"Genetic inequality is increasing"

Dalton Conley Photo: PR

Princeton University's Prof. Dalton Conley tells "Globes" that understanding the interaction between genetics and environment will start a social revolution.

"If you were born with genes for violence in a crime-infested neighborhood, you may find yourself in prison. If you were born with the same genes in a wealthy neighborhood, you will probably be on a board of directors." That is one of the sentences that Prof. Dalton Conley likes to use to describe the connection between genetics and environment.

Conley himself was born in a crime-ridden neighborhood. His best friend was shot in the neck when they were 14 years old, and has been paralyzed ever since. Conley left the neighborhood, and is now a lecturer at Princeton University. For many years, he says, he tried to understand what made his fate different than that of his friend.

Don't be misled; the two friends' starting point was not really the same. They both grew up in a crime-infested neighborhood, but Conley was white, and his friend was dark-skinned. Conley's parents were artists who did not themselves grow up in a crime-ridden neighborhood; they moved there as part of their artistic lives, while his friend's family had been poverty-stricken for many generations. Conley had cultural capital, connections, and role models. He had a face familiar to people in the right places, and he did manage to leave the neighborhood.

These differences drew his attention, and he became a social mobility researcher. "I'm like a gambler researching racehorses," he once said. "I want to understand who 'makes it' in this country."

Over the years, Conley dealt with the socioeconomic causes of social mobility. Like other sociologists, he ignored another explosive factor - genetics. Ostensibly, the argument that people with certain genes enjoy a certain advantage in life is obvious, but research of this type runs the risk of being accused of racism, or of leading to discrimination. In recent years, Conley has been trying to disassemble this explosive package. He even became a student again, completing a PhD in biology, so that he would be able to perform this mission. This month, on November 20, he is visiting Israel to deliver the keynote lecture at the annual conference of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel: "The Genome Factor, Environment and Educational Inequality." Conley says that inequality begins long before the cradle.

The military as a social promoter

"Today, when we can easily determine every person's DNA, even in a trial, trials comparing the effect of heredity to that of the environment are becoming much more interesting, for several reason," Conley says. "First of all, we can rule out the genetic argument; if two people are genetically similar, and are nevertheless dramatically different in how they turn out, then the environment is responsible. In addition, it is possible to test the interaction between two factors – in other words, how a certain gene is reflected, depending on the environment, for example, violence. Sometimes we conduct a test and think that we have reached the conclusion that the environment doesn't have an effect, but it turns out that it has a great effect on a specific group, and that group then requires special handling. When we have a complete picture of the interaction between genetics and environment, it will be very exciting, because it's really the start of a social revolution."

"Globes": Can you give an example?

Conley: "For example, military services. The world organized a controlled experiment for us in the Vietnam War, because people were drafted by lottery. In this way, we got a pool of people with different life circumstances, some of whom went to war, while others didn't. Up until now, this database was used to examine the environmental effects of matters like smoking and the level of education. That is legitimate research, but it doesn't find many effects, and what was found was not at a high level of significance. Here's where the genetic dimension comes in. We now know of a gene that in a certain version makes people who have it more vulnerable to the risk of addiction. For this group, and only for this group, the army was significant. In this group, the number of people who smoke an entire pack was higher than among people with the same gene who didn't serve in the army. The army is an environment that encourages smoking, because it has a combination of moments of boredom with loneliness and psychological pressure. Nevertheless, when we examined the entire population, the difference in the levels of smoking between those serving and those not serving was not proved until we did segmentation at the genetics level.

"The effect of education was the opposite. In the US, the army is an entry ticket to education for economically disadvantaged people, because it helps pay for it. We divided the groups of soldiers and non-soldiers according to their genetics - those with genes known to improve the chances of making progress in education, compared with those who lack it. When people with a genetic package that encourages studying go into the army, they had a better chance of continuing their studies afterwards. We succeeded in demonstrating the positive effect of the US army on social mobility through education. On the other hand, it turned out that there is a group that will probably not study, even though its members served in the army, and it is possible that they should not be recruited, because the army will not be a lever for social mobility for them, as they were promised when they joined."

I didn't know that it is already possible to identify genes that encourage success in education. What it is? Curiosity? Intelligence? Perserverance?

"We don't know exactly. There is no one 'education gene'; there are hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which contributes or detracts from the chances of succeeding in education, and we add up all these contributions in order to rate the 'chances of higher education.' The information systems that exist today enable us to do this. The 'education gene' contains genes known to affect intelligence of various kinds, but also genes that affect levels of attention, the ability to persevere, health, and probably other characteristics that we don't know enough now to link to studying, but we will know later."

If that is the case, can you now give a such a "rating" for the change to succeed in social mobility? Can you already genetically mark someone who will succeed in rising above his environment in socioeconomic terms and someone who will not?

"There isn't any general rating for social mobility yet, and this problem is so complicated that I don't know whether such a rating can be devised in the near future. You have to take into consideration that innumerable random events can also take place in life."

What are the main factors affecting social mobility? Are they genetic or non-genetic?

"Education, and therefore also the rating that predicts education, are highly correlated with success in life as far as salary and the ability to turn it into wealth are concerned. The inclination towards education is the highest genetic predictor of success; it predicts 13% of it."

In other words, there is still plants of room for circumstances.

"The highest predictor for social mobility, even more than a genetic inclination towards education in a child, is the actual education of his parents."

What will happen if one day we are able to predict, based on genetic and environmental factors, how far everyone can go? Are there risks in that?

"The day on which we'll really be able to predict who will end up where is very far away. Not only is there are great deal of randomness and unmeasurable environmental factors, but there are also effects that change while we are researching them. What is needed for success in this generation is not necessarily what will be needed in the next generations. Nevertheless, I don't think that that the day is far off on which rich people undergo a genetic test to select embryos with characteristics that improve their chances of social mobility. And that is a problem, because only rich people will be able to do this."

Researching only white people

Conley detects other risks. "We see people with high marks in 'inclination for education' marrying each other. In addition to the fact that they are more often in the higher percentiles (and if not, they produce more of the existing social mobility mechanisms, such as education or entrepreneurship), they also have a better chance of advancing through marriage. There is genetic inequality in society, and it is increasing," he says, adding that the only things that disrupt this trend are major historical events and random personal events.

Has this not been the case throughout history?

"Not completely, because historically, people with no inclination towards education were able to make a good living, or at least a reasonable one. Today, with automation increasing, we're losing not only the lower class, but also the middle class of education, and most of the money is going to people with professions requiring especially high education and cognitive abilities."

At the same time, Conley notes that it is important to keep in mind that the genetic education rating predicts only 13% of success. The rest is circumstances that we can change. "Society can give its disadvantaged sectors better circumstances. A person can always strive for better circumstances," he says.

Is there cultural difference in the leading factors in social mobility?

"Most studies are done only on white people, and only in the US and Europe. There are both good and bad reasons for this. The logical reason is that the genetics of all Western while people are more similar to each other than the genetics of all the Africans to each other. For example, this is because human beings originated in Africa. Only a few of them migrated to Europe, and the entire white European-US culture came from those few. White people therefore resemble each other more than Africans resemble each other, and because of this similarity, it is easier to detect the significant differences."

The less scientific reasons are probably a disinclination to deal with questions of racism concerning genetic findings distinguishing between conditions of social mobility in non-white populations that themselves create discrimination, Conley says. In the cultural context, he himself researched the differences between the first and second halves of the 20th century in the genetic influence on social mobility. "The conclusion is that in more egalitarian societies, genetics probably determines more, while in societies that are less egalitarian to start with, their origin determines more. That's logical," he says.

What are the predictors for downward mobility, in other words, loss of points on the socioeconomic scale, compared with the country of origin?

"A low rating on the genetic educational index, a low birth weight, order of birth - younger brothers in large families are at more risk of not reaching the family threshold. Women are liable to not reach the family threshold in a family with many men. People with darker skin than their parents are liable to achieve less than their brothers whose skin color is the same as their parents. Serious events and diseases are obviously a strong predictor of a decline on the social scale, and if there are difficult events in the family, the situation is usually harder for a child who was young when the event took place."

Do you also do research on epigenetics, meaning the way that environmental stimulation - physical, such as smoking cigarettes, or emotional, such as stress - turn certain genes on or off?

"The changes are more dramatic in childhood, although they continue when people grow up. If we examine a pair of identical twins, they will be far more similar from an epigenetic standpoint at the beginning of their lives, but with time, they become different."

Does social mobility make people happier?

"I try not to tell people what to do. I'm just a researcher. My research shows that being rich is usually helpful in life, but being richer than the environment in which you grew up causes more stress. People considered a symbol of success in social mobility report that they suffer from 'imposter syndrome' - they feel that they're putting on a show, as if at any moment, somebody will point to them and shout that they are infiltrators who are not living in their natural place. They are also tense because they do not have a strong circle of connections in their new world, and they are unable to completely preserve their connections from the world they came from.

"People who have progressed beyond their starting point get more heart attacks, but we don't know whether it's because they are typical achievers, what is called Type A, and these types in an case suffer more psychological pressure."

Parenting Prof. Conley-style: Connections in the right places

If social mobility depends mainly on parents, what can we do to give our children maximum social mobility? Conley does not evade this question; on the contrary, he even wrote a guide parenting guide.

His book, "Parentology – Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Parenting," is a review of studies dealing with good parenting and parenting that "boosts" children into a world of success and money.

No subject is neglected that in the book, from instructions how to give a child a "name of a successful person" to the question of sleeping in the same room as another person (research shows that this contributes to healthy communications patterns, one of the things that predicts socioeconomic success) and the question of pets (recommended, as long as the pet's presence does not irritate the parents in a way that prevents them from functioning optimally). The most important factors in children's success, however, are the parents' education and parental capital.

When the parents are well-educated, they earn more money, create a home that fosters learning, and use a larger vocabulary," he says, also mentioning advantages such as connection in the right places and creating a role model for the child.

Parental capital refers not to salary, but to capital that is inherited in the family from at least one of the parents. "Children in the same family have significantly better changes of being in the higher income brackets when they grow up. We see that this is because in families in which there is capital, a tradition of many years is created of 'how to be rich' or 'how to behave like rich people,' which is passed on to the children," Conley explains.

The distinction between capital and salary has other significance: someone who earn a lot, but who regularly spends a lot, reduces the chances of his or her children having social mobility, compared with someone who both earns and saves, and can therefore pay for smoother beginning of life for his or her children.

"There is no doubt that the home environment affects the child the most," Conley declares. "We call an 'indirect genetic effect.' Half of every parent's genome affects you directly, because it is part of your genome. The other half of each parent's genome affects you indirectly, through parenting."

Conley himself grew up in a problem home. His parents were artists and did not earn much money, so they had to live in a poor and dangerous neighborhood in New York.

Do you regard your parents as responsible for the conditions under which you grew up? After all, they were poor from choice.

"I do think it was a choice, but they did not recognize it as such. They claim that they had no choice but to following their artistic spirit. I think that they could have also not been artists, or they could have lived in a cheap but non-dangerous neighborhood, or in a less expensive city. They claim that their profession dictated each of these choices. But there was a lot of cultural capital in my home. My grandfather on my mother's side was a dentist. My father's parents were uneducated, but were relatively well off economically. My mother herself had a higher education. This helped me understand the system of how things worked much better than the neighbors understood it."

In the name of the child

Conley's children will also have a story to tell. They received the shortest and the longest names in New York. His daughter is named E, which was supposed to be a temporary name - the child was supposed to choose her name for herself later, but chose to keep the name E. His son, on the other hand, is named Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles. After a while, he was supposed to choose which one of all these names he preferred, and as of now, his friends call him Yo.

Conley said in the past that children whose names other children laugh at get tough and learn how to control their feelings better, which leads to success, and the fact is that there are more special names on the global list of successful people than in the general population.

It appears that you apply the conclusions of your research at home in order to give your children the most social mobility, even if it has not been proven to make them very happy.

"Let's say that I first of all gave them strange names, and then I justified them with research. Today, however, they're very satisfied with their names."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on November 12, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Dalton Conley Photo: PR
Dalton Conley Photo: PR
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