‘This book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.’ So writes Nicholas Wade, the British-born science editor of The New York Times, in his new book A Troublesome Inheritance.
For some time the post-War view of human nature as being largely culturally-formed has been under attack just as surely as the biblical explanation of mankind’s creation began to face pressure in the early 19th century. What Steven Pinker called the blank slate view of our species, whereby humans are products of social conditions and therefore possible to mould and to perfect through reform, has been undermined by scientific discoveries in various areas.
But the most sensitive, and potentially troubling to the modern psyche, is the difference between human population groups that have evolved over the past 50,000 years. As Wade writes: ‘The fact that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional is not widely recognized, even though it has now been reported by many articles in the literature of genetics. The reason is in part that the knowledge is so new and in part because it raises awkward challenges to deeply held conventional wisdom.’
The political objections are a reaction to the horrific things done in the name of race in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the Final Solution, after which the UN’s Ashley Montagu made the influential declaration that race was to all intents and purposes a fiction. Before that, anthropologist Franz Boas had popularised the idea that we are entirely products of culture.
This has remained the conventional view, indeed the only one that academics could safely hold; yet a number of inconsistencies have begun to crack away at this noble idea.
Among them is the recent knowledge that evolution can take place far quicker than people once thought.