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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pinker pulls no punches

From the Edge.org Web site. It will be a good sign for science if Pinker isn't burned in effigy like Larry Summers. I imagine in some quarters he is already the bogey man of the 21st century.

Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments

The year 2005 saw several public appearances of what will I predict will become the dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.

In January, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a firestorm when he cited research showing that women and men have non-identical statistical distributions of cognitive abilities and life priorities.

In March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom is coming to be known as Lewontin's Fallacy: that because most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don't differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense. )

In June, the Times reported a forthcoming study by physicist Greg Cochran, anthropologist Jason Hardy, and population geneticist Henry Harpending proposing that Ashkenazi Jews have been biologically selected for high intelligence, and that their well-documented genetic diseases are a by-product of this evolutionary history.

In September, political scientist Charles Murray published an article in Commentary reiterating his argument from The Bell Curve that average racial differences in intelligence are intractable and partly genetic.


Whether or not these hypotheses hold up (the evidence for gender differences is reasonably good, for ethnic and racial differences much less so), they are widely perceived to be dangerous. Summers was subjected to months of vilification, and proponents of ethnic and racial differences in the past have been targets of censorship, violence, and comparisons to Nazis. Large swaths of the intellectual landscape have been reengineered to try to rule these hypotheses out a priori (race does not exist, intelligence does not exist, the mind is a blank slate inscribed by parents). The underlying fear, that reports of group differences will fuel bigotry, is not, of course, groundless.

The intellectual tools to defuse the danger are available. "Is" does not imply "ought. " Group differences, when they exist, pertain to the average or variance of a statistical distribution, rather than to individual men and women. Political equality is a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups; it is not an empirical claim that all groups are indistinguishable. Yet many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points, to say nothing of the wider world community.

Advances in genetics and genomics will soon provide the ability to test hypotheses about group differences rigorously. Perhaps geneticists will forbear performing these tests, but one shouldn't count on it. The tests could very well emerge as by-products of research in biomedicine, genealogy, and deep history which no one wants to stop.

The human genomic revolution has spawned an enormous amount of commentary about the possible perils of cloning and human genetic enhancement. I suspect that these are red herrings. When people realize that cloning is just forgoing a genetically mixed child for a twin of one parent, and is not the resurrection of the soul or a source of replacement organs, no one will want to do it. Likewise, when they realize that most genes have costs as well as benefits (they may raise a child's IQ but also predispose him to genetic disease), "designer babies" will lose whatever appeal they have. But the prospect of genetic tests of group differences in psychological traits is both more likely and more incendiary, and is one that the current intellectual community is ill-equipped to deal with.

The point about costs associated with benefits from certain genes is a bit off the mark. Even if it is so, there are still desirable combinations of genes, just as there are some people who are above average over a broad range of abilities. (Or, some parents will accept associated problems in order for their child to be the next Michael Jordan or Einstein.) I would be surprised if market-driven technologies did not arise to satisfy the demand for genetic engineering.

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