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Born in Oxford, England, he attended St. John's College, and received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1927. Vernon studied contributions of environmental and genetic factors to intellectual development. He concluded that individual differences in intelligence are approximately 60 percent attributable to genetic factors, and that there is some evidence implicating genes in racial group differences in average levels of mental ability.
He received a grant from Pioneer Fund, which he used to document the substantial social class differences in IQ scores found in both the U.S. and the U.K. According to the Pioneer Fund website, "the analysis of the World War I American military conscripts showed that the average IQ of children born in the professional class was 123, whereas those born to unskilled workers averaged 96. Vernon concluded that these social class differences have some genetic basis. He based this assessment on his review of the evidence that the intelligence of adopted children related more to the social class of their biological parents than to that of their adopting parents. Vernon suggested that social mobility allows those with higher intelligence to rise in the social hierarchy, while those with lower intelligence tend to fall."
The Philip E. Vernon Award at University of Calgary is named in his honor.
- Study of Values: A scale for measuring the dominant intersests in personality. (1931)
- The Measurement of Abilities (1940)
- The Structure of Human Abilities (1950)
- Intelligence and Attainment Tests (1960)
- Intelligence and Cultural Environment (1969)
- The Psychology and Education of Gifted Children (1977)
- Intelligence: Heredity and Environment (1979)