To critics, the economists’ paper seems to suggest that a country’s poverty could be the result of its citizens’ genetic make-up, and the paper is attracting charges of genetic determinism, and even racism. But the economists say that they have been misunderstood, and are merely using genetics as a proxy for other factors that can drive an economy, such as history and culture. The debate holds cautionary lessons for a nascent field that blends genetics with economics, sometimes called genoeconomics. The work could have real-world pay-offs, such as helping policy-makers to set the right level of immigration to boost the economy, says Enrico Spolaore, an economist at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts, who has also used global genetic-diversity data in his research.
But the economists at the forefront of this field clearly need to be prepared for harsh scrutiny of their techniques and conclusions. At the centre of the storm is a 107-page paper by Oded Galor of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Quamrul Ashraf of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It has been peer-reviewed by economists and biologists, and will soon appear in American Economic Review, one of the most prestigious economics journals.