Stem Cells, Race, and the Future of the Science Wars

On what looks like a great day for scientists and for opponents of embryo-destructive stem cell research (by no means mutually-exclusive categories, believe it or not), Jody Bottum writes:

Abortion skewed the political discussion of [stem cells], pinning the left to a defense of science it doesn’t actually hold. The more natural line is agitation against Frankenfoods and all genetic modification, particularly given the environmentalism to which the campaign against global warming is tying the left.

Narratives about positions on public policy are like enormous steamships: It takes a long time to turn them around. But if the news of stem-cell breakthroughs prove accurate, we may well see over the next few years a gradual reversal in news stories and editorials. Watch for it, now that abortion is out of the equation: Much less hype about all the miracle cures that stem cells will bring us, more suspicion about the cancers and genetic pollution that may result, and just about the same amount of bashing of religious believers—this time for their ignorant support of science.

The stem cell news comes, interestingly, just as Will Saletan bravely attempts a summary of the emerging scientific consensus on racial differences in intelligence, another issue where the left doesn't much care for science has to say. You could see this dovetailing with Jody's point, and presaging a realignment in the Science Wars, away from the Bush-era debates and toward a landscape in which the mass media becomes consistently skeptical about scientific research on issues related to race and genetic engineering. But I'm not so sure. Among real lefties, maybe so, but the people who really pushed the "killing embryos will save your grandparents" narrative forward weren't the types who usually crusade against frankenfood; they were moderate liberals, politicians and pundits alike, who saw an opportunity to tap into the talismanic power of "Science" to drive a wedge into the GOP coalition. And no matter what comes of the stem-cell debate, that talismanic power isn't going anywhere - not in Western modernity, not by a long shot. If you want to see the shape of things to come, look at Saletan's conclusion:

Hereditarians point to phenylketunuria as an example of a genetic but treatable cognitive defect. Change the baby's diet, and you protect its brain. They also tout breast-feeding as an environmental intervention. White women are three times more likely than black women to breast-feed their babies, they observe, so if more black women did it, IQs might go up. But now it turns out that breast-feeding, too, is a genetically regulated factor. As my colleague Emily Bazelon explains, a new study shows that while most babies gain an average of seven IQ points from breast-feeding, some babies gain nothing from it and end up at a four-point disadvantage because they lack a crucial gene.

The study's authors claim it "shows that genes may work via the environment to shape the IQ, helping to close the nature versus nurture debate." That's true if you have the gene. But if you don't, nurture can't help you. And guess what? According to the International Hapmap Project, 2.2 percent of the project's Chinese-Japanese population samples, 5 percent of its European-American samples, and 10 percent of its Nigerian samples lack the gene. The Africans are twice as likely as the Americans, and four times as likely as the Asians, to start life with a four-point IQ deficit out of sheer genetic misfortune.

Don't tell me those Nigerian babies aren't cognitively disadvantaged. Don't tell me it isn't genetic. Don't tell me it's God's will. And in the age of genetic modification, don't tell me we can't do anything about it.

No, we are not created equal. But we are endowed by our Creator with the ideal of equality, and the intelligence to finish the job.

Some people, right and left, look at science that doesn't dovetail with their philosophical preconceptions and deny the science. (Sometimes they're right to do so, one might add, since scientists have been known to get things wrong from time to time.) But in a society built on the dream of progress, most people, liberals and conservatives alike, look at things Saletan's way: If we don't like what science tells us, well, then science can find a way to fix it.