157— March 24, 2005
Ian McEwan" makes a telling point. "What I believe but cannot prove," he says, "is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death." His enlightened fellow Edge contributors will take this as a given, but they may not appreciate its significance, which is that belief in an afterlife "divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere." The natural gift of consciousness should be treasured all the more for its transience.
Of course, there will be people who object. There will be people who will say that this is a revival of racial science. Perhaps so. I would argue, however, that even if this is a revival of racial science, we should engage in it for it does not follow that it is a revival of racist science. Indeed, I would argue, that it is just the opposite. — Armand Leroi, in "The Nature of Normal Human Variety"
Classicist; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
From the Enlightenment forward, it has been assumed that good science is the instrument of good politics. Science disabuses us of error and shows that bad politics are undergirded by falsehood.
But what if good politics turn out to be undergirded by falsehood? Then the honest and honorable supporters of science are tempted to suppress, modify, or veil in discreet silence the discoveries of science -- or even the questions that scientists would ask. That is a dangerous temptation, because the enemies of good science are still all around us, promoting notions of "intelligent design" (to argue that while the deity may have the taste, talent, and ingenuity of Rube Goldberg in the things he creates, at least he exists) and opposing lines of research that offend ancient proscriptions.
The answer is better science, better reporting about science, and bravery. The future of genetics will surely reveal differences between and among groups of people that overlap with stereotypes, prejudices, and myths. Some of those developments will appear to reinforce bigotry: so be it, as far as that goes, but the important thing is to communicate a science that continues to move forwards. In the 1950s, going heavy on the margarine and light on the eggs seemed the apex of science regarding cholesterol and heart attack risk. Now the margarine of those days appears itself to be a killer. Similarly, the genetic discovery today, while true, will also likely be at a greater level of generality than what we will know in 10 or 20 years.
That's why it will take bravery: to tell the truth now, to persist in research, to oppose people who draw stupid conclusions from good science, and to make better science.
of course the genetics of human diversity are interesting, and
some scientists are interested in them for disinterested motives.
But I think it is unfair to Gould to suppose that there are only
bad reasons to be leery of this interest, and unfair to Lewontin
to suppose that there is anything very much more illuminating
or important that we can say than that race is a social construction
even if we can find genetic clusters which would, as Armand Leroi
suggests, allow a geneticist to look at a sample of my spit and
tell from it where all my great great grandparents lived.
Human Variety: Evolution's Creation
Armand Leroi's points are made stronger by adding the dimension of time. Countries and races may seem ancient and fixed without the perspectives of history and evolutionary biology. It is sobering to consider that only fifteen generations separate us from Washington, Jefferson and Napoleon.
thousand generations ago, a man died at the edge of a tropical
African lake. The place, now called Herto, is in today's Ethiopia.
We now know Herto man by the tools his people fashioned from
volcanic rock, and by his skull. His skin was almost certainly
dark, but a forensic scientist would be baffled by the shape
of the man's skull. It clearly belongs to our species Homo
sapiens, but it defies attribution to a specific modern
Leroi is bound to please the right wingers with his view that "genetic
data show that races clearly do exist". I'm sure that is
not his intention but I also doubt that everyone will read as
far as his belief that "skin colour does not give the measure
of a man, that it tells nothing about his abilities or temperament".
That genetics has a bad history of being misunderstood and misapplied
scarcely needs restating.
is too crude and too shallow a concept to be worth resurrecting
even as a scientific shorthand and has already done too much
harm. In medicine, it is the individual genotypes determining
disease susceptibility and drug reactions that are worth pursuing.
If we would like to know more about diversity—why some
people have straight and some have curly hair, for example—classifying
broad racial clusters does not really help us to find the answer.
Let me change the subject away from race, to Leroi's provocative remarks about beauty and deformity.
Here's the problem. If the most beautiful person in the world is whoever it is who carries the fewest fitness lowering mutations, then (other things being equal) presumably the most beautiful person in the world is also the fittest person in the world. But this begs the question. Is she the fittest because she is regarded by potential mates as the most beautiful (and therefore gets to choose the best possible of fathers for her children). Or is she regarded as the most beautiful because she is seen by potential mates as the fittest (and therefore gets to be chosen by them as the best possible mother for their children).
Either way, I worry about Leroi's assumption that maximal beauty does in fact equal maximal fitness. There are many reasons why, as matter of fact, great beauty may not lead to great reproductive success. W.B. Yeats pointed to more than one of these when, in his "Prayer for his Daughter," he prayed for her to have beauty but not too much of it.
Still more to the point, in the context of Leroi's discussion of deformity, sometimes an admixture of ugliness — even of deformity — can be a positive asset in its own right. For the fact is that individuals who start life with a disadvantage, and who are obliged to compensate as best they can, may come up with alternative ways of doing things that leave them ahead of the game. Lord Byron, who is said to have had a club foot, drew attention to this paradoxical aspect of deformity in a remarkable poem, "The Deformed Transformed."
Thus even "deleterious mutations" can prove a blessing in disguise. Of course no doubt Leroi would say in that case they don't count as "deleterious." But this is an old move. As Sir John Harrington pointed out, on the subject of "Treason.":
Brockman's intentions, this running fire of a provocative and
fascinating thesis should provoke a healthy optimism. The "new
humanists" of his book are those scientists and other
thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository
writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual
in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining
who and what we are. Their turn then to speak: biologists,
computer scientists, geographers, physicists, astronomers, inventors
outline in a few pages their own experience and ideas.
[From a review of I Nuovi Umanisti (The New Humanists), Garzanti Libri — the best of Edge — now available in a book. See below.]
new essays by 27 leading Edge contributors..."Good,
narrative history, combined with much fine writing...quirky,
absorbing and persuasive in just the way that good stories
of the biggest brains in the world turn their lenses
on their own lives...fascinating...an invigorating debate."—Washington
Post "Compelling."—Discover " An
engrossing treat of a book...crammed with hugely enjoyable
anecdotes ...you'll have a wonderful time reading these
reminiscences."—New Scientist "An
intriguing collection of essays detailing the childhood
experiences of prominent scientists and the life events
that sparked their hunger for knowledge. Full of comical
and thought-provoking stories."—Globe & Mail "An
inspiring collection of 27 essays by leading scientists
about the childhood moments that set them on their shining
The New Humanists: Science at the Edge (Barnes & Noble)
The best of Edge, now available in a book..."Provocative and fascinating." — La Stampa "A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists." — The Guardian "A compact, if bumpy, tour through the minds of some of the world's preeminent players in science and technology." — Philadelphia Inquirer "What a show they put on!"— San Jose Mercury News "a very important contribution, sparkling and polychromatic."—Corriere della Sera
Original essays by 25 of the world's leading scientists..."Entertaining" —New Scientist "Provocative" —Daily Telegraph "Inspired"—Wired "Mind-stretching" —Times Higher Education Supplement "Fascinating"—Dallas Morning News "Dazzling" —Washington Post Book World