A cost of upward social mobility:
Ah the Economist magazine.  (I think it says, “Newspaper” on the cover.)  I love their range of interests.  I love the fact that it is written unblushingly for readers with more than one in the tenth grade.  I love their wry British humor.  Sometimes their untrammeled materialism begins to get to me.  There is the implication that only materialism is real.  That’s smug.  They imply, just consider science.  That’s all that matters.  Well it isn’t.  Honor, loyalty and family are real to most of us.  They aren’t just consumer choices.  And I consider throwing the magazine in the trash and cursing their editorial policy, which of course is, “Promote free trade.  It means more money for more people,” regardless of the fact that money isn’t the universe to everybody.

Then they come up with something that grabs me.  It’s like being one of those tenth graders when his or her (It used to be that “his” would suffice, but it’s now sexist to lump male and female.) jaded thirty year old seducer (It used to be, “Seducer or seductress,” but now it’s sexist to distinguish between male and female, this alas being common usage in the literate society I am trying so hard, and with such lack of success, to preserve.  In fact “sexist” is a hate word, and I would rather avoid it.  A hate word stipulates a member of a group, in this case males, and implies one or more undesirable characteristic of all members of that group, in the present example that all males tyrannize over females.) says something that has worked in the past that makes her or him choke up and say, “You have a heart after all.”  “Of course I have a heart.  I’m a liberal; have some drugs.”  Well they haven’t tried to seduce me with or without drugs, but for now they have won me with a couple articles.  The first is, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” ECONOMIST vol. 416 no. 8947 July 18, 2015 page 67.

It has been observed that some children are better than others at postponing gratification for a larger reward a bit later.  Those who are capable of it do better in school, get better grades, stay out of trouble and so forth.  Apparently impulsive behavior is learned so interventions have been introduced to teach self control.  Fine and good. 

What is new is that those who are from a privileged background are otherwise unaffected while those who are from an underprivileged background may or may not be affected by whether they are able to postpone reward.  Those who are not are again by and large unaffected.  Those who are can be affected in a remarkable way.

As you know the term “methyl group” means a cluster of atoms consisting of one carbon (think methane) and three hydrogens.  That leaves one of carbon’s four bonds free to hook up to something else, in this case DNA.  Methylated DNA behaves differently from unmethylated.  Methyl groups can be added or lost as DNA replicates and can, there’s a bit of debate on this but I’m buying it, can be passed from one generation to the next. 

What I did not know is that as a person matures there is a characteristic addition of methylation to the person’s cellular DNA.  Those young people from poor backgrounds, and they were looking specifically at Black people, were found at twenty two to have more methylation than the people who were impulsive or came from better backgrounds.  They also, and this was already known, had more obesity, evidence of stress hormones and hypertension.  Since these are known harbingers of ill health the suggested conclusion is that the whole pattern of increased methylation, stress, obesity and hypertension correlates with learned self control and resulatant upward social mobility.

I confess I’m shocked.

We’ve spoken of upward social mobility before.  Just for example we’ll choose a rather archaic economic system.  If there are few children born to the wealthy and many to the poor, the children of the day laborers may becomes farmers, farmers millers, millers merchants, merchants guild masters and guild masters become lord mayors.  The result is that every job tends to be filled by the under qualified.  The economy is reduced in efficiency and the bulk of the population can look forward to a better life for their children at the cost of lower fertility.  If the reverse is true, with richer people having more children than poorer people, then there is downward social mobility.  Now everybody is overqualified.  Life is easier all around.  The economic machine purrs and the lamentable loss of income of those descending the ladder is at least in part made up by having fewer children to support.

In this country we have tended to boast of our upward social mobility.  Anything else seems unfair to us.  And so it may be, but it seems to come at a cost.

Now you have to toss into the account the reasonable likelihood that upward mobility is hard on those participating.  I cannot claim to be totally convinced by the methylation story.  Some useful things happen as childhood matures into age 22: sexual maturity, bigger muscles, bigger brain for instance.  It may be that not all the methylation is bad. 

And the upwardly socially mobile may bring along something new.  I cannot claim to have had a deprived childhood, quite the opposite, but once I left academia I was little more than a radiological diagnosing machine.  Having reduced significantly my hour in practice I have published one scientific article and, with all due modesty, have introduced a new and important perspective on kinship, fertility and history. 

But such innovations must always be rare.  The bulk of the upwardly socially mobile may indeed be harmed by the process.  I find that troubling.  And the Economist has found it sufficiently troubling to point it out.  I appreciate that. 

There have been 189 visitors over the past month and YouTube has run “Babies Triumph over Evil” 97 times.

Home page.