Meanings of difference and effects of selection: an inquiry into the implications of biological thinking for human nature and society
Biological perspectives are playing an increasing role in discussions about human diversity and human nature. The question of whether race is a biologically meaningful concept has re-emerged in the context of developments in genetic research and of hereditarian arguments about group differences in intelligence. Evolutionary perspectives have established themselves as a means of interpreting human psychology, achieving prominence through research intended to identify and investigate universal psychological characteristics. These developments present challenges. Outside the natural sciences, there is widespread suspicion of, and resistance to, such perspectives. Much of this arises from historically based anxieties about the application of biological ideas to social problems. Some schools of knowledge have also moved in theoretical directions which make communication with the natural sciences difficult.
This thesis discusses a programme of research and interpretation, based on four books published between 1992 and 2004, which engages with these challenges and develops a strategy for a productive engagement between science and other forms of understanding. The first book (Dope Girls, 1992) discussed historical perceptions of racial difference; the second (The Race Gallery, 1995) examined the continuing presence of racial thinking in science, and biologically-inflected perceptions of racial difference outside scientific discourse. The third (As We Know It, 1999) contemplated radical differences between modern human and ancestral minds, in the context of an original hypothesis about behavioural evolution, and used the discussion to reflect upon evolutionary psychology. A Reason for Everything (2004) used biography to explore individual scientific, philosophical and social responses to the idea of evolution by natural selection.
Over the course of the project I have come to regard evolutionary perspectives on human psychology as necessary, intellectually productive and socially valuable, while remaining highly sceptical of hereditarian claims about racial difference. The strategy I have developed, which seeks to develop communication between academic and general opinion as well as between science and other approaches to knowledge, continues to guide my work. My most recent book, Trust (2008) took an approach rooted in evolutionary perspectives as its point of departure and integrated these with perspectives from philosophy and the social sciences, illustrating the validity and productivity of the strategy.