Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective
by Mark Snyderman
from National Review, Sept 12, 1994
WHAT MUST Pat Shipman think of Phillipe Rushton? Dr. Shipman describes how the scientific study of racial difference has too often been polluted by political forces; she proclaims her allegiance to science, and declares that we are better off knowing the unaltered truth about racial differences. But her rhetoric betrays great fear of what science may reveal.
Phillipe Rushton apparently has no such fear. Although his story is absent from Dr. Shipman's book, it would fit neatly. Mr. Rushton, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, has endured excoriation because he has dared to posit an evolutionary/genetic explanation for racial differences in a wide variety of physical and behavioral characteristics. Undeterred, he has even appeared on Geraldo (though this episode may demonstrate more an ignorance of American television than fortitude). Mr. Rushton's new book -- a synthesis of a vast body of scientific research on racial differences -- is his most ambitious, and fearless, work. Pat Shipman should be happy. She probably won't be.
Dr. Shipman's book, The Evolution of Racism, is beautifully written, and endlessly intriguing, but one is never quite sure what it is supposed to be about. For starters, the title is misleading. The book is only marginally about racism, as the word is commonly understood.
What Dr. Shipman does present is a series of case studies, told largely through biographical accounts, of the politicization of scientific debate over racial differences and genetic explanations of behavior. These are fascinating stories, well told. But the stories have no clear moral.
The book begins with a wonderful portrayal of Darwin's insecurity about his new theory, of Thomas Huxley's unabashed championing of Darwinism, and of Huxley's famous debate with Bishop Wilberforce which put the theory of evolution over the top. Dr. Shipman begins the real discussion of race with the clash between the owlish Rudolf Virchow, perhaps the pre-eminent German scientist of the mid nineteenth century, and the vigorous Aryan Ernst Haeckel. Virchow opposed the theory of evolution because he thought it inconsistent with his own scientific theories and a fundamental challenge to his view of the social order, while Haeckel championed Darwinism and then used it to further his theories of racial superiority and his political position. Dr. Shipman decries the damage to science in the ensuing struggle.
There follows a discussion of the eugenics movement and of Hitler (who sought justification in Haeckel's writings), and the post-war backlash against the scientific study of race. Dr. Shipman gives us an enlightening account of anthropologist Ashley Montagu [aka Israel Ehrenberg], a vehement anti-racist and author of the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race. The Ashley Montagu Statement, as it has come to be known, denies the validity of any notion that human groups differ in innate characteristics of intelligence or temperament, and touts scientific support for "the ethic of universal brotherhood."
Montagu subsequently was among those who led the attack on Carleton Coon. According to Dr. Shipman, Coon was "a man betrayed by history." An anthropologist-explorer trained in the early twentieth century, Coon published his life's work, The Origin of Races, in 1962. His thesis was that the various races developed long ago--a half million years before we became Homo sapiens--and that some races developed into modern humans more slowly than others. Whatever its merits, Dr. Shipman explains, this was a work of science, not of racial politics. Yet it is not difficult to imagine the reaction to such a work in 1962, at the very moment that the civil-rights movement was coming into full swing. What is remarkable is that so much of the criticism from other scientists took the form of personal attack and political diatribe. As the line between concerned scientist and social activist blurred, genetic and evolutionary accounts of racial differences simply would not be tolerated even by those whose job it was to search for the truth: "It was an unresolvable conflict between the fervent social activist and the irascible scientific purist. But the tenor of the times was such that it was the scientific purist, Coon, who was disgraced and, to some extent, driven out of his profession."
Dr. Shipman's final case study is the tale of an attorney and researcher named David Wasserman. Mr. Wasserman had the idea to sponsor a conference on the legal and social implications of behavioral genetic studies of criminality. The story of how his innocent project became entangled in, and eventually destroyed by, the racially charged reaction to a wholly independent Bush Administration program is out of Kafka. Like many interested in biology and behavior, Mr. Wasserman was defeated by those who believe that there are some questions science simply should not ask.
In the end, one wonders where Dr. Shipman stands on this issue. She bemoans the politicization of science and proclaims that we are better off studying racial differences, yet she is afraid of what such research might find. Her fear comes very close to overwhelming her defense of science. Thus, the book ends with the following cryptic summation:
The trajectory begun with Darwin has run its course. No one has sought to provoke a bitter controversy, but the value of differences among humans has reached out its sticky pseudopods and engulfed the unwary over and over again. The monster cannot be outran; it threatens us all. There is a real danger here .... To date, we have feared to wrestle with it openly, we have turned our heads and shielded our eyes from the horror of the problem. Rather than face the monster, we have played, instead, at politicizing first evolutionary theory and then genetics, for we are intrinsically political animals and it is a game that comes naturally. We have fought each other--called each other names, accused each other of sinister intent, promulgated bitter insinuations--instead of fighting ignorance. In so doing, we have given the hate-mongers time to feed the monster. It has swelled on a steady diet of racial divisiveness, lies, and half-truths until it is strong enough to destroy us all.
What exactly is this "monster" to which Dr. Shipman refers? It is, apparently, the truth about human differences. How are we to handle the truth, if it "threatens us all"?
Dr. Shipman's unsatisfying answer is to trust in the power of the environment. Should it turn out that there is a significant genetic component to individual and racial differences in behavior, she concludes, "Our only hope lies in the certainty that these attributes are subject to tremendous environmental modification." For her, this is simply an article of faith.
Dr. Shipman's fear of the genetic is evident in her readiness to reject biological explanations. In criticizing early behavioral genetics, for example, she explains that "we have a different perspective on what traits are heritable today." She takes as an example the perceived difference in volubility between Italians and Finns. "Is it because Italians more commonly carry genes for talkativeness than Finns? It is wildly improbable that this is so, for how could such a gene work?" This is a naive response from a physical anthropologist. Of course there is no single gene for talkativeness, yet there plainly is some genetic mechanism that allows humans to talk (unless Dr. Shipman postulates that the lack of speech in other species is entirely due to a difference in environment). Why, then, is it difficult to imagine that this genetic mechanism might differ in degree among individuals or groups?
Dr. Shipman's unease about any genetic explanation is particularly apparent in her treatment of intelligence, which lies at the heart of the controversy about racial differences. She follows unthinkingly the argument set forth by Stephen Jay Gould in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man. The argument is that the development of intelligence tests in the early part of this century was driven largely by the eugenics movement and belief in the inferiority of certain groups. The upshot of this argument is a form of guilt by association: intelligence tests were born of racism; thus they must retain their racist tint. Mr. Gould's conclusion, which Dr. Shipman parrots, is that intelligence tests at best are extremely sensitive to environmental variation, and therefore are of limited usefulness in measuring intelligence or establishing any genetic component to differences in intellectual functioning.
Mr. Gould is wrong, and so is Dr. Shipman. While it is true that racists found some support in early test results, the historical record reveals that the majority of early mental testers were engaged in a legitimate scientific enterprise. There were flaws in these tests to be sure, as there are flaws today, but the large-scale problems with test development and administration to which Mr. Gould points have been eliminated. Evidence of the validity of modern intelligence and aptitude tests, and of the significant heritable component to individual differences in intelligence, is beyond rational refutation. (The genetic basis of group differences remains uncertain.) In following Mr. Gould, Dr. Shipman has fallen prey to the same environmentalist bias she condemns in the reaction to Coon and Wasserman.
WHAT IF she is wrong. What if scientific investigation reveals, for example, that there are average differences in intelligence between members of different races that cannot be accounted for by any known sources of environmental variation? Faith in the power of the environment will not shield us from that "monster."
Phillipe Rushton is willing to accept the results of his science. He describes hundreds of studies worldwide that show a consistent pattern of human racial differences. The three primary human racial groups--Mongoloids (Orientals), Negroids (blacks), and Caucasoids (Caucasians)--show significant average differences in such characteristics as intelligence, brain size, genital size, strength of sex drive, reproductive potency, industriousness, sociability, and rule following. On each of these variables, the groups are aligned in the order: Orientals, Caucasians, blacks. On average, according to the data Mr. Rushton reports, Orientals are more intelligent, have larger brains for their body size, have smaller genitalia, have less sex drive, are less fecund, work harder, and are more readily socialized than Caucasians; and Caucasians on average bear the same relationship to blacks. There is, of course, tremendous variation within each group on each of these variables, and a great degree of overlap between groups. The group differences Mr. Rushton reports are not large, but they are demonstrable.
He proposes an evolutionary explanation based on "life history theory." The theory assumes "that each species (or subspecies, such as a race) has evolved a characteristic life history adapted to the particular ecological problems encountered by its ancestors." These strategies are organized along a continuum from "K-strategies" to "r-strategies." K-strategies "emphasize high levels of parental care, resource acquisition, kin provisioning, and social complexity," while r-strategies "emphasize gamete production, mating behavior, and high reproductive rates." Compared to other species, humans are K-strategists. Based on the data he reports, Mr. Rushton observes that Orientals are the most K-strategizing of the human races, and blacks are the most r-strategizing.
According to Mr. Rushton, r-strategies evolve in environments in which the population is kept below the carrying capacity of the environment (that is, where there are more resources for survival than there are members of the population to use them) because of unpredictable factors such as weather or predators. K-strategies are more adaptive in environments in which the population is close to carrying capacity and competitive interactions among individuals are important. Put simply, when there are abundant resources, organisms are better off producing many offspring and letting them fend for themselves; when the environment is difficult, organisms are better off putting their resources into equipping each offspring to survive.
Mr. Rushton's thesis now falls into place. Blacks evolved in Africa in an abundant but unpredictable environment that favored reproduction over nurturance, relative to other human populations. The harsh environment of northeast Asia in which Orientals evolved favored more nurturing, socialization, and greater intellectual capacity. Caucasian evolution in Eurasia imposed intermediate pressures.
Underlying Mr. Rushton's thesis is the contention that there is a genetic basis for much of the observed between-race variation he reports. Here is where he will meet the most resistance. Behavioral genetic studies of between-race differences are notoriously difficult, as Mr. Rushton admits. Nonetheless he strongly argues for a genetic component to average between-race differences. He presents much behavioral genetic evidence on the question, but his most compelling argument is intuitive. What possible environmental variables could account for the systematic alignment of the races on such a wide variety of characteristics, including behavioral traits evident soon after birth, "the speed of dental and other maturational variables, the size of the brain, the number of gametes produced, [and] the physiological differences in testosterone?" The strictly environmental hypothesis also is undermined by the various studies that demonstrate a significant genetic component to within-race individual differences on each of the behavioral and physical characteristics and the fact that these racial differences are consistent across cultures. Mr. Rushton contends that only an evolutionary/genetic explanation makes sense of these disparate data.
This is dynamite he fails to handle with sufficient care. Mr. Rushton tries in the preface of his book to temper the impact of what follows. He notes that he is dealing for the most part with relatively small group differences, and that these differences are likely the result of environmental determination as much as genetic. He explains also that the mechanisms that mediate genetic effects offer "numerous ways for intervention and the alleviation of suffering." His three-paragraph caveat is a tame cousin to the paean to the environment with which Pat Shipman ends her book. As such, it is woefully inadequate to head off any of the attack that is to come. Mr. Rushton must be aware of this; he seems not to care. "There are no necessary policies that flow from race research," he declares. His reliance on this single idea indicates either a naivete about political reality or an unshakable faith in science.
Mr. Rushton is not naive. He begins his book with a discussion of the difficulties of the scientific study of race:
The propensity to defend one's own group, to see it as special, and not to be susceptible to the laws of evolutionary biology makes the scientific study of ethnicity and race differences problematic. Theories and facts generated in race research may be used by ethnic nationalists to propagate political positions. Antiracists may also engage in rhetoric to deny differences and suppress discoveries. Findings based on the study of race can be threatening. Ideological mine fields abound in ways that do not pertain in other areas of inquiry.
This passage could serve as a summary of Pat Shipman's treatise. Mr. Rushton adds a twist. He posits that the politicization of the scientific study of race may itself have evolutionary origins. He devotes a chapter to genetic similarity theory, the hypothesis that genetically similar people tend to seek one another out and to provide mutually supportive environments." This phenomenon, according to Mr. Rushton, "may represent a biological factor underlying ethnocentrism." Thus, the reaction to work like Mr. Rushton's may have deeper roots than in our present environment.
Phillipe Rushton has written his own epitaph. Any genetic predisposition toward the defense of one's race only adds to the near impossibility of rational response to the scientific study of race in a world that has seen the Holocaust and racial subjugation. As he explains, "The evolutionary psychology of race differences has become the most politically incorrect topic in the world today." Mr. Rushton's work may be ignored by the fearful, damned by the liberals, and misused by the racists. It is unlikely to be truly understood by anyone.