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Dismal “science”

February 3, 2013

The Rhodes Colossus, first published in Punch, 1892. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This semester, I’m teaching a course called Physical Anthropology. It’s one of four core courses for the anthropology major here at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The course is an introduction to that particular subfield of anthropology, and it deals with the theory and mechanisms of evolution, the human evolutionary past, and biological diversity among populations of the human species. Because I’m an archaeologist, this course doesn’t fall directly into my area of interest, though as an anthropologist, I’m conversant and interested in this dimension of the complex whole that comprises humanity.

A primary goal of mine is to demonstrate to my students that though our genes play a role in explaining who and what we are, and why we do what we do, our genetic makeup is just part of the story. Humans are, perhaps alone among all animals, biocultural creatures. You can’t explain anything about being human simply by pointing to our genes. Our DNA gives us certain similarities and differences, possibilities and limitations, but we make sense of all that through culture.

So it’s distressing when smart, well-intentioned people attempt to collapse culture into biology – to explain variation in a group’s cultural-historical past or present in terms of variation in its genetic makeup. That’s the case with a forthcoming article by two economists, who argue that genetic diversity in human populations since the colonial period has had a significant effect on per-capital incomes in modern nations.

The article, by Ashraf and Galor, is set for publication in the American Economic Review. You can download a pdf of what appears to be a draft of the paper here (careful: it’s over 100 pages long).

Culture, biology, DNA, human populations, health, poverty, colonialism, development, history and migration – if you were to scope the landscape of contemporary anthropology, it’d be hard to find anyone in the field whose interests don’t lie in one or several of those categories. It’s reassuring that the discipline has taken notice of Ashraf and Galor. And it hasn’t been complimentary.

The blog site for Wenner-Gren, a private foundation that funds anthropological research (Twitter: @WennerGrenOrg), comments:

[Ashraf and Galor] claim that high genetic diversity (common in African populations) increases the incidence of distrust and conflict, which causes social instability and lower productivity. In addition, they argue that populations that are relatively genetically homogeneous (such as Native Americans) are at an economic disadvantage because genetic diversity increases competition and thus innovation. Ashraf and Galor arrive at the controversial conclusion that colonialism might have had a positive effect on development in Africa and the Americas by changing the genetic composition of the colonized territories.

The current issue of the journal Current Anthropology contains a lengthy response to the economists written by more than a dozen anthropologists, whose areas of interest range from evolutionary biology to cultures of modern Latin America to the history of science. This rebuttal is available for free through JSTOR (I’m not sure how long it will be free, so take a look while you can).

The Current Anthropology article is well-reasoned and copiously cited. The authors summarize the lines of evidence they bring to bear in their critique thusly:

Ashraf and Galor’s study is flawed in three main ways. First, they consistently misuse scientific terminology and concepts; in particular, their understanding of the relationship between migratory distance and genetic diversity is incorrect. Second, their additional data, including population density and various additional variables, are full of factual errors, missing or faulty references, and simplistic assumptions. Finally, their theory is inconsistent with the rich data and robust findings in anthropology, genetics, and sociology on human evolution, cooperation, and innovation, almost none of which they cite.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the anthropology blogosphere replies to this, as there are bound to be many voices bringing their own interests and expertise to bear on particular issues. For instance, archaeologists will likely note the economists’ problematic choice of demographic data for Native American populations before contact. I’ll leave it to others to unpack that more fully (cue my colleague Bob Muckle). In short, there are few areas of americanist archaeology that are more fraught with issues of changing evidence, method, and politics than pre-Contact Native American population size, and relying on a 30-year-old source is, to say the least, questionable.

I’d like to kick off the conversation by looking more closely at the implication of explaining economic competition as a measure of “optimal” heterozygosity – i.e., just the right amount of genetic variation.

It’s striking that the economists identify the level of diversity in the U.S. as “optimal,” on a range from the least diverse population (Bolivia) to the most diverse (Ethiopia). Hence, the U.S. is “optimal” because we have just the right amount of heterozygosity in our population to generate competition, but not so much that discord and distrust will impede economic development. Though our genes undoubtedly play a role in giving us the raw materials to act in conflict or cooperation, it’s culture that channels those abilities. Conflict, cooperation, competition – those are all enormously variable in human populations, an outcome of each culture’s history of interaction with other cultures as well as “sticky” traditions more or less unique to any group.

That means concepts like “competition” are not universal in their contents, functions, or implications. Competition means one thing to an American business executive, another to a Trobriander trying to break into a Kula exchange relationship, and another to a Haida family planning a potlatch.

This article works as a not-terribly-subtle piece of ideology that justifies and validates a particular formulation of success – the kind that’s enmeshed in the logic of contemporary capitalism – by locating the causes of economic conflict and success in the human genome. Solving genetic problems requires genetic solutions, while solving social problems requires social solutions. Collapsing the social into the genetic implies a social problem like poverty is not contingent on a particular culture’s (or nation’s) history, internal dynamics, or position vis-a-vis global structures of trade and exploitation, but rather is an outcome of natural laws and forces beyond control.

Or are they beyond control? The Current Anthropology authors note:

By claiming a causal link between the degree of genetic heterogeneity and economic development, their thesis could be interpreted to suggest that increasing or decreasing a nation’s genetic (or ethnic) diversity would promote prosperity. Ultimately, this can provide fodder to those looking to justify policies ranging from mistreatment of immigrants to ethnic cleansing (especially by groups with real political power, e.g., Golden Dawn in Greece).

It’s reassuring, in a way, to be able to identify a single, proximate cause of some particular ill. Genetic research has led to remarkable advances on that score. Social ills, though, are messy, as human culture is messy. They resist a simple explanation, and often, a simplistic solution. Development and underdevelopment, poverty and wealth, are worth investigating. The history and trajectory of global capitalism can tell us much more about economic differences in Bolivia, Ethiopia, and the U.S., than a few genetic markers in the populations can. And that sort of study also implies ways we can fix the problem.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Muckle permalink
    February 3, 2013 1:47 pm

    Thanks for bringing attention to the original article and comments.The original article, suggesting genetics rather than colonial oppression is the problem, is very disturbing – huge unsubstantiated assumptions, bad science, and potentially harmful to oppressed people everywhere. Since the original article supports essentially validates oppression, and many place a higher value on Economics than Anthropology, we anthropologists have our work cut out for us should the basics of the article make its way to mainstream media.

  2. Elizabeth Whiting permalink
    February 5, 2013 4:17 pm

    Welcome back, determinism: So much easier if the losers are victims of their genetic make-up, isn’t it?

    (I am, however, reminded of my late professor Jim Deetz seeking the “unified field theory” of archaeological sites.)

    When is it that “culture” has become limited to human societies? If so, the definition must now exclude communication, tool-making and modeling as behaviors essential to culture.

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