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March 20, 2004

Dr. Barista

Recently I received a email from Ikram that indicated that “visible minorities” in Canada tend to economically under-perform as a function of their educational level. This is an interesting point in light of the fact that many American intellectuals who argue for reformed immigration policies, George Borjas being an example, have pointed to the Canadian model, which emphasizes educational qualifications over familial connections, as one which might be worthy of emulation. Is it preferable to have holders in advanced degrees performing low level service & menial tasks rather than those who are more usually “accustomed” to such economic roles in society? What implications does it have for the values of a society, the internal social dynamics, and long term prospects, when holders in doctorates might serve you a shot of coffee as you rush off to work in the morning?

Back to first principles. We are basically addressing the issue of what type of community human beings would like be members of, what is good in light of core values, and what is practical for “efficient” functioning. If anthropologist Robin Dunbar is correct, human cognitive functions can instinctively create social models of up to 150 individuals, in other words, this was the upper bound numerically of human groups in the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness” (EEA). Solutions to the “free rider” problem, such as “tit-for-tat,” are very appropriate in these contexts, where one individual might have some minimal level of familiarity with everyone in their social group. If hunter-gatherer groups of today are any indication, these societies are materially rather egalitarian, and advancement up the social ladder is open to those with some level of ingenuity and capacity. This does not deny the fact that a hierarchy exists within these groups, or blood relationships might count for something in future prospects, but there is nothing that resembles the perception of stasis that would characterize the Indian caste system or the medieval European manorial society. At any given moment each individual can conceive of a mental model, an accurate sociological gestalt, which can be brought bear on everyday social interactions. Though there might be a division of labor down the gender divide, there is relatively little professional specialization, and no great surplus production to support more than a few social specialists, for instance, perhaps a shaman. Though “Every Man a King” would be exaggerating the experience of day to day life, it seems plausible that one’s competency in the task of hunting would correlate well with one’s social positioning for males (in addition to obvious skills at group politics). Some analogy might be made with the dynamics within groups of extended adolescent cliques, though obviously the analogy collapses when fixed socioeconomic differentials are taken into account.

Yet by the time the first cuneiform tablets exist to record life in ancient Sumeria the EEA seems to already have been in decline. In the thousands of years between the rise of agriculture and the emergence of literate city-state culture, village life had become the dominant social norm in much of the “Old World.” Some of these “villages,” such as Catal Huyuk or Jericho, were rather large, on the order of thousands of individuals. But the social module of the human mind did not scale up concomitantly, human beings still remained within the numerical constraints of the EEA, 50-100 individuals. It seems that the processing power for modeling the social interactions of thousands of individuals simply is outside the purview of the human mind, or at least such a capacity is saddled with too many other functional constraints to have been selected for. This does not negate the possibility that these dense coagulations of humanity did have an impact on the optimal psychological profile of a typical human, but whatever changes did occur were likely in response to new challenges, as opposed to a simple scaling up of the EEA social model (ie; little social complexity, interpersonal, as opposed to institutional, relationships being dominant).

Though the world of Mesopotamia was fundamentally alien to the modern sensibility, in many ways it prefigured the basic social institutions that remain central to our lives to this day. The Sumerian city-states had temples, priests, elective kings, armies, merchants, legal codes, and so on. Social specialization, and the intermediary institutions that allow human societies to scale up in size were already in existence at this point. Individuals, families, interacted with separate institutions at distinct points in their life, making their peace with each institution and establishing the modus vivendi. Even if the common man could not understand every detail that allowed the continued “artificial” existence of the city-state, he understood its gross characteristics, and knew how to manipulate its detailed features. One might think of this as a form of proto-reductionism, because early man could not mentally cope with the totality of the city-state social system, it naturally had specialized organs that divided the various functions in a way that was digestible for its clients. In a similar fashion, though humans have an inborn numeracy, to grasp “higher math,” one must often work out details in various regions, blind at that moment to other domains of mathematical knowledge that do not directly build on the task at hand. One could say the same about “folk biology,” or “folk psychology.” To scale up, humans have had to cede gestalt understanding, and trust their general intelligence, and the synergistic potentialities of their mental modules.

Nevertheless, the EEA has still left its stamp upon us. In the 5,000 years of written history, one can recount many “social experiments” that have failed because they operate outside the constraints imposed by the EEA. As I have noted before, the most successful political culture the world has known so far, that of Imperial China, perpetuated itself with the mythology of its basic essence as an extended family, using the natural propensities of humans and abstracting them to a totally alien context. Even less successful models such the Roman Empire did the same, the pagan God-Emperors were the fathers of empire, while the Christian Emperors were the vice-regent of God the Father on earth. Highly utopian social-political movements that brought to bear general rational intellect divorced from our social psychology tended to fail, or regress back to man’s natural state in practice, though maintaining the utopian fiction outwardly.

The gross features of modern political ideologies can be traced back to the tensions in the EEA. For instance, many human societies have egalitarian movements, and the tendency has often been countenanced from the elite levels. The Jubilee years in the Roman Catholic tradition, or the policy of early Chinese dynasties to break the power of local oligarchs in favor the free peasantry, echo a yearning for a more socially egalitarian world shorn of the baroque ornamentalism of intermediary institutions and multiple social grades that manifest themselves in a professionally specialized world. In contrast, the human quest for material goods, and social esteem in the eyes for others, reflects the dynamics of the early tribe to evince a spectrum of status and achievement. As designers of role playing games have noted, any system that enforces material egalitarianism is unpopular, rather, individuals wish to ascend the ranks and dominate others. So just as many Chinese dynasties began with land redistribution that skewed toward the free peasantry, some of these peasants always became wealthier over the generations and crystallized into the new local oligarchs, and in the next cycle of redistribution would be dispossessed.

Social mobility has been a constant throughout human history. The thousands of knights listed in the Doomsday Book during the reign of William the Conqueror have left not one direct paternal descendent that can claim a noble title. Augustus Caesar had to legislate in favor of the sons of Senators who had fallen below the asset level needed to qualify, and against equestrians who had become so wealthy that they aspired to the purple toga. The semi-permeability of the Chinese mandarinate during some periods lent truth to the phrase, “three generations up, three generations down.”

But formalized, ritualized, and often sanctified hierarchy has also been the rule for thousands of years. This sort of thinking can find its apotheosis in the Divine Right of Kings or the Indian caste system, where at least the appearance of social stasis squelches the aspirations of many who would want to attain higher social status. When these societies, and they are likely the majority of human societies since the rise of Sumer, are in equilibrium, social mobility is mitigated. It is during times of stress, transition and chaos that openings are available for a reconstitution of the subsequent order of things. Octavianus’ (Augustus) birth father was an obscure (but wealthy) plebian. The founder of the Han dynasty was a nobody. Diocletian, the initiator of Roman Imperial revival in the late the 3rd century began as a military clerk. As institutions crack, founder and collapse, human societies regress back to atomic units, often bands of hundreds or fewer. Within these bands, new men can rise as high as their ingenuity and cleverness takes them, and one of these competing bands of ambitious men will establish itself at the apex of the social pyramid as it reconstitutes itself.

And so there we have it. Scratch beneath the hyper-complexity of civilization, and you still have competing bands, men and women striving to “make it to the top.” A stable and powerful civilization attempts to impose stasis on the current order, the new men of the new order soon become the old men of the old order, jealous of their privileges and suspicious of competition. Embedded within the masses of humanity that exist underneath the apex of the social pyramid there still remain individuals who would strive to be “King.” These are men and women who are still very much the socially ambitious hunter-gatherers of their forbears. Their general intellectual capacities understand that the social order is as it is, that their striving will yield only so much, but their primeval instincts, shaped in a smaller and more unstable cauldron, drives them on. This tendency is fortuitous when an established order is overturned.


Fix our time to the present. What does all this have to do with our societies today? First, we are still products of our EEA, and just as the Sumerians were intelligent apes who mastered the chariot, brick and cuneiform, we are intelligent apes that can hack some C++ code, kick back with a beer and vote at the polls. The packaging might differ, but the product is the same. But over the time frame of human civilization there have been many changes, and one of the more recent ones has been the repudiation of the mythology of social stasis that helped cement the identities of the older civilizations. Even the maverick founders of dynasties past, from humble backgrounds, manufactured for themselves an august lineage to give legitimacy to their rule. Today, at least rhetorically, the shoe is on the other foot as aspirants to leadership in democratic regimes often benefit from humble origins, and patrician scions must demonstrate their “common touch.” Even totalitarian regimes must cloak their rule as that of the “people” (this is not wholly novel, Augustus claimed to have saved the Republic, though he founded the Empire). Though one’s parent’s socioeconomic status still is an important determinant in one’s own status, men and women of few means can often compensate for this by harder work and more ruthless tactics, and if they aim for political office, their original low status becomes leveraged into a positive.

This idea, part myth, part fact, is a central element in the identity of the United States of America. Other nations also partake of it, especially England’s “settler colonies,” where land was plentiful and people were few and far between. Change is the new stasis! Within the general framework of a meritocratic society, nepotism, socioeconomic status and class snobbery still exist, but they have far less legitimacy than in more “traditional” societies. In the United States, and many other nations, the idea of equality before the law, and differentials in material and social outcome, coexist within the framework of equality of opportunity. Just as equality of opportunity was not absolute in the EEA, it is not absolute in the United States of America, but one can see some resemblance between these post-industrial democratic republics and the EEA. Intermediary institutions, church, guild and clan, have been marginalized in comparison to their past primacy. With the advances in the natural and human sciences, surplus economic production has allowed individualism to flower as professional specialists no longer need to be supported by masses of peasant farmers. The rising educational meritocracy means that young people of lesser means can aspire to becoming a professional, if they have the capacities and work ethic, while the children of affluence may over the generations decline toward mediocrity. A proliferation of information, and its cheapness, are likely reasons that the great thinkers of today need not be men of the leisured or professional classes in origin. Of course, the logical end point of this meritocracy might be a new stasis, one of fixed blood lineages as inborn talent associates with inborn talent, but that possibility is still in our future, and not the present.

The vision above, of a meritocracy of talent, has not always been the ascendant model. Thinkers who are genuinely “conservative” aim for a more “organic” society, where individual competition is mitigated in favor of social stability, order and coexistence. A logical end-point of this might be the Indian caste system, where one’s birth putatively dictates one’s occupation, though in practice this is not so. Thinkers like Gandhi did praise caste as a salve against the hyper-competition that they perceived as the raison d’etre of the “modern” West. In the Far East, clan lineages, blood ties, have mixed with Western economic models to produce what we term “crony capitalism.” Contracts may be awarded on social connections rather than the lowest bid, operating on the latter principle might be seen as crass and classless. There is obviously no binary dualism between an organic class oriented society and a meritocratic law oriented one. But there certainly exists a spectrum.

In the modern West, and narrowly interpreted North America, I think it is plausible that most individuals would prefer the latter over the former, that equality of opportunity is worth any minor cost in social anomie that might result from the consistent churn between generations. And so I get back to the Ikram’s point, about the phenomena of non-whites (often immigrants) of high educational qualifications who occupy lower professional grades than might be expected. There are many hypothesis one could forward to explain this occurrence, from racism, to lack of social networks, differentials in educational quality between Canada and nations of origin. This is not a Canadian issue alone, immigrants who have educational qualifications but are lacking in employment prospects in their professions are known in the United States, Israel and many European countries.

But, because of Canada’s peculiar system of immigration, which favors those with skills and education, the phenomena is perhaps more acute and noticeable than in the United States, which also has a large stream of less skilled and educated immigrants entering the country based on family reunification criteria. In many places like California you have new immigrants, often of Mexican origin, who do much of the back breaking and menial tasks for a relative pittance, and are happy to do it. Their work ethic is legendary, and the first generation is satisfied with the monetary return that their work provides. From the perspective of an organically defined society, “to each according to their abilities” is satisfied. In contrast, the Canadian system might entail a more resentful class of immigrants, who in their home countries were part of the educated elite, and saw the move as concurrent with a decline in socioeconomic status.

It is in the next generation though that our thought experiment is going to bear fruit, who will fair better, the children of agricultural workers in the Central Valley whose forbears for generations have performed in such a role, or the children of highly over-educated construction workers and baristas in Toronto whose parents have shown them evidence that education does not always equal success? If one is an optimistic organically oriented conservative (paradox?), one would assert that the children of the agricultural workers will take their “natural” roles in society, and continue to work in the same profession as their parents, their grandparents, and great-grandparents. The same organicist would look to the children of the immigrants in Toronto, and not know what to make of them, their social expectations from their parents are mixed, for they are aware of their elite origins, but exist in reduced circumstances. From the perspective of the meritocrat, one could see hope in the children of both groups, with the more cheerful attitude of the less skilled parents balancing out the rage of the more educated immigrant generation.

At this point, I will let the reader draw their own conclusions. My personal opinion, at least judging from the success of Canadian Japanese, is that diminished circumstances in the first generation does not drag down the success of the children and grandchildren of these people, who have time to form the social networks and culturally attuned interpersonal skills necessary for success in their new homeland. In contrast, I believe that the children of farm laborers will be more resentful, lacking the social capital to leverage the public school system from their parents, but immersed in the mythology of the perfect meritocracy. The situation in Canada I believe is closer to the EEA, in that the social and intellectual capital that an educated immigrant brings passes on to the children, and these children can potentially compete in a modern dynamic economy. In contrast, illiterate peasant farmers have limited possibilities in the United States, though greater ones than might be had in their homelands, and they often pass on these narrow horizons to their children.

Posted by razib at 01:20 PM