What Are the Implications of Innateness of Math Ability?

Meritocracy means different things if we are born with abilities

The concept of meritocracy permeates all aspects of American life ranging from the Capitalist market system to political views of how wealth should be allocated.

It is this meritocracy that we assume exists in our high-technology information-based economy, where market mechanisms allocate high-income jobs to those with brains and talent that command those incomes. Many of these jobs, in turn, are crucially dependent on mathematical reasoning.

So what are the implications for meritocracy and other aspects of society if this mathematical ability is innate?

A paper published in 2011 by Melissa Libertus, Lisa Feigenson, and Justin Halberda of Johns Hopkins University shows that math ability is indeed innate.

  • Preschool Acuity of the Approximate Number System Correlates with School Math Ability (link)

I haven’t dug deeper into their methodology nor have researched extensively in the field, so I can’t really say how airtight the findings are beyond that it’s high quality enough to be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Instead, I will simply take these findings to be true and consider the implications

Income Inequality

Professions Involving Programming

Among the highest-paying professions are those involving some form of programming for Software Engineering, Data Science, and Machine Learning. Those who are able to secure positions in programming or related fields can expect comfortable upper middle class incomes and high job security.

Programming relies pretty heavily on mathematical reasoning. If math ability is innate, then it would mean both that a class of high-paying jobs may be effectively off-limits to some segments of the population while other segments of the population would find them more easily accessible, due to the mathematical nature of those jobs.

Of course, this is just a demonstrative example, since there may exist other high-paying jobs that may not require mathematical reasoning. However, a relatively easy and low-risk route to making an upper middle class living is through jobs like software that do heavily rely on mathematical reasoning.

Fairness and Meritocracy

The assumption is that people should be compensated commensurate with their economic value to a company and the economy. This deservingness of this economic value may be the result of hard work and talent.

But what does it mean for meritocracy or deservingness if it turns out that these jobs were based on some innate ability such as mathematical ability that segments of the population were born with and others are not?

Personal Anecdote

I personally have done well in all mathematics tests in my life. For example, I scored in the 99th percentile nationally in the Mathematics portion of the California Achievement Test in middle school. This was before I tried or cared one bit about school in general, forget about any special focus on math or personalized tutors. The focus of my life as a pre-teen was playing video games, watching television, and hanging out with friends. I could do well in the mathematics portion of these standardized tests simply because I was born with that math ability.

When I did apply myself as I grew older, I earned a dual Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and Physics, then a Doctorate in Physics, and currently hold a position in Software Engineering and Machine Learning.

Of course, there was hard work and effort involved, and difficult circumstances I had to overcome at a personal level to get to this point, but that was all “even possible” given I had enough mathematical ability to move forward, otherwise I would’ve failed out long ago at the very beginning even if I tried much harder.

Although I strongly believe in the concept of meritocracy in general, I’m careful not to emphasize it in my personal career since any success I’ve had came as a result of an innate math talent that I did absolutely nothing to deserve.



Some aspects of meritocracy may need to be reconsidered.

First, it’s important to make the distinction between wealth and income inequality.

  • Wealth Inequality results from the inertia of capital as wealth is passed through generations. There is absolutely no meritocracy involved here since it involves winning the lottery of being born to the right parents.
  • Income Inequality results from the different distribution and allocation of wealth for current work

If we say that income inequality results from different abilities, we must also acknowledge that these abilities and innate and thus entirely out of our actions and deservingness. Hard work and persistence may be under our control, but mathematical ability is not.

Thus even if we live in a system with market mechanisms, it may not really be meritocratic if we expand our view of what meritocracy is to include factors outside of our control.

Physical Attributes

To be fair, this discussion of meritocracy involving mathematical ability can be construed to be in the same category as physical beauty, athletic ability, or even lack of chronic disease.

  • Physical Beauty
    — Those with greater physical beauty can become models, actors/actresses, or related professions that compensate them handsomely.
    — Even for those who aren’t at the top end of the beauty scale to monetize it directly, they can advance more easily in their careers and may be able to attract mates more easily.
  • Athletic Ability
    Those excelling sports can stand to make millions of dollars playing in professional sports teams.
  • Good Health
    Without even considering any extraordinary athletic ability, we can consider the lack of chronic mental or physical disease as a large advantage itself.

In all cases, the greater capability to get economic resources is tied to some positive innate characteristic that was obtained without any special deservingness or action.

Intelligence and IQ Testing

It turns out that the issues and implications for innate mathematical ability can be mapped to innate intelligence and IQ.

A detailed discussion of the intelligence and IQ is beyond the scope here, but suffice it to say that higher IQ tends to be correlated with better life outcomes.

The main argument and heated vitriol against the innateness of IQ concern how we can’t judge someone simply by their IQ. I completely agree. But I’d also caution too that not acknowledging the existence of IQ and its impact on life outcomes may be just as bad.

If much of IQ is innate, then we:

  • Should not attach much value to those born with it
  • Should not expect that hard work alone is sufficient for those who were not born with it

Perhaps a more enlightened approach is to say that IQ indeed exists and does indeed have implications for life outcomes, but we should also realize that people with it got it through no extra deservingness or action.

This applies to innate mathematical ability as well.

AI/full-stack software engineer | trader/investor/entrepreneur | physics phd

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store