Sunday, January 25, 2009

Diversity: possibly poisonous

Multi-ethnic societies have always faced a high risk of dissension and civil war, and few such societies have been fully successful. Yet since the 18th century the United States has impressed foreign observers with its ability to unite and integrate people from diverse and even mutually hostile backgrounds (e.g., Crevecoeur, 1782/1997; de Tocqueville, 1835/1945).

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Beginning in the 1960s, however, American society has seen a major movement away from
“unum” and toward “pluribus.” With the rise of identity politics, political correctness, and the multiculturalist movement in the 1980's, many historians and political scientists began to worry about new divisions and hostilities within American society.

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In a widely cited book, The Disuniting of America, the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger (1991, p.58) worried that "the cult of ethnicity exaggerates the differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, drives ever deeper the
awful wedges between races and nationalities. The endgame is self-pity and self-ghettoization."

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When divisions are made on the basis of socially significant factors such as race,
religion, sexual orientation, or country of origin, the resulting intergroup hostility can be far more serious. The most deadly riots in American history, from the draft riots of 1863 to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, have been race riots (Morris & Morris, 1976). Most American street gangs form along racial or ethnic lines (Shelden, Tracy & Brown, 1997). It seems that people, especially young men, will spontaneously form groups based on racial or ethnic similarity, and groups of young men will actively seek out other groups of young men for competition and conflict (Tiger, 1969).

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Several organizational behavior researchers have suggested that different kinds of diversity may have different kinds of effects. Jackson, Stone, and Alvarez (1992, p.56) distinguished demographic attributes from personal attributes. Demographic attributes are “those that are immutable, that can be readily detected during a brief interaction with a person, and for which social consensus can be assumed (e.g., sex, race, ethnicity, age).” Personal attributes, on the other hand, are “mutable and subjectively construed psychological and interpersonal characteristics (e.g. status, knowledge, behavioral style), which can change as a consequence of socialization processes." One personal attribute that they mentioned but did not discuss at length
is values, including attitudes of all sorts.

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Moral diversity can be similarly defined as the state of a group when a substantial percentage of its members (20%?) do not value the most valued moral goods of a community. Moral goods are social, personal, or spiritual obligations (e.g., justice, social harmony, self-actualization, piety, chastity) to which one appeals to justify or criticize the practices and behaviors of others, and which are felt to be binding on all people (or at least on all people in a particular role or position; see Shweder & Haidt, 1993; Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997). Moral goods are experienced as affectively laden self-evident truths, or intuitions; people care strongly about them, and find it difficult to explain their goodness to someone who does not share their intuition (Haidt, in press). A simpler but equivalent way of describing moral diversity is as the state of a group when many different ideas of right and wrong are represented, and there is no widespread consensus about which moral goods should be pursued.

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An enormous body of research demonstrates the importance of similarity, particularly shared attitudes, for interpersonal attraction and cooperation (Byrne & Clore, 1970; Byrne & Nelson, 1965; Heider, 1958; Newcomb, 1961, 1978). Interacting with people who hold dissimilar attitudes raises skin conductance levels (Clore & Gormly, 1974), providing a visceral cue that may damage further interactions. Disagreements that challenge one’s cultural and moral worldview lead to desires for ostracism and punishment (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991). Byrne et al. (1975, p.206) noted that “the response to the threat raised by disagreement is to denigrate those who disagree; not only are they rejected, but they are also seen as lacking in intelligence, knowledge, morality, and psychological adjustment.”

Differentiating Diversities: Moral diversity is not like other kinds

Interesting point: if we're not all on the same page regarding our most commonly accepted values, our society falls apart. The biggest problems are the ones everyone assumes are obviously answered.

Haidt updates this research with a quick note of common sense:

The most offensive idea in all of science for the last 40 years is the possibility that behavioral differences between racial and ethnic groups have some genetic basis. Knowing nothing but the long-term offensiveness of this idea, a betting person would have to predict that as we decode the genomes of people around the world, we're going to find deeper differences than most scientists now expect. Expectations, after all, are not based purely on current evidence; they are biased, even if only slightly, by the gut feelings of the researchers, and those gut feelings include disgust toward racism..

A wall has long protected respectable evolutionary inquiry from accusations of aiding and abetting racism. That wall is the belief that genetic change happens at such a glacial pace that there simply was not time, in the 50,000 years since humans spread out from Africa, for selection pressures to have altered the genome in anything but the most trivial way (e.g., changes in skin color and nose shape were adaptive responses to cold climates). Evolutionary psychology has therefore focused on the Pleistocene era – the period from about 1.8 million years ago to the dawn of agriculture — during which our common humanity was forged for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

But the writing is on the wall. Russian scientists showed in the 1990s that a strong selection pressure (picking out and breeding only the tamest fox pups in each generation) created what was — in behavior as well as body — essentially a new species in just 30 generations. That would correspond to about 750 years for humans. Humans may never have experienced such a strong selection pressure for such a long period, but they surely experienced many weaker selection pressures that lasted far longer, and for which some heritable personality traits were more adaptive than others. It stands to reason that local populations (not continent-wide "races") adapted to local circumstances by a process known as "co-evolution" in which genes and cultural elements change over time and mutually influence each other. The best documented example of this process is the co-evolution of genetic mutations that maintain the ability to fully digest lactose in adulthood with the cultural innovation of keeping cattle and drinking their milk. This process has happened several times in the last 10,000 years, not to whole "races" but to tribes or larger groups that domesticated cattle.

Recent "sweeps" of the genome across human populations show that hundreds of genes have been changing during the last 5-10 millennia in response to local selection pressures. (See papers by Benjamin Voight, Scott Williamson, and Bruce Lahn). No new mental modules can be created from scratch in a few millennia, but slight tweaks to existing mechanisms can happen quickly, and small genetic changes can have big behavioral effects, as with those Russian foxes. We must therefore begin looking beyond the Pleistocene and turn our attention to the Holocene era as well – the last 10,000 years. This was the period after the spread of agriculture during which the pace of genetic change sped up in response to the enormous increase in the variety of ways that humans earned their living, formed larger coalitions, fought wars, and competed for resources and mates.

The protective "wall" is about to come crashing down, and all sorts of uncomfortable claims are going to pour in. Skin color has no moral significance, but traits that led to Darwinian success in one of the many new niches and occupations of Holocene life — traits such as collectivism, clannishness, aggressiveness, docility, or the ability to delay gratification — are often seen as virtues or vices. Virtues are acquired slowly, by practice within a cultural context, but the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is — and this is my prediction — going to be a "game changing" scientific event. (By "ethnic" I mean any group of people who believe they share common descent, actually do share common descent, and that descent involved at least 500 years of a sustained selection pressure, such as sheep herding, rice farming, exposure to malaria, or a caste-based social order, which favored some heritable behavioral predispositions and not others.)

I believe that the "Bell Curve" wars of the 1990s, over race differences in intelligence, will seem genteel and short-lived compared to the coming arguments over ethnic differences in moralized traits. I predict that this "war" will break out between 2012 and 2017.


Something in me gets queasy when truth and observable knowledge are swept under the rug by social pretense.

I hope he's right, and that science continues to illuminate humanity from within without bowing to the opinions of humans as they'd like to consider themselves. So far, the record is very mixed.


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