The End of Social Science

I’m re-reading Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn. If I recall, Wade was criticized for being a bit direct and dry in his presentation. These things are a matter of taste, of course, but I find the directness refreshing. If he larded his narrative up with colorful imaginings about early man, I don’t think I would enjoy it very much. There’s a place for everything and population genetics is not the place for imaginative narrative.

Anyway, the point of re-reading the book is in preparation for his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. The race realist crowd has been talking about it for a while now and many of the usual suspects got early copies to review. HBD Chick has a useful collection of links to reviews from the sort of people who can be trusted to understand the material.

Charles Murray did a very long write-up in the Wall Street Journal, touching on something that has been lurking at the edges of genetics for a while. That’s the challenge it poses to social science. The modern social sciences are based on the belief in the blank slate and egalitarianism. They may place some limits on both, but fundamentally the belief is that people can be made into anything. Genetics is overthrowing that belief and the fields based on it.

The problem facing us down the road is the increasing rate at which the technical literature reports new links between specific genes and specific traits. Soon there will be dozens, then hundreds, of such links being reported each year. The findings will be tentative and often disputed—a case in point is the so-called warrior gene that encodes monoamine oxidase A and may encourage aggression. But so far it has been the norm, not the exception, that variations in these genes show large differences across races. We don’t yet know what the genetically significant racial differences will turn out to be, but we have to expect that they will be many. It is unhelpful for social scientists and the media to continue to proclaim that “race is a social construct” in the face of this looming rendezvous with reality.

After laying out the technical aspects of race and genetics, Mr. Wade devotes the second half of his book to a larger set of topics: “The thesis presented here assumes . . . that there is a genetic component to human social behavior; that this component, so critical to human survival, is subject to evolutionary change and has indeed evolved over time; that the evolution in social behavior has necessarily proceeded independently in the five major races and others; and that slight evolutionary differences in social behavior underlie the differences in social institutions prevalent among the major human populations.”

It is the central debate in human science. Are we what we are because of a vastly complex number of environmental variables that shape out characters? Is it just an accident of birth that makes a Nigerian a Nigerian and a Brit a Brit? Or, is there something else? Have these populations evolved long enough in isolation to be different in ways that run much deeper than skin color and hair type? Real science is pointing at the latter answer, while the soft sciences insist it is the former.

All of which will make the academic reception of “A Troublesome Inheritance” a matter of historic interest. Discoveries have overturned scientific orthodoxies before—the Ptolemaic solar system, Aristotelian physics and the steady-state universe, among many others—and the new received wisdom has usually triumphed quickly among scientists for the simplest of reasons: They hate to look stupid to their peers. When the data become undeniable, continuing to deny them makes the deniers look stupid. The high priests of the orthodoxy such as Richard Lewontin are unlikely to recant, but I imagine that the publication of “A Troublesome Inheritance” will be welcomed by geneticists with their careers ahead of them—it gives them cover to write more openly about the emerging new knowledge. It will be unequivocally welcome to medical researchers, who often find it difficult to get grants if they openly say they will explore the genetic sources of racial health differences.

The reaction of social scientists is less predictable. The genetic findings that Mr. Wade reports should, in a reasonable world, affect the way social scientists approach the most important topics about human societies. Social scientists can still treat culture and institutions as important independent causal forces, but they also need to start considering the ways in which variations among population groups are causal forces shaping those cultures and institutions.

I’m a fan of population genetics and that means I have read more about the topic than most people. I have strong bias toward empiricism. I place fields like economics and psychology in the same bucket as philosophy and religion. They may use the tools of mathematics to build their arguments, but ultimately they rely on faith. Therefore, in the great battle between science and the blank slate crowd, I’m on the side of science.

That said, I would not bet on science. People are not moist robots. At least we don’t see it that way. We very well may be moist robots, but our complexity is beyond our ability to comprehend. That gives social science the edge. Peddling hope in the form of self-help and the quackery of Malcolm Gladwell is always going to trump the appeal of sterile materialism. Magical thinking is the rule. Then there are the vested interests.

How long will it take them? In 1998, the biologist E.O. Wilson wrote a book, “Consilience,” predicting that the 21st century would see the integration of the social and biological sciences. He is surely right about the long run, but the signs for early progress are not good. “The Bell Curve,” which the late Richard J. Herrnstein and I published 20 years ago, should have made it easy for social scientists to acknowledge the role of cognitive ability in shaping class structure. It hasn’t. David Geary’s “Male/Female,” published 16 years ago, should have made it easy for them to acknowledge the different psychological and cognitive profiles of males and females. It hasn’t. Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” published 12 years ago, should have made it easy for them to acknowledge the role of human nature in explaining behavior. It hasn’t. Social scientists who associate themselves with any of those viewpoints must still expect professional isolation and stigma.

That’s the lesson of Galileo. The real lesson, least ways. The contemporaries of Galileo knew he was right. His inquisitors knew he was right. That was not the point of contention. The fear of the Church and the defenders of the established order was simple. Pulling the legs out from under current understanding of the world was a threat to that order. The vested interests had, therefore, a natural advantage. Without something readily at hand to replace the current order, the bias was against any knowledge that threatened the order.

If you’re looking for a bright side it is that Galileo foreshadowed the collapse of the Catholic Church as the organizing entity of Western civilization. Soon after Galileo, Europe was devastated in the Thirty Years War. That was the end of Christianity as the organizing philosophy of Western elites. Maybe something similar is happening to the Progressive world order.

6 thoughts on “The End of Social Science

    • In the past, they preferred to compare it to fascism, but they wore out the word on Bush. That leaves racism as the scare word of choice. We’re well into the absurd stage of that word’s use so I suspect they will be calling scientific homophobia soon.

    • This comment was hilarious:

      I just finished: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

      It was a good read how he explains the growth in poverty among whites while glossing over the same issues that affect minorities.

      You would think the title may have provided a clue.

  1. You should add Cavali-Sforza et al great book “The History and Geography of Human Genes” to those books without impact. In the first chapter, he and his co-authors are required to include the Galilean statement that there are no races. The next several hundred pages amply document the reality of race, there being at least 30 or so easily identified ones from genetics.

    • Good point. Maybe if I have time I’ll compile a codex and books that would be banned, if not for the groveling.

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