Genetic Explanations

Genetics, gender and race – how will social policy cope with recent scientific discoveries?

In his recent book  A Troublesome Inheritance Nicholas Wade makes some excellent points about mankind’s recent evolution, which shows there are tangible genetic differences between the races.   Mr. Wade states that Human evolution did not cease thousands of years ago; it has been “recent, copious and regional”.

In the past 30,000 years, after humankind migrated into different races, many genes have changed through natural selection: lactose tolerance developed in response to dairy farming in Europe and parts of Africa; physiological adaptations for high altitude emerged in Tibetans; malaria resistance spread throughout Africa and the Mediterranean; a gene for sweat glands, ear wax and hair changed in China.

One estimate is that 722 regions containing 2,465 genes (about 14% of the human genome) has been affected by gene mutations that brings an advantage and replaces other versions of genes in one race or another. In many places, the affected genes are active mostly in the brain. As Wade puts it: “These findings establish the obvious truth that brain genes do not lie in some special category exempt from natural selection.”

The more we look, the more genetic variation we will find between races, as well as between individuals.  We had therefore better get used to the idea and consider how human society and political policy will deal with these discoveries.

Before discussing the explosive and vitriolic subject of genetics, sex and race we should first emphasise the strong arguments against sexual or racial discrimination.  Genetic variation just gives tendencies in ability and behaviour at a population level.   We cannot predict the behaviour and ability of individuals. There is so much overlap between different sexes and races regarding their different abilities (strengths and weaknesses) that any discrimination, against any individual, on any terms, is not in society’s best interest.  It is in our interest as a society that we have the best people in the right jobs.  We all benefit from a genuine meritocracy.  Discrimination is also just clearly morally wrong.

So there should be no discrimination based on colour, class or sex. But this includes “positive” discrimination too. We should not be giving people a leg up because of a perceived injustice unless we can prove beyond doubt that they really have been disadvantaged.

A knee-jerk reaction of blaming discrimination has adverse effects as well as good ones   For example we know of a collection of genes that cause men to have very high levels of testosterone during adolescence.  In certain situations this leads to very aggressive, violent, criminal behaviour.  The fact that this is more common in young black men is enough to explain the disproportionate number of them in prisons around the developed world.  This is politically explosive in the wrong hands, but nobody minds the fact that a very high proportion of top sprinters can show they have genetic ancestors from a particular part of West Africa.  The genetic explanation of athleticism is generally well accepted, but our political correctness has caused us to ignore this high–testosterone phenomenon, which prevents medicine or science from finding a temporary solution until the adolescent has grown up and calmed down.  Some timely intervention could help the youth through a difficult time and stop them committing crimes that would ultimately ruin their life and those of their victims.

And yes we’ve known for decades there are differences in mental capacity between the races and big differences in mental capacity variance between the sexes (although the average intelligence of both sexes is more-or-less the same).  This explains many puzzling educational and achievement phenomena that we currently blame on discrimination.  We are currently spending billions of tax pounds trying to close a perceived gap in societal equality without even considering it may be genetic.  Economists who study patterns of discrimination have long argued (generally to no avail) that there is a crucial conceptual distinction between difference and discrimination.   A departure from a proportionate sex or race representation in academic qualifications or professions does not, by itself, imply that we are seeing discrimination.  Not unless the interests and aptitudes of all the groups are identical.

How much culture and environment moulds human behaviour and how much inherent human nature moulds cultures is open to debate.  But I am glad we are now moving away from the flawed 1960s social sciences research, which assumes the balance is entirely on the culture affecting human nature side i.e. the now discredited “Blank Slate” hypothesis.  To understand that genes are not insignificant could explain why the Middle East, for example, is so explosive with an uncompromising, tribal, revenge culture at its core.

We know with male / female intelligence that it is the extremes, the rare outliers, that can make a real difference to our society, not the mediocre average.  If a society occasionally produces some rare genetic prodigy then that society will do better than one that doesn’t. A few gifted individuals can and do change society so long as that society communicates widely and have an education system to ensure their discoveries are quickly shared.  And all human societies like to communicate; it is part of human nature.  It is difficult to argue that the Jews particularly have not produced a disproportionate number of intellectual prodigies.  But the term “prodigy” also includes other skills such as those possessed by Mozart, Shakespeare and Pele.

I understand the fear that society has regarding this type of genetic research.  The dark shadow of Nazi eugenics still hangs over this subject and demonstrates what happens when this science is mis-understood and mis-used for political purposes.  It has also set back our ability to discuss these issues by decades.

However we must not forget that eugenics was originally researched in order to improve the human condition.  Many famous people, before the Nazis, were keen on the concept, including: George Bernard Shaw; Winston Churchill and the great “feminist” Marie Stopes.  Marie Stopes, amongst other great achievements, is a seen as a pioneer of birth control during the early 1900s.  Her interest in contraception and family planning was to prevent too many poor people reproducing and spreading “poor” quality genes.

William Beveridge was best known for his 1942 report Social Insurance and Allied Services (known as the Beveridge Report) which served as the basis for the post-World War II welfare states.   He was also a member of the Eugenics Society, which promoted the study of methods to ‘improve’ the human race by controlling reproduction. His idea of the much-loved welfare state is an example of the positive benefits of this type of belief.

Of course we must keep our feet on the ground and merely understand that genes are not irrelevant in all this.  Genes are not everything.  Mr. Wade tries to explain too much of human history by gene changes. The industrial revolution started in Europe and not China, he suggests, partly because Europe had been preconditioned by genetic evolution for the sort of economic openness that sparked accelerating innovation.  To explain the industrial revolution genetically is going too far.  My favourite explanation is that Henry VIII quashed the authority of the Catholic Church in order to get into Anne Boleyn’s knickers.  This freed England from the conservative idealogical constraints of the Catholic religion, which enabled a surge in technological and social progress.  This freedom and progress ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution and British Empire.  Nothing to do with any genes that all other men don’t possess.

We must make sure that we understand the science of genetics and how it can explain the way society is.  However we must never forget that this science can never justify human behaviour nor allow discrimination against individuals at any level nor under any circumstances. We should continue do everything we can to ensure that individuals from all parts of society have access to an excellent education and quality careers with equal opportunity to succeed on merit alone. But if we are to have a serious debate on helping the “disadvantaged” we need to look at all causes of “inequality” and move away from the discredited 1960’s assumptions that it is all explained by “nurture” and “class”, which is what most press articles on the subject imply. We should learn a little about evolutionary biology and genetics before making these wild assumptions.

How we ought to behave should only be decided by: rational, evidence-based debate; democracy and the rule of law.  Genetics will allow us to manage our expectations regarding real equality and hopefully to spend our meagre tax pounds where they will have the optimum impact.

Further Reading:

Why do male students get more first class degrees at Oxford University than female students?

Why are immigrant groups in Britain generally better motivated than indigenous people?

Further  Listening:

Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different