On the Malleability of Cultural Traits – a Look at Irish-British and German-Americans

Authored by Mike Kimel

The way the immigration process was structured from 1921 to 1965, 70% of immigrants to the US came from Britain, Germany and Ireland.  In a recent post I noted that the proportion of great writers to scientists in Ireland tended to be a lot higher than for Britain and Germany.  I also noted that these cultural traits persisted for a long time, and even survived immigration; the ratio of great Irish-American writers to scientists is higher than the ratio of great British-American or German-American writers to scientists.  I also noted some evidence that the same is true in Argentina among populations descended from Ireland, Britain, and Germany.  

Assume for this post that STEM has been as important to economic growth as it appears.  Then, as a country, we probably would have grown more quickly if there had been fewer immigrants from Ireland and more from the UK and Germany.  Alternatively, as a country, we probably would have grown more quickly if more immigrants arrived in the US with a STEM background, which of course would have required more vetting of the immigrants.  Another way we could have grown more quickly would be if immigrant children, as well as the native born population, grew up with increased likelihood of going into STEM vocations.  

Since the writer to scientist proportion is lower among Irish Americans than among British and German-Americans, the lower hanging fruit, so to speak, probably lies there.  At the margin, German-Americans are already picking STEM over writing, whereas their Irish-American counterparts are more likely to have gone the other way.   Even making an assumption that seems entirely unwarranted to me, namely that there is some intrinsic reason why the descendants of Irish will, on average, do more poorly at STEM vocations than the descendants of British or German people, it is still likely that Irish-Americans constitute the lower hanging fruit when it comes to STEM.  

To put things a different way, growth would have been faster had we, as a population figured out how to reduce the writer to scientist ratio, and doing so among Irish-Americans would have been more beneficial than doing so among British- and German-Americans.   

So what drives more people to do X rather than Y for a living?  Sometimes it just happens, courtesy of progress and technology.  For instance, the American labor force working in agriculture has gone from upwards of 90% around the time of the Revolution to below 2% today.  In turn, the share of American kids who plan to become farmers when they grow up has dropped at roughly the same pace.

But such changes can also be engineered.  Through the careful application of petro-dollars, liberally marinated over a few decades, our Saudi allies have gotten a lot of people to live a fundamentalist lifestyle.  They did so, in part, by creating a lot of employment for clerics throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.  Similarly, the Soviet Union generated a fair amount of demand for political commissars (and at one point, for biologists steeped in the Lysenkoist school).  And in today’s world, when your reservoir of Juche runs low, just head on over to the, ahem, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The DPRK has got plenty of experts who can fill absolutely all your Juche needs, from applied to theoretical. 

There are plenty of levers – money, time, religion, politics, outright decrees – that have been used to change cultures throughout the world.  Any and all of them can be used to change the ratio of writers to scientists among the Irish diaspora or in most any other group of people you can name.

In follow-up posts, I want to look at factors that affect whether a given attempted cultural change of this sort succeeds or fails.  After all, many such attempts have failed, and the consequences are often disastrous.