A glorious diversity of straw men

In tomorrow’s edition of Nature is an article by evolutionary geneticist Bruce Lahn and right-libertarian economist Lanny Ebenstein which argues that promoting biological sameness is illogical, and ignoring group diversity is to do poor science and poor medicine. The moral position, say Lahn and Ebenstein, is to embrace biological diversity as one of humanity’s great assets.

That sounds all very fine, but at the same time I cannot help wondering what Lahn and Ebenstein are attempting to do with this essay. I’m also unimpressed with the collection of straw men the writers have chosen to topple in this mix of science policy op-ed and pop-philosophical discourse.

One of the criticisms voiced by Lahn and Ebenstein concerns the alleged prejudice of a cultural and scientific establishment inclined toward “biological egalitarianism”. Such a bias may exist among some humanities scholars and political activists, but is it really a significant problem in the scientific community, as the authors imply? If it is, then where is the evidence? What we are presented with is an essentially contrarian argument based on the perceived motivation of supposedly hegemonic egalitarian ideologues.

Human genetic variation – at both individual and group level – is a given in science. The efficacy of medical treatments, for example, depends on the recognition that groups differ in their ability to metabolise certain drugs. And, if we are allowed to be flippant, it is hard to deny that the topographical anatomy of individuals in some geographical communities gives them a statistical advantage in particular athletic activities. That, by the way, is a long-winded and politically correct way of saying that black folk sure can run!

No-one with any sense denies the fact of human genetic diversity, and good scientific research continues to be funded and carried out into individual and group differences at a biological level. Is there any hard evidence that ideological prejudices held by a small minority of social commentators impacts negatively on scientific endeavour? If there is, let’s see it.

So who exactly is promoting biological sameness and ignoring group genetic diversity? What I detect in my reading around this fascinating subject are credible attempts to put similarities and differences into perspective. I also see a celebration of those likenesses and contrasts. There is nothing dichotomous about the human species, and to pretend otherwise displays evidence of ideological prejudice.

This is a sensitive issue, and for very good reason, as Lahn and Ebenstein acknowledge in their essay. In my view they are spoiling for a political fight with an imaginary enemy.