November 26, 2008
The following address was given to the H.L. Mencken Club’s Annual Meeting; November 21-23, 2008
My study at home in Long Island has bookshelves on all four walls. When I originally stocked those shelves, I worked out a system for doing so. The shelves on the north wall, directly behind me as I sit at my desk, are all reference books. I am a great fan of reference books, and find that they have by no means been made redundant by Internet services like Wikipedia and the Google search engine, as some people say.
Then at the northeast corner of the study, at eight o’clock from me as I sit at my desk, are math books. As all good Aristotelians know, math is supposed to be the one subject whose propositions are indisputably certain. The angles of a plane triangle will add up to two right angles, now and forever, here or in the Great Galaxy M31 in Andromeda.
From math, the most indisputable type of knowledge, I then go clockwise round the study to the most disputable. So proceeding along that east wall from the math books are books on the sciences, with the so-called “hard” sciences”physics, astronomy, computer science”at the northern end, shading off into biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, religion”a branch of anthropology so far as I am concerned”economics, and linguistics.
Continuing clockwise round my study walls, the south wall is all history, advancing (or retreating, depending on your point of view) to political science and plain politics in the southwest corner “ continuing, you see, the descent from the pure certainty of math to topics softer and fuzzier.
Turning that southwest corner and now coming up the west wall, there I have my small collection of military books, my even smaller collection of philosophy books and courses”I mean, Teaching Company courses, as I find philosophy hard to digest off the printed page”and a lot of current-affairs opinionating by authors like Pat Buchanan and Laura Ingraham.
There is then a block of shelves given over to biography. Looking at them, I’m mildly surprised at how many biographies I have “ a good half of them I reviewed for someone or other. These tail off into books of diaries and letters, and some essays and belle-lettres. Having pretty much exhausted the world of fact, the remaining fifty feet or so of shelving are taken up by fiction, then poetry, and finally music, these being the least fixed of literary realms, the anti-math.
In any scheme like this, as a librarian will tell you, there are problems of classification. Should E. Royston Pike’s book Britain’s Prime Ministers from Walpole to Wilson be shelved in politics, or in history? Does a biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss belong among the biographies, or on the other side of the study among the math books? Never having made friends with the Dewey Decimal System, I resolve these knotty issues by whim, placing troublesome books according to my own estimation of how long it will take me to find them. This doesn’t work very well, as whatever algorithm I apply when shelving the book, I’ve completely forgotten six months later when I need the darn thing.
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Recently a new class of books has started to come up that presents classification issues of this kind. The first was John Entine’s 2007 book Abraham’s Children, which I reviewed for VDARE. Then came Michael Hart’s book Understanding Human History. The first of those books is a history of the Jews, but informed by genetics. Because the Jews have been keeping pretty much to themselves for three thousand years, and writing down everything that happens to them, they form an ideal group for the study of inherited traits. The second, Michael Hart’s book, was more ambitious, attempting a history of the entire human race informed by genetics, and offering genetic explanation for problems like: why are conquests of southern people by northern people much more common than vice versa?
What are these books? How do I classify them? Are they history, or biology? I’m starting to think of them to myself as biohistory.
The issue got acute last week when Basic Books asked me for a blurb note on a book they will be publishing soon. The book’s title is The 10,000 Year Explosion. The co-authors are Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, names that I am sure will be known to some of those here today. I read the book at one sitting and fired off an adulatory blurb note with totally uncharacteristic speed and efficiency. It’s a very fine book, and I urge you to get a copy when it comes out. I can’t go into much detail about it, as it is very bad manners to publish a review of a book before the book is formally published. I’ll just describe the book’s theme in outline, and hope to make up for this slight trangression of etiquette by urging you to keep an eye open for the book and buying a copy when it does come out (in February, I think).
The 10,000 Year Explosion is yet another example of biohistory”history informed by genetics. It leans hard on the fact”and it indisputably is a fact, as the authors amply demonstrate”that not only is evolutionary change going on among human beings, it has been speeding up across human history, and is probably still accelerating right now.
In the present intellectual climate”outside the human sciences, I mean”this is a very shocking thing to say. State dogma in the Western World, clung to very tenaciously by our academic elites “ again, outside the human-science departments “ as well as by our media and political elites, says the exact opposite thing”and doesn’t merely say that opposite thing, but demands assent, and casts into outer darkness all who resist.
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There is now not much disagreement that a small group”likely just a few hundred, perhaps less than two hundred”of our species, homo sapiens, left its home in eastern Africa 50 or 60 thousand years ago, and thereafter gradually spread across the whole world. There were other species of hominid in the world at the time, lineages that had separated from ours hundreds of thousands of years before. These other species “ the Neanderthals are the ones everyone knows about”became extinct, and homo sap. populated the world, though of course the process was very gradual, spread over tens of thousands of years.
The aforementioned state dogma asserts the following thing: That evolutionary change in our species ceased when that small group emerged from Africa fifty thousand years ago. There has been no further evolutionary change since that date. Observed difference in human beings and human groups are due to something called “culture.” They have nothing whatever to do with biology”and when I say “biology,” I include genetics as a sub-science thereof.
The reason why this dogma has such a grip on our non-scientific elites, and indeed even on some of the scientific ones, is that it preserves the “psychic unity of mankind.” This phrase, the “psychic unity of mankind,” was coined by a 19th-century German anthropologist, Adolf Bastian (though of course he coined it in German””die psychische Einheit des Menschen) and was then taken up enthusiastically by another German anthropologist of the following generation, Franz Boas. In 1887 Boas emigrated to the United States, and became the most influential American anthropologist of the early twentieth century.
This idea of the “psychic unity of mankind” is a sort of blank slate principle. It says that all human beings everywhere have the same physiological nature, most especially the same brains, and that all observed differences, both group and individual, are the result of “culture” acting on this infinitely plastic substratum”writing words on this “blank slate.”
“Blank slate” is in fact sometimes used as an identifier for this point of view”this belief in the psychic unity of mankind. It is also sometimes called a “Boasian” viewpoint in honor of Franz Boas”poor Bastian seems to have been forgotten. I have tried to float the word “culturist” as a descriptor for this viewpoint. I haven’t had much success there, but I keep trying, and shall use the words “culturist” and “culturism” in what follows.
Those of you who like to trace things back through the history of philosophy will recognize culturism as an extreme form of existentialism. In philosophical jargon your essence is what you are, as it might be put on a police WANTED poster: white male, 190 lbs, married two children, etc. Your existence is that you are”the fact of your being in the world. The old philosophical conundrum is: Which comes first, essence or existence? Do you come into the world with preset atrributes”the essentialist position? Or do you come in as a blank slate, and have to get some attributes for yourself, as the mid-20th-century Existentialists argued, or have them imposed on you by your social conditions, modes of production, and so on, as classical Marxism argued?
Well, our state dogma is an extreme existentialist one. This can be seen all over the place. Charles Murray, who is here among us today, brought out a book on education this summer. The New York Times sent an reporter to interview him about it. Here is a snippet from that interview, as reported in the Times. The interviewer was a lady named Deborah Solomon, so I’ll tag the speakers as “Deborah” and “Charles.”
Deborah: Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn’t America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?
Charles: I wonder if there is a single, solitary, real-live public-school teacher who agrees with the proposition that it’s all a matter of will. To me, the fact that ability varies”and varies in ways that are impossible to change”is a fact that we learn in first grade.
Deborah: I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.
Charles: You’re out of touch with reality in that regard.
Now, I would guess that most of the people present in this room would agree with Charles: Ms. Solomon has lost contact with reality. Yet her opinion on this “ that “given the opportunity, most people could do most anything” “ is official dogma. She is merely saying what everyone around her, all through her life, has been whispering in her ear: in a nutshell, that there is no such thing as human nature; in philosophical terms, that existence is anterior to essence.
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“Dogma” is by no means too strong a word for the socio-political status of this belief. It is enforced with great ferocity. Harvard President Larry Summers found this out in January 2005, when he suggested to an academic gathering that the paucity of women in high-end science and engineering positions might have non-culturist causes. There was a terrific fuss, a vote of no confidence in Summers by the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Summers eventually resigned.
James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, learned the same sharp lesson two years later when a British newspaper quoted him as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours “ whereas all the testing says not really.” That is indeed what the testing says; but to voice the fact out loud is a gross violation of culturist protocols. Watson, like Summers, had to perform a full medieval-style recantation. If Africa isn’t doing well, that can only be because the infinitely plastic minds and personalities of Africans have not been acted on by the right forces. They have been acted on by wrong forces: colonialism, imperialism racism, and so on.
At a somewhat lower level, there is a great hunger for books about human nature that reinforce the state dogma”the dogma I call “culturism.” Jared Diamond has made a nice bundle for himself with books explaining human differences without breathing a word about human biology. Plenty of lesser lights have done the same. I picked up Harvard psychologist Richard Nisbett’s book The Geography of Thought with great expectations, but I found that the book was weakened by its punctilious culturism.
If, on the other hand, you publish a book that contradicts the “culturist” dogma, you had better get the wife and kids filling sandbags, beause you are going to take a lot of fire from the intellectual establishment. You could ask Charles Murray about this.
Geography is in fact a great friend to the culturists.
Question: Why is this human group over here different from that one over there?
Answer: Ah, because they’re different places, you see. Different fauna, different climate, so the inhabitants react differently.
Question: I see. But then, over a few hundred generations, wouldn’t the selection pressures from these different environments cause these two populations to diverge in average characteristics, as Darwin observed with lesser animals?
Answer: Guards! Guards!
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It’s a bit odd that this “culturist” dogma should prevail here in the United States, the homeland of modern capitalism, for “culturism” shares many of its roots with Marxism. The great biologist E.O. Wilson pointed this out in his 1978 book titled On Human Nature. Wilson is best known for his advocacy of sociobiology”the project to find biological explanations for human behavior, including human social behavior. Well, here’s what he says:
Marxism is sociobiology without biology. The strongest opposition to the scientific study of human nature has come from a small number of Marxist biologists and anthropologists who are committed to the view that human behavior arises from a very few unstructured drives. They believe that nothing exists in the untrained human mind that cannot be readily channeled to the purposes of the revolutionary socialist state. When faced with the evidence of greater structure, their response has been to declare human nature off limits to further scientific investigation. A few otherwise very able scholars have gone so far as to suggest that merely to talk about the subject is dangerous.
Key figures in the establishment of the 20th century’s great Marxist despotisms were all adherents of a culturist view like the one I have sketched. Mao Tse-tung, for example, wrote the following thing in 1958 with the Chinese “masses” in mind: “On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written.” Mao then put his Thought into action by launching the Great Leap Forward. Like all “culturist” projects, the Leap ended in tears. China’s industrial development was set back a decade and some 30 million Chinese people starved to death. In its extreme forms, “culturism” can be hazardous to your health.
* * *
So what is this peculiar doctrine”such a perfect fit for a revolutionary world-transforming ideology like classical Marxism”what is it doing as the state religion of a capitalist republic? I don’t know the answer, though I have pondered the question long and hard.
Is it just the promise of human equality there in the Declaration of Independence “ the founding assertion that “All men are created equal”? Hardly. It is plain if you delve into the minds and writings of the Founders that none of them believed the thing Deborah Solomon believes in that exchange with Charles Murray I replayed up above. The common 18th-century opinion was that while education and moral instruction might improve a person, there were incorrigible innate differences between persons. Everyone of that period believed, for example, that some of us are just “bad in the bone.” At any rate, if they did not believe that, it is hard to understand why their system of criminal justice and punishment was as it was.
And if our forefathers did not believe in individual equality of ability”of “parts,” as they would have said”neither did they believe in the equality of different races. Or if they did believe it, it is hard to explain their deep pessimism that black and white could live together in harmony, a pessimism shared by, for example, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
The Founders’ assertion of equality was in fact only a statement of intent that no system of hereditary ranks or privilege should take root on American soil, no formal aristocracy. They were in fact what we should nowadays call meritocrats. They did not believe that Joe and Steve, plucked at random from the population, possessed equal abilities, nor even the potential of acquiring equal abilities if raised up properly from birth. They only believed that if Joe and Steve were of equal ability, then neither of them should be held back behind the other by any disadvantage of birth or station.
All right: If this passion for the psychic unity of mankind does not spring from our founding ideals, why is it so dominant, and policed with such ferocity? Is it something to do with our being a multiracial society? Well, possibly, but the chain of cause and effect is not clear to me. The “culturist” dogma is held just as strongly in places like Scandinavia, which until recently were perfectly monoracial. If you were to write up a complete history of the culturist paradigm, you would need to give a prominent place to, for example, Gunnar Myrdal, the mid-twentieth-century Swedish economist and social scientist, who wrote a key book about America’s race problem, and was a signatory to the 1950 United Nations declaration The Race Question, a founding document of culturism. It’s all a bit of a mystery to me.
* * *
The culturist dogma is in any case false. We knew this a priori, once 19th-century biologists had established the basic principles of evolution. If you take some population of a uniform species, divide it in two, and arrange matters so that the two sub-populations don’t interbreed”for example by putting one sub-population over here and the other one far away over there“and if you then run the clock for a few hundred generations, the two populations will diverge. That’s biology 101. If you run the clock for tens of thousands of generations, the two groups will diverge so far, they won’t be able to interbreed “ and that is the origin of species! This is basic a priori stuff. It’s why there are different breeds of dogs. It’s why a room full of Australian Aborigines looks nothing like a room full of Hungarians.
The last line of defense for culturists is”or would be, if you could ever get them to engage in a conversation about biology”that the observable divergences among human groups are only in superficial qualities. Australian aborigines and Hungarians simply haven’t been separated for long enough to develop non-superficial differences. Your two roomfuls may not look like each other, but their thoughts, behavior, and social arrangements might be anything at all; and any behaviors or arrangements the one population might have, the other might equally well have, if appropriately trained.
This was never very plausible, and comparative analysis of the human genome proves it false. Our behavior, including our social behavior, issues from the brain; and the brain is an organ, like the liver or lungs. Populations who live at great heights for many generations”in Tibet or the Andes”develop lungs that can cope. In just the same way, a people who made the change from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a pastoral or field-agriculture lifestyle, will gradually change their personalities and ways of thinking to adapt to their new social circumstances”the higher population densities, more demanding work schedules, and more complicated social arrangements.
(After I had written about this on the internet one time, I had an email from a lady dog breeder, who said: “Duh. If I couldn’t breed for personality, I’d be out of business.” Dog breeds are not “socially constructed.” The great example here is the Russian breeder Dmitri Belyaev, who succeeded in developing a tame, domesticated breed of fox in only forty years.)
Not only is the culturist dogma false, it is also poisonous and divisive. Think of the racial composition of our prisons. According to the Department of Justice website, one in every 22 adult black males in the U.S.A. was in state or federal prison in June 2007. For Hispanic Americans, it was one in 57; for whites, one in 130. And think of those recurring newspaper stories about black and Hispanic test-takers failing to get jobs or promotion in the police or fire services, and black and Hispanic kids defying every effort to get their school test scores up to white and Asian averages, even in prosperous middle-class areas. What’s going on?
A culturist explanation would be that blacks and Hispanics are held back by “racism””basically, by malice on the part of white and Asian people.
A non-culturist explanation would be that a population whose ancestors went through some key transiton”say, from hunting-gathering to pastoralism”ten thousand years ago, if compared with a population whose ancestors passed through that transition only one thousand years ago, will have, on average of course, different gene sets conferring different abilities, personalities, and social skills. Natural selection can just get more done in ten thousand years than in one thousand. This is not scientifically controversial.
Now consider the effect on a black or Hispanic person of the two explanations. If he accepts the first, the culturist explanation, he will be mad as hell, and rightly so. He looks out at the world and sees people like himself stuck at the bottom of society. Why? Because of malice on the part of other groups. That’s what the culturist model tells him. He’s just the same as those other groups”the differences are only superficial. Why isn’t his group doing as well as their groups? Malice, the culturists tell him, wicked malice! Why wouldn’t he be mad as hell?
If, on the other hand, he accepts the biological explanation, there is no-one to blame. That’s just how human biology has shaken out across the deep history of our species. It isn’t anybody’s fault.
Thus, a culturist explanation of human group inequality”or of human individual inequality, for that matter”breeds rage and rancor. The true, biological explanation, by contrast, offers at least the hope of acceptance. We do, after all, accept our individual differences without pain. Everybody in this room is better than I am at something or other: playing tennis, appreciating music, writing, attracting the opposite sex. Many of you are undoubtedly smarter than I am. I don’t lose any sleep over this. Millions of American men and women go out and play golf every weekend, by no means sunk in listless despair at the knowledge that they will never be as good as Tiger Woods. If we can so placidly accept individual inequality, why can’t we accept group inequality”especially since it is supported by an ever-growing mountain of evidence? Perhaps we like rage and rancor, I don’t know.
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Well, back to Cochran and Harpending, and this latest volume of “biohistory.” The authors take us through a number of great changes in the lives of human groups, through history and prehistory. There was the encounter with Neanderthals, and the tricky question of whether there was some interbreeding. Then there was the really big one, the hydrogen bomb of human evolutionary change: the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to pastoralism and settled farming “ “horn and corn” cultivation. Then there is a chapter on Ashkenazi intelligence, which these authors, and a couple of others, published a much-discussed paper on a couple of years ago.
The evidence is plain, and our ongoing investigation of the human genome confirms it: our evolution did not stop dead fifty thousand years ago. The “psychic unity of mankind” is a myth. The big old paleolithic populations of humanity differ”slightly, and of course statistically, but incontrovertibly. The evidence is right there in the genome; and we could anyway deduce it a priori from the known laws of biology. Now all we have to do is convert our nation’s cultural, political, and intellectual elites to these true facts.
I’m going to start up a new space on my bookshelves for this new discipline of biohistory. My guess is, though, that there’ll be a couple of dozen books in that space before I next hear the president of any Ivy League college, or the director of any prestigious genetics lab”let alone any politician or op-ed commentator!”speak out clearly and unapologetically against the poisonous, divisive, and false culturist myth.
John Derbyshire is a contributing editor of National Review and the author of, most recently, Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra.