The brothers Emanuel as behavior geneticists

By Razib Khan | March 30, 2010 5:21 am

I stumbled onto this New York Times Magazine The Brothers Emanuel, from 1997. Zeke, Rahm and Ari Emanuel have all become even more accomplished over the past 13 years. But I was surprised to discover that they had a younger sister, and that her life prompted the brothers to reflect on the influence of genetics and environment on life outcomes. Here’s the relevant portion:

Today, the brothers argue just as passionately about the role that environment and genetics played in the life of their sister, who in recent years has been on and off the welfare rolls that Rahm worked so hard to cut. Benjamin Emanuel met his daughter when he gave her a well-baby checkup and discovered that she had suffered a brain hemorrhage at delivery. The baby’s future was unclear; Shoshana’s birth mother, a young woman of Polish Catholic background, asked Dr. Emanuel if he knew someone who wanted her child. ”But I couldn’t find placement,” Benjamin Emanuel says. After a week of debate between both parents and sons – Marsha Emanuel had always wanted a girl – the Emanuels themselves took Shoshana in. ”What are you going to do?” Benjamin Emanuel says philosophically.

Intellectually, Shoshana developed normally – like her brothers, she graduated from New Trier, one of the most competitive high schools in the country – but she needed four operations and years of physical therapy to give her 85 percent use of her left side. She had a difficult adolescence, and today Marsha Emanuel, at the age of 63, is raising Shoshana’s two illegitimate children. (None of the Emanuels will talk about Shoshana in detail, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The conversation the brothers continue to have about Shoshana is also, of course, a conversation about themselves. Were Zeke, Rahm and Ari simply successful products of Jewish middle-class parents who valued education and hammered them with expectations? How much of their drive came from their immigrant father? Certainly each Emanuel brother derives a large part of his identity that of the others. No one else, it seemed, mattered as much. ”The pressure is that you were judged by the family,” Ari says. ”Our family never cared about the kid down the block.”

Ari Emanuel also seems to have some opinions about I.Q.:

”Ari can carry on a conversation!” Rahm says at one point, noticing that his younger brother is talking with me about Los Angeles. ”What an accomplishment! A complete sentence!”

Ari retaliates when the conversation turns to money. ”I.Q. brings down – I’m not going to go into it,” Ari says impishly.

”Income?” shouts Zeke. ”Is that what you were going to say? I.Q. and income are correlated?”

”They should be!” counters Ari, who says he made between $1 million and $2 million last year.

”Inversely, that’s the thing,” says Zeke.

”This is all off the record,” says Rahm.

The discussion about genetics and environment apparently continues down to the present day. Here’s a profile from the spring of 2008:

Shoshana, who now has two children of her own—one of whom lives with Benjamin and Marsha—has not had the sterling success of her brothers. Zeke says all three, who were like older uncles to Shoshana when she was growing up, now have an “episodic” relationship with her, and he wonders about the genesis of her life’s troubles: “It’s a good question as to how much is environment, following three such brothers, and how much is genetic. It’s hard to know.” Marsha Emanuel says her daughter is extremely proud of her brothers “but keeps her distance.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics, Genetics
  • bioIgnoramus

    ”Our family never cared about the kid down the block.”

    What a handy background for going into Chicago politics.

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  • Bob

    To not know that IQ and income are correlated would suggest that at least one of the brothers is rather ignorant.

  • Jean M

    Unfortunate phraseology perhaps, but the intent seems to be that approval within the family mattered more than peer pressure. Whether that’s a good thing or not not will depend on the family and the youth culture in question.

  • Billare

    Your old Scienceblog posts don’t seem to be accessible. At least, I can’t reach them from older links. Could you check into that please?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    billare, all the archives have been moved here. try searching for them here. but yeah, i’ll look into that.

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  • pconroy

    “It’s a good question as to how much is environment, following three such brothers, and how much is genetic. It’s hard to know.”

    What utter hypocrisy!!!

    I dated a girl with IQ 170 from a very accomplished family. She reported that her Dad on attended his first church service, at the age of 4, had innumerable questions for his Mom about the nature of God and organized religion, which she didn’t answer to his satisfaction. She made an appointment with her pastor to talk to him, and when he deemed his answers to be incorrect, he declared himself an Atheist – at AGE 4!!! He would go on to get a PhD in Philosophy, become a professor, before becoming an investment manager.

    Anyway, this girl’s mother had 2 brilliant children, and became an anthropologist, and fascinated/obsessed with Native American (NA) culture, so much that she adopted a NA orphan. She loved this child for his bland good nature and carefree ways. But growing up my friend said that all 4 family members were obsessed with books, knowledge, argumentation etc., while her NA brother just watched cartoons mostly.

    Fast forward 30 years, and she and her brother have brilliant academic careers, while her NA brother prunes trees for a living!!!

    Yet, having witnessed all this growing up, she nevertheless stuck with her liberal PC BS and declared that IQ was more nurture than nature. Needless to say, after one too many arguments over this and other HBD issues, we parted way…

  • ekdysiast

    @pconroy, so you’re saying she refused to generalize from a sample of one? You don’t have to be a genius to refuse to do that. You just have to, like, have a brain.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    so you’re saying she refused to generalize from a sample of one?

    usually when someone starts with “so you’re saying….” it is in the process of reframing what they’re saying to knock it down (as opposed to a direct quote and response). dickish. comments are not so cryptic where exegesis is necessary.

  • toto

    To not know that IQ and income are correlated would suggest that at least one of the brothers is rather ignorant.

    Or that he’s focusing on one extreme of the curve. Apparently IQ-income correlation seems to fall, or even turn negative, above a certain level. Half Sigma had a series of posts on this (OK, it’s Half Sigma, caveat lector).

    I don’t really understand the article. Starting a nature/nurture debate based on adopted children is already dangerous enough: we have all read Dawkins, we all know that parents do not really behave the same way towards natural and adoptive children (also, we all know about maternal factors). But when the adopted child had significant brain damage and partial paralysis at birth? The point – I’m missing it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    But when the adopted child had significant brain damage and partial paralysis at birth?

    that is nature though.

    i think some of the quotes are a bit confused, and i suspect that a lot got garbled. no offense to journalists, but i’ve seem quotes come out really weird on banal topics. if they were discussing this sort of thing i don’t know what could pop out in print….

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    we all know that parents do not really behave the same way towards natural and adoptive children (also, we all know about maternal factors). But when the adopted child had significant brain damage and partial paralysis at birth?

    so i assume you are skeptical of the finding that shared environment is usually a smaller influence on behavioral variation than genes or non-shared environment?

  • Jean M

    Still arguing over nature/nurture and IQ folks? It is quite a complex question. For my take on it see https://sites.google.com/site/jeanmanco/ethicsofiqtesting

    On the relationship of IQ and income, I assume that the Emanuel brothers were teasing each other. It has been recognised for decades that there is a consistent correlation between the two overall, but that this breaks down for the top 2% of the population. This is presumably because at that extreme, the intellectual competence of all is sufficient for achievement, which will therefore depend on other factors, both personal and environmental.

    Said factors could include preferences, drive, energy, health and opportunity. Some very high IQ people have little interest in money (beyond that needed to survive) and are driven more by curiosity or the creative urge. Some even have to be reminded to eat when engaged in some particularly gripping scientific experiment. :)

  • miko

    “so i assume you are skeptical of the finding that shared environment is usually a smaller influence on behavioral variation than genes or non-shared environment?”

    This is a concept that always makes my intuition hurt…but doesn’t “shared environment” by definition not contribute to variation? i.e. it is the environmental factors that don’t increase phenotypic variance, while “unshared environment” is those factors that do. Bad semantics. It is not related to the different environmental factors to which two individuals are exposed.

    Does the IQ/income correlation hold in countries with a narrow range of income distribution–e.g. some northern european states?

  • Diarmid Logan

    @pconroy, so you’re saying she refused to generalize from a sample of one? You don’t have to be a genius to refuse to do that. You just have to, like, have a brain.

    I remember reading a book by Matt Ridley called “Nature via Nurture” where he points out that adoptees often have IQ’s similar to their adoptive parents when young but that as they get older their IQ’s become more like those of their biological parents.

  • toto

    This is a concept that always makes my intuition hurt…but doesn’t “shared environment” by definition not contribute to variation?

    As I understand it, “shared” environment means “family” environment – i.e. the environment that is shared within a family. If this environment varies from one family to the next, then it could certainly contribute to between-families variation, in principle. The prevailing opinion (based on adoption studies and MZ/DZ twin comparison) is that, for most of the population, it doesn’t have much of an influence.

    so i assume you are skeptical of the finding that shared environment is usually a smaller influence on behavioral variation than genes or non-shared environment?

    More “unsure” than “skeptical”. I haven’t seen a smoking gun yet. Which implies that I don’t consider higher correlation with biological than adoptive parent, or between MZ relative to DZ twins, as “smoking guns”. I do believe I have good reasons for this, but maybe I’m just being a contrarian.

  • miko

    @toto… But because in practice environmental factors are almost never identified, let alone their mechanisms understood, non-shared environment is defined in heritability studies as the aggregate of all environmental factors that contribute to phenotypic difference. In reality, these may or may not be factors that both individuals were exposed to (but responded to differently). This is related to why pconroy looks so stupid when he assumes that an adopted American Indian child and a upper middle class white biological child share an environment, therefore “nurture” (I vote to eradicate this word) is cancelled out of whatever reassuring comparison he’s interested in.

    I can’t find my Mackay and Falconer and I haven’t thought about quant genetics in a while, but I think this is right. However, people always use “shared” and “nonshared” environment to refer to what they sound like—what you were exposed to rather than the effects of this exposure, and it is easy to slip into forgetting how these terms are operationally used in heritability measurements. This slippage is irrelevant only if one assumes gene-environment interaction and correlation do not exist.

  • toto

    However, people always use “shared” and “nonshared” environment to refer to what they sound like—what you were exposed to rather than the effects of this exposure […] This slippage is irrelevant only if one assumes gene-environment interaction and correlation do not exist

    Indeed. In the context of twin studies, shared and non-shared environments are at least defined in a consistent way (IIRC, something like “non-genetic factors that are similar for all members of a family” and “factors that are different between MZ twins”, resp.). The “advantage” of these definitions is that they can be objectively measured, by estimating and comparing various statistical correlations between DZ and MZ twins, given certain assumptions.

    Unfortunately, the assumptions (essentially “no gene-gene or gene-environment interactions or correlations”) are known to be false. So, bugger.

    Example: MZ twins are known to spend a lot more time together than DZ twins. This could create an environmental similarity, but with the usual estimates, it would be entirely accrued to heritability (i.e. genetic influences, h = 2*(r(MZ) – r(DZ)) ).

    I’m not saying that the “blank slate” is true, but just that accurately estimating relative influences is pretty tricky, so extreme figures should be taken with great caution, especially in political debates. Again, it’s just my semi-informed opinion. If Razib disagrees, trust him rather than me.

  • pconroy

    ekdysiast said:

    @pconroy, so you’re saying she refused to generalize from a sample of one? You don’t have to be a genius to refuse to do that. You just have to, like, have a brain.

    Ek,
    No what I’m saying is that she, I and most readers of this blog have read the science, and it all points in the direction of Nature trumping Nurture by a country mile! What I’m saying is that even with the proof right in front of her eyes, she still denied it, as it didn’t mesh well with her politics. She was a radical feminist Professor, whose goal was to smash the White Male Patriarchy.

    Seems like you have the same problem – science doesn’t match your distorted world view, so science must be quashed. How lily-livered and pathetic… see I can throw ad hominems too?!

  • pconroy

    Miko said:

    But because in practice environmental factors are almost never identified

    This is related to why pconroy looks so stupid when he assumes that an adopted American Indian child and a upper middle class white biological child share an environment, therefore “nurture” (I vote to eradicate this word) is cancelled out of whatever reassuring comparison he’s interested in.

    Miko,
    I’m guessing you’re not a native English speaker/reader, as your comment is nonsense to me.
    In the data point of one I was talking about, said NA was adopted at a few months old, and was a year younger than the girl I dated, so all 3 children were reared in the exact same environment. This girl and her brother would read as many book per week as they were able to carry from the library, she told me this was usually 7 to 10 books. She and her brother were not only considered profoundly gifted, they were also hyperlexic – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperlexia – and so absolutely devoured books. I am not a fast reader – about 2 minutes per paperback page – but she could read 3 to 4 pages a minute, and said so could her brother.
    Meanwhile she reported that her NA adopted brother never managed to read even a single book in all the time they grew up together.

    Miko, you need to read some science. Generally the prevailing attitude is that 50-70% of adult IQ is nature. I would put the figure far higher for First World countries and countries that don’t suffer widespread famines, disease epidemics, widespread child abuse, war etc. I would say for these 85%+ is nature. Smart kids for the most part gravitate towards smart pursuits and other smart people and create their own smart nurturing environment themselves… so having the right genes for smarts, bootstraps the development of high IQ.

    BTW, I define IQ as the ability to learn and reason.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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