The biological boundaries of equality

Is true equality possible, or even desirable?

Writer: Karolay Lorenty
Editor: Bethany Maia Evans
Artist: Rosie Jarrett

We are different but equal – though seemingly superfluous, this statement is loaded with controversy. At first glance, we may agree that everyone is unique, but that these differences do not prevent us from enjoying equal opportunities. However, under closer examination, it is possible to identify the ways in which these differences can give some of us an advantage over others. If that’s the case, we need to consider the obstacles to absolute equality and grasp the full meaning of such an ambition.  

Our society is built upon a meritocratic ideal; we believe that anyone can succeed as long as they’re talented and hard-working enough. Nevertheless, the most accomplished are not necessarily the most deserving, as not all of us have the same start. Needless to say, there is more to a wealthy upbringing than branded clothing and expensive toys. While rich parents invest in ‘good neighbourhoods’ and their children’s education, poor kids grow up in an environment of scarcity and insecurity. 

Chronic stress can affect brain development, resulting in decreased surface area of brain regions critical for learning. These structural changes can account for up to 20% of the academic achievement gap. Even when such difficulties are bypassed, gifted children born in low-income families are less likely to be as successful as their average, but richer, counterparts. From a global perspective, the concentration of poverty has a larger effect than we often dare to talk about. It’s not success, but survival that is at stake. When thousands of people die of starvation every month because they were born in the ‘wrong location’, it is neglectful to say that we are born equal.   

Economic matters aside, we only get one ticket for the genetic lottery. Our appearance is a clear example of what we may consider an unfair determinator of fate. First impressions matter; a single glance triggers an avalanche of assumptions and stereotypes. To this day, racial bias continues to limit someone’s achievements based on the colour of their skin. But interestingly, even if we were to become colourblind, we would still see attractiveness. 

A pretty face can easily mislead us, influencing our perception of someone’s intelligence and competence. According to economist Daniel Hamersmesh, attractive people have an edge in success, earning almost £200,000 more on average over their lifetimes. We may soon find a solution to appearance-based biases in technology, as artificial intelligence could help us gather a more accurate assessment of performance. However, we have nearly as much control over our cognition as over our country of birth or physical appearance. 

If we’re aiming for true equality, shouldn’t we also address intellectual capabilities? There are already those who consider allowing children to bear disabilities as ‘genetic neglect’ and, with the emergence of genetic engineering, ‘correcting’ humans may not be so far-fetched. However, rather than becoming a tool of equality, there is fear that using these technologies would have the opposite effect

Considering that wealth can already buy better education and access to greater resources, inequality would almost certainly rise if the optimal set of genes could also be acquired. Even if social justice addressed such inequality, our accomplishment would raise an uncomfortable truth: a hierarchical civilisation always requires someone at the bottom. How, then, should we determine everyone’s position in society? While replacing luck with science may sound fair, we won’t find much support nowadays for a genetically-determined caste system

In fact, there is a trade off between equality and individuality. While scientists race for the cure to developmental disorders such as autism, the neurodiversity movement defends the rights of those who are different. When we acknowledge the intrinsic diversity in human nature, we need to decide: should we aim for equality of rights or possibilities? A subtle, yet critical, distinction. While we can protect everyone’s rights, providing each of us with similar prospects would require a struggle with our own humanity.  

How did we become so preoccupied with a pursuit that requires such artificial measures? We won’t find the answer in evolution; survival depends on fitness, not fairness. Evolutionary psychologists point to the formation of larger communities as a driver of collaboration and sharing. In the political world, the philosopher Francis Fukuyama places Christianity as a driver of democracy and equality. Regardless, there is a long way ahead to fulfilling such an ambitious goal. Before continuing our quest, it may be valuable to define what equality means to us and what our boundaries are. Equality is not a reality, it is a value and a choice – how far should we go to ensure we’re all equal? 

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