Race and politics

Mike Berger writes on David Reich's book "Who we are and how we got here..."


A reminder: intelligence is instrumental, a means to various existential ends. It is just one of many human characteristics (aggression, physical strength, charm, beauty, deceit, etc) which could be leveraged for success. Here I want to follow up a couple of loose threads and also to discuss some of the issues relevant to the current global malaise.

In his transformative book, "Who we are and how we got here..." David Reich lays out the findings and some of the implications of the recent explosion of historical knowledge delivered by the technology of genomic analysis. Reich himself was raised in a cultured home (mother a novelist, father a professor) in Washington DC. It was thus inevitable that he would have been saturated with the 'liberal' norms, beliefs and preferences of his milieu. Furthermore, he obtains substantial funding from a USA government acutely sensitive to currents in the political climate and he works in a field at the epicentre of the ideological divides in Western culture.

So one would expect him to be deeply sensitive to the PC norms and prohibitions operating in the USA and elsewhere around group identity. But Reich is also an apex scientist and will thus be adept at what the rationality researcher, Keith Stanovich, calls "cognitive decoupling" referring to the ability to follow the empirical evidence wherever it leads by decoupling the content (the research findings or idea) from its political context and the researcher's personal experiences and prejudices.

Bearing this background in mind, Reich deemed it desirable to summarise some of the key findings regarding 'race' in an article in the New York Times. I reproduce in full the 6 key points he made:

"1. “Race” is fundamentally a social category — not a biological one — as anthropologists have shown.

2. There are clear genetic contributors to many traits, including behaviour.

3. Present-day human populations, which often but not always are correlated to today’s “race” categories, have in a number of instances been largely isolated from one another for tens of thousands of years. These long separations have provided adequate opportunity for the frequencies of genetic variations to change.

4. Genetic variations are likely to affect behaviour and cognition just as they affect other traits, even though we know that the average genetic influences on behaviour and cognition are strongly affected by upbringing and are likely to be more modest than genetic influences on bodily traits or disease.

5. The genetic variations that influence behaviour in one population will almost certainly have an effect on behaviour in other populations, even if the ways those genetic variations manifest in each population may be very different. Given that all genetically determined traits differ somewhat among populations, we should expect that there will be differences in the average effects, including in traits like behaviour.

6. To insist that no meaningful average differences among human populations are possible is harmful. It is perceived as misleading, even patronizing, by the general public. And it encourages people not to trust the honesty of scholars and instead to embrace theories that are not scientifically grounded and often racist."

What Reich does not discuss in his article but does in his book at significant length is the fraught political climate in which his research was conducted. Of special interest, for example, were the hurdles placed in his path by the sensitivities of Native Americans supported by activist Western scientists and lobby groups. It is quite clear that it needed all his considerable peer status, diplomatic skills and emotional intelligence to negotiate the acquisition of ancient human remains critical to his research.

That's also true when presenting his results.

More generally, moralistic and tribal-identity impulses have always played a vital role in the human evolutionary trajectory; it is the backdrop to human history. What is new is the acute and disturbing realisation that these ancient motivators of human behaviour are as potent as ever in a post-modern, 'rationalist' world even to the extent that they impinge directly in multiple ways on the freedom of research and expression of dedicated scholars.

In some ways this is a healthy development in an immensely interconnected world but it comes with downsides and costs. Some of these will be discussed further in following columns. More specifically, future columns will look more carefully at the up- and down-sides of morality in politics but I'll close this one with a quote which helps provide a balance when considering the reality of group differences

"... no person or people are more highly evolved than any other persons or peoples. Everyone alive today is descended from a long, long line of successful ancestors. Yet there may be individual and group differences in psychological domains that are partially a result of differential selection pressures on ancestral populations...Efforts to advance human welfare may benefit from this recognition, as well as the understanding that genes are not the script for a pre-ordained destiny. Everything about us as individuals is a product of complex interactions between our genetic instructions and aspects of the environments in which they are expressed." Daniel Kruger

Mike Berger