Genetics, Human Capital, and the Thomas Theorem

In this short presentation on "Genetics and Society" (video), Gregory Cochran points out an obvious incompatability between human capital theory and empirical findings in behaviour genetics: Human capital theory proceeds as though differences in human capital were solely the product of environmental influences, and especially decisions made by parents, but this is known to be false. Cochran goes on to say this has an impact on a point made in human capital theory concerning the quality-quantity tradeoff: The standard view is that you can have many kids and low investment per kid, leading to relatively low human capital in each kid, or you can have many kids, invest heavily in them, and expect them to exhibit high human capital. To the extent that human capital is influenced by genetics, and to the extent that it is not influenced by parents, this tradeoff does not exist. For example, IQ shows practically no response to differences in parental behaviour, hence your kids' expected IQ is independent from your investments, hence independent from the number of kids you have.

But that's a normative point. Empirically, how much people plan to invest in their kids and how many kids they hence choose to have, should be influenced not by the truth itself, but by what people believe to be true. Belief in genetic influences on people's characteristics decreased ca. 1920-1950 and is now low. While research results from the 1970s onwards have shown the popular view to be wrong, these results are not widely known and believed. Hence, decreases in the number of kids people have might still in part be explained by the above-mentioned aspect of human capital theory, if it is combined with the Thomas theorem: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

1 comment:

Mark Graybill said...

"If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

So that's called the "Thomas Theorem?" Good to know.