Nov 3rd 2019

Inequality now extends to people’s DNA

by David Hugh-Jones and Abdel Abdellaoui

 

David Hugh-Jones is associate Professor in Economics, University of East Anglia

Abdel Abdellaoui is post-doctoral Researcher of Genetics, University of Amsterdam

 

It’s well known that some areas of the UK are poorer than others. These include Wales and northern Britain, which used to be coal-mining areas. Now we have discovered that these regional economic inequalities are in line with regional differences in DNA as well – with people becoming increasingly clustered by certain types of genetics.

Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility. Before motorised transport, most people married and had children with someone else near to them.

Combined with the process of “genetic drift” – random fluctuations across generations that can make certain gene variants more or less common – this created broad differences across the whole genome which correlate with geography. For example, if you sample some European populations and plot the differences between genetic variations in a two-dimensional grid, you produce a rough map of Europe.

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”. Talented people have moved to big cities and up-and-coming areas to be with others like them.

Our paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour, shows that this is now visible at the genetic level too. To show this, we looked at polygenic scores, which are predictions of a person’s traits – be it their height, personality, chance of finishing university or whether they smoke – created purely from DNA. The scores don’t reflect the influence of a single gene, instead they add up many tiny effects from thousands or millions of genes that we already know are linked to certain traits.

Polygenic scores can have a good amount of predictive power. gopixa/Shutterstock

For example, polygenic scores for educational attainment can predict how many years of education a person received in total. These scores aren’t completely accurate, but they have a considerable amount of predictive power. Among the 10% of people with the highest scores in the sample we used in our study, almost half had a university degree. Among the 10% with the lowest scores, less than one fifth had such a degree.

We found that those with high polygenic scores for educational attainment tend to live near others with similar scores. This clustering isn’t like the ancestral differences in DNA. It is not caused by lack of mobility, but by mobility itself – with educated people moving to big cities and other affluent places with a competitive job market.

And it is increasing. During the 20th century, coal-mining areas, which had been at the heart of the industrial revolution, suffered from the decline of the coal industry. We found that people who were born in these places but later left them have a higher polygenic score for education attainment than the rest of the country, on average. And their scores are much higher than those who stayed in or moved to these areas.

Not just education

In itself, this is not so surprising. We already know that genetics accounts for some of the variation in people’s intelligence and educational levels, and common sense tells us that highly educated people would leave poorer areas for richer ones.

But across polygenic scores for many different traits, including heart disease, body mass index and smoking, we mostly saw the same pattern. Those with the more “desirable” scores on these traits – the scores that, intuitively, you would like to have – were leaving these communities. These traits included being taller, having lower BMI, not smoking, having lower rates of ADHD and being more open to experiences.

Results from the study. Author provided

Why is this happening? Our data suggests that educational attainment is the real driver. The more genes another trait shares with educational attainment, the stronger its regional differences are for its polygenic score.

Dystopian future?

At the turn of the 20th century, European societies were very unequal. During the century, equality of opportunity and social mobility increased almost everywhere, because of modernisation, democratisation and the growth of welfare states. That sounds like a good thing, and it is.

But in the 1950s, the sociologist Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033. The book was a dystopian satire. In Young’s vision of 2033, the new meritocracy had become more deeply unequal than the old aristocracies. Before, the elite were on top by sheer luck, from being born into the right social caste.

But now, the elite had got there by their own efforts. They deserved to be the elite, they knew it, and they passed their advantage on to their descendants. Not surprisingly, those underneath them did not see things quite the same way: a footnote tells us that the supposed author was killed in a 2034 riot.

Young may have been prescient. Rich and poor areas in Britain are not only divided by wealth, income or access to public services. The differences now extend into the very DNA of people living there. In some ways, this new inequality reaches deeper than before. As a society, we have not yet come to terms with this, or thought seriously enough about how to deal with it. It’s time we start.

David Hugh-Jones, Associate Professor in Economics, University of East Anglia and Abdel Abdellaoui, Post-doctoral Researcher of Genetics, University of Amsterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Inequality now extends to people's DNA

Miners working at Bersham Colliery near Wrexham in Wales, 1960. The National Archives UK/Flickr

David Hugh-Jones, University of East Anglia and Abdel Abdellaoui, University of Amsterdam

It’s well known that some areas of the UK are poorer than others. These include Wales and northern Britain, which used to be coal-mining areas. Now we have discovered that these regional economic inequalities are in line with regional differences in DNA as well – with people becoming increasingly clustered by certain types of genetics.

Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility. Before motorised transport, most people married and had children with someone else near to them.

Combined with the process of “genetic drift” – random fluctuations across generations that can make certain gene variants more or less common – this created broad differences across the whole genome which correlate with geography. For example, if you sample some European populations and plot the differences between genetic variations in a two-dimensional grid, you produce a rough map of Europe.

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”. Talented people have moved to big cities and up-and-coming areas to be with others like them.

Our paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour, shows that this is now visible at the genetic level too. To show this, we looked at polygenic scores, which are predictions of an person’s traits – be it their height, personality, chance of finishing university or whether they smoke – created purely from DNA. The scores don’t reflect the influence of a single gene, instead they add up many tiny effects from thousands or millions of genes that we already know are linked to certain traits.

Polygenic scores can have a good amount of predictive power. gopixa/Shutterstock

For example, polygenic scores for educational attainment can predict how many years of education a person received in total. These scores aren’t completely accurate, but they have a considerable amount of predictive power. Among the 10% of people with the highest scores in the sample we used in our study, almost half had a university degree. Among the 10% with the lowest scores, less than one fifth had such a degree.

We found that those with high polygenic scores for educational attainment tend to live near others with similar scores. This clustering isn’t like the ancestral differences in DNA. It is not caused by lack of mobility, but by mobility itself – with educated people moving to big cities and other affluent places with a competitive job market.

And it is increasing. During the 20th century, coal-mining areas, which had been at the heart of the industrial revolution, suffered from the decline of the coal industry. We found that people who were born in these places but later left them have a higher polygenic score for education attainment than the rest of the country, on average. And their scores are much higher than those who stayed in or moved to these areas.

Not just education

In itself, this is not so surprising. We already know that genetics accounts for some of the variation in people’s intelligence and educational levels, and common sense tells us that highly educated people would leave poorer areas for richer ones.

But across polygenic scores for many different traits, including heart disease, body mass index and smoking, we mostly saw the same pattern. Those with the more “desirable” scores on these traits – the scores that, intuitively, you would like to have – were leaving these communities. These traits included being taller, having lower BMI, not smoking, having lower rates of ADHD and being more open to experiences.

Results from the study. Author provided

Why is this happening? Our data suggests that educational attainment is the real driver. The more genes another trait shares with educational attainment, the stronger its regional differences are for its polygenic score.

Dystopian future?

At the turn of the 20th century, European societies were very unequal. During the century, equality of opportunity and social mobility increased almost everywhere, because of modernisation, democratisation and the growth of welfare states. That sounds like a good thing, and it is.

But in the 1950s, the sociologist Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033. The book was a dystopian satire. In Young’s vision of 2033, the new meritocracy had become more deeply unequal than the old aristocracies. Before, the elite were on top by sheer luck, from being born into the right social caste.

But now, the elite had got there by their own efforts. They deserved to be the elite, they knew it, and they passed their advantage on to their descendants. Not surprisingly, those underneath them did not see things quite the same way: a footnote tells us that the supposed author was killed in a 2034 riot.

Young may have been prescient. Rich and poor areas in Britain are not only divided by wealth, income or access to public services. The differences now extend into the very DNA of people living there. In some ways, this new inequality reaches deeper than before. As a society, we have not yet come to terms with this, or thought seriously enough about how to deal with it. It’s time we start.

David Hugh-Jones, Associate Professor in Economics, University of East Anglia and Abdel Abdellaoui, Post-doctoral Researcher of Genetics, University of Amsterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "