Is human intelligence really about nature or nurture?

Trading Places/ Paramount Pictures

OCALA, Fla., March 13, 2014 — John Landis’s Trading Places is one of the 1980s’ most fondly remembered comedies. There is far more to its story than frozen orange juice, however.

The film raises an important question: What is the nature of human aptitude? Is it inherited or acquired? Dan Aykroyd’s character, a blue-blooded commodities broker, is framed for a crime and replaced with a petty hoodlum, portrayed by Eddie Murphy.  

After only a short period, this hoodlum is able to meet the job performance of his predecessor and adapt to Philadelphia high society.

While this was only a movie, one can’t help but wonder if such a thing could happen in real life. Perhaps that is not impossible, but could it honestly be considered plausible?

If Stephen Jay Gould were still around, he would undoubtedly have something to say. Unfortunately, the noted paleontologist and Harvard professor, whose literary credentials include The Mismeasure of Man, died almost fourteen years ago.

Nonetheless, there is a certain quote of his which aptly summarizes his contentious views of biological determinism: “People talk about human intelligence as the greatest adaptation in the history of the planet. It is an amazing and marvelous thing, but in evolutionary terms, it is as likely to do us in as to help us along.”

Dr. Gould felt that a toxic brew of poor statistical methods and sheer bigotry often led researchers to inaccurate conclusions about the heritability of intelligence. Needless to say, the scientific community has never been able to find solid consensus on the subject.

One of Dr. Gould’s most outspoken critics is psychology professor Richard Lynn, an emeritus faculty member at the University of Ulster. He has measured the socioeconomic ramifications of human intelligence throughout his career, and written a library’s worth on the subject. This has led to more than a few controversial findings, especially with regard to differences between demographic groups.

Nearly two years ago, Dr. Lynn told this journalist that Dr. Gould was “a dishonest fraud”.

Such an opinion was secular heresy not too long ago. Over the last decade, though, study of the human genome has progressed tremendously. Many are now reconsidering the power of biological heredity from a scholarly perspective. Dr. Lynn reported that “good progress is being made,” and in the future, “people will likely be able to select the genetic qualities of their children [and] this will be a big eugenic advance.”

Jason Richwine is a Harvard-educated social scientist who was on his way to the top until late last spring. A staffer at the Heritage Foundation, he wrote a lengthy study about illegal immigration’s impact on our national interest. His findings generated widespread media attention, and perhaps more importantly, professional acclaim.

Shortly after, politically motivated bloggers let loose with quotations from Richwine’s doctoral dissertation, which focused on IQ and the Hispanic community’s fortunes. Despite finding strong support from most of the right-leaning punditocracy, Dr. Richwine ultimately stepped down from Heritage. 

While his work was defended as legitimate science by many, others claimed him to be a proponent of eugenic-inspired bigotry.

“Gould has never been taken seriously by cognitive psychologists,” Dr. Richwine tells Communities Digital News. Simple as his statement is, it finds resonance with the views of another prominent genetics scholar.

Robert Weissberg is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana. For decades on end, he was a popular columnist, author, and public speaker. In 2012, he was fired by the National Review for his opinions about ancestry-related intelligence. Ironically, this afforded him intense national exposure. Today, he continues to write about sociocultural relations.

“Nobody takes [Dr. Gould] seriously any more save the likes of the New York Times,” Dr. Weissberg says to CDN. “On race he is an ideologue, not a scientist. He’s a crackpot.”

Steve Sailer is one of the few journalists who regularly writes about the relationship between intelligence and society. His relentlessly data-centric reportage has earned him no shortage of accolades and detractions. Sailer has managed to do what few other journalists dare: linking intelligence not only with economics, but political trends.

“Gould was perhaps the world’s leading expert on a couple of genera of snails,” Sailer told this journalist in 2012. “He also possessed a mellifluous prose style, a strong urge to express himself, and a high opinion of his own capabilities. He had a definite knack for telling literary intellectuals what they wanted to hear in the way they wanted to read it. He was not, however, a psychometrician.

“Gould offers a striking example of what Freud called ‘projection:’ the tendency to ascribe one’s own flaws to others. Gould constantly denounced other scientists for bias, bigotry, poor math abilities, and inadequate experimental technique.

“For example, in his 1981 bestseller The Mismeasure of Man, Gould famously lambasted an obscure 19th century scientist named Samuel Morton for being biased when conducting a study of skull sizes. Finally, in 2011, though, a team of six physical anthropologists replicated Morton’s work (something Gould never got around to doing) and discovered that Morton was more accurate than Gould.”

Beforehand, Sailer mentioned that “(i)f you read history books from 1945 to about 1970, you’ll notice that this ‘Eugenics caused the Holocaust’ meme that we are all so familiar with today is largely absent. This assertion only became popular as the decades passed after the actual events. This sort of spin was largely dreamed up in the 1970s by publicists such as Stephen Jay Gould for their own ends.

“For Gould and company, it was a club with which to discredit previous generations of academics and intellectuals, since most progressives (for example, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells) had been enthusiastic about the potential of eugenics. For instance, the two main founders of Silicon Valley, Fred Terman and William Shockley, were ardent proponents of eugenics. 

“That doesn’t mean Stanford invaded Poland, however.” 

So, is our intelligence a product of nature or nurture? Gould believed what he thought was correct, but a growing body of scientists disagrees vehemently. The nature of intelligence is, if nothing else, an enigma for the scientists who study it. 

Above all else, though, Trading Places is a great movie. While it provides no definitive answer to the quandary of heredity or adaptability, TP is one of the most intelligent comedies to have come along since the Golden Age of Hollywood.

It’s difficult to ask for much more in a film, especially these days.

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