A longstanding orthodoxy among social scientists holds that human races are a social construct and have no biological basis. A related assumption is that human evolution halted science essay ideas the distant past, so long ago that evolutionary explanations need never be considered by historians or economists. In the decade since the decoding of the human genome, a growing wealth of data has made clear that these two positions, never at all likely to begin with, are simply incorrect. There is indeed a biological basis for race.
And it is now beyond doubt that human evolution is a continuous process that has proceeded vigorously within the last 30,000 years and almost certainly — though very recent evolution is hard to measure — throughout the historical period and up until the present day. New analyses of the human genome have established that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional. Biologists scanning the genome for evidence of natural selection have detected signals of many genes that have been favored by natural selection in the recent evolutionary past. Analysis of genomes from around the world establishes that there is a biological basis for race, despite the official statements to the contrary of leading social science organizations. An illustration of the point is the fact that with mixed race populations, such as African Americans, geneticists can now track along an individual’s genome, and assign each segment to an African or European ancestor, an exercise that would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality.
Racism and discrimination are wrong as a matter of principle, not of science. That said, it is hard to see anything in the new understanding of race that gives ammunition to racists. Exploration of the genome has shown that all humans, whatever their race, share the same set of genes. Each gene exists in a variety of alternative forms known as alleles, so one might suppose that races have distinguishing alleles, but even this is not the case.
Genetics and Social Behavior Human evolution has not only been recent and extensive, it has also been regional. The period of 30,000 to 5,000 years ago, from which signals of recent natural selection can be detected, occurred after the splitting of the three major races, so represents selection that has occurred largely independently within each race. What might be the role of these brain genes favored by natural selection? Wilson was pilloried for saying in his 1975 book Sociobiology that humans have many social instincts. But subsequent research has confirmed the idea that we are inherently sociable.
From our earliest years we want to belong to a group, conform to its rules and punish those who violate them. Human social structures change so slowly and with such difficulty as to suggest an evolutionary influence at work. Anything that has a genetic basis, such as these social instincts, can be varied by natural selection. The power of modifying social instincts is most visible in the case of ants, the organisms that, along with humans, occupy the two pinnacles of social behavior. Sociality is rare in nature because to make a society work individuals must moderate their powerful selfish instincts and become at least partly altruistic. Conventionally, these social differences are attributed solely to culture. But if that’s so, why is it apparently so hard for tribal societies like Iraq or Afghanistan to change their culture and operate like modern states?
The explanation could be that tribal behavior has a genetic basis. Modern humans lived for 185,000 years as hunters and gatherers before settling down in fixed communities. Putting a roof over one’s head and being able to own more than one could carry might seem an obvious move. The fact that it took so long suggests that a genetic change in human social behavior was required and took many generations to evolve. Tribalism seems to be the default mode of human political organization. It can be highly effective: The world’s largest land empire, that of the Mongols, was a tribal organization.
But tribalism is hard to abandon, again suggesting that an evolutionary change may be required. The various races have evolved along substantially parallel paths, but because they have done so independently, it’s not surprising that they have made these two pivotal transitions in social structure at somewhat different times. Caucasians were the first to establish settled communities, some 15,000 years ago, followed by East Asians and Africans. Two case studies, one from the Industrial Revolution and the other from the cognitive achievements of Jews, provide further evidence of evolution’s hand in shaping human social behavior within the recent past. The Behavioral Makeover Behind the Industrial Revolution The essence of the Industrial Revolution was a quantum leap in society’s productivity.