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A Genetic Theory of the Silicon Valley Phenomenon

Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist Vinton G. Cerf

What is it about the residents of Silicon Valley that encourages risk taking? I have often wondered about that and have reached an interesting, if possibly controversial conclusion. Thinking more generally about immigration, I considered my own family history. In the mid-late 1800s, my father's family emigrated from the Alsace-Lorraine region (variously French and German) to Kentucky. A great many families came to the U.S. during that period. It is a family belief that my great-grandmother, born Caroline Reinbrecht, brought the idea of "kindergarten" from Germany to her new home. My grandfather, Maximilian Cerf, was an engineer and inventor.

Many Silicon Valley residents are also immigrants and their innovative talent and willingness to take risks have been abundantly demonstrated in the past several decades. On the other hand, we hear that risk taking and tolerance for (business) failure is less common in Europe despite the fact that many of the successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (and the rest of the U.S.) are from that region. This leads me to think that emigrants are quintessential risk takers. Moving to a new country and, potentially, a new language and culture, surely involves risk. To be sure, some emigrants, especially those coming to America in the 1600s, were fleeing persecution and that has continued to be the case to this day for a portion of those arriving here. Their emigration was and is driven as much by necessity as a willingness to take risk. Those left behind were presumably less inclined to take risk and have passed their genetic tendencies to their descendants. Hence, the stereotypic risk averseness of the European population. I emphasize this is a stereo-type that is plainly not universal and may not even be credible.

Think, however, about the westward movement of the 19th century. The families that moved to the American Midwest and the West were taking enormous risks. The journey was arduous, long, and made the more hazardous by potential encounters with Native American tribes that were understandably resistant to what they saw as invaders of their land. And yet, they came, settled, raised their families, farmed, ranched, started new businesses, and contributed to the expansion of the U.S. across North America.

So we come to a possible explanation for this phenomenon. The emigrants brought with them a gene pool that predisposed them to risk taking. That this is not entirely preposterous, is underscored by a 2009 article that I encountered that speaks directly to this topic.a The authors conclude:

"Results demonstrate that financial risk seeking is correlated with the 5-HTTLPR and DRD4 functional polymorphisms."

I don't pretend to grasp all the implications of that statement other than to conclude there is evidence for a genetic component to risk seeking (or at least risk tolerant) behavior. We hear the term "Yankee Ingenuity," which was originally associated with emigrants and settlers in the American Northeast but has come to refer more generally to a common stereotype of American inventiveness. Someone making the trek to the West, arriving where enterprises were scarce to nonexistent, had to make do with whatever was at hand or could be invented on the spot.

The 19th century was also the period of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, America, and elsewhere. The term "revolution" is appropriate given the extraordinary creativity of the period. The steam engine, railroads, telegraph, telephone, electrical power generation, distribution and use, electrical appliances including the famous light bulb, were among the many, many other inventions of that era. As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we can look back at the 20th and recognize a century of truly amazing developments, especially the transistor and the programmable computers derived from it. While it would be a vast overstatement to ascribe all this innovation to genetic disposition, it seems to me inarguable that much of our profession was born in the fecund minds of emigrants coming to America and to the West over the past century.

I celebrate this phenomenon and hope we can keep alive the daring of entrepreneurs, teaching our children to embrace risk, to tolerate failure and to learn from it, regardless of their genetic heritage.

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Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. He served as ACM president from 2012–2014.

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a. C.M. Kuhnen and J.Y. Chiao. Genetic determinants of financial risk taking. PLOS ONE 4, 2 (Feb. 11, 2009), e4362, doi: 0.1371/journal.pone.0004362

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