We can’t leave our genes be­hind

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

The In­vis­i­ble His­tory of the Hu­man Race: How DNA and His­tory Shape Our Iden­ti­ties and Our Fu­tures By Chris­tine Ken­neally Black Inc, 355pp, $29.99 Drunk Tank Pink: The Sub­con­scious Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Be­have By Adam Al­ter Oneworld, 261pp, $19.99

AT some point in the 1990s, a poster be­gan to ap­pear on the London Un­der­ground. It de­picted four brains, three of which were iden­ti­cal while the fourth was much smaller than the oth­ers. From a dis­tance it ap­peared to be a crude tax­on­omy of the kind one might as­so­ciate with a 19th-cen­tury phre­nol­o­gist. But closer in­spec­tion re­vealed a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage. Set out in a line, with the small one last, the brains were la­belled African, Euro­pean, Asian and Racist.

From mem­ory, this strik­ing and in­ge­nious im­age was the fruit of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Bri­tain’s Com­mis­sion for Racial Equal­ity and ad­ver­tis­ing firm Saatchi & Saatchi. But who­ever was re­spon­si­ble for it cer­tainly had a fin­ger on the pulse. For, not­with­stand­ing the oc­ca­sional wran­gle, the feel­ing by the 90s was that race was an out­moded con­cept, sci­en­tif­i­cally if not po­lit­i­cally: racists, if not ac­tu­ally sub­hu­man, cer­tainly missed the point of be­ing hu­man.

This was all a big step for­ward, but it also en­trained cer­tain mis­con­cep­tions to do with the role of DNA in shap­ing hu­man char­ac­ter­is­tics and be­hav­iour. The prob­lem was one of over­cor­rec­tion: eu­gen­ics, and sci­en­tific racism more gen­er­ally, led to a re­jec­tion of bi­ol­ogy per se, es­pe­cially where sub­jects such as eth­nic­ity were con­cerned.

Adopt­ing the con­cept of ‘‘so­cial con­struc­tion­ism’’ or the ‘‘stan­dard so­cial sci­ence model’’, aca­demics ar­gued that hu­man be­hav­iour was shaped not by biological forces but by cul­ture. (Steven Pinker calls this the ‘‘blank slate’’ the­sis.) Thus one form of re­duc­tion­ism was re­placed with another. In their de­sire to rid hu­man­ity of the dirty wa­ter of Nazism and its ana­logues, anti-racist aca­demics threw out the healthy baby of ge­net­ics.

In The In­vis­i­ble His­tory of the Hu­man Race, Mel­bourne-based writer Chris­tine Ken­neally sal­vages this drip­ping in­fant from the flag­stones. Yes, she writes, race is a con­cept with no biological le­git­i­macy, but that is not to say an­ces­try has no part to play in hu­man cul­ture and his­tory.

In­deed, for Ken­neally the con­cept of an­ces­try — as ex­pressed through ge­net­ics or ge­neal­ogy — is quickly com­ing into its own as a tool in the study of his­tory. And while she de­fines that con­cept broadly to in­clude not only hered­ity but also the per­sis­tence of ideas and cul­ture, it is the sci­en­tific em­pha­sis that dom­i­nates this book and makes it such an in­ter­est­ing en­ter­prise. It is not with­out its prob­lems, but it is a bold and ab­sorb­ing work.

It be­gins with a sort of meta-his­tory in which Ken­neally ex­plores how our ideas of what is ‘‘passed down’’ are them­selves passed down and have changed over time. Chal­leng­ing the ‘‘anti­ge­neal­o­gists’’ who re­gard fam­ily his­tory as un­his­tor­i­cal, and out­lin­ing the toxic time­line of eu­gen­ics (‘‘the worst idea in his­tory’’), she both gets her re­tal­i­a­tion in first and seeks (I sus­pect) to in­oc­u­late the reader against over-in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the sci­en­tific data.

While this can feel like overkill, it is salu­tary to be re­minded of the long, wrong­headed his­tory of racial sci­ence. The Nazis were aber­rant in many ways, but their belief in racial pu­rity, or ‘‘hy­giene’’, was far more per­va­sive than is pop­u­larly as­sumed.

Mov­ing to the ques­tion of ‘‘what is passed down’’, Ken­neally takes us in some sur­pris­ing di­rec­tions. In a chap­ter ti­tled Si­lence, she con­sid­ers how Tas­ma­ni­ans at­tempted to cover up their con­vict pasts, while in one ti­tled In­for­ma­tion, she meets rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-Day Saints, whose vast Fam­ily Search project an­swers Joseph Smith’s in­junc­tion to of­fer bap­tism to church mem­bers’ dead rel­a­tives. (Dis­ap­point­ingly, she doesn’t men­tion the Mor­mons’ his­tory of racism, based on the belief that black Africans are de­scended from Noah’s cursed son Ham.)

One of her most con­fronting chap­ters con- siders the de­scent of Ideas and Feel­ings and ex­plores the pos­si­bil­ity that in the coun­tries that suf­fered the most from slav­ery, mis­trust has been passed down through the gen­er­a­tions, with calami­tous re­sults for so­cial co­he­sion. Here and else­where, Ken­neally dis­cov­ers many ar­rest­ing par­al­lels and cor­re­la­tions.

The best chap­ters, how­ever, are those on ge­net­ics and on how it is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing his­tor­i­cal re­search. Ge­netic maps are a case in point. There has long been a de­bate among his­to­ri­ans about pre­cisely what hap­pened in fifth-cen­tury Bri­tain after the Ro­mans left in AD 410. Did the Saxons, An­gles, Jutes and Frisians who had been raid­ing the south­east cor­ner of ‘‘Eng­land’’ as­sim­i­late peace­ably with the lo­cal Bri­tons, or was the process one of vi­o­lent dis­place­ment?

Ge­netic anal­y­sis can help solve such ques­tions by com­par­ing DNA from dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions and by analysing changes within them over time. It can also, of course, be pressed into ser­vice in or­der to clear up spe­cific mys­ter­ies. That Thomas Jefferson fa­thered a num­ber of chil­dren by his black mis­tress Sally Hem­ings is now beyond all rea­son­able doubt, thanks to the en­deav­ours of ge­netic re­searchers.

Though beau­ti­fully writ­ten, The In­vis­i­ble His­tory can oc­ca­sion­ally suf­fer from Ken­neally’s ten­dency to treat her sources as part of the story. This re­cent mu­ta­tion in in­tel­li­gent non­fic­tion, which is by no means dis­as­trous to its fit­ness as a form, en­tails much fly­ing around the place and de­scrib­ing dif­fer­ent of­fices and talk­ing to ex­perts and non-ex­perts alike. All of which is per­fectly fine so long as it doesn’t lead the au­thor to skimp on the anal­y­sis or take her sub­jects at their own es­ti­ma­tion.

On the whole, Ken­neally does nei­ther of th­ese things, though I think she is rather too un­crit­i­cal of the nar­cis­sis­tic ten­dency in mod­ern ge­neal­ogy, es­pe­cially as it re­lates to race. One of the ironies of mod­ern pol­i­tics is that the very di­vi­sions cre­ated by racism live on in a broadly pro­gres­sive em­pha­sis on racial or eth­nic ‘‘iden­tity’’. That this irony re­mains largely un­ex­plored in Ken­neally’s oth­er­wise ex­cel­lent chap­ter on The Pol­i­tics of DNA is a source of (mild) dis­ap­point­ment.

If the great merit of Ken­neally’s book is to map ge­net­ics back into his­tory in a way that avoids a crude de­ter­min­ism, the merit of Adam Al­ter’s Drunk Tank Pink is to re­mind us that our be­liefs and be­hav­iour are in­deed con­di­tioned, though not de­ter­mined, by forces of which we are un­aware.

Th­ese forces, or cues, take many forms, but Al­ter, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at New York Univer­sity, iden­ti­fies three broad cat­e­gories: the brain, hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and the en­vi­ron­ment, or the worlds within, be­tween and around us. “At its heart,’’ he writes, ‘‘this book is de­signed to show that your mind is the col­lec­tive end point of a bil­lion tiny but­ter­fly ef­fects.’’

Less con­cept al­bum than great­est hits com­pi­la­tion, the book is crammed with in­ter­est­ing things, though whether the reader’s in­ter­est is main­tained will de­pend to a greater de­gree than usual on prior knowl­edge. Cer­tainly many of the ex­per­i­ments will be fa­mil­iar to read­ers with even a pass­ing in­ter­est in psy­chol­ogy.

The ‘‘drunk tank pink’’ ex­per­i­ment of the ti­tle, which demon­strates the ‘‘tran­quil­lis­ing power of bright pink’’; the peer pres­sure ex­per­i­ments of Solomon Asch; and the in­sights into ‘‘by­stander syn­drome’’ af­forded by John Dar­ley and Bibb Latane are well known and well doc­u­mented. This is not a crit­i­cism. It is merely to point out that Drunk Tank Pink is a book aimed squarely at the neo­phyte.

For me, the most in­ter­est­ing parts of the book have to do with the sub­ject of prej­u­dice. Again, Jane El­liott’s fa­mous ex­per­i­ment, in which sub­jects were fooled into think­ing that eye colour is a mea­sure of in­tel­li­gence, among other things, will be fa­mil­iar to many read­ers. But more re­cent ex­per­i­ments yield fas­ci­nat­ing in­sights into the role of prej­u­dice in decision mak­ing. In one 2004 ex­per­i­ment, re­searchers sent job ap­pli­ca­tions to com­pa­nies — iden­ti­cal in ev­ery de­tail ex­cept the ap­pli­cant’s name at the top — and found that em­ploy­ers were much more likely to of­fer in­ter­views to ap­pli­cants with white-sound­ing names.

More se­ri­ously, re­searchers in 2002 de­vel­oped a com­puter pro­gram in which sub­jects were re­quired to shoot fig­ures hold­ing guns and dis­re­gard fig­ures hold­ing phones and wallets. Mis­takes, they dis­cov­ered, were sig­nif­i­cantly more prob­a­ble in cases where the in­no­cent fig­ures were black.

Drunk Tank Pink is not a dif­fi­cult book, but to the ex­tent that it il­lu­mi­nates some of the darker re­gions of the hu­man mind, it can be a chal­leng­ing one. Clearly, our so­ci­ety has a long way to go be­fore it can con­sider it­self truly post-racial. The hope is that in un­der­stand­ing how prej­u­dice op­er­ates at the sub­con­scious level we can be­gin to over­come it. Nat­u­rally, this will be the work of decades and will take more than cute posters at train sta­tions.

Ba­bies ar­rive in the world with a fair amount of in­vis­i­ble bag­gage

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