In discussions of Nicholas Wade’s new book, people seem to believe that the idea of human evolution continuing after different human sub-groups split and into historical times is particularly discomforting to liberals. I think this is backwards. After all, a key part of the liberal worldview–perhaps the key part–is that the current generation of Westerners is much smarter and more moral than the rest of humanity that has ever lived. Thus, things that our ancestors or other civilizations didn’t believe (such as the moral imperative of democracy and sexual equality) are known even by the least sophisticated of us as obviously true. What’s more, we don’t believe these things because they are the dogmas of our tribe which we accept uncritically like past generations of men accepted what they were told; no, we have each arrived at these truths through the use of our own independent Reason, by being the first generation unencumbered by Superstition and Prejudice.
Conservatives have, of course, always mocked this chauvinism of the present. We have tended to assume that the differences between ourselves and our ancestors are relatively trivial, and that this generation is distinguished only by its hubris. Thus, we assume customs that were beneficial for them will usually also be so for us, and we give the thinkers and witnesses of the past the same respectful hearing and presumption of credibility that we would give to people today.
However, there is some evidence that IQ has been rising and personal violence has been falling through the centuries. There is even evidence that the Jews are a superior race in some ways, as the liberals have always treated them. Suppose it is true that modern people are, on average, much smarter or less violent than ancient or medieval people. What would follow from that?
Nothing necessarily follows from it. The genetic enhancements under discussion don’t constitute a change of species (in the biological or metaphysical meaning of “species”), so changes to the natural law during human history are impossible. Our defense of inherited traditions is also not compromised. We never defended tradition because our ancestors who developed them were supposed to be so smart. No one invents traditions; they are emergent phenomena of communities. Nor did we defend tradition as something that takes the place of reason, as doing the sort of thing reason could do except that most people are (or were up till now) too stupid. Traditions are suprarational; the truths they embody contain but transcend articulable propositions, so increased intelligence can enhance one’s ability to appreciate them but in no way makes one less in need of them. Lastly, the conservative instinct to learn from the great minds of the past is as sensible as ever, since none of these were average products of their time. Even if it could be shown that the average IQ of the great ancient and medieval philosophers is lower than that of the philosophy department in a contemporary university, we are still justified in preferring to study the former’s work because of the much broader perspective it brings. (After all, very intelligent philosophers of today just parrot the conventional wisdom of the present in very sophisticated ways.)
Nevertheless, the prospect of one of liberalism’s key prejudices being confirmed is certainly vexing.
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