The Differences Within a Group

A half-century ago, I encountered the phrase that “the difference within a race is greater than the difference between races.”  Experiences since then have tended to support that view – particularly in the field of genetics.  Twenty-three and me assures me that a bit over 2% of my genome is due to ancestral Neanderthals – typical of folks with northern European ancestry, and non-existent in the sub-Saharan folks.

The fossil record in Australia and New Guinea was primed and ready to show the Denisovan component as the genetic record was decoded from a finger bone.  That, plus the Neanderthal remains and tools on a couple of Mediterranean islands show that mankind was going to sea long before the species became H.sapiens sapiens. 

I’m a sociologist – my training is to look at the differences between people being cultural, a result of learned behavior rather than biological.  Color seems one of the least significant differences – we’re products of our upbringing, our culture, our education systems.  Still, we seem to be moving into an era where we will be noticing biology’s effects on human behavior as well as cultural and social influences.

The geneticist folks have it figured that blue eyes showed up somewhere around 10,000 years ago – I figure that actually means the trait showed up and reproduced enough that blue eyes are fairly common today.  Heaven only knows how many traits showed up, were unsuccessful in the mating game, and disappeared.  Light skin color (more or less white) shows up about 6 or 7,000 years ago – whether in Europe or East Asia.  This is 21st Century data – unknown when I started my studies.

Sociobiology (E. O. Wilson) is a field of biology that looks to explain human behavior in terms of genetics and evolution.  The Wikipedia entry says “Within the study of human societies, sociobiology is closely allied to evolutionary anthropology, human behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, and sociology.”  My training is in cultural ecology and sociology, so I am more a student in my reading here – though a student with training in research methodology.  Suffice to say, the concept has face validity.  On the other hand, so does examining behavior as I’ve learned half a century back.  I suspect I have to be cautious in which premises I accept and reject.

Wiki’s entry “Studies of human behavior genetics have generally found behavioral traits such as creativity, extroversion, aggressiveness, and IQ have high heritability. The researchers who carry out those studies are careful to point out that heritability does not constrain the influence that environmental or cultural factors may have on those traits.” seems to support Murray’s observations in Human Diversity The Biology of Gender, Race And Class.

At the beginning of Ch. 14, Murray writes: “I focus on the genomics revolution in this chapter because it will have broader direct efforts on social science than will developments in neuroscience.  To do quantitative neuroscience research, you need to be a neuroscientist and have access to extremely expensive equipment such as MRI machines.  The results of the research will inform a variety of social science questions, but the work won’t be done by social scientists.  In contrast, the products of the genomics revolution, especially polygenic scores, will be usable by social scientists with no training in genomics by the end of the 2020s in the same way that IQ scores are used by social scientists with no training in creating IQ tests.”

He cites Plomin as he explains “Clinical psychology will move away from diagnoses and toward dimensions.  One of the revelations of recent research is that polygenic scores are normally distributed, thereby demonstrating that genetic risk for psychological problems is continuous.  There is no gene that moves a person from normal to psychologically disordered.  In fact, the words “risk” and “disorder” no longer have the same meanings they once did.”

Murray cites three conclusions (p.294):

  1. Human beings can be biologically classified into groups by sex and by ancestral population.  Like most biological classifications, these groups have fuzzy edges.  This complicates things analytically, but no more than that.
  2. Many phenotypic differences in personality, abilities, and social behavior that we observe between the sexes, among ancestral populations, and among social classes have a biological component.
  3. Growing knowledge about human diversity will inevitably shape the future of social sciences.

It’s been a great time for a sociologist.  I’ve been able to stand on the shoulders of giants and see further because of their research, and the next generation, with tools unimagined when I began, will move my chosen science further from the methodologies that granted doctorates and professional powers to folks who developed classification criteria by consensus.

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