Thursday, November 02, 2006

Guns, Genes, and Steel

Whistling Past the Graveyard
by John Derbyshire (Nov. 2006)
Reviewing Mark Steyn's new book, America Alone
. . . .

Ah, culture. Of course it’s not about race! Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race. (Repeat 100 times.) It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite. You know, culture: those habits, folkways, beliefs, ways of thinking and behaving and connecting that arise from... pure chance! Or geography (see below). Or something... but definitely nothing to do with biology.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am sure Mark Steyn is sincere here. I am sure he believes this stuff about “culture.” Most educated people do. Most will continue to do so for a few more years, while the neuroscientists, geneticists, genomicists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and statistical sociologists sap away beneath them—until the ground gives way. (A professional academic biologist friend of mine is in the habit of snapping out, any time anyone takes refuge in this “culture” stuff: “Culture? Culture? What does that mean? Where does it come from? What are the upstream variables?”)

One of the great anthropological-historical best-sellers of recent years was Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. Different human populations, in different parts of the world, says Diamond, developed different cultures, depending on whether they had draft animals to hand, easy routes for disease transmission, and so on. Diamond almost completely ignores the role of inheritance and natural selection in shaping human populations. Natural selection? That all came to a screeching halt 50,000 years ago, don’t you know, when homo sapiens showed up. There have been no biological changes since then, none at all! Certainly none that affect behavior or socialization. We are all exactly the same structurally, we just behave differently according to the local geography. Location, location, location.

Alas, our understanding of population genetics has already left Jared Diamond behind. Good, solid scientific studies are beginning to appear that altogether refute the “culture” paradigm. We are not a uniform species, inclined to different folkways by the pressures of geography. A population of human beings, breeding mostly within itself, is shaped by the menu of genetic peculiarities it started out with, and by its breeding practices (did you know that 55 percent of Saudi marriages are between first or second cousins?), and by its environment. We are not a uniform species at all. Not many world-wide species are.

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