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An Academic Smackdown: Refuting the Absurd Social Science Claim that "Poverty is in Our Genes"

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We present a critique of a paper written by two economists, Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor, which is forthcoming in the American Economic Review and which was uncritically highlighted in Science magazine...

In their study, Ashraf and Galor argue that there are strong links between population genetic diversity and the per-capita income of nation states, even after accounting for factors like geography and land productivity. 

They further contend that the United States, Europe, and Asia are affluent because they have optimal genetic diversity, while developing nations in Africa and the Americas are impoverished because they have either too much or too little genetic diversity.

Ashraf and Galor have attempted to use human genetic data to contend that the level of diversity present in a population as humans spread out and peopled the world has caused long-lasting effects on economic development. They claim that high genetic diversity (common in African populations) increases the incidence of distrust and conflict, which causes social instability and lower productivity.

In addition, they argue that populations that are relatively genetically homogeneous (such as Native Americans) are at an economic disadvantage because genetic diversity increases competition and thus innovation. Ashraf and Galor arrive at the controversial conclusion that colonialism might have had a positive effect on development in Africa and the Americas by changing the genetic composition of the colonized territories.

It would seem that what we have here is a Goldilocks theory which purports to link "genetic diversity" in human populations with a given society's economic success and productivity. Unlike that fairy tale, all of the porridge served by Ashraf and Galor is toxic.

I am generally loathe to participate in conversations about the specious link between genes and societal "success." One of my objections is practical. The human biodiversity crowd are either explicitly in bed with, and/or greatly overlap with white supremacists. I have no use for their venom and lies.

As an empirical matter, the foundational claim(s) that there is something "genetic" about socially constructed groups known as "races," and that macro-level social outcomes can be imputed from individual genes in mass lacks both parsimony and rigor. There are simply too many variables involved. Moreover, the base constructs lack validity as individual members of different "races" have more in common genetically with people of different "racial groups" than they do with each other.

I decided to make an exception  for the article, Is Poverty in Our Genes? A Critique of Ashraf and Galor, “The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development.”

Why?

Post racial discourse is predicated upon an erroneous assumption: in the shadow of the Holocaust, old fashioned racism was slayed by the civil rights movement(s) and its allies in the academic, social justice, and scientific communities.

Here, claims of biological determinism are just too antiquated and primitive to be taken seriously. I have long-countered that eugenics, phrenology, and the other assorted scientific enterprises which supported global white supremacy have simply evolved. There are technologies of race. The effort to use the emerging science about the human genome to legitimate long-standing racial ideologies which judge non-whites to be inferior is not new. It is simply an example of the new technologies of white supremacist "racecraft" in practice.

I am also fond of watching a good academic butt whooping delivered on purveyors of piss poor social science research. "Is Poverty in Our Genes?" is a clinic. There can be no greater insult than suggesting to a bunch of economists that 1) they got their math wrong and 2) said researchers quite frankly do not know what they are talking about, and therefore need to go back to playing in their own sandbox.

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