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Inequality is a big deal today. It was the subject (or persistence thereof) of Greg Clark’s most recent book, The Son Also Rises, and more famously Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And obviously it is at the center of many contemporary policy debates. But to frame these modern arguments we need to get a sense of inequality’s natural history. In Clark’s previous book, A Farewell to Alms, he reported the standard economic historical finding that agricultural societies had high rates of inequality, which began to drop after the arrival of modernization in societies due to industrialization. The wage gap between skilled and non-skilled workers in Britain dropped between ~1800 AD to ~1970, only rising again over the past two generations.

But what about a more anthropological perspective? The May 23rd issue of Science focused on the topic (there was even a contribution by Piketty). Two articles sum up two contrasting views, The ancient roots of the 1% and Our egalitarian Eden. The latter is probably closer to the received wisdom, while the former piece reports on revisionist work which highlights findings from hunter-gatherer societies in situations of natural surplus where inequality seems to have been tolerated or accepted. Finally, I want to point to a Peter Turchin preprint, Religion and Empire in the Axial Age, which touches upon many of the same issues. Reading the first two pieces it does seem that to a first approximation the idea that hunter-gatherers tended toward egalitarianism is still valid. The exceptions from what I can gather are cases where there were temporary surfeits of natural resources which could be hoarded and corralled in some fashion. This is in contrast to post-Neolithic agricultural societies where gross inequality coexisted for long periods with Malthusian conditions. The implication from the pieces in Science is that in the Paleolithic inequality could persist when there was plenty to go around. But we know from the historical record that in mass agricultural societies gross poverty and inequality could go hand in hand. Why? Because in Paleolithic societies the lower ranks could collude and redistribute resources in situations of scarcity, and they could not in post-Neolithic societies.

Why is a complicated issue, but here I turn to the Turchin article, which emphasizes that in terms of social inequality the archaic despotisms of the early historical epoch may have been maximal expressions of the range of human dignity, from the god-kings of Egypt down to the slaves who were sacrificed by the Mycenaeans in the wake of attacks upon their citadels by the Sea Peoples in the 13th century. Turchin indicates that the decline in social inequality was signaled by the intellectual revolution of the Axial Age. But where did these ideas come from? Were they innovations of genius of the kind of modern scientific theories? Novel, counter-intuitive, but true? I don’t think so. Rather, I suspect that the Axial Age is simply a distillation of human intuitions with deep evolutionary roots in our Paleolithic past. As cooperative social primates egalitarianism was part of our evolutionary past, and the cultural excesses of the post-Neolithic archaic age were bound to trigger intellectual innovations which more easily fit our cognitive toolkit.*

But the flip side of this is that we are not a purely egalitarian species, and hierarchy is also part of our heritage. If this was not the case I don’t think it would have been so easy to develop the concentrations of social power which arose after the Neolithic. What Turchin’s essay highlights is that egalitarianism and hierarchy are both tendencies which are at dynamic tension, and different social structures and historical epochs have obtained quasi-equilibrium states which balance and synthesize the two forces. Even egalitarian religious systems often manifest themselves in a hierarchical fashion. Conversely, even inegalitarian systems (e.g. caste) have had mechanisms for promotion and demotion. Our human natures likely dictate there will be no end of history.

* There is a bit of irony here because the Axial Age religio-philosophies tend to have an abstruse exoteric layer which is manipulable only by literate professionals.

• Category: Science • Tags: Inequality 
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The above clip of Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been lighting up my social feeds. It’s made Upworthy. Tyson ends by stating that “Before we start talking about genetic differences [between race and gender], you gotta come up with a system where there is equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation.” The major question that immediately comes to mind with these sorts of assertions, which are quite ubiquitous, is how one determines the extent of equal opportunity if one does not have a model for the outcomes of equal opportunity. The reality is that those making such claims have a model of the outcomes, unstated because it is shared by so many. Proportionate representation, because they assume that in fact that there are no innate dispositional differences* between groups. The Left liberal version of Homo economicus. Once this model is in place then lack of proportionate representation can be taken as ipso facto evidence of lack of equal opportunity.** With this model in hand innate dispositional differences would give the same outcomes, but could be taken as evidence of lack of equal opportunity. So ultimately the “lack of interest” in these issues dovetails nicely with priors. If it turned out there were differences between the groups that the model would start to get messier.***

Since the clips such as above are shared by like minded individuals naturally there’s no strong critique. Rather, the assertions are “devastating”to the opposing view, which are almost entirely absent among like-minded individuals. Larry Summers may be a moderately liberal Democrat, but his airing of possible differences between males and females in the early aughts is now grounds for reading him out of polite company from what I can tell. A few years ago I had dinner with Chris Mooney about his contention that overall there is a greater skepticism of science among Republicans/Right than Democrats/Left. I can accede to this point as being possible. It seems unlikely skepticism of science or religion or any other cultural trait would be equally distributed across the ideological spectrum, and in our day and age in the United States natural scientists tend to align with the political Left, and the political Right has a generalized distrust for intellectuals. But I pointed out to Chris that on the modern cultural Left acknowledgement of sex differences seems to still be in bad odor. But a moderate amount of sexual dimorphism seems to be evident in the natural history of our own species, so it isn’t unreasonable to posit some differences. But many now consider it an implausible prior. Chris was skeptical, as he contended that this battle had ended long ago, and a hardcore “blank slate” position has lost. I wish it were so. I had the experience of having an exchange with a prominent science writer with a background in science who would not concede that men, on average, have stronger upper bodies than women. When push comes to shove I doubt that this person would stand by such skepticism, but it illustrates how deep the reflex is if even basic size and strength differences are now subject to interrogation.

The normative roots of skepticism in this domain become clear when one focuses on the one area where Left and Right invert when it comes to the biological basis of human behavior: homosexuality. As a moderately heritable complex trait it seems entirely likely there is a biological basis for homosexuality, at least in part. But the case has not been clinched by a “gay gene,” nor is the trait one which develops in a genetically deterministic fashion like the generation of five fingers on one’s hand. For reasons common to many complex traits it seems unlikely that there will ever be found a singular “gay gene,” and evidence from fields such as psychology and neurobiology do not offer silver bullet models for how homosexuality comes about, because its expression has environmental correlates (for example, same-sex intercourse is practiced in a facultative manner in prison in the Arab world, without being homosexual orientation, so some nuance in terminology is necessary). But the cultural Left, and now the majority of young Americans, can grasp that a complex behavioral trait does not necessarily lend itself to explanatory models as simple as Newtonian physics. The threshold of skepticism of “innate differences” seems to curiously be lower in this case for the Left, and tuned up higher on the social Right.

Motivated reasoning is powerful. This will not be answered by one blog post, or a decades’ worth of research. Because complex traits have genetic architectures which are not easily reducible to a few genes of large effect, “final answers” may be a while in coming (if ever). But the truth is what it is. Even if people in the United States “lack interest” in particular subjects, that is unlikely to stop other nations, whose economies and scientific institutions are still developing, from exploring avenues of research neglected by Americans. Obviously there are no perfectly objective humans, but one convenient fact about ideological bias is that different groups have different blind spots. The future will likely be one of scientific cooperation as a side effect of competition.

Finally, it is always useful for me to outline some of my thoughts by referring to a piece by one of the greatest population geneticists of the 20th century, James F. Crow. He writes in Unequal by nature:
a geneticist’s perspective on human differences

Two populations may have a large overlap and differ only slightly in their means. Still, the most outstanding individuals will tend to come from the population with the higher mean. The implication, I think, is clear: whenever an institution or society singles out individuals who are exceptional or outstanding in some way, racial differences will become more apparent. That fact may be uncomfortable, but there is no way around it.

The fact that racial differences exist does not, of course, explain their origin. The cause of the observed differences may be genetic. But it may also be environmental, the result of diet, or family structure, or schooling, or any number of other possible biological and social factors.

My conclusion, to repeat, is that whenever a society singles out individuals who are outstanding or unusual in any way, the statistical contrast between means and extremes comes to the fore. I think that recognizing this can eventually only help politicians and social policymakers.

The basic model is exceedingly simple. Representation of the tails of a distribution can be much more skewed than small differences in mean values might imply. Let’s give a concrete illustration. Imagine a population at the mean of the height for American males. 70 inches or 5’10). Assuming a standard deviation of 2 inches and a normal distribution 1 out of 770 males will be 76 inches or above (6’4 or greater).**** Now imagine a population where the average height for males is 71 inches. Obviously most of the distribution will overlap. But now 1 out of 161 males is 76 inches or above. For the two populations the overwhelming number of individuals are going to occupy the vast middle ground about the mean. But for particular professions great height might be indispensable, in which case the two populations may have greatly different representations in such fields.

I’m thinking in the above case American basketball. But it is key to remember that basketball requires more than great height. It requires grace and strength as well. In some domains, such as professional sports and the highest echelons of the academy, it seems likely that individuals will exhibit a combination of exceptional traits, not just one, in which case the above argument is further amplified.

None of this is difficult to understand, even if you reject any empirical basis in specific cases. But 10 years of discussing this topic has informed me that this is irrelevant, when people are highly motivated they will refuse to engage in what Ernst Mayr terms “population thinking”. Rather, they will insist on referring to typologies, rather than distributions, even if one asserts that one is discussing distributions. For one, this is comfortable as a mode of analysis for humans. Categories are clear and distinct. Second, it makes for much easier refutation of plainly incorrect categorical assertions. But despite futility some things must be said now and again.

Addendum: There are some asking how one can disentangle environmental and genetic effects. That is a large part of what fields like behavior genetics, and now much of social science, attempt to do. But that being said I have outlined a very simple design enabled by modern genomics, leveraging the imperfect correlation between genomic ancestry and physical appearance.

* These need not be heritable or genetic. So I’m being vague with the terminology.

** A second implicit assumption is a normative understanding of how humans flourish and the set of choices which they should make to self-actualize.

*** It isn’t logically impossible to contend that there are differences between populations/sexes which make proportional representation unlikely, and, that there are social impediments which might amplify or dampen skewed representation in particular fields. The former cases seem self-evident, but what would I put in the latter categories? Clearly throughout the 20th century the representation of Jews, and later Asians in the United States, in areas of higher education have been dampened by quota systems. Similarly, segregation in sports resulted in an over-representation of non-Hispanic whites in many fields in the United States. Once equality of opportunity was allowed (or in cases where it has been) one saw not a decrease, but increase, is representation in the elite levels away from population wide proportions.

**** In reality many quantitative traits exhibit “fat tails,” so there are more individuals at the extremes than one might expect. But that doesn’t alter the qualitative effect.

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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"