June 23, 2010

Economist: Humanity is about to confront its true nature

Noting the tenth anniversary of the reading of the human genome, The Economist issues a call to action, but not without warning:
Humanity’s foibles will be laid bare. The species’s history, from its tentative beginning in north-east Africa to its current imperial dominion, has already been revealed, just through being able to read the genome. It is now possible, too, to compare Homo sapiens with his closest relative—not the living chimpanzee, with whom he parted company perhaps 5m years ago, but the extinct Neanderthal, a true human. That will do what philosophers have dreamed of, but none has yet accomplished: show just what it is that makes Homo sapiens unique. The genome will answer, too, the age-old question of original sin. By showing what is nature, it will reveal what is nurture—and thus just how flexible and perfectible the human animal really is.
Genomics may reveal that humans really are brothers and sisters under the skin. The species is young, so there has been little time for differences to evolve. Politically, that would be good news. It may turn out, however, that some differences both between and within groups are quite marked. If those differences are in sensitive traits like personality or intelligence, real trouble could ensue.

People must be prepared for this possibility, and ready to resist the excesses of racialism, nationalism and eugenics that some are bound to propose in response. That will not be easy. The liberal answer is to respect people as individuals, regardless of the genetic hand that they have been dealt. Genetic knowledge, however awkward, does not change that.

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