Advice For Economists Contemplating Incorporating Genetic Information In Their Theories

In the wake of the latest brouhaha with anthropologists denouncing two economists for daring to correlate “genetic diversity” with wealth in 145 countries, allow me to make a suggestion for economists interested in dipping their toes into studying the impact of genetic differences on economic phenomena: 

Start small. 

Don’t go for a Theory of Everything right away. Instead, look for a well-understood example of genetic differences and see how that plays out in the economic sphere, such as, say, the impact of altitude tolerance on real estate prices.

There are a handful of well-established, uncontroversial cases of simple gene variants helping individuals adjust to a particular environment. For example, the Duffy allele fights vivax malaria and the famous sickle cell mutation fights the worst form of malaria, falciparum.

Similarly, Cynthia Beall and colleagues have identified separate mutations in Tibet and Bolivia-Peru that make life at very high altitudes more endurable. (There appear to be other adaptations in Ethiopia, but they hadn’t yet been pinned down the last time I checked.)

The various lactose tolerance mutations have huge economic effects. The population density of northern Europe, such as Denmark and Ireland, before the industrial revolution would have lagged substantially without this mutation that supported a dairy-centric economy.

These noncontroversial genetic differences have obvious effects on quantifiable measures such as who lives where and how much the land they live on costs. For example, the Beijing government has been trying to swarm Tibet with loyal Han colonists, but lowland Chinese have problems adjusting to the lack of oxygen. I would predict that real estate prices in Tibet, all else being equal, would be highest in the deepest valleys and canyons, just as they are in La Paz, Bolivia, where the whitest people live at bottom of the canyon.

In Nepal, the Tibetan population (e.g., the famous mountaineering Sherpas) doesn’t like to live below about a mile high because they lack some of malaria resistance that the Indian population enjoys. The Indians, in turn, don’t like to get too high because they don`t handle thin air as well as the Tibetans.

In Colorado, resort towns at around 8000 feet like Aspen and Vail are vastly expensive because they appeal to energetic, aerobically fit rich white people. But Leadville, a couple of thousand feet higher at 10,152 feet, remains something of a curiosity due to its extreme altitude, which is definitely pushing the envelope for whites, so land prices are lower.

A study of altitude tolerance in different populations would be relevant to say, real estate developers. Is a retirement community at 9000 feet a good idea, or does altitude tolerance drop off with age? How about 7000 feet? 5000 feet? This is a serious issue: my uncle spent 20 years building his retirement dream house at 8,900 feet in his beloved Sierra Nevadas, only to discover that he and his wife couldn`t tolerate altitude as well anymore once they reached retirement age. (There are also big problems for pregnant women at extreme altitudes.)

Does the growing Mexican-American community of the Rocky Mountain States, many of whom are migrants from fairly high altitude parts of Mexico, have better or worse altitude tolerance than whites? 

You might be able to score some speakers fees at real estate conventions just by assembling all the relevant information on altitude tolerance.

There are a host of interesting implications, large and small, that might be uncovered by an exploration of the interplay of altitude (and/or latitude), genes, and economics.