January 1, 2016

Selection, Competition and Survival

Every creature who is hatched or born on planet earth faces a series of tests to find out if he or she has the right stuff to survive. Nature is not kind to individuals who do not make the grade. Animal populations consist of healthy, smart members because everyone else died or was eaten. Humans have an unusual ability to protect their young, sick and disabled members so that strong, healthy members increasingly devote more of their time, money and energy helping the less fortunate.

This altruistic option in human groups, however, does not alter the tough and persistent competition among humans for resources, mates, money, prestige and security. In every aspect of human life, there is a selection process operating. The selection of members for special status or privilege involves tests to find out who has the right stuff.

Humans are constantly evaluating each other, constantly noticing differences in appearance and behavior, automatically sorting the people they meet into convenient categories. Humans respond strongly to physical characteristics and react negatively to humans who differ in appearance, size, shape sex or color. Humans are built to respond differently to different characteristics. This discriminatory tendency is innate, not a matter of choice or learning. The details may be learned but the tendency is innate and is not going to disappear.

The fantasy of egalitarian democracy is out of step with nature and the reality of human behavior. Every human society is a little prototype of evolution. Every group, large or small, invents selection processes to sort humans by age, gender, appearance, ancestry, intelligence, aptitudes, skills, accomplishment and other variables. You can invent rules against sorting, but sorting will continue because it is natural and important. In every human life, everyday, a selection process is at work. There is an odd discrepancy between the realities of rigorous, persistent selection processes in nature and the pretense that everyone has the same ability and should have the same opportunity to succeed at any endeavor they fancy. The Miss America pageant is not egalitarian and only one young beauty is selected from thousands of beautiful young woman who enter beauty contests in their own states.

The selection of one from many is basic to human society. Many-to-one is the rule of hierarchy and every society generates a hierarchal distribution of rights and privileges, even societies based on the principle of equal opportunity for all. We would like to believe that selection processes employed in business and education are fair and not discriminatory. There is an important distinction between discrimination before the fact of performance and after the fact of performance. If an individual is judged before he or she has a chance to take the test - that is unfair. If discrimination occurs after the tests based on performance measurements, then that is fair and necessary for a society to operate. The third possibility is that the test is unfair. Many debates arise when the fairness and appropriateness of tests is questioned. Schools generally have established tests and standards that sort students by intelligence, aptitude and accomplishment. IQ tests sort student by sampling their mental skills, which means sampling aspects of their brain function with specific tests of cognitive ability. Well-educated humans know about the distribution of qualities, characteristics, goods and privileges in human populations.

The main idea is that all human characteristics are distributed and, no matter what human feature you are considering, you will find some individuals with more and some with less. In medicine, two standard deviations from the mean on a test result is described as "normal" on the assumption that 98% of the population cannot be abnormal. This assumption is often reasonable but may be misleading if the distribution of a characteristic is skewed in a given population. For example, two thirds of adult Puma Indians in the southern states are obese and develop adult onset diabetes. If you limited your data collection to the Puma Indians, you might consider obesity to be normal. However, if you compare the Pumas with Harvard faculty, the Pumas have greater number of diabetics and you conclude that Puma normal is abnormal in Boston.

No one gets upset if a scientist reports more diabetes in Pumas, but some get upset if a scientist reports a lower average IQ in groups of US blacks compared with whites. The black and white classification of humans is, of course, inherently misleading. The simple fact is that humans have a range of IQ, skills and aptitudes. "Equal opportunity" does not mean equal ability or equal accomplishment.

Despite the assertion in the US Declaration of Independence, not all men are “created equal.” Some men, for example, are women. The task for a humanitarian society is to treat all men and women equally despite obvious differences in shape, size, appearance, gender, color, mental abilities, aptitudes, beliefs and habits. This is a task for idealists and cannot be achieved except in an approximate manner with strict and relentless application of non-discrimination rules. Sorting, selection, discrimination, social stratification, economic differentials are as natural and inevitable as differences in gender, size, weight, blood pressure and lifespan. If the topic is IQ distribution, some get upset about population and individual differences based on genetic differences.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason