Inside Current Anthropology: Is Poverty in Our Genes?

The February issue of Current Anthropology is out now, and is already making waves with this CA Forum on Public Anthropology piece, “Is Poverty in Our Genes?” Read a preview below and then visit JSTOR to view the entire article for free.

The authors of a new Current Anthropology forum paper refute the findings of a forthcoming paper by Ashraf and Galor in the American Economic Review. 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.

The authors of the critique demonstrate that Ashraf and Galor’s analyses rely on flawed data and a naïve understanding of genetics, while also ignoring relevant findings in anthropology and related fields on the subject of human evolution, cooperation, and innovation.

In light of the fact that governments look to social science research to inform policy decisions, the authors of the critique call for social scientists in the emerging field of “genoeconomics” to adhere to a higher burden of evidence when making provocative assertions capable, among other possible consequences, of placing vulnerable populations at greater risk and reinforcing various forms of casual and institutionalized prejudice.

Current Anthropology, published by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. Communicating across the subfields, the journal features papers in a wide variety of areas, including social, cultural, and physical anthropology as well as ethnology and ethnohistory, archaeology and prehistory, folklore, and linguistics.