March 08, 2008

Amazing What Passes for a Scientific Hypothesis These Days

Ben Harder works as a science journalist for US News and World Report. He has a blog on the paper's website entitled Thinking Harder (ha ha, punny). Today, he's written something there that's left me scratching my head; he claims there's a scientific hypothesis in here somewhere, but I can't seem to find it. All I can find are references to the Book of Genesis and some sort of idea that ethnic violence in Kenya is tied to lactose intolerance. No, really.

Ethnic Cleansing and Human Evolution

...let's talk about ethnic conflict and human evolution. (Disclaimer: What follows is more scientific hypothesis than journalistic fact. I welcome any data that confirm or refute what I'm about to suggest.)

It's not often that calls for ethnic cleansing relate in any way to human evolution. But I think I found one in a discouraging but beautifully written article about the historical roots of Kenya's current problems. The article shows how long-simmering conflicts over land ownership underpin much of the post-election violence currently seething across Kenya...

Now, I don't know much about the Kalenjin or the Kikuyu, but I do know that the former have traditionally been pastoralists, or animal herders, and the latter, farmers. I also know that conflicts between animal herders and farmers are nearly as old as the firmament. (Just think of the allegory of Cain, the farmer, and Abel, the shepherd.)

I suspect there's a link between the metonyms the violence-inciting broadcaster used—"people of the milk" and "the weed"—and the social and genetic histories of the two tribes he or she was alluding to.

Around the world, many people (like virtually all other mammals) are unable to drink milk as adults. Lactose intolerance, in a sense, is nature's default state. But lactose tolerance has evolved in many groups of people whose ancestors have herded mammals for centuries. These people have had a long-standing evolutionary incentive, so to speak, to be able to drink milk throughout their lives. So it makes sense that the pastoralist Kalenjins drink milk.

And the "weeds"? Well, that sure sounds like an unsubtle—not to mention offensive—reference to the way the Kikuyus, like Adam and Eve, by the sweat of their brows, learned long ago to coax a living from the soil.
Now, somebody tell me what the testable claim is in all of this. To me, it reads like a bunch of speculation and nothing at all to do with human evolution. It might well be that the differing lifestyles of the two groups is being cited as a reason for intergroup violence, but that in itself would be about different ways of earning a living, not about evolution or heredity per se. Biological factors are no more germane to this than it would be to the conflicts between cattle and sheep ranchers in America's Old West of the 19th century. There's no necessity to insert speculation about the evolution of lactose tolerance in order to understand the conflict which, as Harder himself points out, is at least in part over land use and ownership.

The bits about Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel are a bit telling, though. Why cite those examples instead of the many historically real conflicts that have occurred the world over that have a similar basis to the one that's just taken place in Kenya? Struggles between groups of people over access to natural resources have been unfortunately numerous throughout human history and they're well-documented realities completely unrelated to any particularly mythology. What happened to American Indians when minerals were discovered on their land? French and Indian Wars, anyone? Hawaii, perhaps, or 16th century battle between the Spanish and British over control of shipping lanes? The list goes on and on.

Harder isn't making a case for anything scientific here, really, but he is making a case that conflicts like this one are modern examples that essentially support Biblical ideas. Odd thing; I'm not familiar with many biologists who try to find support for a hypothesis in the Old Testament. I'm not sure what Harder's up to in this credulity-stretching speculation of his, but if he thinks that putting forth evidence for a scientific hypothesis is part of what he's doing, he's missed by a mile. I don't see the testable claim in what he's written unless he's proposing that we can somehow show that lactose tolerant and intolerant groups of people are more likely to become violent toward one another than are two groups of lactose intolerant people. I may be speculating a bit myself here, but I don't think that will ever turn out to be even a tiny factor in why ethnic cleansings take place.

Sphere: Related Content