The Race to the Swift and the Merits of Meritocracy

The author of Ecclesiastes laments the absence of meritocracy in contemporary Judah:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Thinking of meritocracy as when the race does go to the swift is, I think, helpful in thinking through the relationship between heredity and individual achievement. Most of us know we’ll never be– and never could have been– great Olympic sprinters. But we also recognize that we– and time, and chance– have some influence on how fast we can run. We accept that it’s probably a good idea for us, or better yet our kids, to go outside and run as fast as possible, once in a while. But unless they were surpassingly fast and really had a decent shot at making the Olympics, and maybe not even then, we wouldn’t want them to be training for hours every day, or for their ability to feed or clothe themselves as adults to depend on whether they could run 100 meters in under 14 seconds.

This analogy is also suggestive of reasons why the heritability of behavioral traits tends to increase with socioeconomic status (not the traits themselves, but their association with genes):


If some people have shoes and others don’t, that makes a difference in how fast each group runs (though not always in the expected direction). If some people are running on gravel and some on rubberized surfaces, that makes a difference. If some people are five inches shorter because they don’t get enough food, that makes a difference.

But pretty soon- as soon as the differences in environment and past experience are no longer so very large- the genetic predispositions towards height, musculature, and even enjoyment of running will make most of the difference in who runs fastest. Maybe at the upper tail, small differences in training will make a difference- or maybe not, ala Usain Bolt.

In the same way, it’s the very fact that most kids have a decent number of opportunities to learn to read and write that means heredity tends now to predominate in determining these outcomes. Shared environment or “human capital investment” probably made a bigger difference to individual outcomes in settings where a smaller fraction of the population goes to school. If you’re a 16th century glover trying to decide whether to send your son to school or help you around the shop– well, before you know it, he knows his Latin, is off to the big city, and suddenly little Billy Shakespeare has bought you a coat of arms and half the real estate in town. Human Capital!

But these days, the big UK twin studies find an even higher degree of heritability (something like 75%) for early literacy and numeracy than they do for IQ at the same age, presumably because everyone in the population is getting plenty of opportunities to learn how to read and add.

Because literacy and numeracy are the focus of teaching in schools, whereas general cognitive ability (g, intelligence) is not, it would be reasonable to expect that literacy and numeracy are less heritable than g. Here, we directly compare heritabilities of multiple measures of literacy, numeracy, and g in a United Kingdom sample of 7,500 pairs of twins assessed longitudinally at ages 7, 9, and 12. We show that differences between children are significantly and substantially more heritable for literacy and numeracy than for g at ages 7 and 9, but not 12. We suggest that the reason for this counterintuitive result is that universal education in the early school years reduces environmental disparities so that individual differences that remain are to a greater extent due to genetic differences.

The rare left-leaning critics who acknowledge the behavioral genetics literature will point to it as still more proof of the need for an enclosing welfare state, given that individual success and failure appear to be outside individual control if they are the result of genetic effects. There’s obviously some truth to this. But it ignores the ways in which formal equality, equality before the law, is itself part of what makes our imperfect-but-better-than-most society function as well as it does.

Sports are one of the few areas of human endeavor that still seem to capture our imagination/emotions precisely because the rules are explicit and (in theory) fairly enforced. All kinds of advancements in human welfare have been (and continue to be) made precisely when the preponderance of people in a society believe that there are pieces of their lives, including their economic lives, that are within their control.  Even in schools, some aspect of what makes learning and investment even possible is the assumption of fairness, and “unfair” is perhaps the most  frequently leveled charge against teachers by children, one which they take quite seriously.

Similarly, my own experience as a middle school teacher was that the 8th graders in New York City, most of them Asian-American, who study like hell for the Stuyvesant/Bronx Science/Brooklyn Tech exam really do learn a lot more math as a result. The test may produce inequitable outcomes, but its status as one of the few gateways to an elite education that does not require bowing before a credentialed admissions officer is itself very motivating for those kids and their parents, and they do better academically in an absolute as well as a relative sense as a result.

Life cannot be nothing but races, and even if the race goes to the swift, it won’t solve all or most of our problems. But neither does massaging processes to make our most elite institutions appear inclusive while keeping their status as the gatekeeper to power, or putting an increasing fraction of the society into circumstances in which their own welfare is self-evidently outside their control.  Ultimately, time and chance happeneth to us all, and the ability of a society to compensate partly, and with partial but limited fairness for the inevitabilities of age and incapacity is accepted by most of us as an appropriate compromise goal. Throwing off the ideal of procedural fairness altogether, as an increasing   number of intellectuals appear to endorse, is far less wise.

16 thoughts on “The Race to the Swift and the Merits of Meritocracy

  1. This analogy is also suggestive of reasons why the heritability of behavioral traits tends to increase with socioeconomic status (not the traits themselves, but their association with genes)

    That is only found on studies done in the United States (not elsewhere). I’m not convinced that it is “real”. In fact, it’s technically not kosher to do such a study (since SES is itself heritable).


    1. Only found in the US in the sense of not found in Europe or non-US Anglosphere. I would be interested in longitudinal studies which follow countries which have recently become much wealthier .


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