J. Phillipe Rushton, the notorious 'race' scientist at the University of Western Ontario, has died. His passing will be mourned by those who harbor racist ideas and seek scientific justification for them. He will also be mourned by those who wish to stir the pot of ideological science that today, in the main, basically denies the reality of racial differences (except perhaps in the case of some disease susceptibility variation). As with deniers of climate change or evolution, deniers of sound science will miss Dr Rushton.
Science needs to be open to ideas of all sorts, and mavericks are often treated as outsider heretics and denigrated as not playing with a full mental deck. This is natural human behavior, but tribal intolerance should be resisted since, after all, some new ideas really are major advances. But we should be intolerant towards ideas that sound good, adopt the right rhetoric, but simply do not respond to the evidence or reflect a sophisticated understanding of the science being invoked.
We won't belabor Rushton's racist theories except to say that he treated races as groups with group differences, stressed socially uncomfortable traits like group intelligence and sexuality differences, and used post hoc rationales to explain what he saw as differences. He took present-day group trait distributions as if they were permanent and of evolutionary relevance. Generalizations such as the assertions such as that mean genital size differs among continents, or mean IQ scores should be based on actual and strong evidence. But even without knowing the data in such specific instances, one must recognize that average group differences in such traits are, a priori, to be expected. Given the principles of how populations evolve over time, we would never expect continental populations to be exactly the same in any complex trait. That would be so improbable as to be essentially impossible.
The observed differences are likely to be statistically 'significant' if samples are large enough, since different populations evolve independently in widely dispersed locations. They have different genetic variation and environmental experiences. But that does not mean that the differences are important, which is a totally subjective judgment. Even Rushton rather sanctimoniously and patronizingly agreed that each continental population was well adapted to its locale. As so often happens in this area, he was just calling the facts as he claimed to see them. And he accepted a naive Darwinian dogma that attributes the differences to natural selection, which becomes a far stretch in the absence of any actual evidence.
Group differences need not in the main reflect genetic variation, but can be due to environmental variation, which is an elusive factor that changes over time and may--often does--swamp genetically based differences, especially for behavioral traits. Also very important is the choice of traits to study. Why genitals and IQ? These are commonly used traits by racists that have strong emotional reactions. What leads one to study them, if not a basically racist (in the negative sense of the word) intent?
Rushton noted that Africans have bigger genitals (at least males--we don't remember what he said about females, and don't care to check) and smaller brains than Asians, and are hence less intelligent and more sexually driven--stereotypes of modern times if there ever were any. Not that long ago, the developed world considered northern Europeans to be barbaric dolts, and much more recently Asians were the ignorant coolies recruited to build our railroads. Africans were childlike and didn't have souls, so we could enslave them. You know the story.
Rushton had the usual sort of convenient Just-So natural selection theories, one, in this case, had to do with r and K selection--reproducing fast and not caring much for each offspring, or reproducing slowly and giving great child care. Hypersexed individuals just want to rut away, while their Asian contemporaries want to think more deeply (Confucius and all that, don't you know!). This theory, even some of Rushton's fans have noted, didn't hold much water. It's a convenient after-the-fact story.
The Irish? They got rhythm!
Superficial, or even glib, users of evolution to prove social value judgments about groups of people, and attribute them to Nature's way are by no means new. Like the 13th century scholar and Welsh aristocrat Gerald of Wales about the year 1200, who touring and writing about the then exotic Irish, wrote "The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable
industry is playing upon musical instruments; in which they are
incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen. ... unlike that of the Britons to
which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh,.." Of course, much of what was written about the Irish's inherent barbarity was justification for conquest. We pick this example because we just heard a discussion of Gerald's life on the BBC Radio 4's In Our Time and it seemed coincidentally apt. The Irish got rhythm, the Brits? Nah!
Generalizations about peoples, and the treatment of peoples as discrete categories are not an invention of Darwinian fervor. They are common--and they're making a comeback in our resurgence of behavior/evolutionary genetics today. They are applied to individuals and to groups, dressed in evolutionary rhetoric. But at their heart they reflect convenient and naive use of evolutionary theory. History shows how such ideas, in science, religion, or other areas of human politics, can be very dangerous. In that sense, to Rushton (his ideas, not his person) we can only say, good riddance.
The times I've seen Rushton on television have shown him, to me, to be rather a superficial dolt. This is not because I find his ideas so utterly superficial. There are people whose ideas are wrong, in my opinion, or even offensive, but who are at least thinking at a serious level and who actually do some science themselves. Typical of mavericks such as Rushton, is that he sent a mass mailing (at least twice!) to thousands of scientists, of a digest of his book on this subject. It is no different from a bible tract in this sense, and even contains the typical statements about how he is doing this because he's been repressed by the mainstream. Creationists do this all the time, too.
But we must hasten to add that Rushton was just another superficial player in the evolutionary pat-story game. Advocates on the other side, who deny the existence of human racial (that is, geographic) differences, invoke similar kinds of arguments, just as superficially and with just as much a covert, or even overt, sociopolitical agenda. The problem is the lack of constraint on selective use of scientific theory or facts, by whichever side. Anything one imagines he sees today, can be justified on the grounds of natural selection, since such arguments are usually not open to any kind of proof.
Instead, tempered, sophisticated evocation of evolutionary principles are hard to come by, because it is just so very easy to make up stories about what might plausibly have happened, and then to believe that they are true. Naturally, we adopt stories that fit other aspects of our worldview (see yesterday's post). The type of story that predominates in any period cycles between Nature and Nurture, to put it in one common framework. The fact is, Nature is difficult to understand in such simple terms, and we are far from knowing enough....and since evolutionary events occurred in the distant and nearly wholly unobserved past, the challenge to stick to what we can confidently say is the greater.
Social politics, which essentially means competition for social and economic power, are a part of the human reality. We take sides, whether in savory or nasty ways, and we select any argument we can make to convince others of our rectitude. But at least in science, we should do our best--do much better--to stay within what we know rather than what it is convenient to wish.