Saturday, December 22, 2007

Differences in attributes: so what?

Pygmies are people of groups whose adults average 150 centimeters (4 foot 11 inches) or less in hight. In addition to three such groups living in central Africa, there are several other tribal groups living in other continents with such short heights. It is thought that these groups have developed to have such short heights because their body size confers some evolutionary advantage in the environment in which they live, and perhaps in the way that they have lived for many generations.

The Nilotic peoples of Sudan such as the Dinka have been described as the tallest in the world, with the males in some communities having average heights of 1.9 m (6 ft 3 in) and females at 1.8 m (5 ft 11 in). It is thought that these groups also have developed such tall heights because their body height confers some evolutionary advantage in the environments in which they live, and perhaps in the way these people have lived for many generations.

Of course, the two groups have very different aptitudes in an artificial environment, such as that of the professional basketball court.

Over the past twenty thousand years or so, humans have migrated from Africa to live in many different environments all over the world. The number of people has grown very greatly. Thus over these thousands of generations of Diaspora there have been many opportunities for genetic variation to arise and many many environments for them to prove valuable.

We know that there are lots of variations among human populations in addition to the height differences between pymies and Nilotic peoples. We can see differences in skin color, eye color and hair color. We know that Europeans and bantus can digest milk as adults better than can most other peoples. We know that some groups in malarial endemic areas have genetic traits that help individuals survive malaria. All of these seem to have evolved by providing people with some evolutionary advantage, and all of these may have some disadvantages in situations other than those in which they evolved.

None of this seems very controversial. Indeed, I think the proper response is "so what?" Different people have different aptitudes. Sometimes these aptitudes have a genetic basis. Sometimes there are greater frequencies of certain aptitudes in some population groups than in others. Big deal.

It has occurred to me that culture, including material culture, has a huge impact on the traits we value. In the past, physical strength was a valuable attribute, but the machine age has reduced the advantage of being big and strong, I remember early in my working career, the ability to produce clean, neat paper products was highly valued in secretaries and draftsmen, but the personal computer makes these abilities largely irrelevant. Memory was highly valued in societies where people could not easily look things up, but seems to be less valued now. Analytic abilities seem to be becoming more valued as we move into the knowledge economy. Still, it may be helpful to realize that the values our societies attribute to different abilities change, so that we don't take any such value too seriously.

Somehow that brings me to sports. The doping scandals are big news. As far as I am concerned, the big problem is that kids are taking drugs that will have long lasting effects without being mature enough to judge the risks and benefits. I do see that sport depends on an even playing field, and there is a real problem when some people get an advantage in the sport by cheating -- doing something which is against the rules. (I must say that I don't really understand the pleasure that baseball fans get from studying statistics of baseball, and comparing the records of players from different times, so their insistence that the conditions of the game remain the same seem a little peculiar to me.)

I have heard a couple of people ask whether Tiger Woods' laser surgery is different than the use of steroids to build muscular strength. Somehow there does seem to be a difference: the laser surgery is safe and a common procedure to bring vision up to normal, while the steroids are less common, more dangerous, and intended to bring people to an exceptional state.

I don't know where I am going here. I guess it is to suggest that society not provide huge rewards for people who do relatively artificial things well, and that we not reward people for developing abnormal abilities in dangerous ways, so that our kids will not be led into dangerous behaviors.

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