Friday 27 April 2018

Of foxes, and kings.

Red fox. Photograph: Jonn Leffmann, CC BY 3.0, Link
Does a social system with entrenched privilege systematically breed progressively nastier people? I suspect it does, and I shall argue it.

I used to believe that the reason the British elite are in general such noxious people was because our system of elite education is so bad; but I've begun to doubt that that's the whole story.

Elites tend to breed with elites, in quite narrow parameters: people tend to choose mates from socially similar backgrounds. Historically at least, elites have tended to have greater breeding success; they've had more children who have survived long enough to breed themselves. This is illustrated by programmes like "Who do you think you are": if you examine random people's family trees, royalty crops up surprisingly often.

The social systems we've had in Western Europe since the bronze age - warrior cultures, the feudal system, capitalism - have all tended to entrench privilege. Wealth and, to a degree, social status have been heritable.

And the characteristics required to ascend the ladder in all those systems has included the preparedness to be more ruthless, more ambitious, more bellicose, more vicious. (Obviously other characteristics have also been selected for: intelligence, charisma, physical attractiveness, and, at least until the end of the feudal period, strength).

Are characteristics like ruthlessness and bellicosity genetically heritable? I used to believe not; I used to believe that they were software, engendered by nurture, not hardware, engendered by genetics. The Russian fox domestication experiment persuades me I was wrong. By selectively breeding the tamest individuals, the experiment produced systematically different behaviour in foxes over remarkably few generations.

If characteristics like tameness are heritable, so, too, surely, are characteristics like ruthlessness.

If so, our social systems have since the bronze age systematically bred an elite which is progressively more ruthless over many generations. And worse, because elites have, historically at least, tended to have greater breeding success, we have progressively bred a general population which is more ruthless. (Of course, yes, other more desirable characteristics are also selected for).

If you look at the current Tory front bench, or the upper reaches of the aristocracy, or, indeed, those areas of law, finance and journalism where entry is selected on the basis of elite education, this thesis accounts for what you observe remarkably well.

So, if we have selectively bred a more ruthless, more vicious population than our "savage" ancestors, can we reverse the trend?

Heritable privilege seems to me to be key here. If you break the chains of inherited wealth and privilege, you'll get a sort of reverse eugenics - greater genetic mixing. That doesn't necessarily select for nicer, more cooperative, more sociable people, but at least it would stop us preferentially breeding worse ones.

As Comrade Lucy Broon put it,  'Just scrawl "full communism now" on rahbackuvvah silver rizla'

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