It's taken a long time, but we'll get back to eugenics yet

Remember the good old days when we could rely on genetics to explain the undeniable cultural and psychological differences between nations? The holocaust did a number on that, and then insidious Communist ideas like the influence of the economy over culture and bothersome notions of the fluidity of identity just made things worse.

Fortunately we finally seem to be escaping those dark days. For the last 25 years we've seen the rise of a new Social Darwinism, known as sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. (This corresponds with a broad reorientation of capitalism leading to skyrocketing inequality and the dismantling of the liberal welfare project - but only a Communist would see a link between the two.) Up to now sociobiology has been used in the popular arena primarily to attack feminist theories of how gender is socially constructed, plus a few crude forays into racism.

An article in The New York Times Week in Review signals a new and richer approach: culture is a product of biological evolution. (The Twists and Turns of History, and of DNA) "Humans have continued to evolve throughout prehistory and perhaps to the present day, according to a new analysis of the genome reported last week by Jonathan Pritchard, a population geneticist at the University of Chicago. So human nature may have evolved as well." Therefore, "[e]volutionary changes in the genome could help explain cultural traits that last over many generations as societies adapted to different local pressures."

The reporter, Nicholas Wade, makes a bit of leap from genetic differences in "taste, smell or digestion" to the conclusion that "the concept of national character could turn out to be not entirely baseless". Or from the fact that "Oxytocin [a chemical that in some experiments is associated with a higher degree of trust] levels are known to be under genetic control in other mammals like voles" to the conclusion that trust is a biological trait that can come to characterize a society. But, as the author points out, a biological basis for culture explains why Amerindians are fierce and Jews are smart, so we seem to be on the right path.

(I guess I know why my girlfriend's smart, but it's still unclear how the evolutionary pressures on my farming forebears in Germany, Ireland, Wisconsin, and Iowa caused me to be smart. Further research will clarify this, I'm sure.)

The writer also implies that Jews and East Asians are smart because of genetic similarities - "Dr. Pritchard's team detected strong selection among East Asians in the region of the gene that causes Gaucher's disease, one of the variant genes common among Ashkenazim". And he very quietly hints at why black people and Latinos might be dumb: "a demand for greater cognitive skills...might well have arisen among the first settled societies where people had to deal with the quite novel concepts of surpluses, property, value and quantification."

The "first settled societies" emerged in Iraq, Egypt, northern China, and northern India/Pakistan, but don't be too surprised if people who take up this line of thinking use it to explain why whites and East Asians are the smartest people. Indeed, the process seems to already be under way. In Wade's news article on the story ("Still Evolving, Human Genes Tell New Story"), he writes, "Many of these instances of selection may reflect the pressures that came to bear as people abandoned their hunting and gathering way of life for settlement and agriculture, a transition well under way in Europe and East Asia some 5,000 years ago."

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