Was Thomas Sowell also stupid?

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      when Adam Smith said it he was swimming against the prevailing cultural tide – since his time it has become potentially career destroying to tell the truth.

    • Smithie says:

      Sometimes he was very smart, and sometimes he was very stupid. A lot like Buckley.

    • Pincher Martin says:

      I love Sowell’s work, but nothing about it is brilliant. What he’s good at, he’s very good at. He can write hundreds of pages of clear prose, filled with fascinating details, on interesting subjects like culture, economics, and political ideology. That skill by itself puts him far above the run-of-the-mill academic and public intellectual who often writes as if he is trying to torture any reader unfortunate enough to pick up his book.

      But Sowell is not on the cutting-edge of any scholarly subject he writes about. Nor does he have an interesting conceptual theory for understanding his subjects. He just writes well. However, Pseudoerasmus once told me that Sowell’s book on Say’s Law was actually quite interesting and original. But I’ve never read it.

      Another way Sowell sets himself off from the academic crowd is by refusing to kowtow to the prevailing orthodoxies, with the sole exception, perhaps, of economic libertarianism. Thankfully, Sowell’s ideological leanings aren’t as extreme as, say, Bryan Caplan’s. To his credit, Sowell also never threw himself on the dog pile of those IQ scholars like Murray and Jensen even when he disagreed with their findings.

  34. The G Man says:

    There’s really only one explanation: (((JS Mill))), (((Adam Smith)))

  35. According to Hsun Tzu, the leading Confucian scholar of the third century BC,

    “a person can become a Yao or a Yu [virtuous kings], a Chieh or a Chih [evil kings]; he can become a day laborer or an artisan; he can become a farmer or a merchant; it depends on what training he has accumulated from his ways of looking at things and his habits.”

    I got this quotation from Donald Brown’s “Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature: The Social Origins of Historical Conscioiusness.” Brown argues that there are systematic differences between caste-like societies (India would be the classic case) and societies with more open systems of stratification (China is a case). The latter develop genuine historical writing, rather than just mythological accounts of the past. They are interested in individual personality and biography, and their artists produce portraits of individuals, rather than just types. People in open societies are more likely to believe in a uniform human nature, including the idea that most anyone can do most anything (as in the Smith and Mill quotes and the Hsun Tzu quote). They are more interested in divination (by contrast, if you’re an Untouchable in India, you didn’t need a fortune teller to tell you what the future will hold).

    Fortune-telling doesn’t really work. And Smith-Mill-Hsun Tzu probably had exaggerated ides about the power of education. But (at least according to Brown’s argument) their beliefs reflect a particular (ideal of) social order. People believe (or at least profess) all sorts of things that aren’t true, or even seem crazy, but the craziness is not completely random.


    • IC says:

      帝王将相 宁有种乎?
      Do you need a special racial breed to produce emperors, kings, generals, or prime ministers?

      This was the question asked by a Chinese foot soldier ChenSheng (陈胜) from Qin dynasty 2000 years ago. He asked this question to his fellow soldiers. Their conclusion is no. Everybody should have a chance to become nobleman. So they had started the uprising to overthrow Qin dynasty rule because they believe the following.

      Yes, we can.

      • IC says:

        Before ChengSheng, the predominant belief was like India Castes system. The social classes were hereditary. Everybody was born into their classes and professions.

        • IC says:

          Lucky we know exactly what Chensheng and his fellow soldiers dress like

          • dearieme says:

            Am I alone in wondering whether those remarkable figures are, metaphorically, Piltdown men?

            • IC says:

              Just like a stock trade, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Only time will tell. God decide the final outcome for the person to get it right.

              If there is bet on your concern, I am on the opposite of your judgment. I wish to trade stock with you:)

              I will be on the opposite side of your trade.

              • IC says:

                When information or uncertainty caused some concern for certain stocks, people started selling it due to the doubt. The price would drop. But I do my independent analysis with certain intuition, I got opposite conclusion against majority opinions. I buy it at depressed price. Only later everybody’s worry turn out to be false. The price recovered. You make huge profit.

                There are also situation when everybody believe bright future for some stocks. When you alone realized how false their beliefs are, you short it. Again you make money on others stupidity.

                It is not easy. But if your judgments most turn out right in real life most time, you might have chance to make big money in stock market.

                As Charlie Munger put, it is a parimutuel horse bet in stock market. In investment world, when your correct judgment not shared by majority, you get rich! – That is how value investor make money. Be independent and away from mainstream opinions.

                “You can’t do well in investing unless you think independently” – Warren Buffett.

  36. Bob says:

    Mill is mostly known today for his writings on liberalism, but he did produce significant work on logic and inductive reasoning that influenced major scientists like Einstein and Dirac. It’s hard to imagine that someone who articulated something like Mill’s Methods of induction was the sort of extreme anti-hereditarian like we see today:


    So while he may have been a bit crazy, we shouldn’t necessarily project the craziness of contemporary anti-hereditarians onto him.

  37. Eli says:

    But I thought a lot eugenicists were famously childless? Like Galton.

    Anyway, I think finding natural differences between humans “crude“ stems from some kind of vanity.

    • ghazisiz says:

      Galton contracted an STD during his time in Egypt, which apparently rendered him sterile. His childlessness was not intentional.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        That’s likely true of Galton, but Eli’s point about the typically childless state of eugenicists still holds.

        Madison Grant was childless. I also vaguely recall from a biography of Grant that something like 30 to 40 percent of the members of the American Eugenics Society, which Grant founded, were also childless.

  38. tanabear says:

    Our Founding Father John Adams was not so dim.

    “I believe that none but Helvetius will affirm that all Children are born with equal Genius.

    None will pretend, that all are born of dispositions, exactly alike; of equal Weight; equal Strength; equal Length; equal delicacy of nerves; equal Elasticity of Muscles; equal complexions; equal Figure, Grace or Beauty.

    I have Seen in the Hospital of Foundlings, “the Enfans trouvees”, at Paris, fifty babes in one room; all under four days old; all in cradles alike; all nursed and attended alike; all dressed alike; all equally neat. I went from one end of the other of the whole row, and attentively observed all their countenances. And I never Saw a greater Variety, or more Striking inequalities in the Streets of Paris or London. Some had every Sign of grief, Sorrow, and despair. Others had Joy and gaiety in their faces. Some were Sinking in the Arms of death; others looked as if they might live to fourscore. Some were as ugly and others as beautiful, as children or Adults, ever are. These were Stupid; those Sensible.”

  39. I think that a common cause of thinking that people have equal intellects is that social intercourse is designed to avoid obvious intellectual competition. It is politer to find common ground. As a consequence, real differences are hidden.
    I recount a conversation at the Royal Society. Two FRS’s were arguing about this topic. One said: “we can measure the difference between people in muscle strength, and show how much stronger one person is than another, but we don’t know in the same way how much brighter one person is than another”. I interjected: About a five-fold difference is the usual range. “Five fold” he replied. “OK, thanks, five-fold”. Of course, I should not have had to explain that.

  40. The rational economic man and human equality are simplifying assumptions, like the axioms of high school 2-D Geometry. The model is so tidy and intricate that theorists fall in love with it. That’s my explanation for libertarian support of open borders: humans are machine-stamped interchangeable parts.

    • ummm, but geometry does actually work, blank slatism doesn’t.

      • harriettubmanagenda says:

        No argument.
        One reason high school Geometry works is, we understand when not to apply it (e.g., to curved surfaces). Homicide is bad, except when it isn’t. Free trade is good, except when it isn’t. Equality before the law is good, except when it isn’t. Auto theft is bad, except when it isn’t.
        Was it Ambrose Bierce who wrote:
        A hypocrite is a man who … But aren’t we all?’

  41. Zenit says:

    Is there any evidence that nobles of old were smarter than commoners? Are there any IQ surveys of pure-blood European aristocracy (if there is any left)?

    • reiner Tor says:

      Greg Clark showed that despite admixture their descendants still have higher incomes and education levels than the rest of us. That’s pretty strong evidence.

      I also know that in Hungary they usually ennobled talented individuals, so many people from serf families were raised to the nobility. Talented nobles were also raised to the aristocracy. So there was a constant brain drain from the peasantry to the nobility and from the nobility to the aristocracy. This must have led to the accumulation of talent among the latter.

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