Marek Kohn on Race and Science: “It’s No Longer Black and White”

I’ll soon be posting the second part in my series on the Bell Curve controversy.  In the meantime, be sure to check out Marek Kohn’s surprisingly even-tempered article in The Guardian, "This Racist Undercurrent in the Tide of Genetic Research."  Despite the "racist" hook in the headline, Kohn plays it straight as he contrasts the torrent of outrage that greeted Murray & Herrnstein’s tome with the "undertone of complacency" that has hovered around more recent taboo-busting bombshells, such as last year’s widely publicized paper, "The Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence," which posited a genetic explanation for higher average IQs among Jews of Ashkenazi descent. 

Despite some signs of residual hostility (I’m not sure what to make of those "hardcore" race scientists),  Kohn lays out a pretty fair and balanced round-up of recent developments that may or may not portend a paradigm shift in the consensus thinking over matters of race and  biology:

…race has raised its head in public several times in the past year, and
the reaction – or lack of it – has been notable. Murray restated his
case, more magisterially than ever, in the magazine Commentary. The
British biologist Armand Marie Leroi argued in the New York Times that
race was a scientifically meaningful and medically valuable concept.
His case has the implicit support of the US Food and Drug
Administration, which has approved a heart drug, BiDil, that is
intended specifically for black people. Discredited by association with
the Third Reich, and discarded by mainstream science thereafter, racial
science is pushing for rehabilitation on a range of fronts.

More significantly, Kohn’s analysis shows a refreshing degree of candor in rejecting the warmed over rhetoric that’s too often trucked out in reflexive counterpoint to inconvenient facts:
In the past it was easy: an ominous reference to the Nazis and a snippet of scientific reassurance – such as the observation that there is more variation within so-called races than between them – would do the trick. But the hardcore advocates of race science have spent years working out answers to the standard rebuttals. And you cannot refute a scientific claim by referring to its historical baggage.      
Kohn worries that an emerging acceptance of the new and improved race research may be coming a bit too easily for a public whose understanding of human biodiversity is still very  much influenced by latent prejudice and "old fashioned racial notions."   Personally, I suspect his read on the zeitgeist may be a shade premature, but he does point up one of the central ironies of forbidden subjects:
Over the years, the denial of race became almost absolute. Differences were only skin-deep, it was said – despite the common knowledge that certain groups had higher incidences of genetically influenced diseases. It became a taboo, and as the taboo starts to appear outdated or untenable, the danger is that unreflective denial will be replaced by equally uncritical acceptance.      

The underlying point here is one I’ve been making for some time; when you cultivate a downward glance and hang every hope on the insistence that the sky doesn’t exist, looking up can be dangerous business.  But the sky isn’t falling.  And I remain optimistic that the average person can
be trusted to separate the racial wheat from the racist chaff, no matter
where the science leads.

Kohn advises that we proceed with due caution, which is fine.  The real lesson, however, goes to the inherent danger of taboo.  When all the cards are on the table, the notion that ideas can be dangerous may be the most dangerous idea of them all.