The Genetics of Success

In this article, I will explore the latest science on how our genetic makeup is correlated to our ‘life success’. This post is not for egalitarians who believe that everyone is equally beautiful and talented or that everyone can become an Aristotle through immense self-effort. No, this post argues that our genetic differences result in different expected life outcomes.

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We are living in extremely interesting times. We may have reached a tipping point in genomic research. It seems that we can now weakly predict life outcomes based on genetic tests. Daniel Belsky from Duke University and his team of researchers have recently released a paper asserting that genetic tests can predict adult life outcomes. The magnitude of correlation between genomic tests and adult life outcomes is still very modest, but I believe that the predictions will grow more accurate once we gain more knowledge about the genetic makeup of ‘success’. I believe that this is big news, since this is the first well-developed psychometric/genetic research I have read so far that asserts that life success is to some extent related to our genetic makeup.

When Belsky et al looked at the genetic profiles and the people they studied, they found that people with higher polygenic scores did not only have greater educational attainments, but also had more prestigious occupations, higher incomes, more assets, greater upward social mobility, and were more likable and friendly.

Main research findings

The main research findings can be summed up as follow:

  1. polygenic scores predicted adult economic outcomes even after accounting for educational attainments;
  2. genes and environments were correlated: Children with higher polygenic scores were born into better-off homes;
  3. children’s polygenic scores predicted their adult outcomes even when analyses accounted for their social-class origins; social-mobility analysis showed that children with higher polygenic scores were more upwardly mobile than children with lower scores;
  4. polygenic scores predicted behavior across the life course, from early acquisition of speech and reading skills through geographic mobility and mate choice and on to financial planning for retirement;
  5. polygenic-score associations were mediated by psychological characteristics, including intelligence, self-control, and interpersonal skill.

Belsky’s main research question

In 2013, Rietveld et al reported the first successful genome-wide association study (GWAS) of educational attainment. They analyzed millions of genetic variants in more than 100,000 individuals and found a genetic map that was related to people’s educational attainment. This genetic map could even explain differences in educational attainment between siblings in the same family.

The main research question that Belsky et al ask is: “do genetic discoveries for educational attainment predict outcomes beyond schooling?”

If so, what are the developmental and behavioral pathways that connect differences in DNA sequences with divergent life outcomes?

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Belsky’s research methodology

1,037 people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, were tracked through a 38-year assessment of their socioeconomic development. This study became known as ‘the Dunedin study’. The cohort represented the full range of socioeconomic status (SES).

The researchers derived polygenic scores from the approximately 2.3 million genotypes that according to Rietveld et al would make up the genetic predisposition to educational attainment. In addition, adult-attainment scores were derived from extensive analyses of Dunedin members’ life developments. See table 1 for developments that were tracked and the methods through which these developments were measured.

The researchers have for example measured SES, determined from the higher of either parent’s occupational status throughout the Dunedin Study members’ childhoods. Educational attainment was measured, looking at the highest obtained degree. Attainment beyond education were measured by members’ reports of occupation, income, assets, credit problems when they were 38 years old and from social welfare and credit-score records. Reading abilities, taken when the Dunedin Study members were 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 18 years old, were measured as well. What I find extremely interesting is the fact that the researchers have measured not only cognitive ability through picture vocabulary tests and IQ tests, but also certain personal traits like self-control, impulsive aggression, hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention and interpersonal skills.

More substantive research results

I will list all research results here:

  1. people with higher polygenic scores tended to achieve higher degrees;
  2. people with higher polygenic scores tended to be more socioeconomically successful, holding more prestigious occupations, earning higher incomes, having more assets, relying less on social-welfare benefits, having higher credit scores and reporting fewer difficulties paying expenses;
  3. children with higher polygenic scores tended to come from families with higher SES;
  4. children with higher polygenic scores tended to attain more regardless of whether they began life in a family of low SES or high SES. Children from low SES with high polygenic scores tended to have greater upward social mobility than their low SES peers with low polygenic scores;
  5. children with higher polygenic scores were more likely to talk earlier and quicker to begin communicating using sentences;
  6. children with higher polygenic scores were able to read at younger ages;
  7. adolescents with higher polygenic scores had higher educational aspirations at the age of 15;
  8. adolescents with higher polygenic scores performed better academically and outperformed their peers on standardized tests;
  9. people with higher polygenic scores were more likely to pursue occupational opportunities outside of New Zealand;
  10. people with higher polygenic scores were more financially planful;
  11. people with higher polygenic scores tended to find partners with higher socioeconomic attainments;
  12. people with higher polygenic scores were not more satisfied with their lives;
  13. people with higher polygenic scores performed better on IQ tests and showed more rapid cognitive development during childhood;
  14. people with higher polygenic scores had stronger noncognitive skills, such as self-control, friendliness, confidence, being cooperative and communicative;
  15. children with higher polygenic scores were no healthier than their peers.

Tough questions

Knowing that our genetic makeup partly determine our success in life, would it be ethical to screen embryos for genetic signs of success in life? In some cases, embryologists already check embryos for major diseases, but should we allow parents to select embryos with the greatest genetic odds of future success?

These are interesting questions that, I believe, we will be facing in the near future.

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Belsky et al – The genetics of success


8 thoughts on “The Genetics of Success

  1. Do you think, given the growing genetics literature, it is possible to start discussing race? Beyond the ‘race is a social construct’ approach that seems to prevail in the social sciences.

    • I think talking about race will be inevitable. I believe that most people, deep in their heart, know that there are inherent racial differences, but they are too afraid to talk about it. They don’t want to be called racists. However, genetic findings will give them the courage to discuss it more openly.

      Non-genetic research has already shown that there are racial differences, but people could still argue that these differences were due to someone’s social environment. With the growing genetics literature, this argument becomes less valid.

      • An interesting angle, Chhay Lin.

        I think better genetic research will just show that race is exactly what good social scientists have been arguing for one hundred years now: it’s a social construct. Better genetic research will also highlight the importance of institutions/environment/culture (“robust property rights and a culture of individualism”) for financial and social success (but not, apparently, spiritual or psychological happiness).

      • @Bradon (no “Reply” link”): Agreed. Besides, we have notional problems. I tried to find out what their definition of “polygenic scores” was, and it looks like the algorithm used on them are correlation analysis over the basic haplotype blocks (, here used on clustered SNPs accounting for zygosity.

        Meanwhile I found this: “There are at least a dozen labels to denote such polygenic scores, most of which involve the word ‘risk’, such as polygenic risk scores, but we prefer the term polygenic score because it makes more sense for quantitative traits like intelligence with positive as well as negative poles.115 A polygenic score is created by adding genotypic values across loci.” [ ] Seems we have terminology problems.

        The same goes for “race”. It is usually used for pedigrees of breeds, and today we know that it likely best applies to the fossil species Neanderthals, Denisovans and Out-Of-Africans that ended up in the modern mongrel, c.f. small dog breeds vs large with similar skeletal and allele differences.

        So trying to maintain the social concept of “race” is confusing. And why I may ask, what is wrong with the clearer concept of ethnicity? “Africans” are genetically most diverse, despite little “racial” inbreeding. The latter due to that crossbred alleles from at least Neanderthals are first swamped by OOA larger population and now rapidly vanishing due to mild (or large!) purifying selection due to their source of a bottlenecked population. (Alleles that were not purified in the drift of a small population is now under selection of a much larger one.) And that likely happened also with the races of Denisovans and Erectus (? the 4th unidentified race that went into the making of us). So it is as far as I know veeery confusing to try to sort our pedigree out from a merged bush, while ethnicity is (mostly) stamped into your birth location.

        TL:DR: Ethnicity useful, genomics useful [I study it, MSc in Bioinformatics] “race” not so much.

  2. Interesting and worth some study. What is here is the most modest form of correlation and, apparently, investigation set up. Lots of innuendo. Not much science.

    • Yes, from GWAS to showing actual (poly)genic effects is a long step, think of the problems to breed for height on purpose.

      And I note that while we sloppily expect “50 % culture, 50 % genes” the effect sizes of the clustered variables that were actually significant were often < 10 %.

      Color me unimpressed: "more data needed".

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