01 September, 2011
The woolly mammoth in the room
It's important not to go completely overboard over recently published results about the proportion of Neanderthal DNA in modern European (or more precisely non-Subsaharan African) populations. The mainstream media in general — and I don't just mean the Daily Mail — has serious form for picking up on some tentative and circumscribed experimental or analytical result and hyping it up into the breakthrough of the century. If the Mail on Sunday tells you that you can catch cancer off a dinosaur bone, well if I were you I'd seek a second opinion.
One thing I've learned from reading the "news" pages of (the regrettably increasingly sensationalist) New Scientist over the last 50 years or so is that if team A at the University of Scunthorpe reports an experimental result that red-haired men produce the largest average volume of ejaculate per orgasm, then sure as eggs team B from the Peckham Institute will come along in due course with an entirely different and contradictory set of results. And that's measuring something well-defined and physically measurable.
Going off at a slight tangent, I recall — but cannot pin down a reference to — a report of an experimental test of the slur, "all you Darkies look alike to me". Subjects were shown numerous pictures of individual people and asked to remember facts associated with each individual displayed. Subsequently tested, subjects scored better in identifying individuals of their own ethnic group than in distinguishing individuals of a different ethnic groups. The results were similar irrespective of the ethnicity of the subject, ie "all you Honkies look alike to me" too.
The result provides some tentative support for the "common sense" observation that while you need to be able to quickly and reliably distinguish members of your own clan as individuals, outsiders — and in particular those of different ethnicity who are not candidates for inter-clan breeding — need only be identified collectively as "other".
But note the necessarily artificial and constrained nature of the experimental set-up. Much scientific progress is the accumulation of steps like this, steps which are frequently beset with dodgy a priori assumptions too.
Science is a process, a trend line, a series of testable models, not a single yes or no answer on a piece of paper inside a cosmic sealed brown envelope. (And do remember that "42" turned out not to be the correct answer after all.)
Nevertheless there does seem to be an interesting consensus emerging that Homo sapiens sapiens, having left Africa to seek a better life™, interbred with H. s. neanderthalis, so that Africans and Europeans are different in substantive rather than superficial ways.
But hey, this blog is more about racial politics than racial science. So how do the Righteous handle this uncomfortable idea?
The Observer's editorial points the way
Our ancestors benefited? Er, the Neanderthals are our ancestors. This isn't like catching a dose of the clap off some hairy Dago you met on your Mediterranean holiday and developing improved immunity to subsequent exposure.
It is common to view Neanderthals as ignorant apemen. Yet their input into our gene pool improved our ancestors' lives immensely and meant they were not nearly as nasty, brutish and short as they could have been. We owe our grunting, club-wielding predecessors a short vote of thanks, in other words.
Translation: Immoral Europeans debase their pure African bloodline by having sex with monkeys; fortuitous slight improvement to disease resistance follows.
Below the line the response of the Righteous is try to distract attention with corny jokes, while the Unrighteous poke them gleefully with pointed sticks.
How important any of this turns out to be I have no idea. What the significance of that 1% - 4% genetic input is I don't know. To a layman, the stark difference in the phenotype between Africans and Eurasians suggests it may be quite significant. As do other attributes such as ... well, let's not get into the race realism quagmire just now, eh?
But the dogma that "race" does not exist, that we are "all the same colour under the skin" and that race is a social construct, remains a core belief of the Righteous.
So I'm just going to sit back and enjoy watching them try to defend it, throwing in a "What about the Neanderthals, then?", from time to time.
Best keep it that way Edwin, as the latter is the ultimate hot potato, and so highly politicised in both camps that a lay person, lacking the supporting scientific credentials, intrudes at his or her own risk.
Looking at the issue purely from a sociology of knowledge point of view, it is notable that the clear majority of the 'race is a social construct' crowd are liberals and assorted lefties, while the 'race realists' are pretty well unanimously on the right.
The founding document of the 'social construct' view (the UNESCO Declaration on Race from 1948) was drafted by Ashley Montagu, then the doyen of Boasian 'social anthropology' (you know, the subject studied at Uni overwhelmingly by rather dim vicar's daughters who used to read- or at least look at- stuff describing the noble virtues of Masai warriors etc etc.)Moving to the present day two of the BBC's favourite commentators on these subjects are Prof Steve Jones (a longtime member of the Labour Party, although now possibly lapsed) and Prof Steven Rose, well known also for his left activism.
Contrariwise, one of the most prominent of post war 'race realists' was the wonderfully monickered Prof Carleton Coon. He originated the 'multiregional' hypothesis of racial origins (which the recent research on Neanderthal lineages appears to support). He was a 'southern gentleman' of the old school, and unsurprisingly had links to propagandists for continuing segregation in the US of the 50s &60s.