Marginalised communities and success

Yesterday I was listening to this podcast where Tyler Cowen interviews Neal Stephenson, who is perhaps the only Science Fiction author whose books I’ve read. Cowen talks about the characters in Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, a masterful 3000-page work which I polished off in a month in 2014.

The key part of the conversation for me is this:

COWEN: Given your focus on the Puritans and the Baroque Cycle, do you think Christianity was a fundamental driver of the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution, and that’s why it occurred in northwestern Europe? Or not?

STEPHENSON: One of the things that comes up in the books you’re talking about is the existence of a certain kind of out-communities that were weirdly overrepresented among people who created new economic systems, opened up new trade routes, and so on.

I’m talking about Huguenots, who were the Protestants in France who suffered a lot of oppression. I’m talking about the Puritans in England, who were not part of the established church and so also came in for a lot of oppression. Armenians, Jews, Parsis, various other minority communities that, precisely because of their outsider minority status, were forced to form long-range networks and go about things in an unconventional, innovative way.

So when we think about communities such as Jews or Parsis, and think about their outsized contribution to business or culture, it is this point that Stephenson makes that we should keep in mind. Because Jews and Parsis and Armenians were outsiders, they were “forced to form long-range networks”.

In most cases, for most people of these communities, these long-range networks and unconventional way of doing things didn’t pay off, and they ended up being worse off compared to comparable people from the majority communities in wherever they lived.

However, in the few cases where these long-range networks and innovative ways of doing things succeeded, they succeeded spectacularly. And these incidents are cases that we have in mind when we think about the spectacular success or outsized contributions of these communities.

Another way to think of this is – denied “normal life”, people from marginalised communities were forced to take on much more risk in life. The expected value of this risk might have been negative, but this higher risk meant that these communities had a much better “upper tail” than the majority communities that suppressed and oppressed them.

Given that in terms of long-term contributions and impact and public visibility it is only the tails of the distribution that matter (mediocrity doesn’t make news), we think of these communities as having been extraordinary, and wonder if they have “better genes” and so on.

It’s a simple case of risk, and oppression. This, of course, is no justification for oppressing swathes of people and forcing them to take more risks than necessary. People need to decide on their own risk preferences.