Outliers, Roseto & Evolution

I happened to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers over the weekend (as part of my initiation to Amazon’s lightweight Kindle, a cool device about which more some other time). And found the most interesting part to be the Prologue before he even gets to Chapter 1.

In that section Gladwell describes how a small town in America called Roseto was found to have one of the lowest rates of degenerative heart disease in spite of the fact that residents there had the most dreadful of dietary and physical habits. For example, researchers found that fully 40% of the calories ingested by the Rosetans was from Fat. And as Gladwell puts it, “nor was this a town where people got up at dawn to do yoga and run a brisk six miles”.

But what the researchers discovered in the early 1960s when this study was done, was that this was a town with a great, laid-back community. Rosetans visited each other regularly. They stood in the street and chatted and went to church regularly. Multiple generations lived together and old people were valued. Flaunting wealth was frowned upon and everyone was encouraged to “help the unscuccessful obscure their failures”.

In short, a bunch of losers. But here is the catch – they were not losers at all. In fact, they lived longer and healthier than most people in contemporary America.

Now let me jump to another thread. Over the last few years I have been firming up this hypothesis that a new, smarter breed of human beings are evolving before our very eyes. Capable of significant feats of intellect and displaying enormous ‘drive’, a new group of men and women of the classic Type A were slowly but inexorably drawing away from the mass of humanity to become a super race that would eventually lord over human beings the same way we ‘control’ all other animals today. Sci-fi, Bill Gates, Francis Fukuyama’s treatise on the demise of non-capitalist ideologies and the Economist magazine helped me push the idea along.

Till I stumbled upon the Roseto example and began a new stream of thought. Suppose I have got the whole thing in reverse? Aggressive, go-getting personalities push themselves hard in myriad ways that lead to the two dominant themes of today’s Success – rampant lifestyle diseases & no kids. Not the most obvious ingredients for evolutionary success. Was it that evolution is quietly but surely identifying and eliminating those genes that lead to ‘success’ among human beings? And that any amount of tinkering with diets and fads will not change this? Thinking like this, it seems to suggest that the ‘successful’ around us are in reality evolution’s losers.

Biblical, isn’t it? The meek shall inherit the earth.


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