Joseph Cotto, 10/7/2014 [Archive]

Human Intelligence: Nature vs Nurture

By Joseph Cotto

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 Dr. 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 more than 14 years ago.

Nonetheless, there is a certain quote of Gould's which aptly summarizes his view 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."

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 Gould's most outspoken critics is Dr. Richard Lynn, an emeritus professor of psychology 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.

During an interview with me, Lynn called Gould "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. 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."

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 offers a striking example of what Freud called 'projection:' the tendency to ascribe one's own flaws to others," Sailer explained to me. "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."

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, Trading Places 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.


Copyright 2014 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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