Prepare to aggregate the phenomena.
Normally I would be cautious about doing this, but something about the recent presidential campaign and the widespread support for Romney’s barely disguised loyalties to class and race (see below), urges me on. Historian of science Darin Hayton blogs today about coverage in the Independent of a stunningly retrograde piece of biological determinism: In the current Trends in Genetics, Stanford geneticist Gerald Crabtree claims that due to genetic complexity humans are “intellectually fragile” and thus, Dr. Crabtree says, unsurprisingly growing dumber over time as a species.
Don’t ask. Fortunately Hayton captures the sloppiness of Crabtree’s genetic-materialist argument for us, redolent as it is with “the tried and true cranial-volume correlation.” Hayton’s post also prompts me to ask: Is it coincidence that the Stanford researcher feels he can broadcast his essentialist concerns just as Princeton faculty member Christy Wampole indulges in some of her own retro, essentialist sharing? Her critique of irony-laden hipster sensibilities, which appeared in last week’s New York Times, posits a remarkably old fashioned notion: That of pure human experience being sullied by modern culture. At her essay’s prescriptive center is the idea that certain, admirable human types (children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, all who “suffer”) live more real lives than do those who regularly traffic in irony.
Earlier today, I posted a piece about her claims on the blog of the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and I won’t rehash my discomfort with them here; suffice it to say that thoughts of Francis Galton have come up more times in one day than one would like.
Nor do I want to identify a cultural trend if all this is really only matter of a few outliers at work. But reading about Crabtree, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a new endorsement out there, and a potentially influential one at that (…The words of Stanford and Princeton faculty? Ideas disseminated in an Elsevier journal? The New York Times? By a presidential candidate?) for the idea of human types, and for the historically related notion that biology determines culture.
Obviously those eugenic ideas never go away entirely in the U.S.; conservative social trends and biological explanations of human conduct are perpetually co-produced, as Troy Duster has shown so clearly. But these ideas do seem to have had some new life breathed into them in the last few months, at least for some arbiters of cultural and biological knowledge in our midst.
If my own cranial volume turns out to be sufficient to the cause, and I’ve got this right, prepare to worry.