Friday, February 24, 2006

Progress, in Little Steps

Almost twelve years ago, when Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein published The Bell Curve, their thesis that intelligence was largely heritable, measurable and differed not only between individuals, but (on average) between groups, set off a firestorm. The book, the authors (one already deceased by the time of publication), the subject of IQ, IQ tests and racial differences were vociferously denounced by the left and then by the cowed right. As usual, the mainstream media reflexively took the left’s point of view as if desperately chanting Stephen J. Gould’s Marxist maxim "human equality is a contingent fact of history" over and over it made it true. But over the last dozen years, things have changed. The scientific study of genetics has made stunning advances, including the sequencing of the human genome. The mountain of evidence produced by gemomics labs has begun to seep out into the popular media and mindset. Books like Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which gleefully eviscerate the entrenched never-in-the-genes mindset, no longer set off firestorms and while Charles Murray remains a lightning rod for the left’s bitter wrath, the basic ideas championed in The Bell Curve are increasingly becoming commonplace. Thus one now can read, on the Discovery Channel web site, the matter-of-fact reference that intelligence, among other traits, is indeed heritable.

Professional dancers are born with at least two special genes that give them a leg up on the rest of us, according to a new study.

Recent research also has suggested that intelligence, athletic ability and musical talent are linked to our genes and brain hard-wiring.

With dancing added to the list, the evidence indicates that certain individuals are born with a predisposition to specific behaviors and talents, and that at least some of these qualities may represent evolved attributes.

Of course, outright discussions of IQ are still largely impermissible outside carefully observed scientific boundaries, and differences between groups is beyond the pale. But even there, the door is opening. The situation has shifted enough that Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending could release a paper recently arguing that not only do Ashkenzi Jews have a higher average IQ than other European groups, but advance a genetic explanation for that difference and receive a fairly respectful hearing. Progress, in small steps.


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