Last March, Michael Scroggins posted about “Gene Promoters: On Chagnon and Diamond,” pointing out that the connection between race, genetics, and social deterimination was rearing its head again. He was writing in response to a blog in Discovery Magazine by Razib Khan “Against the Cultural Anthropologists” in which Khan wished that cultural anthropology could be voted off the academic island.
The result was a spirited back and forth between supporters of Razib, and Michael over the month or so in which by and large I took the side of Michael. In the spirited back and forth, both sides tossed out their favorite philosophers of science. We found out that by and large we have been reading different things, and that when we do read the same things, we tend to have different views, often depending on our disciplinary background.
One of my favorites discussing the relationships between race/genetics and intelligence is Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man, which was published in 1981. Gould’s central point is that science itself is a cultural product, and therefore cannot be “objective” when measuring things. In Gould’s case, the cultural product is i. q. tests which are used to stratify individuals in a fashion which reinforces the pre-exsiting status quo. And of course in the case of American i.q. testing, what was reproduced was the pre-existing status quo which stratified people by race, immigrant status, language ability, etc.
At that point, I was assured by commenters that Gould was thoroughly debunked by critics in subsequent decades, especially by a student who pointed out that Gould was sloppy (at best) with cranial data which did not support his thesis. This was reported in the New York Times in 2011, as described here.
And then in the excitement of a couple of hundred blog postings, I had to admit: I hadn’t read Gould in sometime—and promised myself I would have a look later with a more jaundiced eye.
I did this last week, and I must say that even if the cranial data were “mismeasured” or worse faked, it does not change much Gould’s conclusion about the persistent misuse of psychometrics to reproduce a pre-existing social order, in this case that of American forms of racial stratification. In other words, Gould could have left out the example, and the conclusion about the embeddedness of science itself in culture is not refuted—and this is Gould’s most basic point, not whether the skulls were mishandled.
In contrast, when I critiqued the mishandling of genetic data in the evaluation of the Mlabri hunter-gatherers social origins in Thailand, there was a change in the conclusion (though admittedly the authors disagree with me).
My net conclusion remains that I think that the natural sciences have much to learn from the social sciences about culturally embedded assumptions. Science is not immutable—as you learn in Science 101, all scientific theory is subject to challenge, and will eventually be cast aside. Dare I say it, this too will happen to even the powerful theory of evolution. And if you want to know when and how that will happen, I would recommend reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, as well as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. No scientific theory can last forever. Indeed, for those things we believe will last forever, Durkheim has another word it—religion.
I also found that I need to read much more in the genetic sciences in order to write critique that goes beyond the occasional blog post. So well, where does that leave me? Razib brought up the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza whose use of genetic and linguistic data I was quite impressed with some years ago. I see that Cavalli-Sforza has co-authored a new book Genetics of Human Population which looks interesting. I will look forward to seeing if he is able to develop his story while also at least implicitly acknowledging that as a science, genetics is also a cultural product.