Does History Beat Biology?
Published: Sunday | October 28, 2007

'Meditate upon history,' said Napoleon, 'for it is the only true philosophy'!. But then he also called history 'a set of agreed upon lies'. Still, there's no doubt that history tells us how mankind has acted, as opposed to how we are supposed to act.

One common thread through time is the regularity with which even highly intelligent persons repeat the same mistakes others have made before them. Napoleon himself thoroughly studied the disastrous invasion of Russia by Charles XII of Sweden, yet nevertheless did the same thing himself, with similar results.

A familiarity with the countless nonsensical things said in the past about 'intrinsic' racial characteristics might have stopped Nobel laureate James Watson from saying he "hoped everyone was equal", but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true". But then, maybe not.

Derided evangelist

Prominent scientists are notoriously prone to going disastrously off the rails in old age. Astronomer Fred Hoyle received the Crafoord Prize, the most prestigious in his field. But in later years, he became a much derided evangelist for the panspermia theory that evolution on Earth is driven by an influx of comet, transported viruses.

The only person to win two individual Nobel Prizes, Linus Pauling was ranked by New Science magazine as one of the 20 greatest scientists of all-time. But most people remember him as a strident proponent of the medically unsubstantiated theory that vitamin C megadosages - 10,000 mg plus a day - could help to control heart disease and cancer, and slow ageing.

But age is hardly the only cause of foolish assertions by the famous. In James Surwiecki's excellent book, The Wisdom of Crowds, he points out that expertise is spectacularly narrow.

Being a world famous authority in a field generally gives you no special insights into even slightly unrelated matters. For instance, if you show a chess expert and an amateur a board with a chess game in progress, the expert will be able to recreate from memory the layout of the entire game.

The amateur won't. Yet, if you showed that same expert a board with chess pieces haphazardly placed on it, he will not be able to re-create the layout. A chess expert knows about chess, and that's it.

As with 'normal' people, 'experts' also routinely overestimate the likelihood that they are right.

Bold declarations

A survey on overconfidence cited by Surowiecki found that physicians, engineers and investment bankers all believed they knew more than they did. And this was for their supposed areas of expertise. So it's a wise thing perhaps, to take bold declarations by anyone outside their direct field of study with a grain of salt.

Given its nebulous nature, it's not surprisingly then that virtually every 'definitive' pronouncement on the inferiority or superiority of races has been proven nonsense by time. Today for me, tomorrow for you, is history's rule.

Look at the British. Circa 1850 AD when tiny Britain with less than five per cent of the world's population produced over 50 per cent of the world's GDP, Britons were widely seen - and saw themselves - as an inherently pre-eminent species. ("Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life," wrote Cecil Rhodes.) Yet, in 44 B.C. invading Romans dismissed them as illiterate barbarians with no written language or past.

British less productive

Five thousand years ago they probably lived in caves. In 100,000 BC, before modern humans from Africa colonised the rest of the planet, they likely did not even exist. And today? Well, the British are maybe more efficient than Spaniards, but probably less productive than their former colony, Singapore.

The 'past' means different things depending on whether you are looking at the last 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 years. Basing definitive conclusions on a thin slice of time is like using a few frames on a cinema film reel to decide how a movie started and is going to turn out.

Blood-thirsty Vikings transformed into pacific Scandinavians. The heirs of Rome's all-conquering legions became the butt of 'Italian tanks have reverse lights' jokes. In less than a generation, Hitlers's cowardly Jews turned into perhaps the most respected soldiers on Earth. Could such changes possibly have been caused solely by genetic mutations?

Now genes undeniably play a large role in determining human behaviour. The blank slate theory simply does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. All the evidence suggests that evolutionary biology explains a great deal of not only animal but human behaviour.

But history just as surely makes nonsense of exclusive genetic determinism. Perhaps man is simply too elusive a creature to be fully explained by any single paradigm.

My good friend Robert Trivers, the sometimes Jamaican resident who himself won the Crafoord Prize in biology this year, is of the view that genes are critical to explaining all living things.

But, while I feel deep down that socio-biology explains a great deal of my instincts and actions, something prevents me from being a complete slave to my genes. I mean if the goal of all genes is maximum replication, why do I only have one child instead of 10 or 20?

After all, Jamaica is a country where any man of a certain means - and the bar is not very high - can basically have as many children as he chooses. So what is stopping my genes from doing their thing?

I'm hardly the first to ponder this question. The prominent evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker, has no children and says he simply told his own genes to "go jump in the lake" - (BBC website 30 July 2003).


But he also claims that our deepest desires and instincts are all products of our evolution, and that our behaviour is a hard-wired legacy of all that has gone before. But by his own admission, Dr. Pinker believes there is a non-genetic, non-hard-wired part of him which can order his genes to propagate, or not.

This is not exactly a consistent world view. Though to be honest I'm not sure such a thing exists, as I've never encountered one. No matter who I've read or listened to, sooner or later Hamlet comes to mind - "There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

One inescapable conclusion of the 'a person is just a gene's way of making more genes' outlook is that more is better.

The only possible measure of genetic success at any point in time is quantity. Survival of the fittest simply means that the fittest genes replicate themselves most successfully.

If the best genes are the ones that propagate themselves in the greatest number, then the only judge of racial success is population size. At which point the Chinese half of me shouts, 'We're number one!', while the other white, black, and maybe Arawak 50 per cent yells, 'We're just as good as you yellow bastards!'

One great irony is that despite all the talk about a European-dominated modern world, Europe's share of Earth's population has halved over the past 100 years, while Africa's has risen by 50 per cent. In 1900 Europe contained three times as many people as Africa. Now Africa has 20 per cent more.

What does all this mean? Who knows. But as a mixed-breed mongrel, I can happily boast that whichever genes are deemed superior in the future, I'm almost sure to contain some of them.

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