Round and around we go

Far be it from me to be a scientist, but I notice that the wheels of orthodoxy are turning once again. During the 1930s revulsion against eugenics and the real or supposed discoveries of anthropologists turned educated opinion toward the belief that our lives and behaviour depend on our social environment. Little need to worry about ‘human nature’; with the right nurture and education we’d get there in the end. Other views, even of Freud and his followers, were supposed to have been cast into history.

By the 1970s, the emergence of genetics and ‘sociobiology’ with Desmond Morris, Wilson, Dawkins, and others started us on a return to heredity. Again politics lay in the background (it always does), and the doctrines of Marxists (no such thing as human nature) or Left/liberal social reformers who assumed we would respond the right way to social support became progressively discredited. The exposure of Margaret Mead in 1983 as a simpleton helped the process on its way.

Now in 2012, I realise we have begun to head back in the reverse direction once again. Partly, this is good science once again: I remember myself being startled by the sudden reduction in the number of genes we are thought to have, down to roughly the same as a mouse (20,000-25,000 genes instead of 100,000). Now we may be finding that gene expression is what really counts. Plasticity is the new watchword here. But may I suggest that politics comes up from the depths yet again; the current and long-lasting economic crisis is discrediting ‘neo-liberal’ (or ‘neo-conservative’ – at this rate we will run out of labels) sociology as well as economics and more of us are looking for something different to do with the underclass – and the rich. That was not expected when the scientists persuaded the American and British governments to support the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, but one of the best things about science is that it can produce unexpected results. Yet another reversal in the old issue going back at least to the 17th century between human nature and human moulding looks all too predictable; the last reversal began roughly 40 years ago and the one before roughly 40 years before that. On this performance we would expect to start accepting heredity and human nature again about 2050. Or will science surprise us and jerk us out of the routine?

On a closely related matter, it now does look as though American social conservatives are (or have become) political losers. On the nature/moulding cycle they should be back in strength for 2052 or thereabouts. Or will liberals finally realise that social conservatism is no alternative at all, because it must pursue affluence (resulting from hard work and patriotism) at all costs, and affluence makes social discipline difficult, if not downright impossible? Were that miracle to happen, science might be left to take its own course.

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