The Wiki Man

Rory Sutherland: The one issue where we accept the idea of genetic determinism

Sexual orientation and immigration are so emotionally charged, sometimes we retro-fit our arguments to fit our instincts 

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

Some people are gay. Get over it’ — this was the slogan for a campaign against homophobia. A series of YouTube videos follows the same approach: a cameraman asks people on the street, ‘When did you choose to be straight?’ The subtext — that sexual orientation is innate, not chosen — has undoubtedly succeeded in promoting tolerance.

The only strange thing here is that the argument leans heavily on genetic determinism which in almost any other field of debate is anathema to most liberal opinion. Imagine putting up a poster with the legend ‘Some children are brighter than others. #Truth.’ Or ‘Women are crap at parallel parking. Just live with it.’ A more principled argument for tolerance is that your sexual behaviour, when harmless to others, is your own affair. But in this one instance everyone seems happy to accept the idea of nature over nurture — even though in other domains it would be unsayable.

This inconsistency bears out findings from the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt that our political and moral views are formed unconsciously in the brain. We then cast about for any plausible argument to retrofit to our instinctive response. The rational brain, according to Haidt, ‘thinks it’s the Oval Office when it’s really the press office’. It is a kind of neurological Alastair Campbell, cutting and pasting facts from any source to support decisions made for unrelated reasons.


With this in mind, I agree with Martha Gill, my opposite number at the New Statesman, when she remarks that it is a bit disingenuous for the left to support immigration by arguing that it contributes to economic growth. There are ethical arguments to support immigration; why not use these, she asks? You might also wonder why the left is suddenly treating economic growth as the ultimate good — after all, you could make a similar case that you could boost GDP by means of a six-day working week, the abolition of paid holidays and bringing back child labour to the mines.

So emotionally charged is the debate about immigration that I had lost hope of anyone writing anything new about it. I therefore had pretty low expectations when I opened Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World by Paul Collier, not least because the author is a self-proclaimed economist and has a beard.

Yet it is a brilliant book. It helped that the foreword mentioned several of my heroes, including Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton. Collier, remarkably, manages to describe what Scott Fitz-gerald called ‘the whole equation’. Migration is not merely treated in terms of narrow economic models, but also through network theory, psychology, ethics, trust, co-operation, culture and evolutionary game-theory.

The book covers four areas almost never mentioned in the debate. He suggests the pace of migration to join any diaspora may accelerate exponentially when an existing diaspora is slow to assimilate — so there may be no natural equilibrium. He asks whether using lotteries rather than familial ties might be fairer in deciding who can migrate. He considers the effect of new migrants on the fortunes of recent migrants. And he investigates the costs human emigration imposes on the countries migrants leave behind.

This last question deserves much more discussion. Every immigrant is also an emigrant, yet we focus on arrivals not departures. It amuses me when Americans romanticise the Pilgrim Fathers as brave pioneers, seeking fulfilment in a new world. I suspect their former neighbours saw them as a bunch of joyless arseholes who found 17th-century England insufficiently puritanical for their dismal tastes — ‘We’re well shot of them, frankly.’

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • dmitri the impostor

    Greetings from ‘The Pludds’.

    Your Haidt quotation reminded me of the publisher Colin Haycraft’s remark that religion is for women and queers. Brutal but not entirely implausible. And for ‘religion’, one might easily substitute ballet, English literature, or theories of human improvability such as – dare one say it – game theory.
    If there ain’t no Oval Office then their ain’t no Oval Office, so what price the objectivity your own theoretical preferences as listed in paragraph 6?
    Actually, I think Haidt and Haycraft’s specious pensees are just so much more self-refuting, deterministic snake-oil. Unless you want to explain voltes face such as Malcolm Muggeride, Christopher Booker or Peter Hitchens in terms of the male menopause … ?

    • rorysutherland

      I don’t think Haidt is completely deterministic here. It is just a question of understanding that a lot of things “aren’t really about what people claim they are about.”

      For instance, vegetarianism probably isn’t entirely about animal welfare. I have always questioned why many vegetarians of my acquaintance will refuse to eat food that has been in close proximity to meat. That patently isn’t about welfare, but concerns some instinct for disgust and the idea of purity which is innate within us: note that almost all religions have dietary rules.

      If the real motivation were animal cruelty, no-one would give a damn if their cheese sandwich was jostling a sausage roll.

      • dmitri the impostor

        I’m content to take your word on the thrust of what Haidt is saying. Few would dispute that political positions are grounded in a mixture of reason and pretext.
        Your vegetarianism point, if I’ve understood it, seems to be sailing close to religion-as-institutionalised-gag-reflex, formerly known as Totem and Taboo. If so, that’s a bit more contentious.
        But to cut to the chase, my perplexity used to be how either driving down wage rates and syphoning off the skills base of developing countries could ever be justified from a socialist frame of reference. Has anyone even tried? I suspect they’d have their work cut out but nothing surprises me these days.

        • rorysutherland

          This is exactly the point Collier makes. It does seem to create both these effects: hence the reasons contemporary socialists support it must have some other psychological basis than reason. This is not about economics at all.

  • Captain Yossarian

    This is a poor argument. Saying that something is innate, or non-chosen, is not the same thing as saying that it is genetically determined. You’re muddling the two points.

    Sexuality is not chosen, and this has been supported by research data. This is not the same thing as saying that there is a “gay gene”. The Stonewall campaign made no such claims. You have created a straw man argument.

    • rorysutherland

      I don’t think many people claim it is purely genetic: nor is intelligence thought by many people to be purely genetic. But nonetheless the argument accepts that there are parts of our nature not amenable to change. That is not an argument really accepted in, say, education. Except, of course, in sports education, where it is almost a given.

  • Julian Smith

    “It amuses me when Americans romanticise the Pilgrim Fathers as brave pioneers, seeking fulfilment in a new world. ”
    Well, quite. I always wonder about the “bravery” of those who cross an ocean to “make a new start” compared to the bravery of those in the same situation who stayed where they were and struggled on. Surely the “brave” ocean crossers are cowards who ran away from their perspective?

  • Martin Davies

    The problem with comparing ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’ with ‘Some children are brighter than others. #Truth.’ AND ‘Women are crap at parallel parking. Just live
    with it.’ is that your two examples have a disadvantaged or weaker. The statement ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’ is more akin to ‘Some people are black. Get over it!’ or ‘Some people like cheese. Get over it!’ where there isn’t an inherent disadvantaged or weaker.

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