Friday, April 20, 2012

Biology and Society

What are the links between biology and social organization? Many people today, especially in academia, assert that there are no links, that everything about human beings is "socially constructed," and that to think otherwise is not only factually wrong, but morally despicable.  Thus, when Harry Ostrer published his findings that Jews around the world share common genetic traits that distinguish them from non-Jews, he was, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, accused of work that would have pleased Adolf Hitler. Ostrer, who is Jewish, did not advocate any anti-Semitic positions. Merely finding a biological basis for identity was unacceptable to his critics.

We really should not be surprised to find that population groups that tend to marry within also share common genetic traits. As Ostrer apparently discusses in his book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, it is difficult to ascribe specific characteristics or outcomes to those genetic traits. Nevertheless, I think reason requires that we consider the possibility that some aspects of social life may be at least partly consequences of heritable differences.

We know, for example, that Jews are disproportionately represented among business and intellectual elites. An estimated 20% of Nobel prize laureates have been Jewish, even though Jews make up far less than 1% of the world's population. There are non-biological explanations for this eminence. It is possible that the rabbinical religious tradition promotes a high level of literacy and intellectual acuity. It is also conceivable that an "outsider" status has stimulated creativity (John Murray Cuddihy gave one of the best-known versions of this argument in The Ordeal of Civility).  However, while those non-biological explanations may be plausible, neither is self-evidently true. Moreover, the clear existence of genetic identity and social outcomes means that it is entirely sensible to investigate whether there is a causal connection between the two.

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