milford_h_wolpoff's picture
Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan; Adjunct Associate Research Scientist, Museum of Anthropology
Can we ever escape our past, or are we doomed to a future of biobabble?


In mid-November 1999, New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead published a commentary on the candidacy of Al Gore, and in it she gave us a new word. In the old days, candidates were advised in a pseudo-Freudian frame. Clinton, in pre-Monica times, was told to emphasize his role as "strong, assertive, and a good father." Now, however, this psychobabble has been eclipsed by what she called biobabble and Mead recommended that Gore's advice might best be based on evolutionary psychology instead of Freud. In other words, it wasn't your parents who screwed you up, it was the ancient environment. Mead cites Sarah Hrdy, a primatologist, as suggesting that the ideal presidential leader would be a grandma whose grandchildren were taken away and scattered across the country in secret locations. Then the president could be expected to act on the behalf of the general good, to maximize her reproductive fitness. No wonder Gore wasn't appointed.

This is déjà vu all over again, and after the last century of biopolicy in action, can we still afford to be here? Somehow we can't get away from a fixation on the link between biology and behavior. A causal relationship was long championed by the Mendelian Darwinians of the Western World, as breeding and sterilization programs to get rid of the genes for mental deficiencies became programs to get rid of the genes for all sorts of undesirable social behaviors, and then programs to get rid of the undesirable races with the imagined objectionable social behaviors. Science finally stepped back from the abyss of human tragedy that inevitably ensued, and one result was to break this link by questioning whether human races are valid biological entities. By now, generations of biological anthropologists have denied the biology of race. Arguing that human races are socially constructed categories and not biologically defined ones, biological anthropologists have been teaching that if we must make categories for people, "ethnic group" should replace "race" in describing them. 

The public has been listening. This is how the U.S. census came to combine categories that Americans base on skin color "African-American," delineated by "one drop of blood" with categories based on language "Latino." However ethnic groups revitalize the behavioral issue because ethnicity and behavior are indeed related, although not by biology, but by culture. This relationship is implicitly accepted as the grounds for the profiling we have heard so much about of late, but here is the rub. Profiling has accomplished more than just making it easier to predict behaviors, actually revitalizing the issue of biology and behavior by bringing back "race" as a substitution for "ethnic group." This might well have been an unintended consequence of using "race" and "ethnic group" interchangeably, because this usage forged a replacement link between human biology and human culture. Yet however it happened, we are back where we started, toying with the notion that human groups defined by their biology differ in their behavior.

And so, how do we get out of this? Can we? Or does the programming that comes shrink-wrapped with our state-of-the-art hardware continue to return our thinking to this point because of some past adaptive advantage it brought? It doesn't seem very advantageous right now.