Saturday, October 18, 2014

Genes and culture: black death, pogroms, slavery and trust

Kenneally describes a study by the economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, which found persistent differences in anti-Semitism among towns in Germany. Communities that reacted to the Black Death some 600 years ago by blaming and massacring Jews were far more likely to lead pogroms against Jews in the 1920s and to turn Jews over to the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s.

In a separate series of studies, the economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard and Leonard Wantchekon of Princeton found a similar cultural legacy that shaped trust — a trait some presume to vary according to genetic makeup. Nunn and Wantchekon noticed that the poorest regions of Africa were the regions most exploited by slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. These areas suffered decades of raiding in which any stranger might prove a kidnapper, and in which slavers often gained access to their victims by bribing or blackmailing relatives or village authorities.

Clearly such behaviors may have eroded trust at the time, but could the effect last? Nunn and Wantchekon found that it does. The more a population was exposed to slave raiding generations ago, the lower its measures of trust and economic activity today. The specter of slavery, they concluded, had done long-term damage to the social bonds necessary for efficient trade. The economies and people continue to suffer accordingly.

It’s a far more plausible and evidence-based explanation for Africa’s economic troubles than the one offered by Nicholas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” which, with vaporous evidence, attributes weak African economies to African-­specific genetic profiles that purportedly discourage trust. Genetics gives all humans the power to create culture. Yet it appears most likely that it is not genetics but culture’s manifestations, some lovely, some horrific, that distinguish and divide us.

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