Explanations of development that make me uneasy

Enrico Spolaore & Romain Wacziarg have a new NBER Working Paper called “Long-Term Barriers to Economic Development.”  In it they explore the barriers to technology adoption.  As they write in the abstract, “What obstacles prevent the most productive technologies from spreading to less developed economies from the world’s technological frontier?”

The answer, they argue, has to do with culturally transmitted traits. Empirically, they look at neutral genes (ones that don’t confer any competitive advantage) across populations, which indicate how long certain populations diverged from one another.  This genetic distance is a proxy for “all divergence in traits that are transmitted with variation from one generation to the next over the long run, including divergence in cultural traits.”

So what’s the argument?  Namely that populations that are genetically distinct also have quite different cultural traits.  These traits, in turn, determine how easily societies can adopt innovations on the technological frontier.

This is an interesting argument and I need to read their paper carefully, but I have to admit that explaining differential development with culture makes me uncomfortable and doing so with genetic differences (even if they are “neutral”) makes me even more so.