Rich Gene, Poor Gene

Just finished reading another vintage Dawkins book, The Extended Phenotype. Lucid and very fascinating. This along with his seminal work, The Selfish Gene, completes my evolution-101 course by Dawkins. His ability to connect rather ordinary observations and come up with profound ideas is astounding.

Then again, it might just be an essential job requirement to be an evolutionary biologist. After all, it was the same ability that the fathers of evolutionary biology – Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace – employed to convert some simple observations into one of the greatest triumphs of reason – the idea of evolution by natural selection. An idea which Dan Dennett calls ‘the single best idea that anyone has ever had’. Undoubtedly, a paradigm shift in science and philosophy.

For a layman, the phrase – survival of the fittest – summarizes the grand idea of evolution by natural selection. Members of the species most fit for the environment they live in have the better chance to survive, to reproduce and to pass on their genes to their next generations. All species of plants and animals have evolved some specific physical traits which gave them an advantage over others in the competitive race for survival. White furs of a polar bear, large floppy ears of an elephant, spines on a cactus and wings of an eagle – all give some differential advantage to the organism in question. Humans too have evolved along similar lines. Our dexterous hands, agile feet and upright spine are the product of millions of years of evolutionary process.

But perhaps, the most interesting entry on this evolutionary train is that of the human brain. It has changed all the rules of the competition. With our sophisticated brain and its capacity for abstract thought, we have modified our environment to a far greater extent than any other species.

In this modified environment the ‘fitness’ criteria have been completely redefined. There must have been a time when physical strength would have been the major factor for our survival. For hunter-gatherer of earlier times, one or the other form of physical superiority must have been a decisive advantage. A lot has changed since then. Mainly, that we have developed new systems and constructs to ensure our survival.

Development of agriculture and trade had to be one of the most important milestones in our journey of evolution. With agriculture, for the first time in history, we had excess food at our hand and the trade of the excess resources ensured non-violent allocation of resources. While living in communities, we realized that promoting division of labor was the efficient way of producing things. To further maximize gains from such a society, where different people were producing different things, a system of exchange was needed. And so money was invented as a direct consequence of the production of a surplus and its exchange.

It can be argued that ever since the money was conceptualized, it has taken over as the fitness criterion for humans. For better or for worse, we have managed to link our survival prospects with money. From ‘survival of the fittest’ to ‘survival of the richest’. With finite planetary resources and an exponentially growing human population – the systems of exchange based on money are the only non-violent methods for division and distribution of resources. Capitalism and Socialism are just a few forms of this exchange that we could think of.

Today, the basic survival needs – food and shelter – are traded as commodities. The rich are the ones with the means to buy these commodities and have the best chances of survival. Being rich ensures the best quality of medical care further augmenting the chances of survival. All these factors ensure that the rich are better at propagating their genes than the poor. In other words, reproductive success and incomes are interlinked (*).

We can postulate that ‘rich genes’ have much higher chances of surviving through generations than ‘poor genes’. Genes of someone belonging to the Tata or Ambani families will survive and be passed on for several generations, while genes of a poor farmer in Maharashtra might not even survive a couple of generations.

This effect is further reinforced by the fact that the presently preferred system of exchange, capitalism, has a natural tendency of wealth accumulation (refer: Piketty). Money creates money, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I am not sure if such data exists, but it would be very interesting to see the effects of the wealth inequality on the genetic homogeneity that it is causing.

An important side-story in this rich-poor evolution saga is the story of technology. Technology plays a paradoxical role in this story of wealth and natural selection. On one hand, technology is believed is seen as the great equalizer. Mass production of things aided by technology has delivered resources to poor at very low-cost thereby increasing their quality of life.

But, on the other hand, it’s the rich who are in the best position to fully exploit the gains coming from the use of cutting edge technology. Whether, it’s the access to an expensive life-saving drug, or the use of robots and computers to make the life easy; the benefits of technology first go to rich. To me, the role of technology is still unclear on this issue.

It might seem really obvious to us that being rich and chances of survival are interlinked. But think about it for a moment, an artificial construct – money –  is dictating the process of natural selection. I, for one, find it very peculiar. It’s a kind of higher-order natural selection. Biologists might fuss over using such terminology as the time scales involved in evolution are quite big. Serious evolutionary changes indeed require millions of years. So, instead of trying to relate money and natural selection, we might just call it a form of social selection. But then again, aren’t our social behaviors also a product of evolution?