Mike the Mad Biologist

What Is the Heritability of Being an A–hole?

I’ve finished reading Richard Nisbett’s
Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count
, which is a wonderful counterargument to Charles Murray’s (and others’) genetic conservatism (my phrase, not Nisbett’s): intelligence, typically ascertain using IQ, is highly heritable, so there’s little point in spending excessively (whatever that means) on educating most people, since it won’t make a difference.

Nisbett demolishes this argument in detail (I’ve also touched on some of these issues in the context of obesity), so I won’t rehash the book here, except to note that when one closely examines the adopted twin studies often used to support the genetic conservatism argument, they are really weak and unduly overemphasize the role of (additive) genetic variation. (Go read the book, since Nisbett makes the argument far more cogently that I can).

What I find obnoxious whenever I listen to or read Murray and his genetic deterministic ilk is the implicit assumption that, you, Dear Reader or Listener, are part of the genetic overclass; it’s those other people, not in attendance, who are the lumpen üntermenschen. Not only is this one of the oldest rhetorical cons going, it’s incredibly arrogant.

Which, for me, inevitably raises a question that mysteriously is never asked:


What is the genetic heritability of being an asshole?

Granted, being an asshole isn’t a very precise trait, so let me be specific, since there are many different kinds of assholery. Here’s a few:

1) What is the heritability of grandiose delusion? (Randians seem particuarly afflicted by this). Seriously, what is the variation in narcissism and is there a genetic component?

2) What is the heritability of greediness? Could we do something to help Goldman-Sachs CEOs? Maybe some kind of genetic viral therapy? Kidding aside, someone should be looking at this.

3) What is the heritability of sociopathic behavior? According to The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout about four percent of the U.S. population has strong sociopathic tendencies*. While this seems high, keep in mind that slightly over one percent of the U.S. population is schizophrenic–and schizophrenia is arguably far more debilitating. And as Stout points out, in ‘limited doses’, sociopathic detachment can be useful (both “clinical detachment” and military training are exercises in learning how to reduce empathy). If this is a quantitative trait, which manifests itself in a lack of empathy for others, to what extent is this genetically controlled?

But it’s interesting how these questions are never asked, even though these are as much as result of the gray matter between one’s ears as IQ is. Perhaps these questions might cut a little too close to the bone.

Maybe the ‘greed is good’ crowd is genetically determined. Perhaps some people are just born arrogant and obnoxious, or callous toward the suffering of others. Maybe they just can’t help themselves. But I think, perhaps, with early intervention, Charles Murray might not have become an asshole.

Of course, I’m a squishy liberal, so I’m probably wrong, and maybe Murray was born an asshole.

Note: I’m not arguing that the metric of IQ doesn’t have a genetic basis (although what IQ means, particularly in the non-outlier range, is not particularly clear). But Murray’s nightmare vision of a genetically stupid underclass is belied by the data: the heritability of IQ among lower socioeconomic status groups is very small, albeit significant (~0.1). This means there is much we can do to improve IQ, especially on the lower end of the range.

*Japan, meanwhile, has a forty-fold lower incidence of clinical sociopathy. If narcissism runs at comparable rates, we are one seriously fucked up country. Or maybe we’re genetically inferior to the Japanese. Or something.

Comments

  1. #1 Alan E.
    November 17, 2009

    I would like to offer my grandfather, father, and brother as case studies for this question. It is surely raised by my mom and me every timewe get together for holidays.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    November 17, 2009

    Of course, I’m a squishy liberal, so I’m probably wrong, and maybe Murray was born an asshole.

    Most likely it is a combination of genes and environment. Many if not most humans are born with some degree of susceptibility to being an a–hole. Whether they actually become a–holes depends strongly on the environment they encounter during their upbringing. Murray was born highly susceptible, and he was exposed to an environment which brought the latent a–hole in him to the surface. Others who were born similarly susceptible but did not encounter such an environment, or who were born less susceptible and brought up in a similar environment to Murray’s, did not become a–holes (at least not to the degree that Murray did).

  3. #3 Ann Klein
    November 17, 2009

    Since Alan E. made his offer, I would like to offer my ex-husband and his daughter. He didn’t know he had a daughter until she was 30 and located him. She was raised by her mother and maternal grandparents. When daughter came and met her father’s family, their unanimous comment was “she’s just like him” and it was not flattery. Despite being raised without dad, she is, as he is, self-centered, attention craving, lacking common sense and rude. They also shared some common interests (dragons, role playing, etc). Was this all inherited?

  4. #4 Joshua
    November 17, 2009

    I always wonder the same thing about Randians. Nobody seems to read Atlas Shrugged and suddenly realise, “My god! I’m one of the faceless parasites leeching off the titans of industry!” No, no, they’re always the brilliant individualists being held down by said parasites, aren’t they?

  5. #5 Noumenon
    November 17, 2009

    What I find obnoxious whenever I listen to or read Murray and his genetic deterministic ilk is the implicit assumption that, you, Dear Reader or Listener, are part of the genetic overclass; it’s those other people, not in attendance, who are the lumpen üntermenschen.

    I just reread The Bell Curve and this struck me very hard, since I was a college sophomore on the way up the first time I read it and now I’m a $15 an hour factory worker. I have 99th percentile IQ so the whole book was like “What’s wrong with you? Society is totally set up now so all people like you will be sorted into the best occupations!”

  6. #6 catgirl
    November 17, 2009

    The heritability of being an asshole is really important to me. I think that my father is a genuine sociopath, and he’s certainly psychologically abusive to nearly everyone in his life. On of my biggest fears is becoming like him, because it could happen so easily. Sometimes I can be really persuasive when I’m not even trying. It’s really creepy, but at the same time it’s sort of tempting. Worst of all, what if I become like him and I don’t even realize it?

  7. #7 rgb
    November 17, 2009

    I know another case like that of a young woman who has many of the worst (and best) traits of her biological father (alcohol addiction, inability to keep a job, persistent lying, but also artistic talent) even though she never met him or knew about him till an adult. Quite unlike her mother or the man who actually raised her as a father.

    These arguments often wax ideological, I believe because some seem to incorrectly feel that acknowledging biological difference in intelligence or behavior is a threat to their concept of ideal society, and argue with almost a denialist mindset against something which is easily observed in the animal kingdom.

    It’s true that a large part of human behavior is modified by our environment, but this instinct to be modified is itself an evolutionary adaptation, allowing complex societies to form. Because this ability to adapt is part of our brain’s construction, it in itself must something that can be changed by variations in our genetic makeup (a chimpanzee, though much like us, has in its genetics no such mental structural framework).

    BTW as I understand it, Murray did NOT argue that most people weren’t worth educating, but argued that our current concept is working against those who need educational support the most.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    November 17, 2009

    Joshua:

    Nobody seems to read Atlas Shrugged and suddenly realise, “My god! I’m one of the faceless parasites leeching off the titans of industry!”

    Well played, sir. Won: 1 Internets.

  9. #9 lix
    November 17, 2009

    Livesley et al. (Am J Psychiatry 1993; 150:1826-1831), found that narcissism has a heritability of 0.64, making it the most heritable personality trait but still rather less heritable than IQ (around 0.75 for the general population; of course, if you subset the population according to something heritable and IQ-related like socioeconomic status you will get lower heritability of IQ because you have removed a lot of the relevant variance).

    Viding et al. (J. Child Psychology and Psychiatry 46:592-597) found a heritability of 0.68 for sociopathic traits. Greed isn’t considered a measurable personality trait, so that’s probably why nobody has tried to measure its heritability.

    Oh, but your question was rhetorical, right?

  10. #10 Roadtripper
    November 17, 2009

    I’m nothing like the rest of my family. In fact, I think I may have been abandoned in the woods as an infant, then adopted and raised by a pack of Republicans.

    Rt

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    November 17, 2009

    In terms of not reaching one’s genetic potential, I watched a show on TV about children raised by dogs, kept in isolation, etc. One was a girl who had been kept in isolation until age 13. She quickly learned many things. Was good at vocabulary, but could not speak in sentences. I suspect there are a fair number of people world wide, and even in western cultures, who have had a deprived enough early childhood that they cannot do things we think of as normal. I’m sure I have met adults who could not speak in sentences. Maybe not bad genes after all!

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    November 17, 2009

    I always wonder the same thing about Randians.

    Joshua, you may be interested in ,/a>this article on Randians which was pointed out to me a few days ago (IIRC I saw the link on Barry Ritholz’s site).

    There is an old saying that there are two books that can change a 14-year-old’s life: Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings. One is an unrealistic fantasy that leaves its followers unable to deal with the real world. The other involves orcs.

  13. #13 Ktesibios
    November 17, 2009

    Which, for me, inevitably raises a question that mysteriously is never asked:

    What is the genetic heritability of being an asshole?

    Actually, Mike, this question is asked- over and over and over- on the jukeboxes of half the damn bars I’ve run sound in.

    Just find any shithole with live bands in the Delaware Valley, go over to the jukebox, look for a number called “The I-95 Song”, drop a couple of quarters and listen to Bob August ask earnestly “were you born an asshole, or did you work at it your whole life?”

  14. #14 arvind
    November 17, 2009

    I always wonder the same thing about Randians. Nobody seems to read Atlas Shrugged and suddenly realise, “My god! I’m one of the faceless parasites leeching off the titans of industry!” No, no, they’re always the brilliant individualists being held down by said parasites, aren’t they?

    LOL Joshua!! The phenomenon you speak of is formally known as the Renaissance Faire Fallacy (term coined in this post)

  15. #15 Dunc
    November 18, 2009

    I always wonder the same thing about Randians. Nobody seems to read Atlas Shrugged and suddenly realise, “My god! I’m one of the faceless parasites leeching off the titans of industry!” No, no, they’re always the brilliant individualists being held down by said parasites, aren’t they?

    http://xkcd.com/610/ :)

  16. #16 Bob O'H
    November 18, 2009

    I haven’t even read Atlas Shrugged. But I am trying to be one of the faceless parasites leeching off the titans of industry. it’s why I like high taxation.

  17. #17 bwv
    November 18, 2009

    If Japan has a 40 fold lower rate of sociopathy (like that can even be measured) how do you explain Nanjing or Manilla? Your average Japanese soldier in WW2 was the equal of any member of the Einsatzgruppen

  18. #18 DCBob
    November 18, 2009

    I’m strongly of the opinion that nature and nurture both matter a lot, but my favorite comment about this came from an extremely liberal couple I know who, having agreed never to let their son have any kind of toy weapon or to watch any kind of violent TV show, realized their strategy was all for naught as they watched him, at the age of five, “chew his baloney sandwich into the shape of a pistol and start shooting his sister.” When he had just turned three, this kid (who has grown into a first-class adult, by the way) had already figured out when and how to sneak down into the basement to turn on the TV at the appropriate time and watch — I am not making this up — “Cops.” Three years old.

  19. #19 tif
    November 18, 2009

    “What is the genetic heritability of being an asshole?”

    That, my friend, is gold.

    “What I find obnoxious whenever I listen to or read Murray and his genetic deterministic ilk is the implicit assumption that, you, Dear Reader or Listener, are part of the genetic overclass; it’s those other people, not in attendance, who are the lumpen üntermenschen. Not only is this one of the oldest rhetorical cons going, it’s incredibly arrogant.”

    Haha, good eye; they always pull that on the reader, lest they alienate them off the bat: “Welcome, fellow genetically super kith. BTW… don’t trust the üntermenschen.” Well unless the reader happens to be a “non-Asian Minority” (NAM for short) then it becomes very clear that you are “the goat” in their Kamph.

  20. #20 Jesse
    November 18, 2009

    rgb:

    the problem is not that intelligence is heritable or not. To a certain point it is, though there’s a load of argument as to what you mean by intelligence. For instance, I am a pretty smart guy, I like to think, but if you asked me to manage a baseball team I can’t say I’d do any better than someone who can’t do calculus and was a failure at math. Skills are kind of fluid.

    More to the point, Murray was arguing the same old racist schtick that an underclass will form as people mate with the “wrong” partners. Of course, white people like him are at the top of the list, magically.

    (And no, he doesn’t get a pass for trying to dog-whistle his way around it by saying “it isn’t about race.”)

    Murray’s argument is basically that we shouldn’t bother educating people because somehow, you can predict their performance by ancestry. The fact that some of Murray’s own ancestors would have been in the “don’t bother” pile seems to be lost on him. There are lots of things you can predict about groups, but there would be no way to do the same about individuals in any case. As Gould pointed out, we all have capacities. Some more and some less, but none of them are static. I might not have the same circulatory system capacity as Lance Armstrong, but that does not preclude me from winning the Tour de France if I trained.

    I can’t speak Mandarin, but I can learn how. Plenty of people who score lower on an IQ test than I would speak better Japanese than I do, even when it isn’t their native language. Murray can’t explain that kind of thing at all, and his whole theoretical framework would say it is impossible.

  21. #21 KeithB
    November 18, 2009

    “How do you explain Nanjing or Manilla? ”

    Simple, sociopathy has to do with feelings and actions toward your own group. War Crimes have to do with feelings towards “the other.” Those feelings are often encouraged by your society.

  22. #22 spankymonkey
    November 18, 2009

    When I read the title, I thought this was a post about PZ Meyers!

  23. #23 Douglas Watts
    November 19, 2009

    And let me guess, the “underclass” just happens to be brown.

    Who knew ???

  24. #24 Hank Roberts
    November 19, 2009

    > Who knew?

    That is actually an important question. I submit this answer in hopes people will make the effort to read the original, and then think seriously about what the man had to say:

    —-

    “… Whatever wisdom constituently is, it is like a seedless plant; it may be reared when it appears, but it cannot be voluntarily produced. There is always a sufficiency somewhere in the general mass of society for all purposes; but with respect to the parts of society, it is continually changing its place. It rises in one to-day, in another to-morrow, and has most probably visited in rotation every family of the earth, and again withdrawn.

    “As this is in the order of nature, the order of government must necessarily follow it, or government will, as we see it does, degenerate into ignorance.

    ” … by giving to genius a fair and universal chance; … by collecting wisdom from where it can be found.

    “… As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.”
    —————————————–
    Tom Paine, The Rights of Man
    http://www.ushistory.org/Paine/rights/c2-03.htm

    ——
    There is much more there than these brief excerpts convey.

  25. #25 Katkinkate
    November 19, 2009

    Society doesn’t really care about intelligence. The groups in power (political and economic) use their resources to send their kids to university and use the kids degrees as evidence that they are smarter than all those working class people. If intelligence was truly valued, there would be a lot more scholarships available for smart kids of poorer families to go to uni.

  26. #26 Pierce R. Butler
    November 19, 2009

    Ktesibios @ # 13 – Just what kind of (ahem) person would go to a low-down Delaware Valley bar with a live band and start playing the jukebox?

  27. #27 MPL
    November 19, 2009

    I would guess Assholosity is extremely heritable.

    Just not genetic.

    Get raised by assholes makes you pretty likely to be an asshole. Fortunately for those raised by assholes, I’ve never seen much (anecdotal) evidence that it’s a late-onset disease, so if you’re not one yet, you’re probably ok.

  28. #28 lancet
    November 20, 2009

    Ermmm… what about mental retardation? It can be caused by environmental factors (FAS/FAE, etc.), but also genetic mutations (Down, etc.) – therefore its milder forms (which are able to lead relatively independent lives and reproduce on their own, becoming “the average voter”) might as well be heritable as well. Of course early intervention and proper education can help even the Downers, so education *is* important, but to claim there is no genetic basis to intelligence whatsoever… I wouldn’t go that far.

  29. #29 MPL
    November 20, 2009

    @28

    Nobody (should be) seriously suggesting that there is no genetic factors to intelligence. After all, plenty of life-forms lack brains all together (plants, jelly fish, Sarah Palin).

    The claim is that the differences between major social subgroups (i.e. races, gender, income, etc) do not have much or any good evidence suggesting that they are caused by genetic rather than environmental factors. Naturally there are plenty of people with genetically based mental disorders, but the problem is that there’s no good reason to believe that the mental differences between healthy people are dominated by genetics.

  30. #30 gcochran
    November 22, 2009

    Since the heritability of IQ in adulthood is about 0.8,
    there’s _every_ reason to think that mental differences between healthy people are dominated by genetics.

  31. #31 Passerby
    November 22, 2009

    A-hole behavior is learned from primary role models (need not be parents). Sociopathic behavior arises from inherited neurochemical deficits that affect personality development. These pathological states can be exacerbated by chemical abuse and addictive chemical-induced changes in the frontal cortex, in the areas associated with inhibition and risk-controls.

    Greed is a form of chemical addiction, where satisfaction and feel-good neurochemicals and hormones (oxytocin) are either ind deficit or are improperly regulated/transported/released. Individuals affected typically have poor ability to foster and maintain relationships (normal source of feel good chemicals) and become fixated on an object or subject.

    People who collect obsessively have similar deficits, and can be considered to be mild Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder affective patients.

    Interestingly, there appears to be biochemical deficits in certain pathways, like the inositol cycle.

    While the postulated questions are a presented a bit glibly, they are nonetheless interesting and worth considering, in terms of social costs and potential treatment (exception is sociopathic behavior, where childhood and young adult brain structural and functional changes halt normal progression of personality and role learning and maturation, presenting as self-involvement and either self-hurting or harm to others.

    Are recidivist criminals sociopathic?

  32. #32 Passerby
    November 22, 2009

    Addendum: A-holism may be learned, but also need not become fixed behavior in offspring. It’s associated with control behaviors. In extreme cases, the role model is strongly authoritarian, gaining satisfaction through self-aggrandizement, belittling family members or friends, is abusive, and lacks basic capacity for trust or respect for others.

    If offspring recognize this behavior as deviant, changes can occur during personality maturation (teen years) where recognition of role model aberrant behavior may induce yet another deviant state: passive-aggression and enabling behaviors.

    These individuals may find themselves subconsciously allowing their spouses to assume a control-oriented role, one that may evolve into a repeat of dysfunctional role-model-offspring relationship.

    I have observed this pattern many times.

  33. #33 Baron Chandler
    November 28, 2009

    It’s posts like this one that make me such a contented reader of this blog.

  34. #34 Joey Giraud
    December 10, 2009

    Good god I hope I can be an asshole. Wouldn’t it suck going through life being completely incapable of being an asshole? Being able to be an asshole is an essential component of leading a full and rich life.

  35. #35 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    December 12, 2009

    When I read the title, I thought this was a post about PZ Meyers!

    It is spelled MYERS. Please write that on the blackboard 1000 times. Why is this so difficult for all of the world to understand? More people can spell “Pharyngula” properly than can spell “Myers.”

    If you are going to hate, then hate with proper spelling.

  36. #36 muhtar
    February 11, 2010

    In terms of not reaching one’s genetic potential, I watched a show on TV about children raised by dogs, kept in isolation, etc. One was a girl who had been kept in isolation until age 13. She quickly learned many things. Was good at vocabulary, but could not speak in sentences. I suspect there are a fair number of people world wide, and even in western cultures, who have had a deprived enough early childhood that they cannot do things we think of as normal. I’m sure I have met adults who could not speak in sentences. Maybe not bad genes after all!

  37. #37 muhtar
    February 12, 2010

    If Japan has a 40 fold lower rate of sociopathy (like that can even be measured) how do you explain Nanjing or Manilla? Your average Japanese soldier in WW2 was the equal of any member of the Einsatzgruppen