Through the Wormhole s05e03 Episode Script

Is Poverty Genetic?

Freeman: Are the wealthy just born in the right place at the right time, or are the poor victims of a system designed to keep them down? Perhaps physics and biology determine who's rich and who's poor.
Many hope to erase the divide between the haves and the have nots, but what if nature demands winners and losers in life? Could poverty be genetic? Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
Pharaohs, kings, great industrialists and C.
Throughout history, a select few have claimed enormous wealth as a birthright.
Some of them say they also inherit qualities and virtues that keep them rich.
Could the chasm that separates rich and poor really be the result of our DNA? Scientists are trying to discover if there is a biological reason the rich stay rich and whether equality and prosperity for all contradict the laws of nature.
Where I grew up, nobody had much money.
Nobody we knew, anyhow.
Rich people were out there, somewhere, but to us, they may as well have been Martians.
Money was so scarce that I went around the neighborhood collecting bottles.
I traded them in when I had enough to get into the movies.
Now, of course, things are different for me.
I'm in the movies.
Money isn't much of a worry.
My experience shows that being born poor is not necessarily a life sentence.
But for billions of people around the world, poverty passes from generation to generation without end.
We inherit property, or the lack of it, from our parents.
We also inherit our parents' DNA, and for as long as we've known about genetics, scientists have been wondering if there is a connection between our money and our genes.
Genes are pieces of code that tell your body how to function.
There are about 25,000 genes in human DNA.
How do they affect our personalities? These are questions University of Virginia Professor Eric Turkheimer has been asking for 20 years.
Eric studies the genetics of complex human behavior.
One way you can think about the role that individual genes play in the creation of complex genetic effects is that it's like the role that an individual thread might play in the creation of a complex tapestry.
You couldn't really understand the role of each thread one at a time, separate from the others.
You have to know how each thread fits into the warp and woof of the fabric and how they all work together to create the pattern.
Well, with genes, it's the same way.
Freeman: These are the genetic interactions within just one of your 23 pairs of chromosomes.
It's a highly interconnected, highly complex web of genetic factors.
After the human genome was decoded in 2001, studies emerged claiming to find links between individual genes and characteristics like common sense, ambition, and perseverance.
Some imagined we might soon be able to identify who was born to prosper and who was born to fail.
This has frightening implications.
Imagine banks demanding saliva tests before granting loans, custody battles decided by which parent has better financial genes, or entire races labeled as credit risks.
But a decade later, the vast majority of these one-gene, one-trait studies have been proven wrong.
Turkheimer: I think if you would ask me "are we gonna know what the genes for human personality are in 20 years?" I think I would've said, "Yeah, sure, we'll know something.
" It's turning out that the way genetics works is more complicated in a way that doesn't allow us to identify the effects of individual genes.
Freeman: So Eric has a new approach: Using statistical software to analyze the vast body of data collected around the world on twins.
Are you shaped by your genes or by your environment? It's the problem that always gets in the way of studies on how genes are connected to complex traits.
But twins offer a way to separate the effects of nature and nurture.
Identical twins share virtually Fraternal twins share 50% of their genes.
By comparing identical and fraternal twins, we were able to demonstrate in a general way that genes have effects on almost everything.
Freeman: Eric began looking at very large samples of twins from all around the U.
From all socioeconomic groups.
He used I.
as a predictor of future wealth of a child, a link most studies find to be very strong.
Turkheimer: What we found was quite surprising.
Children raised in poverty, their home environment was by far the most important factor.
Their genes seemed to play almost no role at all.
Freeman: If a child with genes predisposing him or her to be a financial wizard is raised in an extremely harsh environment, that exceptional DNA may not shine through.
Turkheimer: And then as you moved from kids raised in those really terrible circumstances up to kids raised in the middle class, the role of genes became more and more and more important, and once you got to the middle class or better, genes took over, and by the time you got to the wealthiest people in the study, genes were making all the difference.
Freeman: Genes do have important effects on how rich or poor children will be when they grow up, but it's an effect that is only visible when kids grow up outside of poverty.
Turkheimer: To some extent, it's probably true that people who wind up living in poverty have some kind of genetic difference from people who wind up making a lot of money.
I think what our work has shown is that it doesn't matter what kind of genetic tendencies some of these kids may have had.
If they're raised in a bad enough environment, they're not gonna be able to express them.
Freeman: The tapestry of genes that make up you as an adult are shaped by the fabric of DNA you were born with and by the environment you grew up in.
How can we overcome the cards that nature and nurture dealt us in the womb and the crib? A new study suggests our economic destiny may be determined by the time we are 12, because poverty can affect the brain.
Martha Farah is the founder and director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.
She has often wondered, "Why do poor children perform worse on I.
tests and in school?" Farah: Many different disciplines have tried to understand how it is that poverty shapes people's life chances.
My colleagues and I are taking a neurobiological approach to this question.
Freeman: Over the past few years, Martha and her colleagues have scanned the brain architecture of hundreds of children from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
She has found there are physical differences between the brains of the rich and the poor.
Farah: The question we asked was, "What parts of the brain are dependent "on that socioeconomic status for the size and shape that they eventually grow to?" What we found is that several important areas do show an effect of socioeconomic status.
Freeman: Growing up in extreme poverty slows the growth of the hippocampus, which is important for learning, memory, and stress regulation, and it also shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which helps coordinate memory, perception, and motor control.
Rich kids tend to have a thicker cortex than poor kids, but it is crucial to note the rich and poor aren't born with these differences.
The brains of the poor start off the same as anyone else's.
Their brains are, however, at greater risk of developing slowly in early childhood.
It is not genetics that does the damage.
It is lack of mental stimulation and the stresses of poverty.
One difference we know exists between the childhood experiences of poor kids and wealthier kids is that the wealthier kids get more cognitive stimulation, everything from being read to, just being talked to, conversation, visits to interesting places, and we know that that promotes cognitive and brain development.
Freeman: But other forces can determine who is rich and who is poor, forces that govern not just individuals but entire nations.
Today's rich man may be tomorrow's pauper, because wealth is often a matter of geography.
Two millennia ago, if you wanted to get rich, you'd head for Rome.
For the past century, you came to America.
Now you might want to head for China.
Why are certain places bursting with money at certain times? Why are some nations poorer than others? Two scientists have a radical explanation.
Economies buzz because of the genetic mix of the people in them.
These Ivy league economists may not look dangerous, but to the academic world, they are wild-eyed anarchists.
A few years ago, Quamrul Ashraf of Williams College and Oded Galor of Brown University were looking to explain the disparity of wealth between nations.
Their findings set off a raging debate about the roots of poverty.
As economists, we are ultimately interested in understanding the origins of global inequality.
Those origins lie in the distant past.
Freeman: Oded and Quamrul set out to study the role genetic diversity has played in wealth distribution around the globe.
They reached a surprising and unpopular conclusion.
You know, Oded and I established that there is a cause and effect of genetic diversity on economic development that goes back to the distant past, and it persists through the present day.
Initial conditions tend to be very persistent.
These variations in conditions that go back, you know, show up in the data today, and they're there.
Evolutionary biologists find that the farther an indigenous group is from Africa, the less diverse it is genetically.
Africans are the most genetically diverse because all the various peoples of the world originated there.
The smaller groups that left Africa to settle in more distant lands are less diverse.
Oded and Quamrul traced this genetic effect across 80,000 years.
Then they compared it to markers of economic development over the last 2,000 years.
Genetic diversity is responsible for about 1/6 of the variations or the inequality that we see across the globe, which is a huge fraction.
The economists found that too much or too little genetic diversity can be harmful to economic development.
Throughout history, they claim, successful societies have been the ones that hit the sweet spot of genetic diversity.
In baseball, the sweet spot of the bat is about six inches from the end of the barrel.
This is where the performance of the bat is maximized and the hand sensation, or sting, is minimized.
It is the spot where the bat is just right.
There is a sweet spot.
The sweet spot at the moment is associated with the level of diversity in the United States, and societies that are more diverse are more able to cope with this rapidly changing technological environment, and the degree of diversity is generating benefits in the context of innovations.
But this is where it gets controversial, because if there is a perfect amount of genetic diversity, that means there are also less optimal mixtures of humanity.
Oded and Quamrul found that societies lacking in genetic diversity tend not to be innovative.
On the con side, societies that tend to be more diverse are less trustful, less cohesive, less coordinated.
An overly diverse country, by this analysis, is the Congo, where ethnic groups have been dividing for over 50,000 years.
Now it's mired in civil war.
On the other hand, a country like Poland isn't diverse enough.
It has only been inhabited for about 5,000 years.
So it is very coherent ethnically, but it is not a powerhouse of innovation.
Oded and Quamrul say a blend somewhere in the middle lets new voices emerge, promotes innovation, and leads to economic health.
But some anthropologists say the economists are wrong.
There is no sweet spot.
They also charge that Oded and Quamrul's work could be used to justify discrimination or even genocide to reduce diversity in the name of economic progress.
The professors say their work has been misunderstood because an appreciation of diversity can overcome its drawbacks.
We can assure that societies that are overly diverse, such as the societies in Africa, can benefit from their level of diversity simply by assuring that, in fact, diversity is cherished, diversity is respected, and ethnic groups are being protected.
We are not saying that there are some traits that are better than others for, you know, economic prosperity, both at an individual level or at the societal level.
What we're saying is it's the mix.
It appears that since human civilization began, some have always had more than others, be it individuals or nations.
Wealth and power may change hands, but the difference remains.
Can this be changed? Can we create a society in which there is wealth for everyone and not just a few? According to this man, the odds may be stacked against us.
Poverty may be an inevitable outcome of the laws of physics.
In the 19th century, physicists developed mathematics that could predict the seemingly random movements of gas molecules.
Today, Wall Street is full of physicists trying to find similar equations to predict the movement of money.
They haven't been very successful, but that could be because they're overlooking one crucial factor.
The rich don't play by the same rules as everyone else.
Victor Yakovenko is looking for the causes of income disparity.
A Professor at the University of Maryland, Victor helped create econophysics.
He used the science of thermodynamics to study markets, capital, and earning power.
Victor has found there are really two economies: One for the rich and one for everyone else.
Yakovenko: My message is, there's no such thing as middle class, because if I wanted to draw a boundary to define the middle class, I don't know where to put it.
Data has no features, no structures.
Data shows me that there are only two classes: Lower class and upper class.
That's it.
Freeman: Victor's data shows is in the lower class and 3% is in the upper class.
For example, today, there are about 1,500 multi-billionaires in the world and 2 billion people who live on less than $2 a day.
Of the 311 million people in America, the 9 million at the top have most of the money.
In this vault, we put 100 gold bars to illustrate probability distribution of income and wealth in the American economy.
So, here we have different levels.
Poor people with low income, and then progressively higher income.
These three shelves represent a half of the population -- and all this total income of the half of the population, you count these bars, it's only 10 bars out of 100.
In other words, the lower 50% of population receives only 10% of total income of the system.
That's income inequality.
Freeman: This imbalance between the haves and have nots, though dramatic, is not unique to the U.
Yakovenko: Pretty much any society has inequality -- a few rich people, many poor people -- and it's a persistent feature of pretty much all societies.
And so I said, maybe there's some kind of deep reason for this, and maybe we can understand them by knowledge of its physics.
Freeman: Victor took concepts from physics, such as the behavior of molecules, and applied them to financial data.
He discovered that in virtually all countries, there is the economy of the rich and a very different economy for everyone else.
In America, the 3% with incomes greater than $150,000 a year might as well live in a different reality than the less well-off 97%.
Victor calls them the thermal and the superthermal economies.
Each behaves in ways physicists find eerily familiar.
Consider this pot of boiling water.
The water molecules in the pot jiggle around and bump into each other with no apparent order, but these random movements actually fit a pattern called a Boltzmann distribution.
It describes how energy is spread between particles when they achieve thermal equilibrium.
So, we see this distribution in physics when atoms collide and redistribute energy, but we also see the same distribution in distribution of money.
Freeman: Strangely enough, this is how money is scattered across 97% of the population.
Even if everyone starts out with equal amounts of cash, over time, the money spreads out in a Boltzmann distribution.
There will be lots of people in the middle, and fewer who are very poor or relatively wealthy, but for the 3% at the top, it's a very different story.
The thermal economy gives way to what Victor calls the superthermal economy.
The superthermal economy is like the high-energy molecules that break free of boiling water and escape as steam.
Yakovenko: The molecules of water, they have certain temperature.
So the vapor here would be the analog of the upper class, because these are the molecules with the highest possible energy.
Freeman: These high-energy molecules no longer follow a Boltzmann distribution.
Instead, they are governed by a power law, a distribution that has no upper limit.
So, why are there two economies with two sets of rules? The 97% of the population in the lower classes live off the money from their paycheck.
Meanwhile, the upper class invests its money in financial markets and property.
Unlike people living on a fixed wage, the rich have their money in a part of the economy that has no limits.
Like steam, it has escaped the boundaries of the pot.
The pattern stretches across history from ancient Egypt to today.
No matter how equal a nation starts, this pattern seems to take over.
Take Israel.
When formed in 1948, Israel was a highly egalitarian country with a socialist bent.
By design, people had more or less the same income.
But Israel's income distribution slowly broadened, and by 1990, it, too, had reached the shape of a thermal economy.
So, in 40 years or so, it evolved from highly equal distribution to this broad unequal distribution, and after that, I believe, it developed upper class, the superthermal tail, even higher inequality.
Equality, perfect equality, is totally unstable.
Okay? Once you engage into any transaction, equality goes away.
The super rich operate by their own separate physical laws, but they have to live on the same planet as the poor.
Biology could hold the key to our mutual survival.
Charles Darwin saw life on earth as a bitter struggle for survival.
That seems like carte blanche for the rich to take what they want.
Greed is king, but our understanding of evolution is evolving.
Cooperation and community may be just as essential to our survival as selfishness.
Tracy Mincer studies the oldest communities on earth: Colonies of microbes.
Working out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, Tracy and his team of microbiologists travel the world gathering exotic microorganisms.
I feel like I'm really looking at some of the last wilderness left on earth to explore because what we're seeing is wilderness in a tube.
We're harvesting microbes from their wild sources and looking at how they're working.
Freeman: Single-celled organisms are everywhere: In the soil, in the trees, in our bodies.
They were at the ground floor of evolution, but they are so tiny, millions can fit into the eye of a needle.
Until recently, we could only see how these creatures functioned as a group.
We couldn't see the molecular processes happening inside individual microbes.
But that has all changed.
Mincer: It's a very exciting time right now, because we can look at really big questions that were asked 40 or 50 years ago in science but were unanswerable because of the limitations in the technical tools.
Now, with the revolution in genomics and sequencing and molecular biology and cloning, we can look at a single cell that's growing and see the signals that are being produced from it and understand what's happening at that single-cell level.
Freeman: One would expect microbes to be ruled by the most basic laws of nature, survival of the fittest, where every organism fights for itself, but Tracy has found that even these simple creatures are capable of cooperation.
Tracy watches how different strains of marine bacteria defend themselves against predators.
He places a strain of vibrio ordalii, a bacterium that causes disease in fish, in a petri dish.
Then he adds brine shrimp, predators that like to munch on bacterium.
In self defense, some of the vibrio bacteria begin to produce a toxin that kills the predatory brine shrimp.
This toxin does not kill vibrio's closest relatives, the members of what biologists call its guild.
What's striking is that they never killed within their own guild.
They killed only outside.
Freeman: Even more surprisingly, the bacteria that make the antibiotics sacrifice themselves when they kill the brine shrimp.
By taking one for the team, they protect the entire group.
Down at the level of microbes, we see altruism: Self-sacrifice for the good of the community.
Mincer: Altruism holds for microbes, because of these guild-type structures where it really is for the betterment of the microbes to be able to sacrifice.
So, things aren't always fighting to the death at all times.
It takes a group effort.
Freeman: For organisms to cooperate, they need to communicate, the way that Tracy's team works to gather samples.
But how do creatures with no brains or vocal chords convey a message that causes them to act together? The answer is embedded in nature.
There is a chemical form of communication we cannot see but which is an essential part of life.
The tree behind me has roots to get at elemental nutrients, and it has a giant trunk going up towards the light where this beautiful tree is harvesting light.
Now, microbes have a real problem, because they're -- they're really tiny, and for them to be able to connect to elemental nutrients that they need and be able to have an energy source, they have to work together.
Unlike us, where we have sight and we talk and can hear, microbes can't do any of that.
They rely upon chemistry that they produce to be able to signal to one another.
So they have to work with one another and coordinate with one another or fight others to keep others out.
Freeman: Individuals may be selfish, but even the simplest organisms seem programmed to put the survival of the species ahead of their own needs.
But at what point in our evolutionary past did we move beyond expedient cooperation and develop a sense of fairness? It may be linked to the ability of primates to communicate sophisticated emotions.
This woman has found that while inequality is part of our genetic roots, so is a strong desire for fairness.
When a pride of lions makes a kill, the dominant male will take the "lion's share.
" We accept this as nature's way.
But when we see the rich taking more than they need, we cry, "not fair.
" This concept of fairness seems like just a modern human idea, but could it have been woven into us by evolution? Could other species have evolved to rage against inequity? Chimps share 98.
5% of their genes with humans, and like the division between the super rich and everyone else in human society, chimp society is also unequally divided.
A small group of Alpha males calls the shots and hoards the resources, while the rest live off the leftovers.
The chimps lower in social rank are sicker, produce more stress hormones, and have trouble finding sexual partners.
But according to evolutionary biologist Sarah Brosnan, chimps don't blindly accept their lot in life.
Sarah is the director of the comparative economics and behavioral studies laboratory at Georgia State University.
You need to go get your mom to come out here.
She could use some grapes.
Freeman: She looks for the origins of human social behavior.
Brosnan: I am interested in the evolution of decision making.
How did we get to where we make the decisions that we do? And you can't, obviously, study fossilized decisions, in most cases.
So what we do is we study other primates, because as we ourselves are primates, they're sort of the closest we can get to understanding the evolutionary history.
[ Object clangs ] Freeman: Sarah is particularly interested in how our primate cousins respond to inequity.
Brosnan: So, inequality would be when individuals don't get exactly the same thing, whereas inequity would be when you get something that's not relative to the input.
So, unequal pay would be we don't get exactly the same amount.
Inequitable pay would be that maybe you do a harder job than me, but you're making the same salary as me.
Freeman: Today, Sarah is conducting an experiment with Capuchin monkeys to see how they respond when one monkey gets a better reward than another.
So, what we do is, we take two individuals from the same social group, and they sit next to one another, and they take turns doing a task and getting a food reward for it.
So you can think of it as doing work and getting paid.
Freeman: At first, both monkeys get bell peppers.
Here you go.
Then one monkey is rewarded with grapes.
Keep in mind, they both like bell peppers, but they like grapes even more.
After seeing his partner perform the same trick, but get a better reward, this monkey loses his cool.
He starts tossing his peppers on the floor.
Brosnan: I was really surprised when we got individuals actively refusing food rewards.
So that's like giving your dog a milk-bone and having them turn it down because the dog down the street got a bigger milk-bone.
You just don't expect something like that to happen.
Freeman: Animals are willing to accept that a dominant male or female may get better food and a little more of it, but Sarah's research shows there comes a point where they won't accept it.
And the animals in power seem to realize this.
Some have even refused the grapes when they have seen their partner is upset.
Just because you're the dominant individual, typically an Alpha male, doesn't mean that you get anything you want.
So they typically have first access, or they might have better access or be able to get the better rewards, if they're limited, but they can't just take what they want.
For starters, they need the other individuals in the group, so they need to give the other individuals sufficient incentive to stay in the group.
Freeman: Sarah has found the Alpha is less a dictator and more a leader of a coalition government.
To keep his job, he has to maintain the support of monkeys at all levels of society.
He must observe social rules, and one of the most deeply ingrained rules is to be fair to the other monkeys.
Like other primates, humans also accept a certain amount of inequality, but most of us cannot abide inequity.
So, a human sense of fairness is more than just not liking when you get less than someone else.
Really, what we mean when we talk about a human sense of fairness is this almost moral obligation to treat people equally, to have things work out equally.
This may be the underlying driving force for the evolution of the sense of fairness.
Maybe by having a sense of fairness, it allows you to be a better judge of when you're with a good, cooperative partner, and when it's time to go find somebody else who might be better.
Freeman: The battles between selfishness and fairness keeps us moving forward as a society.
But when individuals act with extreme selfishness, their behavior can put many others at risk.
They can lead to revolt.
Both apes and humans will overthrow leaders who abuse their power.
Perhaps there's a gentler way.
In human societies, a wealthy few may lord it over a vast lower class, but the poor do have power.
They can use the innate human instinct for fairness as a secret weapon.
Unequal distribution of wealth is as old as history, and so is resentment about it.
The richest 85 people on this planet have as much money as the poorest 3.
5 billion.
How can we shrink the ever-widening divide between the haves and the have nots? Jennifer Jacquet is a clinical assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University.
Lately, she's been contemplating a phenomenon called the tragedy of the commons.
It has its roots in mankind's agrarian past.
The commons is a pasture where herdsmen can decide whether or not to graze their cattle.
The benefits of adding a single cow are individualized, but the costs of adding that cow are shared among all the herdsmen, and this is the tragedy of the commons: The tension between the individual and the group.
And the real problem is that just one herdsman who decides to add too many cattle can ruin it for everybody else.
Freeman: The tragedy of the commons, Jennifer says, is now a global tragedy, a tragedy that is being accelerated by the selfishness of the super rich.
Jacquet: There's the global oceans.
There's the atmosphere.
There are the global forests.
There are migratory birds.
There are so many things that behave exactly like this common pasture.
So we now live in a world in which a very small minority of people is capable of ruining it for everyone else.
Freeman: Typically, society keeps citizens in line by the rule of law.
But around the world, the extremely wealthy are often able to circumvent the law or have laws changed to suit them.
So how do we stop these people from depleting our shared resources? Revolutions have been fought over such things, but Jennifer argues the only sensible recourse is shame.
So, when we talk about shame, what we're actually talking about is a tool, a type of punishment.
The threat of exposure, this idea that we could show the crowd that you haven't been behaving like the rest of the group would like, this is the type of shame I examine.
Freeman: Today, Jennifer is running an experiment demonstrating the power of shame.
It reveals the difference in people's behavior when their identities are hidden versus when their actions are exposed to the group.
Each player is given the choice to contribute or not contribute to a common pool.
Whatever money goes into the common pool is doubled and then redistributed.
If everybody puts in a dollar, in each of 10 rounds, they all get $20 back.
That is, if they all play fair.
That almost is never the way the game is played.
People often leave with far less than the socially optimal outcome, and that's because certain individuals start pulling out and stop cooperating.
Freeman: Most contribute to the common pool, except these players.
They keep their $10, but still take an equal share from the doubled communal pot.
So they end up making more than their classmates, and they get away with it because no one knows who is cheating.
But now Jennifer runs the experiment again, adding in the element of shame.
At the end of the 10th round, the real names of the two participants who donated least overall are revealed to the other players.
Freeman: The threat of being exposed changes the way people play.
Now almost everyone puts in their fair share.
So the threat of shame actually led to than the anonymous -- completely anonymous control.
Freeman: So, what are the real-world effects of this? Jacquet: So, in 2008, the United States government gave banks $245 billion in bailout money.
Many of the banks decided to give bonuses that added up to $20 billion.
During that time, President Obama called those bonuses "shameful," and that's in part because there was no formal mechanism in which to punish the banks for having done that.
So he sort of called on the crowd to come in and say, "this is not appropriate behavior.
" Many bankers didn't see it that way.
They saw it as perfectly normal behavior.
Freeman: Shameful behavior is in the eye of the beholder.
Most of the super rich would argue they are not breaking any social rules.
In fact, their investments create jobs and make the entire economy thrive and grow.
But there will always be a few people at any income level who are willing to cheat to make a profit.
When those people are called out by name in front of a crowd, shame can be effective.
California has started listing the names of the state's top 500 tax delinquents online, using shame to coerce them to pay their fair share.
But is the power of shame enough to close the gap between rich and poor? Brosnan: There are no simple solutions, of course.
These problems are -- are gigantic and difficult.
Shame is relatively cheap in terms of punishment, and relatively ineffective.
But sometimes it's all we have.
I am living proof that poverty is not genetic.
I've lived on both sides of the divide between rich and poor.
The forces that distribute wealth among us are complicated.
They're a mixture of biology, psychology, and mathematics playing out over lifetimes and across the sweep of human history.
If we can understand those forces, I hope we can someday lessen the devastation of poverty and allow each of us to reach our full potential.