Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Racial Time Bomb

In 1994 psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray published a book that started a war. The book was The Bell Curve, and the war was one of ideas, with nature on one side and nurture on the other. But that war is far from over - in fact, it's only just begun, and the front lines are about to expand dramatically.

At least, they are according to Jonathan Haidt in an editorial over at the ever-thought-provoking
I believe that the "Bell Curve" wars of the 1990s, over race differences in intelligence, will seem genteel and short-lived compared to the coming arguments over ethnic differences in moralized traits.
Haidt is speaking of an issue that I consider to be a ticking time bomb of Homerian proportions that is bound to detonate some time in the next decade or so. While The Bell Curve dealt specifically with differences in intelligence between various racial groups, the coming controversy is about far more than just smarts.

As Haidt explains:
Skin color has no moral significance, but traits that led to Darwinian success in one of the many new niches and occupations of Holocene life — traits such as collectivism, clannishness, aggressiveness, docility, or the ability to delay gratification — are often seen as virtues or vices.
And if not only individuals differ in these capacites, but entire racial groups do, then we're not only talking about intelligence or abilities, we're talking about morality.
Virtues are acquired slowly, by practice within a cultural context, but the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is — and this is my prediction — going to be a "game changing" scientific event.
I agree. Not that we will find evidence that there are ethnicaly-linked genetic variations in moral competence, but that if we do, then there'll be trouble. Should evidence for such variations be discovered tomorrow, we as a society will be wholly unequipped to deal with the ramifications.

That's also not to say that there will necessarily be negative ramifications to such a finding. But that without a clear philosophical understanding of the issue and its implications - and reasons for why there aren't negative ramifications - then there'll be many who will effortlessly slip into a potentially devastating form of genetically-justified racism against ethnic groups they perceive to be 'less morally capable'. It could also fuel existing racial tensions and advance the cause of racist groups around the world (probably irrespective of the individual findings themselves).

Human genome pioneer, Craig Venter, posted a similar cautionary editorial on a couple of years ago, although it didn't get a whole bunch of attention back then. Venter was concerned that our burgenoning knowledge of genetics would reveal a plethora of biologically-influenced inequalities:
It will inevitably be revealed that there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of what we attribute to human existence including personality subtypes, language capabilities, mechanical abilities, intelligence, sexual activities and preferences, intuitive thinking, quality of memory, will power, temperament, athletic abilities, etc.
We can now add morality to that list.

I think that as a matter of utmost priority, scientists, philosophers, politicians and community groups need to engage with the issue of the biological and genetic basis of behaviour - and morality - and formulate some considered responses to the various possible discoveries yet to be made. We need to arm ourselves to respond to this issue in a measured and rational way rather than let it fall to those with their own extreme agendas to set the tone of the debate, by which point it may be too late.

And we may not have years to figure all this out. We may have a matter of only months. So we'd better get to it.


At 2:51 pm , Anonymous Nicholas said...

I think you are very, very right. I think this is particularly the case for US, althoguh I say this as outside observer. In terms of 'Western' countries, it seems Race is nowhere more important. Although it will no doubt massive world wide. I have a question: what do you think will happen viz Jews?? By this I mean, if we take seriously the evidence that Ashkenazi are on average much smarter than everyone else, what do you think this means for global anti semitism? I didn't realise until recently just how pervasive hatred of the Jews still was, in all sorts of odd places.

At 2:53 pm , Blogger Nicholas said...

Oh, I notice you are from Oz also! I just assumed that you were a Yank.

At 12:17 am , Blogger Tim said...

Hi Nicholas. I think the recent research concerning the Ashkenazi jews is fascinating, not as much for the results, as for the fact it escaped most of the media's attention. Imagine if the results said the Ashkenazi were *less* intelligent than average. Imagine the cries of anti-semitism. The cries of racism. But because the results - which are just results, and could have gone either way - were perceived as positive, the research didn't get much attention. I reckon this is just the tip of the iceberg...

At 10:38 am , Anonymous Josh said...

People like Steven Pinker set out how society can adapt to the idea that parts of human nature are hereditary in his book 'the Blank Slate'.

Steve Hsu makes a good point here:

"Finally, it is important to note that any group differences are statistical in nature and do not imply anything about particular individuals. Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal, it would be better to emphasize that we all have inalienable human rights regardless of our abilities or genetic makeup."

Also, Peter Singer comments here:

"A Darwinian left would not:

• Deny the existence of a human nature, nor insist that human nature is inherently good, nor that it is infinitely malleable;

• Expect to end all conflict and strife between human beings, whether by political revolution, social change, or better education;

• Assume that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case;

A Darwinian left would:

• Accept that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like;

• Reject any inference from what is 'natural' to what is 'right';

• Expect that, under different social and economic systems, many people will act competitively in order to enhance their own status, gain a position of power, and/or advance their interests and those of their kin;

• Expect that, regardless of the social and economic system in which they live, most people will respond positively to genuine opportunities to enter into mutually beneficial forms of cooperation;

• Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition, and attempt to channel competition into socially desirable ends;

• Recognise that the way in which we exploit nonhuman animals is a legacy of a pre-Darwinian past that exaggerated the gulf between humans and other animals, and therefore work towards a higher moral status for nonhuman animals, and a less anthropocentric view of our dominance over nature;

• Stand by the traditional values of the left by being on the side of the weak, poor and oppressed, but think very carefully about what social and economic changes will really work to benefit them.

In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its Utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is, I think, the best we can do today — and it is still a much more positive view than that which many on the left have assumed to be implied in a Darwinian understanding of human nature."


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