The Frontal Cortex

Diversity and Darwin

The Boston Globe recently had an interesting article on some possible downsides of societal diversity, which have been uncomfortably quantified by Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard. Putnam has found that:

…the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

“The extent of the effect is shocking,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The basic moral of the research is that diversity makes people uncomfortable, which isn’t exactly a shocking revelation. That said, the benefits of diversity certainly outweigh the negatives. This, at least, is one of the epic themes of Darwinian evolution. It’s a cliche to talk about the illiberal or politically incorrect truths of evolution (competition is brutal, not everybody is genetically equal, etc.), but we tend to pay less attention to one of Darwin’s most reassuring conjectures, which is that progress – at least in the Darwinian sense – is inevitably entwined with the preservation of our differences. As Darwin observed in The Origin of Species, “The more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature.”

I have a feeling Darwin would have celebrated the diversity of America.


  1. #1 Karl
    August 15, 2007

    I must object to the entire tenor of your statement.
    “”The more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution and habits”
    Darwin was talking about physical, morphological differences which we now know are caused by variety in the genome.
    “the greater the diversity in a community”. Putnam is talking about cultural differences, an entirely different thing. He is talking about social Darwinism, which despite its name has nothing to do with Evolution.
    I think it is an egregious mistake to conflate the two.

  2. #2 Jonah
    August 15, 2007

    I respectfully disagree, Karl. I think diversity can be beneficial within a culture/society for the same reason it’s beneficial within a species: it allows that group to better take advantage of “the polity of nature,” and better adjust to changing circumstances. Diversity, in this sense, is just another form of cultural pluralism. Plus, more diverse communities have much better ethnic food, which is something Darwin probably didn’t write about.

  3. #3 Karl
    August 15, 2007

    I think that you have missed my point. Let me try again.
    I am not commenting on the benefits of CULTURAL diversity.
    I am saying that a discussion about culture has nothing to do with Darwin’s views on Evolution. When you talk about cultural diversity, you are talking about social Darwinism.
    And conflating the two is what allows the Creationists to make statements like “…evolutionism is racist…” (from “Fatal Flaws” by Hank Hanegraaff, W Publishing Group, Nashville, Tenn., 2003, p. 9), and, “The German Fuhrer…is an evolutionist…” (Sir Arthur Keith, ‘Evolution and Ethics’, Putnam, New York, 1947, p. 230).
    For an explanation of social Darwinism see:
    which includes this:
    “Many negative reactions to Darwinism come from the confusion of Darwinism as a scientific theory with Social Darwinism as an ethical theory. In reality, the two have very little in common, aside from their name and a few basic concepts, which Social Darwinists misapplied. Unfortunately, much of today’s opposition to the application of Darwinian thinking to human behavior comes from a fear of Social Darwinism and its implications for many of today’s moral codes. However, Social Darwinism in its basic (and extremist) forms are based on a logical fallacy, and do not really follow from Darwinian thinking in any way.”

  4. #4 tekel
    August 15, 2007

    I agree that Karl has a valid point, that Jonah is conflating social and cultural diversity with genetic diversity. While I don’t share Karl’s concerns about the slippery slope to creationist theory, I agree that this is at best intellectual laziness.

    Genetic diveristy is beneficial within a population only in the event that some catastrophe befalls that population, on the odd chance that the phenotype coded for by one of the varied genotypes confers a survival benefit in the new environment upon the organisms which express it. But the result in the Harvard paper is exactly what one would expect from a stable population of organisms with highly varied genotypes: a decrease in altruism and cooperation.

    However, the Harvard study didn’t bother to sample genotypes to determine whether they can blame any of the friction between diverse populations on simple genetics. They instead leave it all at the feet of “culture,” which is learned, rather than innate. But the result still makes perfect sense. Cooperation towards the common good is one thing when everyone has the same beliefs and goals. But why would you want to work for the benefit of a neighbor, when that neighbor’s beliefs and goals are in opposition to your own?

    Maybe this paper is the first to quantify the trend, but nobody should be surprised. If the KKK had an ice-cream social and fundraising dinner to promote Aryan supremacy, would you be surprised if nobody from the NAACP showed up? If not, why is the result of the paper of any interest whatsoever?

    Now, it’s probably true that people who live in the same neighborhoods do have some common interests, e.g. fixing the potholes, keeping crack dealers and prostitutes off the street in front of their houses, keeping that sulfur factory from going up nearby, etc. But just because people choose to cooperate and unite against a common enemy doesn’t mean that they will contribute time and effort when their own self-interests are not involved- and people who are less diverse will naturally have more overlap between each of their respective areas of self-interest.

    I wonder how much of my federal tax dollars went to fund this study. “People who want the same things are willing to work together to get them. People who want different things don’t get them by working together.” What a total waste.

  5. #5 kurpi
    January 17, 2008

    Macaristan’?n Eötvös Lorand Üniversitesi’nde 14 Macar çoban köpe?inin 6 de?i?ik durumda 6 binden fazla havlamas? analiz edilerek haz?rlanan program, köpe?in havlamas?n?n “yabanc?”, “dövü?”, “yürüyü?”, “yaln?z”,

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