Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Slouching Towards Eugenics? The Evolutionary Origins of "Ghetto Related" Behaviors



FROM feckless fathers and teenaged mothers to so-called feral kids, the media seems to take a voyeuristic pleasure in documenting the lives of the "underclass". Whether they are inclined to condemn or sympathise, commentators regularly ask how society got to be this way. There is seldom agreement, but one explanation you are unlikely to hear is that this kind of "delinquent" behaviour is a sensible response to the circumstances of a life constrained by poverty. Yet that is exactly what some evolutionary biologists are now proposing.

There is no reason to view the poor as stupid or in any way different from anyone else, says Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle in the UK. All of us are simply human beings, making the best of the hand life has dealt us. If we understand this, it won't just change the way we view the lives of the poorest in society, it will also show how misguided many current efforts to tackle society's problems are - and it will suggest better solutions.

Evolutionary theory predicts that if you are a mammal growing up in a harsh, unpredictable environment where you are susceptible to disease and might die young, then you should follow a "fast" reproductive strategy - grow up quickly, and have offspring early and close together so you can ensure leaving some viable progeny before you become ill or die. For a range of animal species there is evidence that this does happen. Now research suggests that humans are no exception.

***

Are the rich and the poor that different in their values and beliefs? Are middle class black Americans that divergent from those in the underclass, seemingly trapped in a perpetual state of poverty? As suggested by a widely discussed public opinion poll in 2007, are there really two "races" of black Americans? The ghetto underclass and the African American middle and professional classes?

Question: Are these divides in values and behavior rooted in nature or nurture? Behavioral scientist Dr. David Nettle would suggest that both forces are at work.

I am of two minds on these matters. On one hand, any conversation about race, poverty, and genetics will always make me feel a bit dirty because science has been used to advance and support white supremacy (of note, science was also used to tear down Jim Crow and formal white supremacy in post-World War 2 America). Ultimately, because science is "a regime of knowledge," it serves elite interests. And by implication, what counts as "truth" in a given moment is malleable and not fixed. In the muddy waters where "race" meets "culture" and then intersects with "behavior" much evil can be done--especially when the study of the relationship between poverty, genetics, and human behavior almost always slouches towards a Bell Curve like moment in which "bad genes" meet "ghetto culture."

On the other hand, I cannot deny the obvious social realities of black poverty, underclass culture, and limited life opportunities. If science can help serve the public good by shining a light on what could be the biological and evolutionary forces that are driving destructive choices, then why not go down that road? Beyond moral condemnation and looking down one's nose at the seemingly irrational behaviors of the underclasses (of all colors), perhaps by understanding the selective incentives that drive their choices all boats can be lifted?

For example, the young woman with 5 children by 3 different men may in fact be making an advantageous choice given her social milieu. The corner boy with his Alpha male persona and "warrior genes" may in fact know exactly what he is doing, as criminal behavior imparts local social status that in turn earns him prestige in his 'hood and the opportunity to impregnate multiple women, thus spreading his DNA. Conspicuous consumption and spending one's resources on overpriced sneakers, expensive clothes, and a rented Mercedes when one lives in a poor neighborhood and has no savings in the bank, may actually be an optimal strategy in a signaling game with one's similarly located peers.

But as someone invested in the uplift of African Americans, I must ask how do these types of very local social capital translate outside of a limited social, economic and geographic space? Moreover, as compelling on the surface as these socio-biological frameworks may at first appear, I am deeply troubled that a scientific explanation for self-destructive behavior can become a legitimation of these "choices" and their long-term negative outcomes. Are these worries misplaced? Reflexively, given the fiction that is race, the wide diversity of human behavior within a given aggregate population, and the complexities of class, do these arguments about group behavior obfuscate more than they reveal?

The powerful article, "Die young, live Fast: The Evolution of an Underclass" can be found here in its entirety. We are doing a cross-posting on this piece with two other bloggers--the always notable (and quotable) culture warrior Cobb and man of science Cnu of Subrealism fame. So please check out their great commentaries.

14 comments:

Tanya said...

I can see the appeal of this theory especially within the framework of rebelling against the mainstream of a society you don't want to be a part of/rejects you and forming your own idea of civilization.

It falls apart in my mind when you look into situations where people don't take proper care of the offspring they 'propagate'. That doesn't promote survival of the species from an evolutionary standpoint.

Oh Crap said...

Cobb, feh. Cobb is a conservative tool with nothing original to say.

CNu said...

It falls apart in my mind when you look into situations where people don't take proper care of the offspring they 'propagate'. That doesn't promote survival of the species from an evolutionary standpoint.

Bearing in mind that evolutionary "fitness" and "success" are measured strictly in terms of number of offspring, you may be mistaken.

However, the larger point which I believe must be borne out is that for the urban underclass, the surrounding culture comprises its entire ecology.

Almost all urban underclass adaptations are in response to artificial signals from the culture on top - as contrasted f'zample - with the "good ole boys" who still have their rural surroundings, or, Blue Mountain rastafarians who (though comprising underclass exemplars) are not utterly divorced from engagement with a natural ecology.

But as someone invested in the uplift of African Americans, I must ask how do these types of very local social capital translate outside of a limited social, economic and geographic space?

I think the actual limits of the adaptive space are of greatest interest - given that the urban underclass ecology(environment) is entirely and exclusively artificial. The urban underclass comprises a unique adaptive phenomenon.

Moreover, as compelling on the surface as these socio-biological frameworks may at first appear, I am deeply troubled that a scientific explanation for self-destructive behavior can become a legitimation of these "choices" and their long-term negative outcomes.

Frankly, I'm a little more troubled by the cultural promotion and cultural cachet by which urban underclass adaptations have been endowed by the popular commercial media. The urban underclass brand is the face of a global system of "Black" cultural supremacy.

Not only do we not own the environment in which these adaptations were formed, we don't own the adaptations (many actively and reflexively and unthinkingly disowning them) and finally, we don't own or control any of the enormous proceeds derived from the global commercialization of the urban underclass brand.

CNu said...

If you're not already familiar with it CD, peep Adam Curtis very insightful documentary trilogy The Trap. The extent to which Nashian Game Theory has become the pivotal driver for SO much of contemporary thought and praxis is absolutely astonishing.

Not only is it the basis for Richard Dawkins ultra-reductionistic selfish gene analogy, (which is what I believe we may need be mindful of in the specific case of the evolutionary psychology account of underclass behavior rather than eugenics) it's also the basis for the cognitive virus that's taken ahold of a great many conservative tools who are blithely unaware of the origins of the maladaptive and thanaturgic heuristic that's taken root in their psyches...,

Tanya said...

I'd bet I'm wrong also as I am not a biologist. My line of thought, from my very basic biology classes is that you won't successfully pass your genes along if your offspring die [in this case from poor healthcare or violent environment] before they can reproduce. In either case, I've never been a fan of applying evolutionary theory in human social contexts.

CNu said...

My line of thought, from my very basic biology classes is that you won't successfully pass your genes along if your offspring die [in this case from poor healthcare or violent environment] before they can reproduce.

That's obvious.

But there are a variety of strategies for taking care of offspring, everything from "leave a large clutch of eggs untended - and let nature (NO NURTURE) take care of the rest - all the way to - "have several million deutsche mark socked away and wait until you're 47 years old to squeeze out one little down's syndrome urchin.

The point is that ignants tend to be profligate and much closer to the clutch of untended eggs strategy and their swelling demographic numbers suggest from an evolutionary standpoint that that low-investment/low care strategy is working just fine, thank you very much.

nah'meen?

In either case, I've never been a fan of applying evolutionary theory in human social contexts.

How come?

Is it because you find evolutionary theory improperly motivated/value-laden, or, because you prefer a more theological approach in the realm of human behavior?

At the end of the day, a social or behavioral context is still an ecology and it models perfectly well as such, it's just a question of striving for objectivity and elimination of political biases and motivations - very difficult but not impossible to do.

As compared and contrasted with the human biodiversity racists - whose work is pure pseudoscientific garbage from the word "Go" - the newscientist article that CD pegged this post to is a fairly exemplary piece of objective framing, so long as it can be kept clear of that insidious game theory/selfish gene type contamination common to most all contemporary western ethological, economical, and political analysis.

Tanya said...

Consider me enlightened.

CNu said...

In either case, I've never been a fan of applying evolutionary theory in human social contexts.

I still wanna know why that is?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cosby and black people who jump on the bandwagon of this argument are full of it!! Please this attitude and type of talk didn't start with 'gansta rap'. It started a long damn time ago and that has ZERO to do with why black people still think it's ok to use the n-word. He doesn't seem to recall an episode of Nell Carter's show 'Gimme a Break' where she actually DEFENDED the word after his youngest daughter blurted it out. If he's going to go there go with HIS industry too and their guilt in all of this.

John Kurman said...

So much of evolutionary pscyhology boils down to "Just so" stories (e.g. How the Elephant Got His Stripes), which don't even make it into the category of hypothesis with little or no hard empirical data for a yea/nay ruling. Mostly its just argument from analogy.

There is a lot of evidence omingto light that the majority of genetic changes have occured in humans during the most recent 10,000 years, and all or most are culturally driven. This in itself suggests the Three Stooges Nature/Nurture Conundrum is far more complex than presented in the Three Stooges episode (or, for that matter the Eddie Murphy/Dan Akroyd movie "Trading Places").

Speaking of argument from analogy, were I the subject of the analogy in the New Scientist article, I'd be a tad insulted. The type of mammalian reproductive strategy described belongs to the order Rodentia, the majorly losing end of a predator/prey relationship whose only option is to breed like mad. To expand the analogy, one has to ask, who are the predators? I think we all know the answer. In which case, this relationship is culturally - ultimately politically - driven.

Or, in a morfe cynical moment, it could be that, if I were to run a hard science social experiment that could settle questions in the ev-psych department, I'd wish to be immune to moral constraints, free from any legal obligations such as prosecution, and of necessity given human lifetimes, bre allowed to operate over hundreds of years for a proper study...

Hey, wait a minute ...

CNu said...

To expand the analogy, one has to ask, who are the predators? I think we all know the answer. In which case, this relationship is culturally - ultimately politically - driven.

BINGO!!!

Precisely why I titled the post Unsustainable Culture's Undesirable Fitness

There is a lot of evidence coming to light that the majority of genetic changes have occurred in humans during the most recent 10,000 years, and all or most are culturally driven.

Evolutionary changes registered where?

Bi-Camerality?
Phenotype?
Genotype?
Epigenotype?
Microbiome?
Microvirobiome?

And how exactly does one take stock of changes in one or more of these levels feeding back on/into superordinate or subordinate levels of structural and functional organization and activity?

I think it's long past time to simply admit how staggeringly little we know, work diligently to eliminate political bias from the application of emerging scientific theories and methods, and try to do our damnedest as a species to make the most of this quintessential domain of inquiry and possibility - this is afterall - nothing short of "God's" work.

John Kurman said...

"Evolutionary changes registered where?

Bi-Camerality?
Phenotype?
Genotype?
Epigenotype?
Microbiome?
Microvirobiome?"

Well, let's take lactase persistence, the ability of some adults to digest milk because they domesticated cattle. You can find changes on chromosome 2 of genes that express the enzyme lactase in Northern European and East African populations (e.g. allele c-14010 in Masai). But this is only the "smoking gun". What other changes are registered in your query? Answers: I don't know, probably, cautious yes, enthusiastic yes and yes.

But agreed, simply identifying an expressing gene is trivializing the issue ala the fundamentalist simpleton Dawkins.

Conscious said...

Please help me circulate my song and video for Aiyana Jones a 7 year old girl killed by Detroit police.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIE7efHPIvM

Anonymous said...

Look, if you are in or associated with any kind of Mafia type of organization (i.e. similar to most "legit" big American businesses but not having bought off enough government officials), then conspicuous consumption is where it is at. The reason why is that you have money that you can't account for, and what are you going to do with it? Invest it?

So, you pay cash for a nice car, or lots of jewelry, etc. The solution is to find a good way to launder the money, thats what crooks like Tony Hayward do. (Well, in his case he buys congressmen, but you know what I mean. He's not looking at life in Supermax with a no human contact order. After all, all he did was kill the Gulf of Mexico.)