Part 2 of 2: Creating Opportunities: A Comparison of Top-down and Bottom-up Systems

Top-down systems tend to deal with the abstract while bottom-up systems deal with ‘facts on the ground’. Darwin’s bottom-up view of evolution is part of the Theory of Natural Selection. Charles Darwin was not the first person to use the word evolution; others had used it in their writings previously. Darwin introduced a viable process, natural selection, to explain how it works, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,” Darwin observed, “but the one most responsive to change.”

The top-down system in Canada and the US today is a pyramid with the Central Banks (Fed in US) the large banks, a few rich connected individuals at the top, and the workers, the individuals who pay 28% on their credit card debt, at the bottom. Essentially 95% of the population works to make wealth move up the pyramid. The commercial banks are near the top with the foreign bondholders. More value in the market is likely created by farmers, and workers on the assembly line, but the elite bankers can borrow money more cheaply with greater leverage which translates into more power and control. The middle class has the illusion of money as the system inflates and creates cash for conspicuous consumption. The present top-down system is a wealth generator for the top 5%. The big bankers in this system are part of the financial oligarchy of the Wall Street-Washington corridor of power.

Darwinism includes a broad theoretical framework for the analysis of evolution of all open, complex systems, including socioeconomic systems. Detractors counter that natural selection does not account for human intentionality. The counter is that many choices are not intended, in fact, many intended decisions are under the influence of advertising, which introduces randomness.

Under ‘universal Darwinism’ a fundamental paradigm shift declares any complex system can be understood in terms of the same principles that are the core of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, including socio-economic systems. The predictive power of the theory rests on its specification of systemic selective forces, based on the algorithm of variation, selection and retention. Selection works best on large populations. Market selection would ensure that banks with the best innovations survive. In a world of limited resources, this new theory connects the social determinants of health that include the conditions that influence an individual’s opportunities in life. Filtering social and economic policies through the lens of the social determinants of health before they are implemented will ensure they support actions that reduce the inequities in the system.

Core Darwinian principles include variation, inheritance (replication) and selection. For small populations, natural selection is not in play, because natural selection occurs in larger populations. Genetic drift (the change in the gene pool of a small population that takes place strictly by chance) can result in genetic traits being lost from a population, or becoming widespread in small population without respect to survival or reproductive value of the alleles (genes) involved. A change is prompted by random luck, rather than a need for adaption. Genetic drift is the reason we worry about African cheetahs and other species that have small population sizes. The more variation that exists in a population, the better prepared that population will be to adapt to change when it does occur. Drift is more pronounced in such populations, because smaller populations have less variation and, therefore, a lower ability to respond that favorably, that is, adapt to changing conditions. Thus it is not just the number of cheetahs that is worrying, it’s also the decreased variation in those cheetahs.

Genetic drift is the change of gene frequencies in a population from one generation to the next, due to chance events. Drift is only a strong source of evolutionary change in small populations, but is an important example of neutral evolution. In large populations genetic diversity is fairly constant and the loss or addition of some individuals has little effect on the total gene pool, hence genetic drift has little effect. However, genetic drift can cause big losses of genetic variation from small populations. In small populations this rapid change in gene frequency occurs independently of mutation (variation), natural selection, retention, and is due solely by chance factors. In small populations, changes associated with genetic drift accumulate over time.

The reintroduction of the bearded vulture into the Alps is another example of concern over genetic drift being most pronounced in small populations. In the 1970s biologists from zoos from around the world set about to try and re-establish a bearded vulture population by introducing captive-bred birds into the wild. Since 1986 more than 120 bearded vultures have been released from captivity; about two-thirds have survived and many have reproduced. However, the problem with the project is not the size of the wild population, rather, it is the size of the captive population. Throughout the world there are about 120 bearded vultures kept in zoos and breeding centres across Europe, Asia and the United States. With these low numbers mathematical models suggest there is not enough genetic variability in the captive birds to keep either the captive or the wild population thriving over the long-term. The population will actually lose genetic variation due to genetic drift. It is important in biology to retain as much genetic diversity in a population as possible. Without sufficient genetic diversity, there is always the risk that a population will not be able to respond very well to new selective pressures caused by environmental change.

The large banks on Wall Street and their equivalents around the world are akin to the small isolated populations of organisms in which genetic drift is the predominate process of change. Many of their products (mutations), or changes, are neutral, and by definition do not provide increased advantage. In fact, with small populations natural selection does not occur to weed out the maladapted. Deregulation allowed the big banks to create many financial instruments, however, in a small population selective pressure does not occur. Thus many changes in the large banks can be seen as equivalent to neutral mutations and without selective pressure one cannot tell whether they were beneficial.

For natural selection to work, there needs to be a larger population of relatively big banks. Applying Johnson and Kwak’s recommendation to roll the size of banks back to their 1996-levels would create a larger population. In this model, the banks could be allowed to fail, with the risk falling to share holders and managers, and not to taxpayers. In addition, a larger group of competitors (more banks) will make it harder for banks to direct large bonuses to their staff and there will be less money for political contributions. Reducing the size of banks would restore balance both to the banking system, and to the political system.1

The 2008 economic debacle was a top-down disaster. It was triggered by the consequences of policies championed by a small group of influential people. The financial sector took advantage of the system, empowered by reckless deregulation. The top-down economic system includes the Wall Street-Washington corridor that influences legislation – including tax bills. Without increasing the diversity and number (population) of banks, selective pressure will not work, and the taxpayer will continue to bail out the large banks when they make poor decisions.

In the past, the main criticism of Darwin’s natural selection was the requirement of multiple generations before change occurred, which did not fit with the business model. With the discovery of epigenetics, this thinking has changed. It is now known that genetic change can occur much more quickly than previously thought, responding from messages coming from other genes, hormones, and from nutritional cues and learning. The reactive oxygen radicals can modify, or turn off and on, genes that effect events further downstream. This can cause chronic diseases within a few decades. The great recession has created a perfect storm for poor health. To keep the global economy on tract, there is a call for less regulation. This political pressure occurs at the same time that we now realize the full consequences of exposure to toxins in our food, air and water.

Today younger people will have poorer health as adults, which will affect their economic status as they will earn lower wages as an adult, and this in turn, will affect the next generation of children who will thus be born into a poorer family. The link from family household income and poorer social and health outcomes is well documented – the growing income inequality in Canada and the US associated with globalization poses a significant threat to the health of many. The economic and social conditions under which people live, rather than the biomedical risk conditions and lifestyles choices are the factors determining whether one develops chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, which develop primarily from material depravation (of poverty), excessive psychological stress and the adoption of unhealthy coping behaviors. The top-down system of trickle-down economics ensures the next generation in the workplace can not only expect to earn less than their parents, but are on track to enjoy poorer health.

In the US Democrats think regulations are necessary to promote safety and general welfare. Republicans think regulations should be relaxed to promote prosperity for business, which they contend eventually, benefits everyone in society. In 2016 Republican governor Rick Snyder of Michigan faces the consequences of weak state and local regulations and the lack of enforcement with respect to drinking water – lead poisoning of the children of Flint that will take years to determine the scope of neurological damage. In order to save money, water for the city was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and in addition, local authorities did not have anti-lead preventative added in the water supply as required by federal laws (at a cost $100 per day) that would have prevented 90% of the problems. Children with lead poisoning develop varying levels of brain damage and a subsequent drop in IQ. These children have been denied the opportunity to reach their potential that they could have had in the future.

There is a bottom-up system that will address such future challenges. In particular, epigenetic harms have the potential to affect every aspect of our lives. Harmful toxins have accumulated over the years, and many have been identified as epigenetic harms associated with chronic disease. Personal choices affect environmental exposures, especially with respect to cigarettes and food. The presence of chronic conditions has a greater impact on health care resources than aging. In Canada and the US obesity has become an epidemic in the past 15 years, and chronic disease now consumes a larger and larger portion of health care dollars. The realization that the epigenome is highly sensitive and responsive to environmental influences, including toxic exposures, dietary factors, and behavioral impacts, serves to focus future state priorities. Epigenetic risks explains how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. Epigenetic studies will predict which environments need to be created womb to tomb in order to protect us, and minimize the risk of chronic diseases.

Wellness is about reaching one’s full potential. Controlling epigenetic harms, or environmental harms, is about treating an individual’s potential as a freedom. The environment, hereditary, chance, friends and luck (things over which one has little control) play a greater role in wellness than personal lifestyle choices. Governments have a role in protecting this newly recognized freedom of potential – the opportunities one has to reach his or her potential is the most important measure of freedom, not the amount of reduced government regulation and taxes enjoyed. Epigenetic risk is not merely a medical risk, but implicates the fundamental principles of fairness and justice underlying the present social contract.

1 Horsman, Greg. (2013) Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment. p 173-187.

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