Day By Day

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Times They Are A'changin'

In the middle decades of the Twentieth Century an elite consensus emerged in the Western democracies, largely in response to the perceived experience of World War Two. One element of this consensus, a reaction agaisnt Nazi race theory, was a massive repudiation of biologically based determinants of the human condition. This was matched by an avid embrace of sociological categories of analysis, for the most part based in Marxist theory. Evolution, we were told, ended with the emergence of society, people were all the same under the skin, and perceived differences among people were mere "social constructs" or evidence of atavistic bias. That consensus still holds in official circles, but is rapidly crumbling in the face of genomic research.

Even such a bastion of liberal opinion as the New York Times has begun, quite tentatively to be sure, to report on this potentially explosive scientific research. A recent article noted that evolution is still ongoing and is producing some interesting variance among population groups. Many Asians, for instance, metabolize alcohol differently than do people whose descent traces back to other parts of the world. Tibetans have in recent times evolved biological adaptations to high-altitude living. People living in cold climate, too, show a suite of recent biological adaptations. Primitive farming populations synthesize folic acids differently than other groups. East Asians, unlike other populations, produce dry earwax. These can all be considered superficial traits, but fundamental biological processes are involved and the Times list is hardly exhaustive. There are well-documented differences among ethnic groups regarding susceptibility to disease or responses to medical treatments and some evolutionary biologists have suggested that there may be cognitive differences too. These, quite understandably, are highly controversial and the Times is right to treat the entire subject gingerly, but genomic research is still in its infancy and the fact that its conclusions, however troubling, are being discussed in such a forum suggests that some major rethinking regarding some fundamental tenets of the post-war elite consensus is taking place.

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