May 12, 2008

It's all relative

In my new column, I report on the tiny but all-star scientific conference I attended on Saturday at UC Irvine on evolution, culture, and human behavior, featuring Leda Cosmides, John Hawks, and Gregory Cochran -- and they were just in the audience.

Two distinguished anthropologists, Henry Harpending and John Tooby, squared off, in effect, over the human biodiversity perspective versus the evolutionary psychology perspective, which assumes a relatively uniform human nature, marked mostly by sex differences.

Allow me to wax philosophical:

So who is right? Is the human race uniform or diverse?

Well, they're both right. It all depends upon what you're interested in at the moment.

That's usually how it goes—the things that interest us the most, that get us the most worked up, are those that are on the knife edge, that look different when viewed from different angles.

Let's consider a similar question that's remote enough that we can think about it without political biases getting in the way: Is the universe empty or full?

- Outer space is famously empty. You can't get much emptier than space. By one account, the universe is about 0.00000000000000000000000000001 as dense as water.

- And yet, outer space is also famously full of "billions and billions" of stars, as Johnny Carson used to say when parodying astronomer Carl Sagan. In fact, there are a lot more than billions and billions. In 2003, a team of Australian astronomers estimated that there are 70 sextillion stars in the known universe. That's 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

Now, it's perfectly reasonable to conceive of the universe both ways, depending upon what you need to think about at the time. The incredible emptiness of space is terribly important to understand if you are, say, contemplating an interstellar voyage. Nevertheless, to be frank, once you grasp that fact, it gets kind of boring to think about. So, astronomers spend more time thinking about the tiny fraction of space that isn't empty, those 70 sextillion stars.

Similarly, the Wikipedia article on Human Genetic Variation reports, "Two random humans are expected to differ at approximately 1 in 1000 nucleotides"

Well, that's not a very big number. Granted, 0.001 is not as tiny as 0.00000000000000000000000000001, but it's rather small.

Yet, Wikipedia goes on to say, "However, with a genome of approximate 3 billion nucleotides, on average two humans differ at approximately 3 million nucleotides."

Well, three million is a pretty big number. (It's not as big as 70 sextillion, but still …)

So, now we can see why, no matter what Steven Pinker said in 1994 about how boring are differences between individuals, the differences between, say, the African-American 7'-1" basketball player Shaquille O'Neal and the Lebanese-Colombian 5'-1" singer Shakira can be pretty interesting.

Of course, probably they would not at all be very different at all compared to space aliens possibly living on a planet going around one of those 70 sextillion stars.

And if those aliens showed up in hostile flying saucers to conquer the human race, no doubt Shaq and Shakira and everybody else would team up to fight them off. Ronald Reagan said exactly this to the United Nations back in 1987:

"I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world."[Address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New York]

But, we're not facing space aliens. So the differences between humans are interesting—and important.

When it comes to thinking about race,—which is all about who your relatives are—it’s all, well, relative.


My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

And if those aliens showed up in hostile flying saucers to conquer the human race, no doubt Shaq and Shakira and everybody else would team up to fight them off. Ronald Reagan said exactly this to the United Nations back in 1987:

It's too bad Reagan couldn't have given it in blackface, then it might've qualified as "the greatest speech ever." Instead, the press just mocked him.

Anonymous said...

If you are doing complete justice to the so-called "Grey's Antomy Test" I'm not very impressed.

A random feature on a human almost certainly has a corresponding feature on a chimpanze or indeed a pig. That's been established for nearly two centuries. Its called comparative anatomy.

When I consider that someday I may need a pig heart valve, the existance of this correspondence comforts me.

Anonymous said...


Re: inherited traits in general, something I've always wondered about is the prevalence of myopia (nearsightedness) in humans. I think easily 50% of US whites of Anglo and European descent are myopic and the numbers may be the same (or smaller but growing) among other groups as well.

This has always fascinated me, because I don't see how such a defect could have survived the hunter-gatherer period in human evolution. Any thoughts on this? Anyone?


Anonymous said...

Re: myopia.

The simple answer is ... it isn't genetic. Perhaps changes in diet and or occupational changes. Naturally, it's probably much less frequent.

Among some people, it's reversible. I have a friend who used to need glasses and no longer does.

TGGP said...

It has been suggested that lactose tolerance (along with gluten tolerance) were selected not because they provided nutritition, but sedation.

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on this? Anyone?

Coming right from my butt: I'm myopic, and I haven't worn glasses or contacts for years. I detect motion (e.g., especially in peripheral vision) much better than almost everyone I know. I only suspect this has to do with myopia. It could be my brain wiring (or both) for all I know. But, I do know I'm NOT one of those people high on the "situational awareness" meter. I trend the other way, toward over-focus.

Anonymous said...

Instead, the press just mocked him.

The point being to keep people from thinking about the upshot of the truth of Reagan's statement (i.e., there is no sense to the "humanity" meme); in this case it sounds like an easy and superior alternative to silence.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure we're not fighting space aliens? Well that's the difference between Steve Sailer and David Icke.

Anonymous said...

The simple answer is ... it isn't genetic.

tony et al.,

Myopia comes from the shape of the eyeball. Nearsighted people's orbs are elongated, so the light waves that should be focused at a point on the back of the eyeball focus just off its surface, creating blurry vision at distance. So far as I know, there is no environmental way to elongate the eyeball. Same thing re: astigmatism, which is a misshapen lens. Age-induced farsightedness is different, since the lower hydration of the eyeball with age tends to pull its walls in, moving the focus in near vision to a point that would otherwise be beyond the rear surface of the eyeball.

So I repeat, take a look around a crowd of people one day and see how many wear glasses and add an amount for contacts and Lasik. It's HUGE for a trait that should have fallen off the Lamarckean track very early.