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Spreading the Wealth Around

With elections coming up and differences in economic philosophies being highlighted by recent events, the words "spreading the wealth around" sound like the beginning of a political post.  Except this topic goes well beyond political ideology and into basic core beliefs about human beings. 

So, here are a few excerpts from some recent articles I stumbled across at a website called Philosophy of Genetics by Will Frehley.

Spreading the wealth around


It’s human nature to believe you’re responsible for your own success.  So successful people resist any sort of government action that appears to resemble "redistribution of wealth" in the form of imposing higher taxes on the wealthy and providing subsidies and social programs for the poor.

If it could be proved with certainty that people with higher drive, energy, passion, charisma and intelligence are born that way, then most people would probably agree that government redistribution of wealth was fair.  Having these characteristics would often (although not always) lead to success, in the form of higher pay and social status.

 However, most people don’t believe there are innate differences in talent.  For the most part, people think we’re all responsible for our own success…

But in reality, we’re not only born with innate ways of understanding the world (and our strong belief in "free will" is one of those), but we also differ amongst each other…

…Ironically, we humans may never understand ourselves, if our capacity for self-understanding is itself innate (and inaccurate).  Our common sense and intuition evolved not for truth and rational understanding, but for survival of the species.  [My emphasis.]  That’s why there’s no moral outrage at the genetic inequity, because we’re not designed to consider it.

Full article here. 


Economics and Genetics

Where do our choices come from?

I’d tell you, but you’d probably disagree.  Most people are not hardwired to understand themselves.  Although we’re really genetic beings reacting to other genetic beings, we don’t see it that way.  We think of ourselves as rational actors, acting in response to other rational actors.

Most people think we have freedom of choice, to do anything we want.  The problem is, we don’t (and can’t) chose our “wants” themselves.  They are part of who we are, as genetic beings.  Our genes are not something we have.  They are something we are

As with quantum physics, it seems impossible to step outside the system to observe ourselves objectively.  In quantum physics, the observed and the observer are one.  The process of observation causes the observed to exist.  There are no privileged perspectives. We humans can’t seem to step outside of ourselves either, in our interactions with each other.

We react to each other, without trying to understand those who differ from us.  It’s been shown, for example, that political preferences are probably innate. (Soon, there could be a simple genetic test to determine who prefers Fox News over CBS!)  As an extreme example, we don’t identify with serial killers or psychopaths either, even as their motivations are innate.  We simply want to punish and incarcerate them, and forget about them, not understand them…

What does it mean to say motivations are genetic?  It’s shorthand for saying “genes create our body infrastructure, including the brain’s circuitry, and design the development process to be self-tuning (via expected experience from our evolutionary history)”.  Genes, which evolved over billions of years, in close association with the environment, are really encapsulated experience from that ancient time, brought forth to the present. Genes now develop our brain circuitry to recognize expected situations in the environment, and to react to them in standard ways.  And genetic diversity means that no two people are motivated by the same things.  Some people prefer rock climbing, and others prefer studying history.

At some level, we are "designed" by our genes to respond to certain environments…

Genes are like formulas in a spreadsheet.  Genes are algorithmic.  Yet we don’t all have the same formulas, so the behavioral outcomes differ.  But those outcomes are constrained by the formulas.  We don’t have “free will” to change them, nor do we want to, because they are who we are.

The main point is that no two people have the same “formulas” in their brains, due to genetic diversity.  Some people are motivated to seek power, and others are motivated by following power.  Some people take more risk, and are more resilient.  Some people enjoy killing.  Some people are selfless and brave in the face of danger.

How would you teach someone to be motivated by power?  You can’t do it.  You can motivate someone (using their existing motivations), but you can’t give them new ones (since the development of the brain begins within a short time of conception, in utero).  Yet a CEO makes millions of dollars because he has rare genes.  Leadership is innate.  That doesn’t make it fair

If motivation is genetic, then our theories of rational agents, free choice, and homogeniety in society are sorely outdated.  More here. 

The Problem with Neuroscience

According to Cambridge University’s Michael Bate, scientists who study the brain understand (to some degree) how individual neurons are created (a process called "neurogenesis").  They also understand how neurons move to their proper place ("axon guidance"), and form connections (called "synapses") with other neurons in the brain.Neuron I can think of a few principles that may guide their approach:


Yet, scientists still don’t know how the "assembly of individual neurons in the brain" adds up to the development of human behavior.  Bate asks: "What can developmental genetics and neuroscience tell us about the transition from growth and patterning to the onset of function in a network and the emergence of behavior?"


First, neurons are experience… 

Second, the neuroscientist who believes in "free will" or "nature vs nurture" is lost.  You can’t study the mind or human intuition using intuition, the same way you can’t study sub-atomic particles with measurement devices made of those same particles.

Third, there is no separation between the environment and the neuron’s activity…

Fourth, humans are specialized actors.  We each differ by 1% of our DNA…

Finally, scientists are loath to make discoveries that the public finds abhorrent…

More here. 


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