Knowledge is Danger

At the end of Who We Are and How We Got Here, David Reich observes that genetic analysis of ancient DNA “has overwhelmingly had the effect of exploding stereotypes, undercutting prejudice, and highlighting the connections among peoples not previously known to be related.” This because the study of ancient DNA has revealed that most groups today are the result of intermixing between “ghost populations” of the past that no longer exist in pure form. Thus Nazis, for example, can no longer argue that Germans are the pure descendants of an ancient Indo-European race of Aryans. There were ancient Indo-Europeans, but they mixed into various groups in both Europe and South Asia, and now no longer exist at all in unmixed form. So genetics explodes the racial categories that came before it. 

So far so good. But Reich also observes that “the findings from ancient DNA leave little solace for racist or nationalistic misinterpretation.” And here I think he is quite wrong.

What is to prevent new identities from forming around the racial categories actually identified by the science of genetics? That science does permit grouping people based on genetic lines, apparently will shortly reveal average differences between groups in a range of traits, including, perhaps, intelligence, and has already revealed numerous “star clusters,” groups of sometimes millions of people all descended from a single ancient male. What is to prevent new identities from forming around these scientific facts?

What is to prevent the two to three million genetically-identified Descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, many named O’Donnell, from deciding that they are the master race?  Or the 8% of males within the former territory of the Mongol Empire who geneticists believe descend from Genghis Khan?

If such new identities form, it will no longer be possible for science to explode the fantasies of their adherents, to show that the identities have no basis in biology, because the identities will have originated with the science, been defined by the science. The fact that genetics has exploded old racisms does not mean that it is incapable of serving as the foundation for new racisms.

Perhaps the best use of ancient DNA would be strategic, and secretive, to hide out and keep racists guessing, and to reveal only enough to explode racist guesses when they grow into genuine threats. But publish the entire roadmap, the scientifically-accurate atlas of race that Reich envisions for the near future, and you give the racists the unassailable categorizations that they have always wanted. It doesn’t matter who falls where — there are racists in all groups — but that everyone falls somewhere certain. Publish that atlas and all you do, perhaps, is to map out the future of pain.

Postwar intellectuals used uncertainty to great effect in fighting racism; if you don’t know for sure where you fall racially, or indeed no one falls anywhere because there is no biological basis for race, then you had better not be a racist, lest you condemn a group to which you one day turn out to belong. Eliminate that uncertainty and you create a thousand standards to which racists may rally, standards that science will never be able to take away. Keep racists guessing and you keep them weak; tell them who they are, and they are unleashed.

I sense in Reich’s book great pleasure in enlightenment, and therefore a desire for enlightenment to be moral as well. But as always the hedonic case for knowledge is far stronger than the moral case. Curiousity killed the cat. Pandora’s box. Etc.