A recent post at A Load of Bright on patriotism, questioning the notion of declaring allegiance to a government or an ideology due to the happenstance of one’s birth, reminded me of an issue I have been pondering for some time. How much of our individual destiny is determined at the moment of our birth (or at the moment of our conception, for those of you more theologically inclined)? In other words, how much of what we perceive as our success (or failure) in life is simply due to circumstantial or constitutional luck?
Of course, I’m not referring to any sort of natal astrology where the vagaries of celestial mechanics and planetary alignment provide a fate map for our lives. No, this birth effect is more substantial and less susceptible to refutation than any zodiac prediction.
As much as we may value free will (or the illusion thereof), and although history shows us that individuals can overcome their circumstances and upbringing to spectacular and lasting effect, we cannot disregard the influences that shape our destinies. Were we to calculate the coefficient of determination we would undoubtedly find that our fates are inextricably linked with the situation of our birth. This is not to say that our fates are predetermined, only that they are heavily influenced by factors beyond our control.
What sorts of factors could exert such influence? Here are some representative examples, placed into categories that are admittedly overlapping and interconnected.
- Inborn: Genetic and epigenetic factors that affect our physical appearance, stature, superficial ethnic identification, intelligence, behavioral tendencies, gender, disease susceptibility, lifespan
- Familial: One or two parent household, number of siblings and relative birth order, household income and wealth, parental educational attainment, parenting style, frequency and scope of travel, presence or absence of extended family, language spoken at home, educational opportunities
- Societal: Poverty, life expectancy and infant mortality rates, civil unrest, crime rate, public health infrastructure, civil liberties, urbanization, class boundaries, racial and ethnic discrimination
- Political: Democratic/autocratic/theocratic government, state of war, monetary and fiscal policy, trade policy
- Geographic: Climate, proximity to other countries, ease of travel/commerce, arability, environmental pollution
In addition, there are obvious temporal factors interacting with all of the above such that one’s future is largely dependent on the time in which they were born.
Let’s examine a hypothetical case where an individual of modest intelligence and average stature is born to a wealthy, patrician, Christian family in which several generations have held political office and, as a consequence, gained access to powerful global business and political interests. This family lives in a democratic nation at a time where the dominant culture values populism, religious faith, and celebrity over accomplishment, intelligence, and vision. In a tragic convergence of circumstance, this person is elected president of the United States of America. In another time and in another place, this same person might have been killed by a swarm of bees while trying to draw honey out of an active hive with a short stick.
All of which brings me back to my motive for writing this post. Patriotism is too often an excuse to unite within artificial borders to perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality. While it has utility in bringing people together for self-defense, to build a sense of community, and to instill pride, it can also lead to jingoism.
Recognizing that altering the circumstances under which others are born may be a useful paradigm for informing foreign policy, we should strive to take actions that will provide opportunities regardless of the time or place of one’s birth. If we fully appreciate both the sources of our good fortune and the challenges faced by others, perhaps we will be better able to use this knowledge to take actions that will have a positive impact on people’s lives.
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