Posted by: Dirk | September 22, 2010

The decline of meritocracy in Germany?

Here is a quote from Thilo Sarrazin, formerly at the Deutsche Bundesbank, taken from a selection of quotes at the Spiegel’s website:

“The Turks are taking over Germany exactly as the Kosovars took over Kosovo: via a higher birth rate. I wouldn’t mind if it were Jews from Eastern Europe with a 15 percent higher IQ than the German population.”

This controversy has started a debate in Germany on immigrants and economic growth. Sarrazin makes a connection from genes to intelligence to economic growth, saying that Muslim immigrants with high birth rates (and low IQs) will lead to the decline of Germany. Sadly, there has not been many comments from the scientific community on this. Probably, because it is a hot topic. Let me point out just two scientific writings.

Number 1 is an article in Science by Jasny et al. (2008). Let me copy&paste their findings:

In studies over the years, scientists have estimated that somewhere between 40% to 80% of the variation in individual IQ scores in a given population is attributable to individual genetic differences. This is comparable to the genetic influence on height. Yet IQ genes have so far been impossible to nail down.

A handful of markers had a significant association with the aspects of IQ deemed most heritable, such as verbal ability. But none accounted for more than 0.4% of the variance. In other words, if the IQs of the population in question ranged from 80 to 130 points, the biggest gene effect the researchers could find would account for less than one-quarter of an IQ point.

So, yes, genes are somehow responsible for the IQ, but we can’t say which ones and in which combinations. The naive view that there is a gene that determines the IQ is humbug, of course. It rather is an interplay of genes, or better: their alleles, that determines some physical aspect or another. So much for the connection between genes and intelligence. Now for intelligence and economic growth.

Number 2 is a book from 1999 edited by Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles and Steven Durlauf titled Meritocracy and Inequality. The sample chapter is written by Amartya Sen. He states on p.12/13:

There would seem to be at least three substantial departures from the kind of general system of rewarding meritorious actions that I have been considering in the preceding discussion.

1. Personification and genetics: In the incentive approach to merit, it is characteristic of actions, not of people as such. But conventional notions of “meritocracy” often attach the label of merit to people rather than actions. A person with standardly recognized “talents” (even something as nebulous as “intelligence”) can, then, be seen as a meritorious person even if he or she were not to use the “talents” to perform acts with good consequences or laudable propriety. This “personal quality” of merits sometimes gets invoked even in a largely incentive-oriented system of economic reasoning, with which the “personal quality” view is basically in conflict.

Some people are seen as being just more meritorious than others, and may indeed have been born more talented. In some versions of personification, the inborn talents are seen not only as being variable between one person and another (for which there may be considerable evidence), but also as distributed according to some other readily distinguishable characteristic, such as skin color or the size of the nose (for which the evidence seems very problematic, to say the least).16 When used in this form, personification can encourage meritocratic acceptance of–rather than resistance to–inequalities of achievement (often along racial and ethnic groupings), which are present in many contemporary societies.

To put this more simple: good deeds should be rewarded, not “good” people. If you define good people as those that are intelligent and reward them, you will get a problem if these don’t actually do good deeds. Think of Luke Skywalker and his father (spoiler!), if you will. The universe is more complicated than what Mr Sarrazin wants to make us believe.

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