Genetics, the China-Tibet Dispute, and Investment Psychology

In “Human and Economic Evolution,”  I discussed how natural selection is alive and well among humans, and used such examples as genetic resistance to malaria among Africans and high aptitudes in the maths and sciences among Ashkenazi Jews.  Today I’d like to discuss an interesting finding reported in The Economist that is relevant to the China/Tibet dispute, and I’m going to tie it into a broader discussion of the human brain and investment psychology.

Tibetans and their supporters in Western countries have long contended that the Han Chinese do not belong in Tibet.  New genetic research suggests they may be correct–to an extent.

Nestled high in the Himalayas, the Tibetan plateau has an altitude of 13,000 feet, or two-and-a-half miles.  Compare this to Denver, the “Mile High City,” which sits at a comparably low altitude of “only” 5,280 feet.  For those readers who have a hard time with altitude sickness in Colorado, Tibet would be just about unlivable.

This is certainly the case for Han Chinese who migrate to Tibet. In addition to suffering from altitude sickness, they suffer lower birth rates and higher child mortality than local Tibetans.  So how do the Tibetans handle the physical stress of living in that environment?

The Economist writes,

A study led by the Beijing Genomics Institute and published in Science earlier this month identified a particular genetic mutation as a key to Tibetans’ high-altitude adaptability. Studying contemporary Tibetan and Han populations, the researchers claim that the two ethnic groups were once a single population, divided, they guess, 2,750 years ago, when one lot of splittists—who became Tibetans—moved to the plateau.

There, they say, the mutation that existed in under a tenth of the population spread to nearly nine-tenths—because those with it survived far better than those without. The particular gene seems to code for a protein involved in making red blood cells and regulating the body’s aerobic and anaerobic metabolism.

From “Splittism on the Roof of the World

This would suggest that evolution can occur much more quickly than most biologists have traditionally thought. This is also consistent with the views of Cochran and Harpending that I summarized in “Human and Economic Evolution.”  According to Cochran and Harpending, the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe experienced significant genetic change in only 1,000 years–practically the blink of an eye in human history.

It is fair to ask why the topics are being covered on an investment research site.  What could any of this possibly have to do with making money in the financial markets?

The truth is, it has a lot to do with investing.  There is an entire field of cutting-edge research known as “behavioral finance” that seeks to understand how human biology and evolution affect our investment decisions.  Two Ashkenazi Jewish psychologists–Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky–pioneered this field, and some of the best analysts and portfolio managers try to incorporate the insights into their work.

A thorough explanation of behavioral finance will have to wait for another article.  But I would like to reiterate that I consider this one of the most important areas of study in the financial markets today.