John Derbyshire Wonders: Is HBD Over?
I see that the blogger Half Sigma says he has given up posting about HBD—“human biodiversity,” otherwise known as H-BD, H-Bd, hbd, h-bd, etc.(He has also moved to a new blog with a rather attractive layout.)There have been some thoughtful reader reactions, notably this one:
I believe that the taboo against HBD will last indefinitely. As the scientific evidence mounts ever more so in favor of HBD, the taboos against speaking about it only seem to grow stronger . . .
Perhaps I had better explain a bit about HBD.
Back in 1999, Steve Sailer launched an invitation-only email discussion group under yahoogroups.com, for the airing of facts and opinions about human biodiversity—which is to say, those (individual) differences between human beings and (statistical) differences between human populations that have biological causes in whole or part.I was an invitee.
Some of the members of the HBD group were heavily-credentialed academics in the human sciences.Others, like me, were literary or journalistic types with an expressed interest in the field.There was a good range of attitudes and opinions in the group, with representatives from, to use the classification I sketched out in Chapter 7 of We Are Doomed , the Religionists, the Culturists, and the Biologians; though Culturists and Religionists tended to drop off from the group—or in the case of View From The Right’s quarrelsome Lawrence Auster, be forced off it—as time went on.Anyway, I learned a lot from our discussions.
(I see the HBD group is still active, though much decayed.I haven’t posted anything myself in ages.Posting activity maxed in the early 2000s, with a peak of 1,638 posts in June of 2002.)
It would be gratifying to report that the reason for the decline in interest is that, whereas 14 years ago HBD was a taboo topic that could only be aired on a private group like that, it is now so commonly accepted that there is no need for such strategies.
It would be gratifying, but wrong—twice wrong, in fact.
For one thing, groups like this have a natural life cycle as members get tired of hearing each other’s voices.Depressingly few of us have a decade-long stream of new and interesting things to say.I count myself a contentedly married man; yet I recall that when we were first wed, my wife and I discussed metaphysics and medieval Chinese poetry, while now our conversation centers on such topics as whether or not I remembered to put out the garbage.
In the second place, HBD is, if anything, even more of a taboo topic now than it was in 1999. I have documented elsewhere the fact that the late 1990s were a brief Golden Age of openness in writing about HBD.Peter Brimelow calls it an “interglacial”—a brief warm period in the middle of an Ice Age.
This is not what we—we, the participants in the HBD discussion group—anticipated.We thought that the publication and widespread discussion of books like The Bell Curve (1994) and The Nurture Assumption (1998) heralded the fact that the entire Ice Age was drawing to a close.
Some of us anticipated even more than that.A brilliant young geneticist on the group was wont to tell us that pathways from definite regions of the human genome to characteristics of behavior, intelligence, and personality would soon be uncovered. This would place human thoughts and actions indisputably in the biological realm.
“Soon” I recall as meaning the next five or ten years, i.e. round about now.
Ah, the optimism of youth!Those pathways turned out to be overgrown with thorny tangles of weak causality and feedback loops, and often to lead, when uncovered at last, into dead ends, circles, and inexplicable forks.As I wrote a couple of years ago:
The ultimate objective of all the research is to link as much of the phenome [that is, the collection of observable characteristics of an organism] as possible to the genome. That is going to be immensely difficult. The gene-phene link is certainly not one-one, nor even one-many; it is many-many. Even quite ordinary phenes—height, for example—are influenced by large numbers of genes. Contrariwise, a single genetic abnormality can cause (for example) both sickle-cell anemia and resistance to malaria.
It’s not that there has been no progress.There has been much, and there will be more.But progress is achingly slow, though, for reasons not hard to fathom.
Science earned its laurels between the mid-17th and the mid-20th centuries, bringing us understanding of systems with a small number of variables and short causal pathways:celestial mechanics, electromagnetism, pharmacology.Now we are applying scientific method to systems of a higher order of complexity: climate, the genome, the brain.
It’s going to take a while.
But more important, especially in this supremely un-PC area, is the power with which the human mind resists science .When the boffins deliver some irresistible amenity—a drug, a plane, a light switch—there is grudging acceptance that the underlying principles must have some epistemic content.In other cases, nobody much is convinced.Forty-six percent of Americans deny the truth of evolution.
The collective death-wish that seized the European-derived civilizations sometime in the second half of the 20th century has hardened from mere wish to near-fanatical determination. The dogma of utopian egalitarianism, that has been used to justify the opening of white nations (with a very few exceptions) to mass immigration from regions with very different civilizational attainment, or none, waxes stronger by the hour.
And so the ice-sheets return and spread.
The flourish of HBD books and talk in the years around 2000 was, to switch metaphors, early growth from seeds too soon planted.Had the shoots been nourished by a healthy stream of scientific results, they might have grown strong enough to crack and split the asphalt of intellectual orthodoxy.But as things turned out, the maintenance crew has had no difficulty smothering the growth.
Even the few small triumphs of HBD—triumphs, I mean, of general acceptance by cognitive elites—have had an ambiguous quality about them.
For example, Freudian psychoanalysis (defined by Nabokov as people’s belief“that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts”), which was radically nurturist in its “explanations” of human personality development, is now defunct, thanks to developments in pharmacology.
But, while this anti-nurturist victory has diminished the quantity of nonsense in the world, like one of Robert E. Lee’s battles it has not been followed by any significant occupation of enemy territory. In the applied human sciences pure “blank slate” nurturism is still entrenched. Educationists, for example, insist that given the right environment, any child can do anything. In criminology, even the boldest of conservative writers tell us that illegitimacy and fatherlessness are the root causes, as if those factors themselves were uncaused.
Likewise the acceptance by our cog-elites that homosexuality is innate, not learned. In theory, this is a triumph of biologism. But in practice it has brought no wider acceptance of HBD ideas, and happily coexists in the public orthodoxy with a furious denial of any innate component to, for example, race differences in behavior.
Dogmatic ideologies do not require logical consistency.To believe that human nature is infinitely plastic, while simultaneously believing that key aspects of it are stamped in the genome, is no stretch for someone determined to be a right-thinking citizen.
Which reminds me:Perhaps the least persuasive paragraph in Jonathan Marks’ deeply unpersuasive 1995 book Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History is the one that concludes the section headed THE GENETIC BASIS OF SEXUAL DEVIANCE.Google Books omits the first sentence and a half, but the rest is here(expand to full page) and gives the essential meaning.Or rather doesn’t: Try for yourself if you can make any sense of it.
Oddly, considering the way biologians took up the HBD banner, Marks’ book was an attempt, made as the interglacial period got going, to quell any claims that human nature might have something to do with biology.It was an exceptionally well-informed book of its type, but Marks couldn’t keep his own inner convictions out of sight—the conviction, for instance, that all efforts to biologize the human sciences are motivated by a hunger for power:
The science of humans is simply political and value-laden in ways that the science of, say, fruitflies is not; for who would use science to degrade or oppress fruitflies?
Elsewhere Marks quoted approvingly from the biologist Lancelot Hogben (1895-1975), reinforcing his approval by telling us that Hogben was “an English Marxist.” This is not even accurate: Hogben seems to have abjured Marxism once the enthusiasms of his youth had faded. He was certainly a strong Leftist, though, and if still with us would be a fierce HBD-denier— a Marks-ist, but not a Marxist.
So the wheel turns. Almost twenty years after its publication, Marks’ Human Biodiversity, still in print, would fit comfortably into any university anthropology course curriculum i.e. anti-science Applied Cultural Marxism. That late-1990s “interglacial” might as well not have happened.
Perhaps Half Sigma’s reader is right: The taboo against HBD—in the Sailerian, not the Marksist sense—has legs, and will be with us for some time yet.
Truth, however, though often tardy, is a tireless enemy.I have speculated elsewhere that race realism might make a surprising, and even regrettable, breakthrough.
And, as Half Sigma’s reader also notes, the taboo on HBD is not universal among scientifically advanced nations.Others, above all China, will press forward where we fear to tread.
That the new understandings they deliver will be uniformly pleasing to the likes of Jonathan Marks, is highly improbable.
We premature HBD-itarians will then have the glum satisfaction of saying we told you so.
I wish I could say we will enjoy it.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimismand several other books. His writings are archived atJohnDerbyshire.com.
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