By Stella Dawson
Why countries are at different stages of economic development has long intrigued social scientists. Geographic location and population density are the classic explanations. More recently, technological innovation, colonialism and political institutions were added. Now, two economists in the United States are arguing that the genetic mix of the population plays an important role.
Oded Galor, a professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, has researched the causes of economic inequality for over 20 years. In a paper written with Quamrul Ashraf and published in the latest American Economic Review, he argues that there is an optimal level of genetic diversity within a population group to foster the sort of competition and innovation that leads to prosperity – not too much diversity as in Africa, and not too little as in Bolivia, but something more akin to the mix in Europe and Asia.
Their work is part of the emerging field of study called genoeconomics, which seeks to find linkages between economic behavior and genetic variations. It is a new twist on the nature versus nurture debate and is part of the same field of inquiry that links certain medical conditions and personality characteristics to inherited traits.
But to suggest that poverty might rest in the genes is explosive territory and the reaction, particularly from anthropologists, has been swift. As the paper started to circulate last year, a group of Harvard academics published an open letter calling its findings “highly tendentious” and said the findings were “frightening: because they could be misused to justify ethnic cleansing.” Nature magazine launched a debate around the paper.
Oded Galor said he was taken aback by the ferocity of the response. In an interview, he said he wanted to examine whether there was any causality between ethnic diversity and economic success. He had not expected to stumble into the troubled history of eugenics.
“No, no, no. We really did not envision any debate about this,” he said.
“We do not talk about individual genes, IQ, cognitive ability or anything. My interest is in diversity and the policy options that presents. For example, the United States is relatively diverse, it has many migrants. So we asked, is it diversity that generates its economic success? Or is the United States prosperous, which has brought many migrants to it?”
To address this question, Galor and Ashraf used genetic data as a proxy for cultural and ethnic diversity and by studying 145 countries they traced the genetic shifts in population groups as they migrated out of Africa.
As the cradle of humankind, east Africa has the most diverse genetic pool, which gradually narrowed the further away from Africa people moved. The further away groups migrated and the more isolated they remained, the more homogenous the gene pools, with native American populations becoming the most homogenous.
Galor and Ashraf overlaid this genetic data with numbers on population density, which acted as a proxy for economic wealth before data on income per capita was available. They found a strong correlation between the levels of economic development in different societies and their genetic mix, with an intermediate level optimal for the highest per-capita income.
They concluded in the paper that “deep-rooted factors, determined tens of thousands of years ago, have had a significant effect on the course of economic development from the dawn of humankind to the contemporary era.”
“We found that 16 percent of the variations in income per capita today can be attributed to the exodus from Africa and the cultural diversity of a society,” Galor said in the interview.
And by extrapolation, if Bolivia had had a more diverse genetic mix centuries ago, its per capita income would be 5.4 times higher today while Ethiopia’s economic outcome would be different by a factor of 1.7, he said.
The varying economic outcomes are related to the behaviour of groups. “Heterogeneity raises the likelihood of disarray and mistrust, reducing cooperation and disrupting the socioeconomic order. Higher diversity is therefore associated with lower productivity,” the paper said. Conversely, homogeneity in the population group increases harmony and conformity, but reduces competition and innovation.
Galor said these findings, which are reached using economic methodology, provide support for public policies that promote pluralism. A good education policy, for example, would enable countries to embrace diversity and integrate different ethnic groups, which over time helps raise the productivity and income levels of that society.
“This would be most powerful and allow Africa to develop,” he said.
Whenever a scientist suggests that certain factors – say genes, intelligence or environment – dictate life’s path, it stirs up controversy. The geographer Jared Diamond, for example, whose Pulitzer-prize winning book “Guns, Germs and Steel” argued that the availability of food and the spread of disease were key to human development, was charged with racist assumptions and labeled an environmental determinist.
Jade d’Alpoim Guedis is among the anthropologists from Harvard who signed the protest letter. She called Galor and Ashraf’s paper deeply troubling. “To suggest genetic diversity can be tinkered with to increase GDP, that is very dangerous ground,” Guedis said in an interview, citing ethnic cleansing in World War II as an example.
She challenged the validity of their data sets on population density, which are used as a proxy for early economic development. She said there is inadequate support for making a link between genetic mix, competition and innovation, which relies on studies of fruit flies. She also said the researchers make culturally questionable assumptions that colonialism was beneficial because it mixed the gene pools.
Her primary criticism, though, is more fundamental. “I do not think we should rely on genetic explanations for society. I think that human culture influences us in a much more complex way than genetics does and Ashraf and Galor think it is possible to quantify everything when you cannot,” Guedis said.
But the editor of American Economic Review, Yale economist Pinelopi Goldberg, called it “narrow-minded” to suggest that only one type of academic discipline has something relevant to say about economic development. “We do not censor research because we do not like the results or because we are worried that they may be used by extremist groups,” she said by email.
A range of scholars, including ones from evolutionary biology, reviewed the paper over two years before it was published in the leading economics journal. Moreover, the data used are widely relied upon by anthropologists and historians, and their analytical framework for genetic diversity taken from social science and biology, Goldberg said.
“Accusations that there is a eugenic agenda behind the research are unfounded and have no place in the discussion of the scientific merits of the project,” she said.
But the debate provoked online and in academic journals shows that moving from broad natural patterns found by population geneticists to theories of human economic development that have predictive value is perilous.