Friday, May 13, 2016

The Economist explains about science - quite well, actually

I am frequently irritated by pious lectures from The Economist's young writing team as to how the affairs of the world might be better ordered. But the Science and Technology section sometimes does it right - applying sophisticated thinking to get to the essence of a contemporary issue.

This week we have an excellent account of the new ideas underlying that exciting new genome analysis technique, SDS, which I mentioned in my last post.

Here's what they have to say:
"The team’s technique looks for changes not in alleles themselves, but in the DNA that surrounds those alleles.

"If a particular allele is more beneficial than other variants of a gene, it will tend, as lactose tolerance did, to spread through the population. As it does so, it will carry with it neighbouring DNA which is not strictly part of the gene and does not affect its function. This DNA can thus mutate without damaging the allele. And it is the amount of mutation this peripheral DNA has undergone which is the giveaway.

"DNA neighbouring an allele that has recently spread quickly will have had less time to accumulate mutations than that near one which evolution has been ignoring. By looking for evidence of mutations around particular alleles, Dr Pritchard and his team can reconstruct their history.

"Apply the method to lots of people, and it is possible to discern what evolution has been up to."

If only The Economist would apply the insights of contemporary behavioural genetics to the great affairs of the world. Here is my suggestion for an Economist Special Report:
"Is there something about the genomics of Europeans/Asians which enables them in principle to run successful democracies?"
If they wish, they can have the null hypothesis that the answer is no.

Let me suggest some reasons why this is even worth considering (apart from evidence in the actual world, that is):
- a democracy replaces kin- and tribe-based interest-mongering with an atomised population delegating conflict resolution to a formal and non-violent elite

- in a democracy, leaders who wield power are expected to hand it over in the event they lose an election, regardless of the idiots who won it

- if your sectional group has a problem, you are expected to wait for an election until it gets resolved; and then suck it up if your group does not succeed in winning power.
None of these things seems the kind of thing social animals usually get selected for.

Psychologically, democracy would appear to require the majority of the population to exhibit:
  • an immense amount of forbearance (self-control and future time-preference) 
  • pervasive intelligence (needed to make institutions work and, in fact, to buy into them) 
  • generalised trust (required for networks of relationships over time and space).
None of these psychological traits seems to be ancestral.

Historical defaults are:
  • to seek immediate redress for wrongs ('an eye for an eye')
  • to not be that capable of handling conceptual abstractions
  • to trust only those you or your neighbours can actually vouch for.

So we have some research to do here, checking the genomes of societies which have managed to sustain democracy over the decades or centuries vs those populations which can't seem to get it together. You'd be looking for elevated frequencies of the many relevant alleles of small effect.

By the way, the payoff to democracy - if you have the sort of people who can get it to work - is a scalable, developing economy and a benevolent social environment.

A great prize for inclusive fitness if you can get there.

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