For the sake of argument

Armand-Marie Leroi had an op-ed in the NYT last week, plugging his interview on the Brockman website Edge. In general, he argued that scientists ought to recognise race and research it, contra gloomy old obscurantists like Stephen J Gould. I thought I would be the first person to defend Steve Gould on Edge. The results are below the fold, since I suspect there is very little overlap between the readership here and there.

Yes, of course the genetics of human diversity are interesting, and some scientists are interested in them for disinterested motives. But I think it is unfair to Gould to suppose that there are only bad reasons to be leery of this interest, and unfair to Lewontin to suppose that there is anything very much more illuminating or important that we can say than that race is a social construction even if we can find genetic clusters which would, as Armand Leroi suggests, allow a geneticist to look at a sample of my spit and tell from it where all my great great grandparents lived.

In defence of Gould, I would say that of course a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; and the best cure for dangerous knowledge is more and better knowledge. However, there is no guarantee that we will find this further knowledge quickly or at all; while we are looking, great harm may be done with the dangerous and partial stuff. There is nothing unreasonable in wishing that certain discoveries had never been made. Some people would consider lobotomy, or even Freudian psychoanalysis cases in point. I am certain that any research in to human genetic differences will be seized on by racist scientists and racists generally. Whether you think an advance in knowledge is worth this cost is a political judgement with no obvious or final answer.

The Left is often accused of groundless optimism about human nature. In this case Gould was pessimistic and his grounds for pessimism seem reasonable to me. If you look at the way that science is twisted and abused in the current American debates on climate change and creationism, it’s difficult to feel that a public debate on the reality of race will be conducted in a spirit of disinterested longing for truth.

But let’s look at the sort of knowledge that Leroi wants. The genetics of skin colour are interesting and could perhaps be worked out quite quickly. The genetics of breast shape are possibly even more interesting and I’m sure you could get funding to study them. But the real fascination and the real tabus surround the genetics of intelligence and behaviour. If these turned out to vary between races, as it appears they vary between sexes, we would have a sensational scientific discovery.

Now, one of the points about this list is that the more interesting these qualities are, the harder it is to read them out from the genome. Breast shape may be produced by genes and nutrition, but what constitutes a desirable shape has varied greatly in the last fifty years, and the kind of nutrition that fashionable women allow themselves has varied with this preference too. Similarly, the kinds of intelligence, and the kinds of behaviour, that are rewarded and considered desirable in children, have changed a great deal in the last hundred years, and will presumably change a great deal in the next century too. To call some human trait “socially constructed” doesn’t mean we can change it at will; and it certainly doesn’t mean there is no genetic component.

This comes out clearly in the classic Wilson/Daly studies of homicide rates. These show there must be a strong genetic component to our species’ homicidal behaviour, simply because the pattern stays constant across widely differing societies with widely differing homicide rates. But the evidence which shows us this also shows that changing the environment can hugely diminish the rate at which young men do in fact kill each other. Which half of the story is more important?

Still, we can be certain that the research will be done. Some new things will be found, and on an individual level, they will be important and useful. We will know more about genetic variations among human groups, and we may, just possibly, discover more about the genetics of behaviour and intelligence and how they vary. On that subject we could hardly know less than we do now. The real question is how these two kinds of knowledge will fit together. Will there be any correlation between the clusters of genes that control appearance, which do undoubtedly exist, presumably as a result of sexual selection; and other gene clusters, as yet undiscovered, which affect intelligence and behaviour? It is these second clusters that people are really interested in, and here there is no evidence to suggest that Lewontin’s results are misleading and that the variations are greater within races than between them (and that the greatest variation is found in Africa). But we won’t know for a very long time because we don’t know which genes are involved and even whether they cluster.

In the mean time, all those people who already think they know what “race” means will be convinced that science has proved them right. They will twist the work of decent scientists like Leroi to indecent ends. Gould himself had this happen to him when creationists abused his work on punctuated equilibrium. Only if you think that racism is, in the modern world, less widespread than creationism can you laugh at the spectacle of Gould’s ghost wringing his hands.

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