15 December 2018

Prosperity, Genetics, and Social Invention (And Over What Horizon Progress Lies)

I'd like you to predict which of these three people is fastest.

We have a middle-aged woman, a young man and a young woman.

You might speculate about whether the young man is an athlete. You know the young woman is. Some of you will recognize her as Allyson Felix, 3-time world champion short-distance runner (100, 200, and 400 meters) and Olympic medalist. You will likely predict that Allyson is the fastest, then the young man and then the middle-aged woman. Some people might suggest that saying that out loud makes you biased or prejudiced and some might say that it's just common sense. And if you had to choose between other groups you'd judge based on apparent fitness, sex and age. Data might be on your side and there would be all sorts of things we could say about whether you're unfairly excluding one person over another in spite of not really knowing them as individuals. And there might even be a debate about how silly it is to debate this when we have data to inform us who is faster and who is slower. 

But I'm not done with this question. I did not mention the distance they'd travel. I also did not tell you what inventions they have access to.

Now that you know the distance is 500 miles and you know what inventions they have access to - the young man has a bike, the young woman a car and the middle-aged woman a plane - you have absolutely no trouble predicting who is fastest. And in fact, there is no difference in their speeds running that even begins to compare with the difference in the speed they can reach in these different inventions. 

Usain Bolt was this phenomenon of speed last decade. It was mind blowing what he did. He broke the world  record for the 100 meter run in 2009 in the fastest recorded time. He ran roughly 23 mph, probably humanity's fastest time for that distant. 

He was not, though, the fastest person when he was running his race. That honor goes to Nicole Stott who was traveling at 17,150 mph while Bolt was setting his world record. Nicole and her crew mates on the Space Station were moving 745x faster than Bolt.

We're still fascinated by human potential and raw speed. But we don't depend on it as we go about our day. We use technology to get from place to place because it is so much faster. The incremental gains in speed from evolutionary advances are so tiny and slow in comparison to the incremental gains in speed from technology advances that they're not worth mentioning. The tiny and highly variable differences in genetics in determining speed are noise compared to the differences in technology in determining speed.

Now we move to part two of this pop quiz. Let's look at the same three folks and ask the question, Who is most affluent?

Again, you'd have your ideas. You may realize how subject your generalizations are to variation within groups. If you know Allyson is a star you'd likely think she was most affluent. If you didn't and thought she might just be a high school athlete it would be easy to assume that a young, black woman would be worth less than a middle-aged white woman. Probabilities support that guess. 

Let's now throw inventions back into the mix. This time, though, we're talking about which social inventions our three have access to rather than which technological inventions they have access to. 

If affluence is measured by how much one can spend, the young guy is now most affluent. Our young woman has only cash, the middle-aged woman has a credit card and the young guy has access to venture capital. The first can spend hundreds, the next ten thousand and the young guy millions. People with access to consumer credit have more money than people who have only cash, and so on. 

One of the best social inventions is a stable and prosperous country. If you have access to that you will live better than someone who does not. (I know. I know. There is variation in all things and there are people in poor countries who live better than people who live in affluent countries. Still, if you were talking probabilities you would want to bet on the Norwegian rather than the Syrian, At this point in history anyway; it would have been dramatically different a thousand years ago and could reverse again in a century or two.)

The differences in genes as a determinant of speed are noise in comparison to the differences in what technology we have access to. Similarly, differences in self-sufficiency as a determinant of affluence are noise in comparison to differences in what social inventions we have access to. Groups who have access to a peaceful, prosperous country and great education and dynamic companies to work for will be far more affluent than groups who have access to none of these things. That is as clear as the fact that a group in a plane is faster than a group with sneakers.

And once more, a nod to variation. When we get into a plane we all move at 600 mph. When we get into schools or markets or corporations we don't all move at $60,000 a year. There will always be variation in outcomes from systems like factories, schools, and markets. If you want to understand how to better manage such variation, you may want to search for "deming" on this blog or W. Edwards Deming more generally. The claim is not that all individuals benefit equally from these social inventions: the claim is that communities with different social inventions at different stages of development have very different outcomes. Take two populations of 100 or 100 million and put one in a society where social inventions like universities or financial markets are nonexistent or reserved for just the elite and put another in a society where such social inventions are accessible to a wide swath of people, and it is the latter that will be more affluent. Every time.

For at least the last 10,000 years - maybe the last 100,000 years - social evolution has done more to determine our quality of life than has genetic evolution. There is no conceivable genetic advance that will ever make us capable of running 17,150 mph. Nor is there any genetic advance that will ever enable us to live as well from self-sufficiency as we do in today's modern world. The point is to worry less about differences in individual ability within our current systems than to worry about how to make those social inventions and systems more useful for groups and the distinct individuals within them. Significant progress is never about pushing people harder within current systems; it is about the continual act of invention and reinvention - sometimes tiny and incremental and sometimes sweeping and grand - of those systems to result in longer lives and more autonomy, more choice about how to live a life. We don't live better than our ancestors from 1900 because we work harder or make bigger sacrifices. We live better because the systems we depend on and use - the social technology that makes us more or less affluent - are better. Focusing on the performance of our systems rather than the performance of individuals within them is the direction in which progress lies.

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