Statistical Life

From the evolution of intelligence to memory and information overload.

Coca Cola and the Shrinking American Minority

People who open their eyes can actually see farther than their genes.

The new Coca Cola ad with a multi-lingual version of America the Beautiful is further evidence that the tide is turning on national issues such as English as a first language, racism, and nationalist sentiments about what an American is.

have a coke and a smile

The ad shows America the Beautiful being sung by Americans—in all their beautiful diversity. I wish there were such a song for Earthlings, as we are a beautiful lot. In the language of Hindi, Senegalese French, Mandarin, Spanish, Tagalog, and English, America the Beautiful is a song that reflects its origins and its future. America is a nation of hundreds of languages according to the American Community Survey, and more than 1 in 5 households speaks a language other than English. Companies with profit margins as large as Coca Cola know this. 

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Americans, like all groups of people, are a collection of unique individuals from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. We partly owe it to our evolution that we care about these differences. Ingroup favoritism—as it is sometimes called-—or favoritism towards genetically similar individuals makes good evolutionary sense from the viewpoint of genes. But most scientists realize by now that we are far more than our genes. More importantly, genes have very tiny eyes and tend not to see very far.

On the other hand, the growth on many people's necks holds within it a neo-cortex with the capacity to out-think genes. It can recognize that different people can represent, in the words of economist Thomas Sowell, value. Diverse peoples can represent social value, economic value, intellectual value, emotional value, and wisdom—regardless of their genetic or cultural heritage. In other words, racism, nationalism, and the host of other ingroup myopias are not genetically determined.

Ingroup favoritism is not as good for your genes as recognizing value when you see it. That's why you evolved a neo-cortex. This is especially true in a world that changes faster than genes can keep up.

People who open their eyes can actually see farther than their genes. If there is a message in evolutionary studies of human behavior, that's it.

Some of the media's response to the Super Bowl ad is likely to mislead people into thinking that we are less open-minded than we thought. This is in part because journalists are taught to try and present two sides of an issue. They are taught this because controversy makes news.

But this two-sided approach tends to magnify the minority--however small. So who is the new minority in America?

Well, it's actually never been the immigrants. If we accept any existing scientific account of human origins, all humans in North America are immigrants. Indeed, pretty much all humans everywhere are immigrants, or even mutants if we care to see through the eyes of our great-great ancestors. Through the poetic eyes of Loren Eisely, our evolutionary lineage is one of ne'r-do-wells, in-betweeners, generalists. We lack the specializations that make so many animals special. Humans evolved for countless reasons, but the truth is that our particular version of conquerer is a lucky one. We wandered for millions of years around a very small part of Africa. A clever disease could have cut us down like grass and still could. A small meteorite could have leveled us like castles in the sand. When that day comes, it is likely to be our diversity that is our greatest strength. As it is now.

A final point: The English language is a curious thing for people to go on about. Many a misguided British English speaker has often lamented the abuse their their language suffers in the hands of foreigners (see here). But the fact is that language, all languages, evolve. The English many of us speak today is the not the English we spoke even 50 years ago. "Google it". "Lol." Moreover, words in the English language are a hodge-podge of half-words and immigrants, from everywhere—like the people who speak it.

 

You can follow Thomas Hills on twitter here.

Thomas T. Hills, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University of Warwick.

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