Day By Day

Friday, June 25, 2010

Human Biodiversity Gets a Hearing

There is probably no better illustration of the way in which scientific inquiry is shaped by social and political imperatives than recent work in the field of evolutionary science. In the wake of World War Two the political and intellectual reaction against race theory was so overwhelming that it seriously limited the range of inquiry into areas that might undermine the new orthodoxy which held that human differences were superficial and that we were all the same under the skin. Human evolution, we were told, ceased to operate with the emergence of complex culture about 50,000 years ago and shortly thereafter all alternative forms of humanity died out, leaving only us. Marxist biologist Steven Jay Gould expressed the scientific consensus this way:
There has been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.
For decades this orthodoxy was rigorously enforced, not just in political and educational institutions and in popular culture, but also in the scientific community although evidence kept accumulating in medical research suggesting that population groups exhibited significant inherited physiological differences. It is only in recent years, as the political and cultural potency of the anti-racism imperative has begun to wane, that a new generation of evolutionary scientists, armed with the technology of "genomics", has been able to effectively challenge this consensus, arguing that evolution is ongoing [and may well be accelerating], that genetically-determined differences among human populations are more than superficial, and that they may well have cognitive dimensions. Needless to say, these contentions are highly controversial.

The process has now gone so far as to be the subject of discussion in middle-brow culture, witness this new offering from the PBS series, NOVA. The program is pretty much standard PBS fare -- it presents the orthodox position and cites scientist who support it; In passing it notes the social and professional penalties faced by individuals who have challenged the orthodoxy and how these have stifled research into human differences; it interviews some of the dissenters and explains their views; and it concludes with a mushy statement suggesting that there is probably a bit of truth on all sides of the controversy.

What is significant here, at least to my mind, is that for half a century and more political and intellectual orthodoxy was able to place major constraints on scientific inquiry and the fact that dissenting position are now able to be entertained and broadcast, even in the intensely politically correct context of PBS programming, strongly suggests that the orthodox position is rapidly crumbling. I don't know if that is a good thing or bad [I strongly suspect the former, mostly because I am biased in favor of free inquiry], but it is only a matter of time before these highly-charged debates make their way into discussions of public policy. That will produce, I imagine, a raucous and highly entertaining argument. I can hardly wait.

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