Good Intentions Leading to Unintended Consequences III – Studying Genes & Society

Sometimes when I read articles like this, I am reminded of the scientist character in Schrodinger’s Cat by Robert Anton Wilson. The character (whose name I can’t remember) had a colleague who thought he was spending excessive amounts of time studying, demystifying & quantifying that which really didn’t need to be studied, demystified & quantified. So the colleague got the scientist a plaque saying:

“Science, Pure Science! And Damned Be He Who Says ‘Hold! Enough!'”

(or something like that, it’s been a while since I read the book).

Anyway, the topic of this post is an article in the New York Times Week In Review, titled “The Twists and Turns of History, and of DNA”, published March 12, 2006 by Nicholas Wade. The article covers some recent research concerning whether evolutionary pressures affect how humans evolve (probably), whether that evolution includes how we interact as individuals and as societies (possibly), and whether that evolution can explain some historical events (uhhh . . . . this could turn into a slippery slope real quick).

Some of the things mentioned in the article are a bit too just-so. Yes, I can believe there have been works published discussing the difference between high-trust and low-trust societies. And yes, I can believe there have been psychological experiments showing that “oxytocin, a chemical active in the brain, increases the level of trust”. But then Mr. Wade says “It is easy to imagine that in societies where trust pays off, generation after generation, the more trusting individuals would have more progeny . . . ” etc. etc. and yes, it easy to imagine that. But I can also imagine that I am empress of Mexico, and that doesn’t make it so. I am pointing this out because my experience is that human nature is much simpler in its drives and much more complex in its possibilities than most scientists (or newspaper reporters) like to admit.

The most factual (and to me most interesting) part of the article was this:

. . . Northern Europeans, for instance, are known to have responded
genetically to the drinking of cow’s milk, a practice that began in the Funnel
Beaker Culture which thrived 6,000 to 5,000 years ago. They developed lactose
tolerance, the unusual ability to digest lactose in adulthood. The gene, which
shows up in Dr. Pritchard’s test, is almost universal among people of Holland
and Sweden who live in the region of the former Funnel Beaker culture.

The most recent example of a society’s possible genetic response to its
circumstances is one advanced by Dr. Cochran and Henry Harpending, an
anthropologist at the University of Utah. In an article last year they argued
that the unusual pattern of genetic diseases found among Ashkenazi Jews (those
of Central and Eastern Europe) was a response to the demands for increased
intelligence imposed when Jews were largely confined to the intellectually
demanding professions of money lending and tax farming. Though this period
lasted only from 900 A.D. to about 1700, it was long enough, the two scientists
argue, for natural selection to favor any variant gene that enhanced cognitive

One theme in their argument is that the variant genes perform related roles,
which is unlikely to happen by chance since mutations hit the genome randomly. A
set of related mutations is often the mark of an evolutionary quick fix against
some sudden threat, like malaria. But the variant genes common among the
Ashkenazi do not protect against any known disease. In the Cochran and
Harpending thesis, the genes were a response to the demanding social niche into
which Ashkenazi Jews were forced and the nimbleness required to be useful to
their unpredictable hosts.

No one has yet tested the Cochran-Harpending thesis, which remains just an
interesting though well worked out conjecture. . . .

While I think this line of research is interesting, I also thinks it has a tendency to make human history into something that is much more predetermined than it actually is.

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