His general topic is genetic research, taking off from a recent op-ed appeared in the New York Times by Professor David Reich, a Harvard geneticist, which broached the virtually taboo topic genetic variations between subpopulations of humans, that is to say, races. On the way through Sullivan’s essay, called “Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It,” Sullivan makes many perceptive observations, like…
“This argument should not be so controversial — every species is subject to these variations — and yet it is. For many on the academic and journalistic left, genetics are deemed largely irrelevant when it comes to humans. Our large brains and the societies we have constructed with them, many argue, swamp almost all genetic influences.
Humans, in this view, are the only species on Earth largely unaffected by recent (or ancient) evolution, the only species where, for example, the natural division of labor between male and female has no salience at all, the only species, in fact, where natural variations are almost entirely social constructions, subject to reinvention. We are, in this worldview, alone on the planet, born as blank slates, to be written on solely by culture. All differences between men and women are a function of this social effect; as are all differences between the races. If, in the aggregate, any differences in outcome between groups emerge, it is entirely because of oppression, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. And it is a matter of great urgency that we use whatever power we have to combat these inequalities.”
Agreed, and stipulated: the progressive position on this aspect of science is, as in so many other areas, a deliberate refusal to deal with reality in order that ideological goals may proceed.
More from Sullivan later in his piece…
“Reich simply points out that this utopian fiction is in danger of collapse because it is not true and because genetic research is increasingly proving it untrue….The danger in actively suppressing and stigmatizing this inconvenient truth, he maintains, is that a responsible treatment of these genetic influences will be siloed in the academic field of genetics, will be rendered too toxic for public debate, and will thereby only leak out to people in the outside world via the worst kind of racists and bigots who will distort these truths to their own ends. If you don’t establish a reasonable forum for debate on this, Reich argues, if you don’t establish the principle is that we do not have to be afraid of any of this, it will be monopolized by truly unreasonable and indeed dangerous racists. And those racists will have the added prestige for their followers of revealing forbidden knowledge. And so there are two arguments against the suppression of this truth and the stigmatization of its defenders: that it’s intellectually dishonest and politically counterproductive.”
I am not sure that Sullivan or Reich are correct about all of this. One reason I have been more cowardly than Sullivan, for I have thought about writing a similar essay many times, is that I don’t believe that humanity is capable of dealing with this subject rationally, and in particular, the Right is not. I believe that if it were conclusively shown and agreed that there were broad, identifiable and significant differences in intellectual ability among races, it could only be used to advance racist ends. What else? My position is that such group differences, even if absolutely undeniable, have no positive policy or ethical uses whatsoever in the United States of America. Every individual has an absolute right to be judged on “the content of his character” as well his or her other abilities, talents and achievements. That any individual is the member of a sub-population that as a group may have advantages or deficits over other such groups seems completely irrelevant.
Apparently my position is similar to that of, of all people, Vox editor and the epitome of a left-biased journalist, Ezra Klein. Writes Sullivan:
“My own brilliant conclusion: Group differences in IQ are indeed explicable through both environmental and genetic factors and we don’t yet know quite what the balance is. My assumption, in other words, is not Klein’s. I assume that this is an open question. Klein wants us to assume it’s closed. I can see why Klein takes this position. He is worried that raising genetics in this context will lead to too much fatalism, will sap the energy and focus needed to change what we can indeed change, and there is so much to do on that score that it’s better to insist that genes play no part.”
I don’t insist that genes play no part; I just don’t care if they do, and would prefer not to think about it. It’s a bit like finding out that the world will end tomorrow. Sullivan is more optimistic, or perhaps naive:
“…if we assume genetics play no role, and base our policy prescriptions on something untrue, we are likely to overshoot and over-promise in social policy, and see our rhetoric on race become ever more extreme and divisive. We may even embrace racial discrimination, as in affirmative action, that fuels deeper divides. All of which, it seems to me, is happening — and actively hampering racial progress, as the left defines the most multiracial and multicultural society in human history as simply “white supremacy” unchanged since slavery; and as the right viscerally responds by embracing increasingly racist white identity politics. A more nuanced understanding of race, genetics, and environment would temper this polarization, and allow for more unifying, practical efforts to improve equality of opportunity, while never guaranteeing or expecting equality of outcomes.”
All right then, naive. I don’t think the Left’s position regarding “racial discrimination, as in affirmative action, that fuels deeper divides’ would be affected in any way by definitive studies on genetic difference among the races. Look at the Left’s cant regarding gender, or physical handicaps. It asserts that acknowledging that women are, as a group, smaller and weaker is just male dominated culture discrimination, requiring special privileges as compensation. It asserts that the effects of observable, undeniable physical limitations must be spoken of and treated as if they are not limitations at all.
“In some ways, this is just a replay of the broader liberal-conservative argument. Leftists tend to believe that all inequality is created; liberals tend to believe we can constantly improve the world in every generation, forever perfecting our societies. Rightists believe that human nature is utterly unchanging; conservatives tend to see the world as less plastic than liberals, and attempts to remake it wholesale dangerous and often counterproductive. I think of myself as moderately conservative. It’s both undeniable to me that much human progress has occurred, especially on race, gender, and sexual orientation; and yet I’m suspicious of the idea that our core nature can be remade or denied. I completely respect the role of liberals in countering this. It’s their role. I think the genius of the West lies in having all these strands in our politics competing with one another.”
There is much more. Read all of it. This is an excellent example of what ethical opinion writing can do: open up a topic for enlightened consideration rather than trying to close it down with indestructible arguments and certitude.
Now watch him get called a racist.