A view on human differences

3 minute read

I'm doing some research for an essay, which relies quite a bit on the work of Dobzhansky and a few of his contemporaries. There are some great quotes that I won't be using, but thought it would be worth passing on. Probably to the greatest extent among the architects of the Synthesis, Dobzhansky concerned himself with the relationship between genetic evolution and human cultural evolution.

In 1963, he published an essay in Current Anthropology addressing the relationship of anthropology and the natural sciences -- part of a forum that also addressed the relation of anthropology with the social sciences and humanities.

Man is a highly variable polytypic and polymorphic species. The genetic variability affects behavioral traits no less than physiological and structural ones, and it is false to imagine that these three categories are clearly separable. The chief reasons why so many people are loath to admit the genetic variability of social and culturally significant traits are two. First, human equality is stubbornly confused with identity, and diversity with inequality, as though to be entitled to an equality of opportunity, people would have to be identical twins. Human diversity is not incompatible with equality. Secondly, it is futile to look for one-to-one correspondence between cultural forms and genetic traits. Cultural forms are not determined by genes, but their emergence and maintenance are made possible by the genetically conditioned human diversity. The division of labor in human societies is primarily a cultural rather than a genetic phenomenon, but could it be sustained in a population consisting of persons genetically as similar as identical twins? This is not entirely a vain question, since at least one great geneticist has recently envisaged the possibility of bringing about such genetic uniformity (Dobzhansky 1963:147).

Later in the essay, Dobzhansky raised the problem of an excess of success -- namely, that human population growth and technology made it possible to avoid mortality that once selected against various "bad" genes. Various beliefs about this trend gave the impetus to early-20th-century eugenics, and were a continuing concern for "well-thinking" people. Would humans become victims of their own success? Dobzhansky responded in two ways. First, by noting that natural selection is hardly a savior:

Neither do I need to retell here the story of the alleged relaxation or suspension of natural selection in civilized mankind. The dangers from this source, although not necessarily exaggerated, have often been presented in a wrong perspective. A notion, which is less frequently stated explicitly than implied in many writings, is that the progress of mankind would be safe and even irresistible if only the natural selection were permitted to operate unobstructed by civilization and its amenities. This notion does not stand critical examination. Natural selection does not even insure that the species on which it acts will survive, let alone that it will improve, in any sense of the word "improvement." Dinosaurs became extinct, despite their evolution having been piloted by natural selection, quite unhampered by culture, medicine, or charity (Dobzhansky 1963:148).

Second, Dobzhansky addressed the real question: whether the current direction of genetic change is desirable:

Reproductive fitness is assuredly not the only virtue which we admire in men and would like them to possess. By its maintenance of the reproductive fitness, natural selection brings results which we, men, do not necessarily hold desirable. But to say that natural selection is suspended in mankind because we are not sure that man's biological evolution has assumed a direction to our liking, is to make the word "natural" selection biologically meaningless. Natural selection is automatic, mechanical, blind. It has brought about the evolution of the living world and the emergence of man with his capacity for culture, but it has no purpose because purposes are human prerogatives (Dobzhansky 1963:148).

He ends the essay on the most remarkable note -- well, read it for yourself:

Being an anthropologist only by avocation, I may perhaps venture to claim for anthropology more than most anthropologists dare claim for themselves. The ultimate function of anthropology is no less than to provide the knowledge requisite for the guidance of human evolution (Dobzhansky 1963:148).

Shades of Hari Seldon, to be sure, but especially humorous in light of later events in the field. Still, one wonders how an anthropology directed toward this goal would be organized...


Dobzhansky T. 1963. Anthropology and the natural sciences -- the problem of human evolution. Curr Anthropol 4:138+146-148.