Upon winning the Nobel Prize, immunologist J. Michael Bishop reflected on his journey in a facetiously titled book, How to Win the Nobel Prize. Bishop acknowledged not only that he had “no formula for winning the Nobel Prize” but that he couldn’t have written “an instruction manual for pursuit of the prize,” even with the benefit of hindsight.
Bishop’s befuddled account of his own success is part of a broader misperception—that scientific brilliance is the province of solitary geniuses so unusual in their profiles and curiosities that such brilliance is impossible to predict or engineer.
Yet exceptional scientists, distinct as they may be, are products of a larger context. True, scientific achievement requires a baseline level of genetic aptitude. But it seldom emerges absent a particular kind of cultivation. When great scientists come to the fore, their success is not a fluke; it’s a testament to the broader social forces that provide the “appropriate foundations for genius to appear and shine.”
Nobel Prize winners offer a useful sample to assess trends in scientific achievement. They constitute a unique database, a broad sample cutting across time and countries. The criteria for the prize have remained relatively constant, and the choice of recipients has been, by and large, non-contentious.
The backgrounds of Nobel laureates show that scientific innovation stems from social ecosystems that cultivate three key attributes: cognitive ability, achievement-oriented cultural values, and research collaboration among top scientists.
For the United States, this creates a dilemma. The ability of American institutions to produce and attract top-tier talent provides the country with a distinct advantage over its national competitors. However, the “narrow cultural base” that produces Nobel scientists provokes egalitarian unease that could erode the United States’ willingness to invest in its scientific elite.
Nobel prize winners in science almost invariably register IQs within the top 1 percent of the bell curve. By one estimate, the average Nobel laureate in chemistry has an IQ of 136; in physics, 143; and in physiology or medicine, 147. Double Nobel laureate Linus Pauling is rumored to have had an IQ of 170. Luis Alvarez, Richard Feynman, and William Shockley scored under 140 on IQ tests, but their quantitative abilities were considerably higher than their verbal skills.
If a high IQ and quantitative ability (both partly heritable) are prerequisites to win a Nobel Prize in science, this helps explain why Nobel Prize winners in science are predominantly firstborn sons with upper class fathers.
The fathers of Nobel scientists are overwhelmingly from professional and business families. A plurality of science Nobel laureates are the children of either university professors or doctors. This trend is consistent with research findings that the top 10 percent of male college professors have IQs above 120.
Highly intelligent, upper class fathers are well situated to preside over the types of stable households from which Nobel science laureates tend to emerge. Whereas a disproportionately high percentage of Nobel laureates in literature come from “disturbed” childhoods—marked by such tragedies as the loss of a parent or financial impoverishment—only a small fraction of science laureates experienced any remarkable form of “disorder and early sorrow.” Nor have they typically suffered from physical disability or “serious or prolonged illness” as children. This may be related to the association between high childhood IQ and longevity—an important factor given the ongoing increase in the mean age of science Nobel laureates. Unlike other domains, where peak achievement is prevalent well before middle age, 93 percent of Nobel Prize-wining scientific breakthroughs have come from researchers above age 26. In physics, the mean age of Nobel Prize winning achievement has climbed to 48 years. Those who can avoid the declines in health and cognition that inhibit scientific productivity have a growing advantage in pursuit of the prize.
Firstborn sons, who are more likely to become science Nobel laureates than younger siblings, may benefit in particular from the undivided parental attention of distinguished fathers. Eldest sons generally have an IQ three points higher than their closest sibling. Three points, even without other environmental enrichment, is the “difference between a high B average and a low A”—one, as the New York Times, puts it, with a “cumulative effect that could mean the difference between admission to an elite private liberal arts college and a less exclusive public one.”
Nor are first-born sons constrained by cognitive limitations—rooted in brain size, structure, and function—that face first-born daughters. Among the top 2 percent of scorers on intellectual aptitude tests, there are almost twice as many males as females. This ratio, according to a 2007 paper in Intelligence, largely accounts for “sex differences in intellectual eminence”—as measured by gender gaps in Nobel Prize winners and other distinctions. Only two women since 1900 have won the Nobel Prize in physics, and just four have won in chemistry. (Two were from the Curie family—Marie and her daughter Irene.)
Achievement-oriented Cultural Values
Beyond raw cognitive ability, Nobel science achievement is inspired by a particular culture of achievement. Telling are the commonalities among the three U.S. ethnic groups overrepresented among science laureates: white Protestants, Jews, and Asians.
Between 1900 and 1977, about 60 percent of American Nobel laureates in science came either from New York City or the Midwest, largely due to the disproportionate achievements of their respective Jewish and Protestant communities. Since then, Asian-Americans have garnered a greater share of prizes. Of the 20 American physicists to win a Nobel Prize in the 21st century, East Asians, who represent less than 4 percent of the U.S. population, have won 15 percent of prizes. Three science Nobel prizes have been won by Indian-Americans, a minority that did not arrive in the United States in large numbers before the immigration reforms of 1965 and still makes up less than 1 percent of the population.
Cognitive ability may be part of the equation. In a 2009 study of white American IQ differences by denomination, Episcopalians registered an average IQ of 113, compared to Roman Catholics at 107. And in 2015, the Asian-white divide on the SAT grew to 78 points, a gap that is even wider between whites and outlier Asian groups such as Indian-Americans.
These IQ gaps alone, however, cannot explain the full extent to which the aforementioned groups are overrepresented. Sociologist Gerhard Lenski reported in the early 1960s that Protestant scientists were about six times more productive than their Catholic counterparts—a difference reflected in the fact that Protestant societies have generated considerably more science Nobel laureates than Catholic ones. Jews, comprising less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population, have won 21 percent of Nobel Prizes in chemistry and 26 percent of prizes in physics and physiology or medicine. And Asian-Americans in recent years have dominated in competitions that historically have produced Nobel laureates. Since 2009, Asian-American teenagers have won about half of all top prizes in the Society for Science and the Public’s “junior Nobel Prize”—a competition from which twelve alumni have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. At the Bronx High School of Science, the alma mater of more Nobel Prize winning scientists than any other secondary school, more than 60 percent of students are Asian.
In their 2014 book on the rise and fall of U.S. cultural groups, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld found a common pattern underlying Protestant, Jewish, and Asian success in the United States. All three groups were defined by a “triple package” of three tendencies: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.
The Episcopalian establishment created in the United States the ultimate “triple package” nation. America became a country “convinced of its exceptional destiny, infused with a hard work ethic inherited from the Puritans, seized with a notorious chip on the collective shoulder vis-à-vis aristocratic Europe, and instilling a brand-new kind of insecurity in its citizens—a sense that every man must prove himself….” Even as the “achievement syndrome” of America’s Protestant elite weakened, its historic legacy intersected with new “triple package” cultures such as Jews and Asians, fueling, in professor James Flynn’s words, “achievement beyond IQ.”
Regardless of their baseline capabilities and cultural influences, even the most talented scientists need to acquire a tremendous amount of human capital before they can make Nobel-worthy contributions. Not even the most precocious scientists have been able to produce Nobel Prize-winning research before the age of 19.
The reason is that Nobel Prizes in science recognize a particular type of achievement—voluminous research published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. By identifying scientists who rank in the top 0.1 percent by citations and write “multiple high-impact reports” over at least two decades, Thomson Reuters has correctly predicted 43 Nobel Prizes over the last 14 years.
Nobel scientists tend to emerge from regions with the institutions and “group research power” necessary to produce groundbreaking publications. American dominance in Nobel Prize-winning science reflects the fact that since the early 1920s, the United States has been the world’s only “scientific center”—defined as a country that produces more than a quarter of the world’s scientific achievements in a respective period. Within the United States, just a few elite research universities have produced a disproportionate share of Nobel laureates in science. Notable among them has been the California Institute of Technology.
Even as scientific talent has expanded around the globe, the United States has benefited disproportionately because its institutions have continued to draw and facilitate collaboration among the world’s top-tier researchers. Only 25 American immigrants won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine, and physics between 1901 and 1959, but that number jumped to 79 between 1960 and 2016. Forty percent of American Nobel Prize winners in science since 2000 were immigrants and all six American winners in science last year were immigrants.
Can the United States Maintain Its Lead?
If cognitive ability, achievement-oriented culture, and research collaboration remain the main ingredients for scientific progress, the United States will need to navigate a delicate set of political issues if it hopes to preserve its lead. Group disparities among Nobel science laureates sit uncomfortably in a society with an egalitarian, assimilationist ethos.
On the gender front, American society has doubled down on its quest for gender equality. Affirmative action has produced parity in the ratio of men and women getting PhDs in the sciences. STEM diversity programs are receiving multi-million dollar federal grants. And as Christina Hoff Sommers documents in The Atlantic, boys across the ability spectrum are languishing in school systems defined by instruction modalities better suited for the cognitive profiles of girls. These initiatives have continued in the face of overwhelming evidence that social engineering cannot override the biological drivers that deter women from making both the initial investments as well as the long-term sacrifices needed to prevail in the competitive world of scientific academia. Indeed, even against the backdrop of greater social equality, sex differences on the right tail of the quantitative reasoning distribution have actually increased over time. In the realm of science reasoning, for example, males in the top 5 percent of ability, as measured by SAT and ACT scores, are showing evidence of “increasing advantage.”
America’s egalitarian anxieties are also apparent in the country’s ambivalent attitude toward Asian-American success. This is a group uniquely poised to achieve breakout success in scientific research. The United States has provided Asian immigrants and their children with opportunities that would be all but impossible in other countries with fewer resources and less meritocratic cultures. But so too has an undercurrent emerged in American society that Asian achievement threatens, as White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon has put it, the integrity of America’s “civic society.”
Academic administrators at elite universities prefer the term “diversity,” but as Ron Unz has described in these pages, they effectively use the same rationale to discriminate against Asian-Americans in zero-sum admissions processes. They have done so despite losing out to Caltech in Nobel scientific achievement, where, in the relative absence of affirmative action, the student body has become over 40 percent Asian.
America’s assimilationist culture meanwhile could erode the “ethnic capital” that inspires Nobel Prize winning achievement. A case in point is the high rates of acculturation, culminating in intermarriage, that pervade “triple package” cultures in the United States. The rate of non-Orthodox Jewish intermarriage is 5 percent in Israel and 40 to 45 percent in Britain and France. By comparison, the rate is 58 percent in the United States—a nation where Pew found that only 9 percent consider rising interracial marriage rates to be a “bad thing for society.” From the standpoint of Nobel class science, even a slight increase in intermarriage rates among Ashkenazi Jews could alter the global distribution of Nobel talent given how overrepresented they are on the far right of the bell curve. Whereas only 4 per 1,000 northern Europeans have an IQ over 140, the rate is 23 per 1,000 among Ashkenazi Jews.
The challenge for the United States is to reconcile its liberal aspirations with a hard reality about scientific achievement: In the elite class of researchers that can reasonably hope to attain eminence, neither innate talent nor advantageous cultural influences are distributed equally among groups.