One occasionally hears it said, generally by intelligent people who have turned their brains off for a moment, that science and politics don’t mix, and shouldn’t. This is of course nonsense, as they would realize if they thought about it for more than five seconds (which is, admittedly, a very lengthy period of time). Science is inherently political, and not just because much of the everyday operation of science is funded from the public purse.
As such, science maintains a troubled relationship with both left and right. The left likes science — and the right distrusts it — because of its innovative potential and capacity for remaking society via its practical applications. Simultaneously, insofar as the core of leftism is the subordination of reality to politics, and insofar as science tries to subordinate politics to the exploration of reality, science is naturally of the right and challenging to the left. This dynamic does much to explain the Science Wars, both now and in decades past.
Despite the noisy excesses of Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and other Radical Scientists, few were ever truly on board with the full Marxist program of subordinating scientific reality to politics. While most did not agree with educational psychologist Arthur Jensen’s seminal 1969 article “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement” in the Harvard Educational Review, or Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, many would agree that Jensen and Murray were men of good faith who should be given a fair hearing. Yet more, when given a few drinks, would quietly admit that perhaps they made some valid points. Even today there is a large detachment of prominent scientists who will avoid discussion of ethnic differences, but will defend research into behavioral sex differences, and others (including some prominent science communicators) who will cheerfully say one thing in public but quite another in private.
The election of Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right has begun to change this. The quiet middle is being pushed leftwards by the vast stench of sexism and racism coming from modern-day white nationalists and some of their fellow travelers. The cadre who might quietly have supported Jonathan Haidt and other scholars in the “Heterodox Academy” project will not want to be tainted by association. In their day, Jensen and Murray received sizable support, both public and private, to go with the opprobrium. These are new times, and an academic culture that was in any case drifting leftwards has been given a very sizable shove. James Damore has managed to make matters even worse, by taking one reasonable idea — “people should not be fired for privately stating obvious truths” — and running with it straight into the arms of insane cranks such as Stefan Molyneux.
It is in this context that we see events such as Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex winning the science book award from the Royal Society. The book itself is not worthy of much discussion. There is a lot of very bad sociobiological research that needs debunking, but some of Fine’s positive theses could only be seriously held by a (feminist) creationist. These theses, however, are useful positions to hold as markers of tribal identity to combat an increasingly hateful right that, obsessed with winning the culture wars, to its own destruction disdains virtue.
The irony, of course, is that a new era of genomics research is on the verge of ending many of the old scientific debates in any meaningful sense. This is a singularly bad time to be doubling down on the myth of the biological equality of man, a key underlying assumption of leftist visions of society. In future years we may well look back at recent controversies as a final hurdle to clear before we could begin to discuss the far more interesting matter of morality: in a secular society, can human beings be valued for anything more than their achievements?
The abiding mythos holds, across the conventional political spectrum, that humans are of value equal to their potential contribution to the market (a potential assumed to be roughly equivalent). But of course we already know that individuals differ greatly in their talents and desires. An arbitrary and ever-shifting doctrine of human rights is proving little help in putting the dignity of man on a secure footing. Nor, in a globalist world, is anyone honored as a fellow-citizen, a status that the left now regards as just another undeserved privilege; the idea that states should privilege the welfare of their own citizens over the welfare of others is becoming anathema.
In such uncertain times, Testosterone Rex represents as good an attempt as any to establish some kind of solid ground for some of the values of the current year. Like all such attempts, it will of course fail, but not for want of trying. Its embrace by the mainstream is not because of its merits, but is the product of a liberal ruling caste understandably revolted by the barbarians at their gates. A hyperpolarized public sphere may well give us wonderful memes, but truth it cannot.