Day By Day

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Return of Scientific Racism

One of my less obnoxious personal habits is reading anthropology blogs. For a couple of years now I've been noticing the development of several related themes that are interesting, disturbing, or downright scary, depending on your perspective on such things. Taken together they constitute nothing less than the return of scientific racism.

The first development was the reporting of medical surveys that showed differences across population groups in terms of their susceptibility to diseases and conditions, as well as responses to treatments. These studies suggest that, far from being all the same under the skin, different groups of humans exhibit deep-seated physiological differences.

The second developing theme was a scientific enterprise that used to go under the name of "sociobiology". Today it is called "evolutionary psychology." Basically it posits that human cognitive tendencies and capabilities are the product of biological evolution.
Just as human physiology and evolutionary physiology have worked to identify physical adaptations of the body that represent "human physiological nature," the purpose of evolutionary psychology is to identify evolved emotional and cognitive adaptations that represent "human psychological nature."[here]
Perhaps the most widely reported, and popularly accepted, narrative emerging from this perspective is the argument that Ashkenazi Jews are cognitively superior to other population groups because during the Middle Ages they formed a separate breeding group and experienced powerful selective pressures that favored the development of high intelligence. [For one recent example see here.] Although this argument has long been widely accepted, few have until recently dared to apply its implications to other groups.

The third major development has been rejection of the old assertion that human evolution came to a halt with the emergence of culture. Not only has a rising generation of anthropologists and geneticists soundly rejected this argument [see here] they have argued the contrary -- that human evolution is actually accelerating [here].

Put them all together: Different interactive populations of humans display different physiological, emotional, and cognitive characteristics; these evolutionary divergences are not only continuing, but accelerating; these differences to some extent determine the extent to which a population group is advantaged or disadvantaged in relations with other groups of humans. What do you have? Nothing less than "scientific racism". As one anthropologist recently wrote in summary:

The major breakthrough of 2008 was the application of microarray technology to the problem of inferring ethnic ancestry.

At the beginning of this year, it may have been tenable to consider ethnic groups as mere cultural constructs, divorced from nature; at its conclusion, this opinion has been conclusively falsified.

It is now clear that ethnic groups are not only cultural-political formations, but also (at least in part) distinct biological entities, emerging naturally as clusters of similarity from the genetic continuum.
Read it, along with links to supporting research, here.

As one commentator wrote, "this is dangerous ground we travel." Indeed it is!

Ever since WWII throughout the West we have systematically denied any suggestion that there are any meaningful racial or ethnic variations across groups, attributing disparities instead to socio-economic conditions or cultural differences. The research referenced above threatens to undermine or delegitimize that entire intellectual construct. Are we heading for a time when to call someone a "racist" is simply to recognize his scientific acumen?

Let us sincerely hope not.


There is a new book out discussing recent research on human biodiversity. It is titled "The 10,000 Year Explosion" and it is by Gregory Cochrane and Henry Harpending. I haven't read it yet, but it is stirring up a lot of controversy. Here is a possitive review by a professional anthropologist who works in the area. Here is a much more critical review from the New Scientist.

Check it out..., I intend to.