Is Poverty in Our DNA? Recent Study Says Yes.

NWNW baby

Could this beautiful baby be predisposed to poverty?


Poverty is the world’s most common issue. And, though many of us have not experienced it personally, we are all aware that poverty exists around the globe. On some continents, like Africa, poverty is much more commonplace than in other regions. For example, the Americas, Asia, and Europe have all made vast economic improvements over recent centuries and decades situating them well ahead of other developing nations. But, according to a recent study by two economists, this demarcation could have less to do with issues like agricultural development or terrain and more to do with simple genetics. So, is poverty in our DNA?

What is this topic even about? Something called “genoeconomics.” And, put simply, it is the linkage of chromosomes and money. In essence, scholars have ventured to find a direct relationship between DNA and aggregate economic success or impairment. And, a very important work will be published in the American Economic Review which makes some key assertions about nationality and money making potential.

The forthcoming article, titled “The “Out of Africa ”Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development,” by Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor, maintains the following claim.

“While the low degree of diversity among Native American populations and the high degree of diversity among African populations have been a detrimental force in the development of these regions, the intermediate levels of genetic diversity prevalent among European and Asian populations have been conducive for development.”

Many people assign socioeconomic indicators like region, capital, class, and nationality to poverty. And, while all of these things have a correlative relationship with the phenomena, it has been quite difficult to assign a causal relationship to any one issue.

What is the difference between correlative and causal? Well, correlation says that where you find one thing (x) you are likely to find another (y). But, causality says that one thing (x) actually causes the other(y) to exist. And, this recent article on poverty has misleadingly claimed that racial or genetic diversity causes poverty.

So, in this case, the paper’s central thesis is simply that, historically,  African populations fought too much and Native American populations were too complacent. But, European and Asian populations had just the right amount of diversity to assist them in their cooperative efforts towards economic development. They use broad-based survey data to support these claims. And, to qualify the paper’s findings on “genetic diversity,” the authors have a lengthy set of peers from a host of reputable institutions, with economics being their primary expertise, to back-up their findings.

The claim seems flawed. Even from a bird’s eye view, it seems nearly impossible to find a singular causal link for something as monolithic as poverty. And, several other authors agree with that perception.

Contending authors, Jade d’Alpoim Guedes et al., have published a scathing critique of Ashraf and Galor titled “Is Poverty in Our Genes?” In the piece they note three main issues with the economists’ findings. First, they claim that Ashraf and Galor misuse scientific terminology and therefore do not understand key issues of genetic diversity. Second, they believe that the underlying data utilized in the analysis is flawed. And, lastly, the authors note a vast body of work out there which is in direct discord with Ashraf and Galor’s assertions.

Now, while these three criticisms are important in understanding why this article is receiving so much negative publicity, it is most important to measure the impact of the study’s findings on real human beings. These findings could suggest to countries struggling with economic development that they simply need to increase or decrease their levels of genetic diversity to meet Ashraf and Galor’s optimum levels.

In an email, when asked about the purported “bad science” in Ashraf and Galor’s piece, d’Alpoim Guedes wrote the following.

“People are upset, they are jobless and they are looking for an explanation. They are offered one by a government who decides to point the finger at their immigrants and which states ‘Scientists have proven that in order to help our economy we need to get rid of our genetic diversity, hence immigrants.’ (They are not going to read or understand any of the subtler points of the argument). Because of the dangers of statements like this, scientists need to be held to the highest ethical standards when it comes to informing the public of the limitations of one’s research.”

And how exactly do you change your genetic diversity? Well, there’s genocide. And, you could simply try your best to exile immigrants from your country. Or, you could limit the birth rate in naturalized citizens in an effort to dilute the natural population with immigrants from other lands. In any case, the idea sounds completely unrealistic or ethically unsound as a governmental means to economic improvement.

When asked about the “false positive” identified in the study, d’Alpoim Guedes answered simply, “There is no underlying truth to be found here.”

I am inclined to agree. So, what is the cause of poverty? Or is there one single cause at all? I once heard someone coin the term “moral luck.” I wonder if that applies here. If so, then there is nothing we can do to improve at all. But who wants to believe that?

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