The United States is facing a significant cultural challenge driven by basic biology that could radically redefine our socioeconomic structure. That isn’t hyperbole, it’s a statement of fact.
Several years ago, I began reading research papers, essays, and other data on assortative mating patterns in human populations. In essence, people want to be around people who are like them. Often, people want to marry, and have children with, people who are like them. Before the rise of fast transportation and widespread infrastructure, this led to communities having certain genetic consistencies – the flaming red hair of Ireland, the light features and blond hair of the Nordes, the tall, dark, and handsome archetype of the Spanish. It led to Jews wanting to marry Jews and Muslims wanting to marry Muslims. Republicans tend to want to marry Republicans and Democrats tend to want to marry Democrats. Successful people tend to want to marry other successful people. This is all normal, well, and good. It is a phenomenon as old as humanity itself.
Then, something happened. The information revolution transformed the global economy.
The Increasing Isolation of the Successful and Wealthy
When the information revolution changed the world to the same extent that the industrial revolution did two centuries prior, one of the major shifts was the expectation that those with high cognitive ability – the lifeblood of a knowledge based economy – would leave home for college, get a degree, and then earn a high income.
Those who excelled in their fields did just that. They went off to school and, like most normal people, they met someone and settled down together. Then, they started having children. Assortative mating kicked in and you often found college graduates only marrying other college graduates; doctors marrying other doctors or high-performing professions; programmers marrying other programmers.
The Problem No One Would Talk About Publicly
This was completely unique. The implications were enormous for the cultural fabric of the United States. It wasn’t discussed in polite circles outside of university halls or dinner parties, but the concern that seemed to be on everyone’s mind was this:
We know that raw intelligence is almost entirely genetic. It is set for life by the time you reach kindergarten. A good education can improve upon what you already have, but the core engine is determined by the particular combination of genes that are inherited from parents.
In the past, this wasn’t a problem. Successful individuals lived in towns alongside less successful individuals, went to the same social clubs, resided in the same neighborhoods, attended the same churches, and went to the same barbecues. Their children met, mingled, and married based on rough compatibility, but it wasn’t unusual for a brilliant male scientist to be married to a female with only a high school diploma who stayed at home and raised their children.
Today, that is not the case. A brilliant male scientist is likely to be married to a brilliant female scientist (or someone of high intelligence who is also educated). They are likely to both be interested in the same things, read the same books, discuss the same theoretical concepts, and have children. They are likely to live in an neighborhood with other, equally as successful people who are also raising children.
The implications are powerful. In the past, the children of successful individuals inherited nothing more than money and a good culture. That is important. However, in the present, children born to successful parents are inheriting something much more. They are getting genetics from two parents that are perfectly suited for the economic system in which we now find ourselves. Those children are ideally equipped to succeed in a knowledge based economy due to vastly superior cognitive abilities resulting from assortative mating. On average, they have a built-in advantage over the typical American child. That means the phenomenon of the rich getting richer could very well accelerate.
If you have foresight, you realize the dangers. What Hitler couldn’t do with eugenics, society has effectively done with incentive systems. In the past fifty years, we have created a culture where the best and brightest leave their farm towns, go off to school, meet someone, and then move to an enclave with other intelligent, educated, high-income people, never to return. They have their own zip codes, their own churches, their own book clubs, their own schools, their own daycares, their own restaurants, their own vacation spots, and their own shopping centers. The above-average children then stay in these communities, seeking out others who are like them, and the cycle repeats.
Bluntly, our grandparents lived in a world where the class valedictorian lived next to the high school drop-out. Our grandchildren will live in a world where the two will have never met.
Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal began discussing this and brought up a book by Harvard Professor Charles Murray called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 that examines the core socioeconomic group that made up the typical American family from the “Mad Men” era to today. In it, he addresses the very concerns that have been on my mind for the past few years. He examines the evidence that one of the reasons successful people tend to come from successful self-made parents is the confluence of assortative mating, the sexual revolution, and the rise of the information age. (He also, humorously, points out that if you are inclined to pick up a book that is predicated upon the notion that associative mating patterns threaten the fabric of society, you probably fall into the very elite that is being discussed rather than an impartial bystander.)
The End of America As We Know It?
The end result is that the people who are making the decisions that influence the lives of all Americans increasingly have no idea how most Americans live. They don’t understand the struggles the typical Americans face. They don’t get why things just aren’t “easy” for most people. Over time, a very real cognitive gulf is developing. In another 30 to 50 years, this could tear apart the nation.
As Murray discusses in his book, the top 5%, on average, don’t know anyone who smokes cigarettes. They don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a retirement plan. They don’t know many people who are overweight. They don’t know anyone who is against marriage equality. They don’t know anyone who isn’t thinking about their chid’s education. They don’t think anything of spending hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on a baby stroller. They don’t think of an international vacation as being out of the ordinary. They don’t watch a lot of television. They don’t watch sports, unless they themselves are in the minority and play one.
When the poor and working class complain about the out-of-touch “intellectual elites”, they aren’t wrong. There is an intellectual elite. And it is growing more and more elite as time passes. This had lead to the creation of two Americas, as John Edwards put it. He was correct. There are two Americas. Even I, who grew up around working class people as a child, have lived in a bubble since I was 18 years old. All of my friends have college degrees. Most earn far more than the median American family. Nearly all are married. Nearly all have parents who are still married. Most have had retirement accounts since their late teens or early twenties. Nearly all are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Our conversations revolve around things like Frontier Theory of American development or the most recent news out of CERN. That is normal to us.
What’s the solution? I don’t see a way out of this, although the threat of a French Revolution could act as a countervailing force. The problem is, in today’s world, the elite could simply flee. I love America, but if I had to spend the rest of my life in an enclave like Monaco reading philosophy and running an insurance company or something, I’d be just as happy as long as I was around other intelligent, successful people, had great restaurants, and an active stock market.
And that is the problem. How does advanced civilization facing these biological behaviors avoid fracturing? As of now, I have no answers for you. Peter Drucker spent a great deal of time talking about the possibility of taxes designed to redistribute wealth away from high performers to prevent civil unrest but acknowledged the near impossible task of convincing smart people they should give up part of their paycheck to keep dumb people from feeling poor. A doctor who spent a decade training for his profession actually feels morally superior about the $15,000 per month base salary he receives. It is a source of pride, not shame. Try taxing him at 50% so the town drunk can afford a decent house and you’ll have a revolt on your hands.