Economic performance, human cooperation, and the major histocompatibility complex

Lex Borghans, ROA, Maastricht University

Human cooperation is an important determinant of
economic performance. On the one hand, legal institutions and
social norms enforce human cooperation, on the other hand
intrinsic mutually dependent relationships in human cooperation
are also likely to play a role. In this paper we investigate the
relationship between the genetic diversity of the Major
Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), indicators of social norms and
legal institutions, and economic development for 57 populations.
MHC plays a crucial role in the immune system, providing
protection against pathogens both for individual humans and
(through transmission) the group they belong to. Individual
evolutionary selection induces diversification of the MHC
molecules. The prominent idea of our analysis is that when
diversification is more beneficial to the individual than it is to
society, evolutionary pressure will lead to a lower level of MHC
diversity when individual success depends more on the success of
others. Consistent with this idea we present estimates suggesting
that MHC diversity is negatively correlated with (changes in) per
capita income and measures of trust. Further estimates suggest
that the positive impact of human cooperation on economic
development is associated with both social norms and legal
institutions that are not reflected in genes, and with intrinsic
mutual interdependence through MHC diversity.

Date: 13 April-00 0000