Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Luck - II

Although both genes and environment both interact and influence behavior, there are some situations when a powerful influence from one side of the interaction can overwhelm the influence of the other. Take for instance the side of genes. Whatever splendid environment you are born in, it will not compensate for the catastrophic consequences of a genetic disease like Tay-Sacks.Conversely some environmental effect can overcome genetic influence. Even the best possible combination of genes is not going to help if you are subjected to a prolonged period of severe protein malnutrition during childhood.

Psychologists say that birth order has an effect on effort and striving - apparently, the first-born has a stronger work ethic, makes more money and achieves more conventional success than their younger siblings. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that when he asks his Harvard class how many are first born, about 75-80% raise their hands. The results have been the same every time he has held the poll.

I would have liked to conduct such a poll in the classes I studied in if I had known about it at the time. (The study is controversial and there is no scientific consensus about it.) For the record, I am first-born. Nobody can claim that he or she can influence the order in which one is born. If something as arbitrary as one's birth order has an influence on one's tendency to work hard then even the hard work one puts in is a matter of chance.

I heard a BBC podcast which suggests that social conditions a couple of generations ago could affect your health. How? The egg that formed you was formed in your mother's ovary when she was a foetus in your grandmother's womb. The health of this egg depends on your grandmother's diet. So your health depends on how women were treated in your society a couple of generations ago.          

Not only the economic capital but also the social capital of family members - the relationships that they have built over the years - aid in one's education and career.  The social capital of a plumber is less influential than that of a doctor in any part of the world so which social stratum you are born in is by no means immaterial even in the most meritocratic societies. The social and economic conditions that you find yourself in matter big-time.

In his retirement speech, Tendulkar talked of the large number of people who helped him in various ways. In the absence of such a nurturing and supportive environment he would not have achieved as much as he did. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother were US presidents and whose grandfather was a  rich Wall Street banker and a US  senator, once said about having such a family lineage, 'I think overall its a disadvantage.' Most people would give their right arm to have such a disadvantage. As Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers:
People don't rise from nothing.  We do owe something to parentage and patronage.  The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
A report in the NYT says that a large-scale research study found that social mobility hadn’t changed much over time. When you look across centuries, at social status broadly measured — not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity — social mobility is much slower than many thought.  This is true whether you consider capitalism, democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

Then there are the unexpected accidents that keep happening. You may fall sick before an exam or interview. A trivial injury may turn into a life threatening condition as happened to this journalist. You may be standing on the side of the road and a vehicle may hit you. (There are maniacs on Indian roads so this is by no means rare.) There is a long running study of Harvard graduates extending over decades which shows chance events changing lives in unexpected ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment