Re: Genes say: When Rich, have Fewer Kids

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Thu, 6 Mar 1997 21:29:05 -0800 (PST)

> No disagreement here, really. The time period that I was referring to
> starts pre-cambrian. Human history is only a tiny part of it.
> Human genes are greatly the result of the evolution of pre-human critters.
> The vast majority of that time there was no wealth, unless clams got money.

While much of the evolution of morphology might be pre-human, almost
all of the evolution of /behavior/ likely happened after we took the
basic shape now doing the behaving. Perhaps most of the perceptions
evolved before that, but muscular behaviors and social behaviors must
have evolved much later, after our muscles and groups looked more like
the ones we have now. Behavioral evolution is very fast.

> The point that I was trying to make was that, if we treat DNA as a
> language, there are no words in the human genome for 'rich', and
> probably insufficient syntax to talk about riches.
> ...
> True, but not sufficient. Yes, behaviors can be encoded. However wealth
> is not a behavioral concept. It is a social construction, and there is
> no definite connection between behavior and wealth. Wealth-recognizing
> or wealth-producing behavior in one society doesn't always work in another.
> ...
> The very fact that the correlation between wealth and family size is
> cross-cultural is therefore proof that it isn't genetic. QED.

Sorry, no sale. All it proves is that the particular kind of wealth
measured in the study was probably not the same as what caused the result.
To postulate some genetic cause, you would indeed have to have some
less culturally-biased measure that happens to correlate with wealth.
Obesity seems like the obvious one. That's something common to the
wealthy in every primitive society and most modern ones. Or free time.
Maybe some gene has the effect of supressing sex drive when one is
sedentary, so those people who had lots of free time were less libidinous.
Any number of things might cause it. Just because the particular measure
of "wealth" used in the initial study is a modern phenomenon doesn't mean
that there isn't some more fundamental variable not postulated that
correlates well with modern wealth.

"Language of DNA" is not the right way to treat "genes", because it leads
to the wrong conclusions. The fact that what we call a "gene", i.e.,
the inheritable whatever-it-is that results in some trait, is implemented
in DNA is no reason to limit its effects to the proximal effects of
DNA protein synthesis. Yes, DNA is a language for doing one thing;
but since the effects 100 steps further along in the chain of causality
can still materially differ when the DNA differs, and the /difference/
causes selection, it makes perfect sense to say that this 100-levels-
removed-from-DNA phenomenon is selected genetically, because it carries
that chunk of DNA into the next generation regardless of whether it
"coded" for the trait or not.

Evolution is not a forward-looking plan; it is a backward-looking
effect. DNA doesn't know or care what its "purpose" is. It just
sits there obliviously copying itself and having whatever effect it
has on the being's development and life. Somewhere down the line,
those organisms that developed from DNA that happened to have some
long-range effect that made them less "fit" than organisms with some
different DNA died off, or had fewer kids, and the fitter ones went
on. The precise chain of steps from DNA to behavior is irrelevant.
If the behavior--or morphology, or external conditions, or any other
feature affected by the organism--differs with different DNA, and it
has some differential effect on fitness, then it is an inherited
trait, regardless of whether it's the height of a beaver's dam, the
odds of cheating on your wife, or the size of your bank account.

Again, I'm not saying that there /is/ a genetic basis. I agree that it
is probably less likely than a cultural one. I only point out that the
idea of a genetic basis is much less far-fetched than in might sound.

Lee Daniel Crocker <>