For the last few years, whenever someone says “it’s not who we are” it means the conversation has veered into the heretical or that some line of argument is viewed as a challenge to official orthodoxy. Amusingly, the people most prone to blurt this out are so-called conservatives. It’s how they police the boundary to their right. The funny thing though, is no one ever tries to define “who we are” in concrete terms. Instead, we get a long list of things, ruled outside the set of things that constitute “who we are.”
This is something that becomes clear in the debate about David Reich’s book, Who We Are and How We Got Here. As John Derbyshire noted in his review of the book, Reich is reporting real facts about who we are as humans, but he puts almost as much effort into re-asserting all the cliches about who we are not, even when those cliches contradict his own research. Everyone gets how this works and why he felt the need to do it. To the people in charge, defining the “not who we are” stuff is who they are as morality police.
As is often the case, that constant push by our masters to enforce their moral framework tends to turn us into thoughtless reactionaries. The Bush years were a great example of this phenomenon. If the Left had remained silent on Bush, he would have been a one term President and few people would have supported the Iraq war. Instead, crazy liberals turned all of us into warmongers, simply in reaction to the unhinged opposition to the Bush administration. The opposite of what the Left says is not necessarily the truth.
As a result, the temptation on our side is to focus exclusively on what the revolution in the human sciences is telling us about ourselves, particularly those bits that confirm what we have always believed about the human animal. It may be just as useful to look at what the science is telling about who we are not. After all, the people in charge are acting on those assumptions about who we are, namely the blank slate. Many on the right are also operating from a set of assumptions about who we are as a species.
The first thing that bears scrutiny is the demolition of the post-Boasian conventional wisdom. As Peter Frost explained years ago, Boas may have started out trying to strike a balance between nurture and nature, but his followers went on a berserk rampage against the nature side of the balance. This really can’t be underestimated. The last half century, being a smart person meant a war against observable reality, under the color of science. Now, no smart person can deny the supremacy of nature over nurture.
That’s an easy one. Another thing that bears scrutiny is the collapse of the pots not people narrative to explain the archaeological record. It has been extremely important for the people in charge that we believe the natural state of man is cooperative. The assumption being that people naturally wish to get along with one another, despite the trivial physical differences. An essential part of the prevailing orthodoxy, from the Right and the Left, is that all human beings seek order so they can go about making and trading stuff.
The data is now confirming that this is not reality. Humans have been raiding and sacking one another since the dawn of man. More important, humans with a genetic edge, some small advantage, like lactose tolerance, were able to conquer the people around them and that meant killing the men and raping the women. They did not just take over an area and incorporate the people within it. The story of man is the replacement of one people by a better people, better because they had some edge rooted in their DNA.
There’s another side to this. The demolition of “pots not people” as the official narrative means the demolition of homo economicus too. Humans are much more complex than the libertarians and so-called conservatives would have us believe. It means defining man as “a creature who seeks the greatest amount of wealth, with the least amount of effort” was only, at best, a superficial observation in the moment. Man is motivated by much deeper forces within his nature. One is his biological desire to conquer those not like him.
Another one of those forces is a desire to understand his place in the universe. It is increasingly clear that belief, which often manifests as religion, is one of the earliest traits of modern humans. The research at Gobekli Tepe reveals that this complex set of structure pre-dates agriculture. In fact, the archaeological record is showing that settlement was the result of a long evolutionary process, driven by shared interest and communal identity, not rational self-interest. Selfish transactionalism is not who we are.
The fact is, who we are is who we believe we are. We define ourselves within the bounds of biological reality. Much of what we have believed about ourselves over the last century is turning out to be at odds with that reality. Modern science may not be telling us who we are, but it is surely telling as who we are not. We are not amorphous blobs that can be shaped into anything, regardless of race. We are not transactional economic units that exist merely to buy more stuff. We’re not that. We are not what modernity has said we are.
We are something else.