Evolution and Diversity

by Anonymous Staff Writer

When I talk to others about evolution[1], I generally hear one of two perspectives. One is that of disbelief, with reasonable (at least in this avowed Darwinist’s opinion) arguments to support it. The other is of belief, integrated with awareness of politically uncomfortable implications of the theory. Both positions are intellectually honest, and can coexist in a civil society.

However, when I turn to politicians or the mainstream media, I constantly hear the following two messages:

1. Evolution is true, and its opponents are idiotic or hopelessly ignorant.

2. Genetic differences between classes and races aren’t large enough to be socially significant. Anyone who suggests the alternative is possible must be an evil racist.

The first half of each message, in isolation, can be believed by a reasonable person.

The second halves, well, they cannot, but the assholes who believe them might be correct about the basic facts even if they have the wrong attitude.

What all too few realize is, you cannot understand and believe both messages at the same time.

Evolution depends on the assumption that significant genetic differences can develop between mostly reproductively isolated groups. (The fact that races, in particular, are becoming less isolated now allows us to predict that racial differences will be less significant in the future, but it says nothing about present genetics.) Whether 50k, or 10k, or even 1k years of exposure to different selective forces is enough to leave a relevant genetic signature is an unresolved empirical question[2], partly because what’s “relevant” depends on what knowledge and technologies we have. For instance, East Asians aren’t big on lactose tolerance, but we’ve enough alternative sources of nutrition such that this is not a big deal. And Native Americans (as well as most other groups lacking historic exposure to it) are notoriously poorly adapted to alcohol; but those forewarned of this vulnerability can neutralize it by abstaining.

Something very similar can be said about gender differences. Granted, few are naive enough to claim that no socially significant differences exist between the genders. Instead, the “sexist” label is reserved for those who point out likely differences that happen to be politically inconvenient.

But returning to the point, we already know genetic differences between groups are more than skin deep. The first half of message #2 may wind up being true, but it’s only “obvious” to someone who doesn’t understand evolution. It’s like flipping some large and even number of fair coins, and then asking whether exactly half of them ended up heads. Possible, yes, and not astronomically unlikely. However, asserting that it must have happened, and that we don’t need to bother counting up the results to verify it, betrays ignorance of probability. The only good reason to believe exactly half the coins wound up heads is if the coins were suitably biased. In other words, you believe in something like intelligent design, and maybe you should stop mocking the idea.

Enough about that, let’s move forward. If it turns out nature didn’t flip exactly half heads, how should we accommodate the differences that are big enough to matter?

It is often said that “diversity is our strength.” There are a number of time-tested theoretical models that support this notion. David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage demonstrates the value of trading with others with different skill sets, and the last two centuries of world history back him up. Also, modern portfolio theory suggests you can manage risk more effectively when your investment opportunities are more diverse; sadly, this was recently misapplied on a colossal scale, as bankers bought and sold mortgage-backed securities that were far less diverse than they thought, but the mathematical theory is still universally accepted. And there’s the empirical result that monoethnic hegemonic powers don’t succeed in conquering the world — instead they go crazy and throw away their armies in Russia.

(On the dissenting side, there is Robert Putnam’s research[3] demonstrating that ethnic diversity is correlated with low trust both between and even within ethnic groups. This is a deeply disturbing result, indicating that our melting pot is not functioning well right now. However, I’d argue that it still can work, we just need to prioritize assimilation more highly. In any case, this is an open question and a worthy topic of future discussion, but I won’t say more about it here.)

Now, there’s an old joke: “In Heaven the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian, the mechanics are German, the police are British, and the whole place is run by the Swiss. In Hell the cooks are British, the lovers are Swiss, the mechanics are French, the police are German, and the whole place is run by the Italians.” Of course, reality is characterized by heavily overlapping fat-tailed bell curves, not neat national boxes. The lesson is clear, though — it matters HOW we harness our diversity. Every time a particular group, whether because of genetics or culture or a complex interplay between the two, has a distinct advantage at performing some task, and we limit their numbers with quotas, we throw away some of the strength we could be drawing from diversity. Taken too far, we can even turn diversity into a liability. Evolution directly implies that these situations occur.

Fortunately, the Nobel laureate Gary Becker has demonstrated that free market competition is very effective at reducing discrimination. Left to their own devices, organizations can still do it, but they have to run uphill in the process. Alas, this doesn’t quite give us our final answer — evolutionary psychology[4] predicts people will favor those with more genetic resemblance to them, so some spiteful uphill running can be expected to remain even in the best of times.

It follows that a mostly but not entirely laissez-faire system, with light regulation focused on enforcing equality of opportunity and preventing other abuses of market power, is a good solution in a very wide array of circumstances — let the American people, rather than government bureaucrats committed to believing two contradictory statements, figure out for themselves who’s best at what. (Unless you like our current economic mess. In that case, politicized lending is your friend.) To the greatest degree possible, judge everyone as individuals, and let the chips fall where they may. What Gandhi said about Western civilization, I’ll say about harnessing diversity: “I think it would be a good idea.”[5]

Note that those who don’t believe in evolution often arrive at similar conclusions. I may disagree with them about the supernatural, but as long as we’re both being intellectually honest, we’re surprisingly likely to agree about what to do in the here and now. (Of course, this doesn’t excuse Ayn Rand’s loony assertion that such agreement is guaranteed.)

Also note that this is quite far from reorganizing the entirety of society into a cutthroat competition (often called “social Darwinism”). Just because something was common during our recent evolutionary history doesn’t mean we can’t do any better now. For instance, the male homicide rate among hunter-gatherers is estimated to have been 1% or higher. It does not follow that we should change UCSD until at least a hundred students are murdering each other every year.

And finally, note that even if the worst fears about group differences prove to be true — if, for instance, James Watson was right about intelligence and Africans, and as a result they’re destined to be disproportionately poor for the next several decades — we live in the 21st century. Genetics no longer has to be immutable. Evolution and Moore’s Law imply that genetic differences between people, accumulated over two thousand or fewer generations, will not be beyond our ability to comprehend, and then engineer. This capability will curse us with a Pandora’s box of new ethical and public policy problems. But it also assures us that no matter how nature flipped the coins, we can end the most disturbing inequalities in a non-coercive way if we set our minds to it.

I’ve only scratched the surface of evolutionary conservative thought. There are many, many other insights that modern biology and psychology can lend to politics, if only we dared to discuss them. And it doesn’t all end in Brave New World or Gattaca.

[1] In this article, “evolution” is shorthand for the theory that human life descended from simpler life forms via natural selection.

[2] I highly recommend the books “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “The 10,000 Year Explosion” to those who want to dig deeper into this debate.

[3] R. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century — The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture”, Scandinavian Political Studies vol. 30 no. 2 pp. 137-174.

[4] Evolutionary psychology is a fairly new and controversial field. Predictions made in its name are more error-prone than those grounded in genetics and mathematics.

[5] Gandhi was using hyperbole, and so am I.

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