Thursday, 4 March 2010

Cultural Diversity

Qu: Has the environment that promotes cultural and thus genetic diversity subsided? And what will be the impact on society and human evolution?

Genetic similarity of breading partners has long been associated with deformity and poor mental health, from the decline of the Pharaohs to jokes about Norfolk, this appears to be a truism.  In order to ensure genetic diversity humanity has had to rely on a range of surrogate markers of "difference". You look different, or more specifically you come from a different migratory tribe or ever since civilizations have settled in particular location, you come from a different land. Often this desire for cultural distinctiveness, that I suggest is primarily to nurture the health of our species globally, has been misinterpreted as "apartheid" and we end up with the likes of Nick Griffin both socially and genetically. I believe the "Nick Griffin" effect is more to do with competition over resources. See previous blog about the tragedy of the commons and enlightened self interest.  This type of person sees the immediate self interest of cultural identity, usually based around resources such as jobs, land, power, valuables or food — as the primary motivator for remaining culturally distinct.  They do not see that identifying who you are is a way of advertising yourself to somone who is genetically different.  Trade and social interaction with the tribe next door is apparently important for short term tactical reasons such as politics or resources, but has been vital for the diversity needed for the evolution of humanity.  Professor Winston has produced some interesting documentaries looking at the reasons why humans subconsciously select a mate.

Living, as we do now, in the global village — where travel is cheap (albeit environmentally expensive), telecommunications are accessible and new media social interconnectedness is vast and growing, we have no need (or derive no competitive edge) to align ourselves to a tribe or locate ourselves permanently in a specific region.  Will this create homogeneity of heterogeneity?  So if competitive advantage is not a sufficient draw to keep us in culturally and genetically distinct groups, and technology is allowing as to interact socially over vast distances will we become more similar or more different?  I can see a utopian humanity where we are one pan global race, the human race, with significant genetic diversity distributed evenly, not clustered, across the population.  If this is our destiny, if cultural diversity will diminish and genetic diversity will become homogeneous what of society?  Will politics and social governance structures become more global?  I'll think I'll save that for the next post.

Sent from my iPhone


  1. ErictheHalfaBee5 March 2010 at 19:49

    Whoa Nelly! Think you've rather overextended yourself with this one. Let's back this up a little, shall we? 'In order to ensure genetic diversity humanity has had to rely on a range of surrogate markers of "difference"'. That's a completely unsupported statement. Studies would appear to show that at least some animals are good at detecting when prospective mates are too genetically similar, but beyond that there is no recognised drive to seek mates from significantly diverse groups.

    Humans may not be so good at detecting genetic similarities, or may have recently started to mask the clues that allow detection, hence the taboos against incest which are prevalent if not ubiquitous in human societies, and which pretty much take care of the problem. Where cultures (such as some in the Middle East) have arisen which favour close familial connections between mates, they suffer the consequences.

    Also, while we are more mobile than ever before, given the environmental costs that you mention, there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case. Even if it does, we still create our own communities wherever we go, even if they are not the traditional family-based communities of the past. The urge to identify oneself as a member of a particular group is as strong as ever in humans - the strength of feeling that sports team fans display can be explained in no other way - so I don't see humanity homogenising any time soon. At that point, the rest of your speculations fall by the wayside.

  2. Over extended myself, yes probably. However, whilst your opening paragraph does have some weight, I question the value of trying to debunk an unsupported statement with a completely unsupported statement. Lets face it, this is a blog. I have done little or no research and I am grappling with concepts that should be considered much more carefully. I do however feel there is value in writing down a thought. I shall blog on this soon.

    Even if you are correct and there is no recognised drive to seek a genetically different mate, and there is additionally an increasing environmentally driven taboo on travel, this will just slow down the "mixing". There must be some kind of brownian motion at work - albeit biased by current social and cultural practices. The team spirit you mention is just a manifestation of herd mentality and my experience is that this is increasingly unpopular (please don't quote totals back at me look at %'s of people fanatically supporting something) I suspect we are evolving away from that too. This said, then my utopian incarnation of humanity will arrive eventually - and the question still remains, what will be the impact on society. I guess the question that drives this thought process is more, "if, arguably we are all to end up similar, and essentially we started similar, why do we get so preoccupied about the nuances of difference?"

    As you say though, its all speculation we may remain fragmented, devolved and clustered for eternity.

  3. ErictheHalfaBee6 March 2010 at 10:02

    My statement wasn't unsupported. Given the relatively relaxed nature of your blog I didn't quote particular studies and left it at "Studies would appear to show...", but since you object, I suggest you look at the following:

    "Living organisms seem to optimize rather than maximize outbreeding (Bateson 1983). That is, mate choice mechanisms avoid maximizing outbreeding and inbreeding at the same time. A complementary theory to an incest-avoidance-outbreeding equilibrium is the optimization of the working of sex (Jaffe 1999, 2000, 2002). This theory accepts that genetic similarity is not only achieved through familiar proximity, and recognizes that genetic relatedness may exist among individuals with no familiar relationship between them. Therefore, assortative mating of the kind “self seeking like” may achieve reproduction between genetically similar mates, favoring the stabilization of genes supporting social behavior, with no kin relationship among them (Jaffe 2001)."

    As a scientist, you should be only too aware of the perils of extrapolating generalities from personal experience, but despite one shot across your bows you're still doing it - " experience is...", "I suspect we are evolving...".

    You dismiss my pointing out a key bit of human psychology as "...just a manifestation of herd mentality...", but that's entirely the point. We still do have a herd mentality, and since it is clearly deeply hard-wired (can refer you if you like), your "...utopian incarnation of humanity..." will not arrive for hundreds of years, if ever. If it does, by that time we will have changed in so many other ways as to make the consequences of this change entirely impossible to predict and to render current speculation redundant.

    Fair enough, there's potentially value in writing down a thought, but if you put it on the internet as a blog then you're inviting comment, and if your thoughts don't stand up to scrutiny you have to expect to be informed of that fact!

  4. Hi Eric, There are 6 "?" in my original blog. Despite the title of my site, I am inviting questions. I am delighted to have someone with such a rich depth in human psychology, animal behaviour and reproductive biology, providing me (and any other reader) with the necessary research to help turn an uninformed opinion into a well considered view. I think you have known me long enough (must be coming up for 10 years now) to know two things about me. (1) I'm not overly impeded by a fear of making a mistake. Experiential learning can be some of the most valuable. (2) I can be too proud and stubborn to admit I'm wrong.

    I like to think that I am making progress containing both of these traits. However, I don't wish to lose the value inherent in them - willing to take a risk and doggedly sticking at something have both been a huge benefit to me.

    That said, a cursory glance at your first link does kind of destroy the foundation of my premise. I shall take some time to read the research and think again on this subject. I'm still interested in understanding what drives the likes of Nick Griffin to be fiercely racist. Also, for my own sanity, I would like to be reassured that society is evolving away from this and so find some comfort in speculating about a utopian future where base instincts are so diluted they have little power.

    Thanks for reminding me that I'm a scientist. Prediction within the boundaries of the source information is fraught with difficulties and should be treated with respect. Extrapolation beyond the boundaries of the available data is purely speculative and gets exponentially less valuable for each step away. But experience helps us frame the hypothesis that we wish to test.
    " experience is...", "I suspect we are ..." , thanks to you providing the information, can now be replaced with "the weight of evidence suggests....". And I can continue my quest for enlightenment from a robust platform built by others through many years of scientific endeavour. I would maintain that I should express these thoughts.

    Do I detect an undercurrent in your comment - which may be completely wrong, one of the limitations of the written word - that I shouldn't be blogging my thoughts or perhaps that I should do significantly more research before committing thoughts to e-paper. Your last paragraph in particular seems to say this. In an ideal world, for sure, it would be better that only those in possession of all the facts were allowed to express an opinion - yes I wished my research was more thorough (code for I wish I had done some research :-), relying on a cloudy memory of a Prof Winston programme about sex and choosing a mate has fatally undermined my comments. But this kind of casual "chat" that would usually be held in a coffee shop or a bar can now take place virtually - and publically. Anyone can chip in - "Oy mate, get a couple a pints in- oh and stop talking shit" - we probably need to develop some new social norms and rules but we can embrace this medium of communication and debate and evolve our society's method for sharing knowledge and developing thoughts and entering into quasi philosophical debates.

    So thank you for pointing me in the right direction, I will review this material and blog again on cultural diversity from an informed perspective.

  5. ErictheHalfaBee7 March 2010 at 11:48

    Hi James, no, no objections to blogging and putting ideas out there at all, but I think that there are a couple of factors that make it a bit more important to do at least a little research beforehand in this case. One is that your subject matter is a broadly scientific question, and therefore should have at least some regard to the existing scientific research, particularly when it only took me about 1 minute to find the source I gave you by Googling "human mate selection genetic difference". The other is that blogging is as you mention rather more public than sitting in a bar with your mates, and so (I think) carries a slightly higher responsibility for the accuracy of the stuff you put out. I've happily read your (and Simon's) blogs over the last few months, and chipped in here and there where I had anything to say, without making as strenuous objections as I did to this one. I think it was the wide reach of the questions coupled with the inaccuracy of the premises on which those questions were predicated that rattled my cage this time. So please carry on putting your thoughts out there and be assured that your resident grammar/science nazi is only here to help :-)

    I too would like to think that we are evolving away from the Nick Griffin mode of interaction, but I think that the benefits of the psychology that sometimes manifests itself in that way, but also ties us to those we care about, are too great. I think the way forward lies in research into and education about human psychology, so that being aware of our primitive emotional responses and their roots and purposes, we can start to choose when to accept and engage with those responses, and when to appreciate that they are inappropriate to the situation. Even then though, as deeply as I care about rationality and seek it in my own behaviour, I am reminded of its absence continually, and often resort to pitting my irrational tendencies against each other in order to assist a rationally desired outcome - e.g. telling everybody that I will do something that I know I should do but don't want to, in order that peer pressure will ensure that I do it, even though the rational reasons for it should be sufficient! So I think we have a long road to travel on that score...


There was an error in this gadget