In December of 2008, I wrote about Race, Ethnicity, and the Genetic Time Bomb and the great danger inherent in our burgeoning knowledge of genetics:
The accumulation and interpretation of information derived from our increased ability to parse the genetic code contains within it a potential time bomb of epic proportions. The damage that the nuclear bomb of genetic knowledge threatens to produce is incalculable, potentially made far worse by our inability to think about, let alone talk about, the data.
It remains early in the science of genetics. Decoding the human genome is a recent advance; as with all forms of information science, the cost of decoding the human genome has been rapidly decreasing (following its own Moore's Law of exponential progress) and early indications are that some of the data is going to shatter a multitude of unspoken assumptions.
It has long been an article of faith among social scientists (and many geneticists) that there are no meaningful differences genetically between the various races of man. The usual dismissive comment is that we are all more alike than different (an obvious and relatively meaningless truth.) Although evolution is also accepted as an article of faith among the left leaning academic soft sciences, the usual covert assumption made is that evolution occurs very slowly and that since the beginning of culture, man has essentially been static in evolutionary terms. Thus, animals and plants could show remarkable phenotypic changes in the course of only a few generations, man was uniquely resistant to or insulated from evolutionary pressures. Again, this was almost always an unstated assumption, since if it were too baldly expressed, its lack of substantive supporting evidence would have been too obvious for comfort.
The following January, I wrote about The 10,000 Year Explosion: A Most Dangerous Book; Cochrane and Harpending's book posited that not only has evolution not stopped with the arrival of modern man but in fact, evolution has been speeding up. They made explicit the implication that homo sapiens has recognizable subpopulations. I noted the danger that such an observation posed for our society:
This presents two extremely worrisome dangers.
First, racists (of all colors and ethnicity) will be able to use the data of population genetics to support their twisted views on those they demonize. One race treating another as less than human is a historical fact, just as specific tribes treating non-members as less than human is the default position of homo sapiens.
The second danger is more insidious. For those who adhere most assiduously to Politically Correct-thinking and for that large body of followers for whom PC-thinking is more a posture than a coherent philosophy, the idea that different human populations could have different biological endowments is anathema. The thought-police will need to redouble their efforts to prevent dangerous thoughts in so far as the evidence continues to show that population genetics is a real discipline which is discovering real differences.
Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending are probably incorrect about many, perhaps most, of the details in The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution but their basic thesis, of accelerating evolution in Homo sapiens, is now inching into the Mainstream consciousness:
As with any other species, human populations are shaped by the usual forces of natural selection, like famine, disease or climate. A new force is now coming into focus. It is one with a surprising implication — that for the last 20,000 years or so, people have inadvertently been shaping their own evolution.
The force is human culture, broadly defined as any learned behavior, including technology. The evidence of its activity is the more surprising because culture has long seemed to play just the opposite role. Biologists have seen it as a shield that protects people from the full force of other selective pressures, since clothes and shelter dull the bite of cold and farming helps build surpluses to ride out famine.
[Interestingly, the New York Times reporter, Nicholas Wade, uses some of the same data that was central to Cochran and Harpending's thesis, ie the distribution of the gene(s) governing the persistence of lactose tolerance in adults, for the core of his story.]
Many of the comments to the Times story are, as expected, devoted to assailing the Neanderthal Republicans, Tea Partiers, et al as less evolved, which is amusing but irrelevant to any serious discussion. Comments about Lamarck simply suggest that some Times readers lack the genes for reading comprehension, again, amusing but irrelevant. I sampled about half the comments and most had almost nothing to do with the data discussed. The interaction of culture and evolution is incredibly complex and it will take a very long time to even begin to reconstruct the genetic changes (and the complex feedback loops) that facilitated the increasingly complex culture to which we are heir. The most salient fact to emerge from the article, however, and a fact only a few of the commenters noted, is that the support for separate, unequally endowed, human subpopulations, has now increased and can be found cited in the pages of the New York Times. Both denying and affirming this reality carry significant dangers, which we have not yet begun to address. It is worth wondering if our species has the maturity to deal with the implications.