The story of somebody having a rich uncle is common in books and movies, but how likely is it that having a wealthy relative will make you wealthy too?
Nature versus nurture is always so hugely debated in genetics, because it’s usually so hard to test the relative contribution of each. That’s true when it comes to most traits, including financial success, or just the ability to get rich. The situation is extremely complex, probably with multiple social factors and numerous genes interacting in various ways. This reality suggests that it would be difficult to get rich by editing your genome using DNA scissors, or some other technology
Even so, as they do with many traits, media often present the answer to whether wealth depends more on nature or nurture as being all figured out — one way or another. In the news, it can be very clear that either nature or nurture makes you rich, depending on which day you check the news and on which study recently caught a reporter’s attention — even which research group just came out with a press release.
Getting rich, step 101: Have rich parents
There is no controversy on this. If your parents have money, you’re more likely to have money too. You can inherit wealth, but someone had to earn the money. Was this ability linked to higher IQ, which we know is largely determined by genes and correlates very strongly with accomplishments and wealth generation?
An article published last summer on FiveThirtyEight would have us think that nurture has won this debate: “Innate biology is only a small factor [in wealth]”, says the article, quoting a researcher from a new study conducted at Lund University in Sweden. Andrew Flowers went on to write:
The new working paper found [in contrast to previous studies showing correlations with genetic factors] that for an adopted child, wealth in adulthood (before receiving any inheritance) is most affected by her adoptive parents’ wealth, not the wealth of her biological parents. This points to the inherent advantages of growing up rich. In other words, this research suggests that there is no “rich gene” or that its impact is overshadowed by environmental factors.
The Swedish researchers came to their conclusion by tracking 2,519 children of adoptive parents, accounting for the adoptive parents’ wealth and also the wealth of the biological parents. Professor Kaveh Majlesi, an economist at at Lund and co-author of the study, suggested prior to receiving any inheritance, the children’s ability to accumulate wealth matched better with that of the parents who nurtured them.
That sounds reasonable and it could be an accurate representation of the Swedish population that was used in the study. But based on that tiny nugget of research, FiveThirtyEight, went with a bold headline: Your Genes Won’t Make You Rich. Other media were equally as exaggerated in their portrayal of this research. The UK Daily Mail, not known for its understatement, blared: “Your genes WON’T make you wealthy: Becoming rich is more about nurture than nature, study finds.”
Is there reason to think this is really true?
On the other hand, maybe your genes will make you rich
The problem is FiveThirtyEight article is that Sweden is just one country. Moreover, the highlighted research is just a single study, and many previous studies point the opposite, namely that genes can have a major impact on one’s wealth at least indirectly. That’s genetics 101 but is not popular among the politically correct. Remember the flap in 2013 when London mayor Boris Johnson stirred a hornets nest for saying that differences in IQ are to blame for much of the income inequality we see. Here were his remarks:
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 percent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 percent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.
And for one reason or another — boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants — the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.
Correlation does not imply a cause but there have been numerous studies, all suggesting that genes matter to a person’s income ability. But one factor that clearly has a strong genetic component, with evidence from twin studies (the gold standard for genetic strain research) is the intelligence quotient (IQ). Based on a wealth of studies, the correlation between IQ and wealth could be as high as 80 percent. The controversial 2002 book, IQ and the Wealth of Nations by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhane argued that differences in national income (in the form of per capita gross domestic product) are correlated with differences in the average national IQ. They further argued that differences in average national IQs constitute one important factor, but not the only one, contributing to differences in national wealth and rates of economic growth. Ron Unz, the libertarian conservative thinker and businessman, analyzed all sides of the argument in a particularly insightful piece for the American Conservative four years ago.
As Unz showed, it’s easy to pick out problems with the indirect genetic argument too, particularly based on the obvious reality not many high IQ people live less that spectacularly rich lives and those with a high IQ can and do have financial problems. There are also examples of the opposite — not so obviously intelligent people who have made money through perseverance, a unique if channelled intelligence or even luck. But all that notwithstanding, overall, IQ does correlate strongly with financial success, which suggests an indirect, but fairly strong connection between IQ and wealth.
Those were the key details ignored when FiveThirtyEight, Daily Mail and other media drafted their ever so assured headlines.
David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. Follow him @CosmicEvolution.