The science news this past few weeks has concentrated on the Large Hadron Collider, which officially began operations on September 10. So far not much of anything has actually been collided, but the physicists whose eight billion dollar toy this is are working their way up in baby steps to the big, glamorous experiments.
Still, anyone of a gambling inclination who wanted to bet on what the really sensational science headlines of the next few years will be, would not be looking to the LHC. As I commented in National Review three years ago:
[W]e are passing from the Age of Physics to the Age of Biology. It is not quite the case that nothing is happening in physics, but certainly there is nothing like the excitement of the early 20th century. Physics seems, in fact, to have got itself into a cul-de-sac, obsessing over theories so mathematically abstruse that nobody even knows how to test them.
The life sciences, by contrast, are blooming, with major new results coming in all the time from genetics, zoology, demography, biochemistry, neuroscience, psychometrics, and other "hot" disciplines. The physics building may be hushed and dark while its inhabitants mentally wrestle with 26-dimensional manifolds, but over at biology the joint is jumpin'.
Whether it will go on jumpin' may depend on the result of November's election. There is a widespread feeling in the human sciences - particularly in genetics, population genetics, evolutionary biology, and neurophysiology - that the next five to ten years will see some sensational discoveries. Unfortunately those discoveries will have metaphysical implications more disturbing than were those of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg, Schr”dinger, Pauli, and Dirac may have seriously upset our ideas about matter and energy, but at least they left our psyches and our political principles intact.
Those items may not remain intact much longer. The conceptual revolution among human-sciences researchers has in fact already taken place. This is not widely understood because (a) news outlets are very reluctant to report it, (b) powerful political forces have an interest in suppressing it, and (c) researchers prefer getting on quietly with their work to having their windows broken by mobs of angry protestors.
Most people still think of human-science controversies in terms of nature/nurture. As a matter of real scientific dispute, that is all long gone. Nature/nurture arguments were at the heart of the sociobiology wars that roiled the human sciences through the last third of the 20th century. (The 2000 book Defenders of Truth, by the Finnish sociologist of science Ullica Segerstr†le gives a full - and so far as I can judge, very fair - account.) The dust of battle has pretty much settled now, in science departments if not in the popular press, and nature is the clear victor. Name any universal characteristic of human nature, including cognitive and personality characteristics. Of all the observed variation in that characteristic, about half is caused by genetic differences. You may say that is only a half victory; but it is a complete shattering of the nurturist absolutism that ruled in the human sciences 40 years ago, and that is still the approved dogma in polite society, including polite political society, today.
While those sociobiology wars were going on - while E.O. Wilson was having a jug of ice water dumped over his head at an AAAS symposium by people shouting "Racist Wilson you can't hide, we charge you with genocide!" (1978); while Art Jensen looked set fair to be kicked out of the AAAS altogether following agitation by Margaret Mead et al. because of his 1969 paper on group differences in I.Q.; while Stephen Jay Gould was assuring his readers that "Human equality is a contingent fact of history" (1985) and Richard Lewontin was celebrating "the funeral of reductionism" (1983); while Charles Murray was being profiled in the New York Times Magazine as "America's most dangerous conservative" (1994) - while all that was happening, research results were steadily trickling in, building up the water pressure behind the nurturist dam.
That dam now has more cracks than the surface of Europa and water is spraying out all over. The only thing that could stop a complete collapse would be the power of government....
... Which might be forthcoming in the event of an Obama victory. The younger generation of human-sciences enthusiasts trend conservative/libertarian, and Obama has them worried....
Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your roundup of Obama news and commentary at OBAMA WATCH (2). Email me (John Ray) here