A Specter is Haunting Genetics

Had my life gone a little differently, I might have been a molecular geneticist and hip-deep in what is now called bioinformatics. When I was twelve or thirteen or so I came to intellectual grips with the fact that I have congenital cerebral palsy; shortly thereafter I dove into the science of congenital defects, developmental biology, and from there into genetics. Eventually I taught myself a fair chunk of organic chemistry before becoming fascinated by linguistics and theoretical mathematics, and a few twists and turns from there got me into software engineering; but my interest in genetics and human developmental biology didn’t cease so much as become pushed into the background. I give this background to explain why I’ve been paying closer attention to genetics than most people do ever since.

In the wake of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, I’ve seen three or four forward-looking articles about the implications of cheap genomic analysis (most recently a quite good one in The Economist) all of which are are haunted by a common fear. It’s almost like they’re written to a template; glowing projections of accelerated drug discovery, personalized medicine, and deep insight into the nature of humanity, ended on a worried note about what we’ll find when we discover just how much of human variation is genetically rather than environmentally controlled. Sometimes the prognosticator can only bring himself to drop hints, but the braver ones come out and ask the question: what if it turns out that genetic differences among races are real and actually matter?

A specter is haunting genetics; the shadow of racialist slavery, eugenics, and Naziism. Western civilization since 1945, traumatized by the horror of the Holocaust, has elevated anti-racism into an unquestionable secular piety. Much good has been accomplished thereby, but like all pieties the worthy results have been accompanied by a great deal of willed repression, denial, and cant. Evidence that racial genetic differences do matter is not actually hard to find; Murray & Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) included a brave and excellent summation of the science on this point. Consequently, the bien-pensant reaction to that book was hysterical vilification, anathematization of heresy in full cry. Even at the time the lurking fear beneath the hysteria was easy to spot – that the authors might, after all, be right, and must be damned even more intensely because they might be.

Now, in 2010, cleared-eyed observers are imagining a near-term future scenario that looks like this: (1) we will shortly have genomic-sequence information on hundreds of thousands of human beings from all over the planet, enough to build a detailed map of human genetic variation and a science of behavioral genetics. (2) We will confirm that variant alleles correlate strongly with significant measures of human ability and character, beginning with IQ and quite possibly continuing to distribution of time preference, sociability, docility, and other important traits. (3) We will discover that these same alleles correlate significantly with traditional indicia of race.

In fact, given the state of our present knowledge, I judge all three of these outcomes are near certain. I have previously written about some of the evidence in Racism and Group Differences. The truth is out there; well known to psychometricians, population geneticists and anyone who cares to look, but surrounded by layers of denial. The cant has become thick enough to, for example, create an entire secondary mythology about IQ (e.g., that it’s a meaningless number or the tests for it are racially/culturally biased). It also damages our politics; many people, for example, avert their eyes from the danger posed by Islamism because they fear being tagged as racists. All this repression has been firmly held in place by the justified fear of truly hideous evils – from the color bar through compulsory sterilization of the ‘inferior’ clear up to the smoking chimneys at Treblinka and Dachau. But…if the repressed is about to inevitably return on us, how do we cope?

It’s not going to be easy. I saw this coming in the mid-1990s, and I’m expecting the readjustment to be among the most traumatic issues in 21st-century politics. The problem with repression, on both individual and cultural levels, is that when it breaks down it tends to produce explosions of poorly-controlled emotional energy; the release products are frequently ugly. It takes little imagination to visualize a future 15 or 20 years hence in which the results of behavioral genetics are seized on as effective propaganda by neo-Nazis and other racist demagogues, with the authority of science being bent towards truly appalling consequences.

I’m writing about this because I think a first step to coping is to stop discussing the evidence in code and and the stakes in hushed whispers. Continuing the repression will only make the blow-off uglier. Contrariwise, the sooner we end the denial, the sooner we’ll actually solve the problem.

And we can solve the problem; there’s never really been any mystery about how to do it. The simple, powerful truth that banishes racist prejudice is this: the individual is not the mass. Statistical distributions do not predict the traits of individuals. It’s OK to acknowledge that (for example) Ashkenazic Jews average significantly brighter than gentile whites, because the difference in the means of those bell curves tells us nothing about where any single Jew or gentile falls on them.

We can – we must, in fact – learn to judge individuals as individuals, not as members of racial or other ascriptive groups. This has always been the right thing to do; as knowledge about genetic group differences becomes more detailed and widespread, we will need to learn how to focus rigorously on individuals with the same discipline (and the same justified fear of failure) that we now apply to averting our eyes from genetic group differences.

Part of the reason this evolution won’t be easy is that so much of our politics has been distorted by racial grievance-mongering. It’s not only the obvious bad guys like neo-Nazis, Black separatists like Louis Farrakhan, and Bharatiya Janata who are invested in racialist categorization as a lever to power. The political Left has fallen into a lazy habit of screaming “racist!” at anyone who disagrees with them, won’t readily relinquish that rhetorical club, and have a lot invested in the present system of taboo, resentment, “disparate impact” legislation, and racial identity politics; expect them, too, to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Still, the right strategy is clear. Actual knowledge makes both prejudice and repression unsustainable. “Know thyself!” said the oracle, and behavioral genetics will allow – actually. force us – to know ourselves in ways we never have before. That way lies the pain of revelation, but also the path of redemption.

Also clear is at least one important tactic: objective testing. We already use this in athletics; if you can’t score the goal, run the mile, or leap the hurdle, you don’t make the team and your skin color is irrelevant. But today, employers and schools generally won’t use IQ tests or many other forms of psychometry out of fear of a discrimination lawsuit brought under a disparate-impact theory. This is exactly backwards; in fact, good psychometry, by allowing us to measure important traits in individuals, is exactly the way to make superficials like their skin color irrelevant.

Fifty to seventy-five years from now, I think our present “corrective” obsession with race will be seen for what it is – as a pernicious flip side of overt racism, an entrenchment of attitudes not made much less evil or silly merely because it’s a bit more subtle than what it replaced. Our great-grandchildren will consider racial special pleading every bit as ugly as racial prejudice, and wonder why we didn’t. Their historians will tell them we were traumatized for generations by the Holocaust and be right, but that fact will have lost much of its emotional impact through the passage of time. This wound, too, will heal.

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