There’s an edited extract from Angela Saini’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science over at Wired which details some of the recent history of racist ideas being forced into the conduction of genetics research.
His work caused a sensation. What set pulses racing above all was his observation that the timing of the spread of this gene variant seemed to coincide with the rise of what is credited as one of the world’s earliest civilisations in Mesopotamia, with the emergence of highly sophisticated human cultures and written language. Lahn seemed to imply that the brains of different population groups might have evolved in different directions for the past five millennia, and that the groups with this special genetic difference may in consequence have become more sophisticated than others. In brief, people in Europe, the Middle East and Asia had benefited from a cognitive boost, while Africans had languished – perhaps were still languishing – without it.
Before long, critics piled in from across the board, undermining every one of Lahn’s scientific and historical assertions. For a start, the variant he described as emerging 5,800 years ago could actually have appeared within a time range as wide as 500 to 14,100 years ago, so it may not have coincided with any major historical events. Respected geneticist Sarah Tishkoff at the University of Pennsylvania, who had been a co-author of his papers, distanced herself from Lahn’s suggestion that it might be linked to advances in human culture.
There were doubts too that Lahn’s gene variants had seen any recent selection pressure at all. Tishkoff tells me that scientists today universally recognise intelligence as a highly complex trait, not only influenced by many genes but also likely to have evolved during the far longer portion of human history, ending around ten thousand years ago, when we were all mainly hunter-gatherers. “There have been common selection pressures for intelligence,” she explains. “People don’t survive if they’re not smart and able to communicate. There’s no reason to think that there would be differential selection in different populations.
White supremacists like to try to establish a genetic basis for intelligence because they want to prove that the success of “Western culture” was born of innate talent and ability. Luck, happenstance, and fortune can have nothing to do with it. Science, however, keeps showing up these suggestions, and these purported genetic discoveries, as bunk. Civilization is not, in fact, the result of some sort of genetic determinism.
Stumbling upon this extract from Saini’s book was fortuitous, because a couple of passages I had only just read in Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History by Lewis Dartnell reminded me of something I’d recently seen about the links between geology and the results of American elections.
(Bear with me, this is going somewhere.)
What I was thinking about was this Daily Mail article (I know, sorry) about this Reddit post comparing a map of a Cretaceous-era seashore to one of the 2016 election results in Alabama.
To provide some context: the Cretaceous Period seashore would develop into some of the richest farmland in the U.S. thanks to the seashore pushing rocks deep and leaving behind rich deposits in really loose soil, which lead to the development of the cotton industry in this area which, of course, lead to large plantations with slaves whose decedents remain in this area,’ said the user.
The idea here is that with geology having established fertile soil, which the south farmed through chattel slavery, yielded hotspots of African-American populations, which then as an electorate voted Democratic.
It turns out that Reddit user Drake Colfax was not the first to notice this. Back in 2017, Wired spoke to geologist Steven Dutch about this very correlation.
Dutch began investigating why this overlap might exist. “Soils make agriculture, agriculture makes economies, the economy makes voting patterns,” he says, explaining his thinking at the time. When Dutch undertook this research, he expected to find a clear tie between that soil and the current economy of the South.
The answer turned out not to be so simple. Dutch studied economic trends in the region and farming trends nationwide and found no explanation for why the band of blue existed where it did across the south. It wasn’t until he looked at historic maps of the area that he finally realized what he was looking at. In the Cretaceous Period, much of this part of the country was underwater. As the sea creatures in the water died off, they left behind massive chalk formations, which eventually made for rich soil. The fertile soil created by those rock formations drew white plantation owners to this part of the South, and with them, millions of slaves. Dutch was right. The soil did create agriculture, which did create an economy of cotton, despicably built on the backs of slaves; it’s just that economy ended hundreds of years ago.
“The present day [voting pattern] is a relic of that settlement pattern,” Dutch says.
Dutch, according to Wired, wrote about all of this as far back in 2002, and his research apparently gets picked up now and then, including by Deep Sea News during the 2012 presidential election.
What does all of this have to go with racist research into a genetic basis for intelligence? As suggested, white supremacists seem to search for such a genetic basis (or, really, simply to assert one) because they need there to be an innate reason for the success of Western civilization. They need nature to be on their side.
It turns out, nature might very well have been on the side of Western civilization’s success, but not quite in the way racists had hoped, or in a way that helps their case and their cause. It’s not a matter of genetics, but, according to Origins, it might be a matter of geology.
Thus from the very beginnings of agriculture and civilisation, Eurasia was richly endowed with wild grass species amenable to domestication by humanity and suitable for supporting growing populations. And not only was Eurasia by chance blessed with this biological bounty, but the very orientation of the continent greatly promoted the spread of crops between distant regions. When the supercontinent Pangea fragmented, it was torn apart along rifts that just so happened to leave Eurasia as a broad landmass running in an east–west direction–the entire continent stretches more than a third of the way around the world, but mostly within a relatively narrow range of latitudes. As it is the latitude on the Earth that largely determines the climate regime and length of the growing season, crops domesticated in one part of Eurasia can be transplanted across the continent with only minimal need for adaptation to the new locale. Thus wheat cultivation spread readily from the uplands of Turkey throughout Mesopotamia, Europe and all the way round to India, for example. The twin continents of the Americas, by contrast, though joined by the bridge of the Panama Isthmus, lie in a north–south orientation. Here, the spreading of crops originally domesticated in one region to another entailed a much harder process of re-adapting the plant species to different growing conditions. This fundamental distinction in the layout of the Old World versus the New, itself born from plate tectonics and the aimless wandering of the continents into their current configuration, gave the civilisations of Eurasia a great developmental advantage through history.
Geology, says Dartnell, determines climate, and climate determines flora, and flora determine agriculture, and agriculture determines civilization. It doesn’t stop with plants, either.
The distribution of large animals around the world was equally uneven, and here societies across Eurasia received another advantage. The attributes of a wild animal that make it amenable to domestication by humans include offering nutritious food, a docile nature and lack of inherent fear of humans, a natural herding behaviour, and the ability to be bred in captivity. Yet only a relatively small number of wild animals qualify on all these factors. Of the 148 species of large mammals around the world (heavier than 40 kilogrammes), 72 are found in Eurasia, of which 13 were domesticated. Of the 24 found within the Americas, only the llama (and its close relative the alpaca) was domesticated in South America. North America, sub-Saharan Africa and Australia completely lacked domesticable large animals. The five most important animals through human history–the sheep, goat, pig, cow and horse–as well as the donkey and the camel that provided transport in particular regions, were present only in Eurasia, and within a few thousand years of their domestication had spread across the continent. It is the large mammalian species that have proved most influential throughout history, not only for their meat, but also for their secondary products (milk, hide and wool), and their muscle power.
Geology, then, determines fauna much in the way it determines flora, and when you combine agriculture and animal husbandry you tend to get the rise of civilizations. The specifics of how the world’s geology formed and therefore how climates developed–and therefore what kinds of flora and fauna were available for humans to domesticate and cultivate–resulted in stronger civilizations across Eurasia than in other parts of the world.
What we have here, then, is strong evidence for luck, happenstance, and fortune being at least somewhat deterministic of Western civilization’s success. It isn’t that Europeans (read: white people, although see The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter for more on that construct) were superior in any inherent fashion. They weren’t blessed by nature to have superior genes.
Rather, it’s that people across Eurasia were blessed by a head start and a helping hand by the nature of geology.
What’s striking here is that this is the natural history of humankind as an argument against the idea of meritocracy. It isn’t that self-described white people are better, it’s that regions we consider “white” were accidentally given better starting conditions than many of the regions we don’t.
Nature itself refutes the white supremacist nature of many of the structural and cultural narratives which dominate American society.
We aren’t “superior” in a civilizational sense due to our genetics any more than that’s the explanation for our comparative success, be it collectively or individually, in American society. In each case, we started out having been dealt a better hand.
(Not so incidentally, two books you really should read if you haven’t already: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo.)
Even if we’d wanted to we could not have changed the geological determinism which dictated different climates and the plants and animals they fostered. The difference, the important difference, is that our society isn’t so fixed. It isn’t born of nature, but of nurture.
We can choose not to accept a society which we’ve fostered to see us as better and instead to build a society that deals everyone a better hand.