GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 12, 2016

Search Term

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:59 pm

Are there differences between human groups? A moment’s reflection leads to the conclusion that the question can never be definitively answered in the negative: even if contemporary research showed there to be no differences (assuming it could really show that if we kept adding—so to speak—more decimals), we couldn’t exclude the possibility that some differences would be uncovered by future research. The same is true if we add “genetic” or “biological” to the sentence, to modify “differences,” as it will never be possible to show that whatever differences we do find, and however many cultural and historical causes we can supply for them, there is absolutely nothing irreducible to those causes and that must therefore be deemed of biological or genetic origin. The intrinsic openness of the question confronts us with a choice: either insist that no one inquire into such differences, or that no one discuss or draw conclusions from them if some are imprudent enough to inquire, on the one hand; or, find ways to incorporate the findings into our ongoing social dialogues. For about 70 years we in the West have chosen the first option, for understandable social and ethical reasons, but ultimately at great cognitive cost. And even the social and ethical reasons have been exhausted: if the purpose of suppressing discussions of human bio-diversity (from now on HBD, as one now finds it in the blogosphere) is to prevent genocidal designs of some people on others, we can now see that the conflicts engendered by the need to suppress discussions of HBD might have equally explosive outcomes—outcomes which, at this point, are far more real than the merely speculative ones imagined on the Nazi model.

Of course, a more mundane purpose for suppressing HBD inquires (and open discussions thereof) is to smooth out the daily interactions in a diverse social order. In so many cases we need to treat each other in terms of our behavior in specific settings, making the necessary generous assumptions, and coming to social interactions filled with awareness of differences regarding average IQ scores, or propensity to violence, or disinclination to control appetitive or sexual desires, or paranoid fear of persecution, or any number of things we are likely to discover about one group or another, can only make such disinterested openness to the other more difficult. It would certainly be unpleasant to work and socialize with people who you know think that the ethnic, religious, or racial group they take you to belong to represents a net minus in terms of their social utility, even if they treat you with perfect civility. But is it really better to imagine that others are approaching you with all kinds of invidious assumptions but are simply afraid to state them? If inquiries into HBD continue and expand, and the results become more broadly known, but prohibitions on public discussions of these results remain in place, that will surely be the situation we face. The pressure will build either to have the discussions, or to suppress even the inquiries. If we are to live with each other, eventually we will have to do so with the growing knowledge of all that we are.

Maybe we will find that the differences between social groups are not great—much less, maybe, than differences within groups. Maybe we will find that most of the differences are cultural and historical, and hence can be eliminated (although that “hence” may be a leap of faith), rather than biological and permanent. Maybe we will find that the differences are not very significant, entail no real conflicts of interest, and pose no real obstacle to living together as citizens within a modern state. But we can’t count on any of this, and for the reason I gave above, we could never simply arrive at such conclusions once and for all. We will, eventually, need to find some way of speaking openly about HBD, wherever such discussions lead. Whether we can have such discussions without tearing apart the fabric of civil society will be a test of our moral, ethical and cognitive maturity.

The most important sign of such maturity would be an ability to think probabilistically. If we are frank, we will admit that the real reason for the prohibition on “generalizations” regarding groups is that we assume (not without reason!) that most people are too stupid to refrain from applying generalizations directly to each individual. Real probability theory is advanced mathematics, beyond most of our comprehension, and it’s mathematics, so not directly translatable into language or ethics. But we all work continually with tacit algorithms that do probability calculations in real time in everyday situations: it is practice in this that needs to be encouraged, and the best practice is non-acrimonious discussions of various probabilities. No one is always and everywhere afraid of all members of a particular group; or finds it necessary to mistrust every member of a particular group; or excludes a priori a particular group from everything. One fears, mistrusts and excludes, more or less justifiably, under specific conditions. More obvious markers, like those of race, matter, but so do dress, manner of speech, time of day, etc. If we are not to destroy each other, we must be capable of exploring these boundaries, where due to reasonable causes fear and mistrust spike, openly. The discussions will not always be pleasant, but it’s worth keeping in mind that if we don’t know the proportion played by culture and individual discipline in determining habits, we can at least be sure that it’s more than zero, and so efforts to transform oneself and reassure others are not necessarily in vain.

The real problem with racialized thinking is that it is intrinsically totalitarian—Hannah Arendt was right, in this regard, about the parallel between “race” and “class” as governing concepts of political order. Just as the Bolshevik must always distinguish between the true revolutionary and those who are in some way compromised by or implicated in the class enemy, so the racialist must always find a distinction between the more and less racially pure, and seek to expel or destroy the latter. If we take “white” as a racial category, we will find those who are more and those who are less white—with no real way of settling the question other than war. But this very fact makes HBD more worth engaging—the answer to invidious distinctions along race lines is to introduce another search term, to generate a new “sample” to measure against a new “whole.” White vs. black IQ—alright, that’s interesting; what about French vs. Russian? Spanish vs. Lithuanian? English vs. Welsh? No field of inquiry can be restricted to the most immediate and hotly contested political issues. Is IQ the only issue worth inquiring into? Or body size and shape? What is measurable and what is not? What differences between the relative contributions of genes and environment will we find in the various fields of human endeavor? Of course, none of this means that certain prevalent distinctions (like white/black) won’t have a rough accuracy to them, or be more salient to more people in more situations—the point is how to incorporate these distinctions into social dialogue once their mention can no longer be punished.

Charles Sanders Peirce considered genuine knowledge the knowledge of the relation between proportions within a sample and proportions within the whole. He took the simple example of a bucket filled with white balls and black balls. Let’s say I take 10 balls out of the bucket. There are 7 white and 3 black. The proportion in the bucket as a whole is either different or the same (probably at least slightly different). How can I tell? (Let’s say the bucket has too many balls in it to simply count them all.) I keep taking more samples and I start averaging them out. I start considering factors that might bias the samples, and compensate for them (perhaps, for reasons I don’t or can’t know, the black balls tend to cluster to one side of the bucket). Things are obviously far more complex in social matters: there can always be different ways of identifying a “whole” and different ways of selecting “samples.” We could say that all of our arguments are about what we consider relevant sample/whole relations—in which case, it would be good if they were more explicitly about this. When we present ourselves to each other, we always present ourselves as a “sample” of some implicit whole to be construed by other participants on the scene. Several samples, of several (overlapping) wholes, in fact. The way to counter stereotyping (the insistence that samples are identical in their proportions to the whole) is to be a sample that differentiates itself in some way from expectations of the whole. In this way, HBD inquiries become more productive than frightening.

The sample/whole relation translates into the rhetorical trope of synecdoche: taking a part for the whole. This is actually the normal mode of human engagement, where we take a particular statement, gesture, or aspect of the person’s appearance as a proxy for the person as a whole, at least for the purposes of that engagement. If the engagement or person is important enough, we keep selecting different proxies until we imaginatively reconstruct a more complex, fairer “profile” of that individual. What we always do tacitly we may have to do more explicitly, insofar as HBD inquiry will increasingly become central to anthropological understandings—and, as I have argued, that development is the only alternative to the perpetual cultural terrorism of the SJWs. What it means in practical terms is people moving past what I think is the default modern desire to be judged “as an individual,” to an awareness that, in ways we like and in ways we don’t, we are each of us an assemblage of “samplings,” which we manipulate within limits. (It might be that leftist identity politics has helped paved the way towards this mode of social being.) The pervasiveness of social media, which label us and force us to label ourselves in myriad ways and, of course, is central to the emergent algorithmic culture, will probably make such self-understandings matter of fact. Making us all conscious participants in and subjects of the ongoing HBD inquiries that will comprise any post-victimary social order. If we’re going to have biopolitics, it might as well be explicit and informed biopolitics.


  1. Stumbling from one excess to the next, first overreaching to the right, then to the left. Such is the sad and slow progress of a culture learning to improve upon itself.
    The dismal performances and tragic excesses of the colonial age leave us politically incapable of occupying troubled regions to allow the development of stable political institutions. The human abuses of the eugenics’ programs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century silence most rational discussion of (and I can think of no simpler while clearer term for this): Human biodiversity. We bind ourselves with our past mistakes such that future mistakes are inevitable. On this, I think we can agree.

    That said, I think this new popularity in HBD is just old eugenics with a new polish. I think it mostly politically, emotionally motivated bunk. To borrow on one of my favored analogies, it is taking up the hammer of science not to build upon our knowledge, but to smack people we don’t understand and don’t like.
    We still face the very real choice – do we protect or abandon our culture, do we assimilate or deport the immigrants among us? And what of the native born among us who reject a functional culture, not simply their (our) own culture?

    ‘The most important sign of such maturity would be an ability to think probabilistically.’ – I meant to talk to you about that. Perhaps someday. (It’s just a silly quibble – our brains, even birds brains, are evolved to think probabisticly – a point you sort of made yourself.)

    ‘HBD inquiry … is the only alternative to the perpetual cultural terrorism of the SJWs.’
    I suggest we know plenty enough already to reject HBD as relevant to the problem of excess from the SJW crowd – for the reasons you have already stated – sufficient non-correlation is obvious.

    Comment by Alan — April 13, 2016 @ 9:31 am

  2. This issue becomes relevant for hiring, renting, college admissions (and so on) practices; do we impose quotas or not? If we reject quotas as counter-productive, then we don’t need to justify the freedom of such decisions on any other basis, such as HBD. If someone openly admits they won’t hire or rent to a particular race or etc., then I guess we have a problem.

    You’re probably right that people are making decisions or at least private judgments based on race etc. all the time. I don’t really see any purpose in making HBD a subject for public discussion or academic inquiry (to refute the racists?). We all prefer to be judged as individuals (an assemblage of samplings?). That’s becoming harder now with the de facto imposition of quotas everywhere (police killings, school grades, traffic stops, etc. etc.), but if the research into HBD is undecidable, as you suggest, and even if it weren’t, I don’t see how bringing race etc into the discussion helps. Ultimately it comes down to justifying particular decisions, and that can only done on individual characteristics. Although supposedly (I don’t really know), the Israelites have had practical success in using profiling for security screening, at least as the basis for identifying those in need of further scrutiny.

    Comment by Q — April 14, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

  3. I suppose I can respond to both together (Alan, I didn’t get an email notification of your comment). No doubt some HBD research is motivated by malice, but I see no reason to assume all of it is or will be. No doubt it will all turn out to be much more complicated than “group x is 10% smarter than group y,” but that doesn’t make it undecidable–and, there might be a bit of that as well. It’s very difficult to refrain from placing value on differences. Do these guys seem like kooks or crazed racists to you?:

    I don’t think it matters whether we want to talk about it–people will be doing so, more and more, and whether they are motivated by politics or malice or sheer curiosity won’t make much difference. For that matter, even if the differences are only (100%?–is that likely?) cultural, it doesn’t change the situation all that much: “melting” (a chilling term, isn’t it?) down cultural differences seems to be possible, but only under certain circumstances, not easily reproduced: a very self-confidant and clearly superior host culture, fairly small numbers of immigrants, with those immigrants mostly cut off from their places of origin; and an expanding, inclusive economy. At least–it may also depend upon how big the differences were in the first place. The intractability of some of these differences suggests that either it’s not just culture, or culture is far “thicker” than we might have thought.

    So, my point is that if this is simply going to be a field of inquiry (probably cross-disciplinary, including evolutionary biology, anthropology and perhaps other disciplines), do you want to try and tell all those people to just shut up (and call upon academic authorities, media outlets, maybe even the state, to shut them them up), or do you want to be ready to talk to them. (I suppose ignoring them is always possible–but how can you tell by ignoring them whether you should or not?) You can tell them they’re a bunch of racists who should crawl back under their rocks, but you might be surprised at what they have to say back to you.

    Yes, this leaves the prospects and questions Alan raises still unclear and unanswered–but that’s because we are going to find it necessary to mobilize all the kinds of knowledge at our disposal to address them.

    Comment by adam — April 14, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

  4. Culture is indeed very thick, the best known really obvious example are the Jews across millennia of diaspora. HBD is also real and very relevant in medicine and treatment of disease. The SJW’s are addressing issues of culture where I don’t think HBD is relevant. SJW’s also appear to be seeking to expand the problems rather than solve them, so I completely sympathize with Adam’s frustration with them.

    Comment by Alan — April 17, 2016 @ 6:49 am

  5. Keep in mind, though, that this frustration (not necessarily mine in particular) takes the following form: the SJWs say rates of underachievement are lower and rates of violence are higher in certain groups because they are oppressed. You can then say a) yes, that’s true, but the SJWs’ proposal still doesn’t help and things are getting better; or, b) no, it’s because those groups are less intelligent and more violent. The first response leads, at best, to tepid resistance; the second response allows you to fight back.

    Comment by adam — April 17, 2016 @ 7:05 am

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