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.