The Inconvenient Truth About Race

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending
Basic Books, 2009, 304 pages.


This is the most difficult book I’ve ever had to review. I’ve read it and read it again. I’ve interviewed one of the authors. I’ve discussed it with people who know the subject. I’ve thought about it until my head hurt. I’ve had a fight with my wife about it. I’ve even read other reviews in search of guidance. I didn’t find any, so I still don’t know exactly what I should tell you about it.
Here’s why: The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, argues that the various races that make up humanity are genetically different in significant ways. We’re not talking about skin, eye, or hair color. We’re talking about intelligence, temperament, and a host of other traits that affect an individual’s chances in life. The races, the authors claim, are differently abled in ways that really matter.
That, of course, is a dangerous thing to say. In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray made a similar argument in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Critics pummeled the book and pundits had a field day excoriating its authors. Bob Herbert, a columnist for the New York Times, called it “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship,” and said that its authors were in effect calling African-Americans “niggers.” Herbert wasn’t alone in his opinions.
Faced with The 10,000 Year Explosion, one is tempted to say, “Here we go again!” throw up one’s hands, and be done with it. But that would be too easy. Cochran and Harpending are not racists dressed up as scientists; they are real scientists studying race (or, rather, the genetic traits of large human populations). The thesis they propose is not obviously ridiculous: The type of phenotypic variation we see among human beings is found in other species (such as domesticated animals) and clearly has an underlying genetic basis. Their argument will offend those who believe that people are “all the same under the skin,” but that’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand. In short, the authors deserve a fair hearing. If they are right, they are right. If not, then not. We’ll try to find out which it is.
Before we lay out what Cochran and Harpending have to say about race, let’s step back and put their thesis in context. They are hardly the first scholars to suggest that the races are differently abled. Before the mid-twentieth century, nearly all scientists believed this, including Charles Darwin himself. There were exceptions, such as Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Ashley Montagu, but they were voices in the wilderness. All of that changed in the second half of the twentieth century, however, not because of any scientific advance, but because of the deeds of Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. Hitler gave racist politics a very bad name, and King gave antiracist politics a very good name. These two leaders made it simply impossible to build a racist political program in the West successfully. This shift in attitudes was a boon to scholars who said that racial differences were insignificant and that race was a myth. Studying racial differences was out; studying the social construction of race was in. This was the prevailing intellectual and political norm for decades, and for the most part, it remains so today.
In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of research into genetic differences among the races, or what should properly be called “descent groups,” or “populations.” The reason for this is technology. In the nineteenth century, the only way scientists could tell one descent group from another was on the basis of external appearance—a very crude technique indeed. In the early twentieth century, doctors developed a more refined way of identifying descent groups, using blood chemistry. Although this technique allowed scientists to get “under the skin,” as it were, it was also far from exact. About a quarter-century ago, however, molecular biologists found a way to distinguish descent groups based on their genetic profiles. This technique proved to be extremely precise, and has now allowed
molecular biologists to rewrite, literally, the history of humanity.

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