Gould, Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History

we now know that our usual metaphor of superficiality--skin deep--is literally accurate.

In thus completing my précis, I trust that one essential point will not be misunderstood: I am, emphatically, not talking about ethical precepts but of information as we understand it for now. It would be poor logic and worse strategy to hinge a moral or political argument for equal treatment or equal opportunity upon any factual statement about human biology. For if our empirical conclusion turns out to be wrong--and all facts are tentative in science--then we would be forced to justify prejudice and apartheid (directed, perhaps, against ourselves, since who knows who would turn up on the bottom). I am no ethical philosopher, but I can only view equality of opportunity as inalienable, universal, and unrelated to the biological status of individuals. Our races may vary little in average characters, but our individuals differ greatly--and I cannot imagine a decent world that does not treat the most profoundly retarded person as a full human being in all respects, despite his evident and pervasive limitations.

I am, instead, making a smaller point, but one that tickles my fancy because most people find it surprising. It is an evident conclusion, once articulated, but we rarely pose the issue in a manner that lets such a statement emerge. I have called equality among races a contingent fact. So far I have only argued for the fact; what about the contingency? In other words, how might history have been different? Most of us can grasp and accept the equality; few have considered the easy plausibility of alternatives that didn't happen.

My creationist incubi, in one of their most deliciously ridiculous arguments, often imagine that they can sweep evolution away in this one unanswerable riposte: "Awright," they exclaim, "you say that humans evolved from apes, right?" "Right," I reply. "Awright, if humans evolved from apes, why are apes still around? Answer that one!" If evolution proceeded this way--like a ladder of progress, each rung disappearing as it transforms bodily to the next stage--then I suppose this argument would merit attention. But evolution is a bush, and ancestral groups usually survive after their descendants branch off. Apes come in many shapes and sizes; only one fine led to us.

Most of us know about pushes, but we rarely consider the implications. We know that australopithecines were our ancestors and that their bush included several species. But we view them as forebears, and subtly assume that since we are here, they must be gone. It is so, indeed, but it ain't necessarily so. One population of one line of australopithecines became Homo habilis; several others survived. One species, Australopithecus robustus, died out less than a million years ago and lived in Africa as a contemporary of H. erectus for a million years. We do not know why it disappeared. It might well have survived and presented us today with all the ethical dilemmas of a human species truly and markedly inferior in intelligence (with its cranial capacity only one-third our own). Would we have built zoos, established reserves, promoted slavery, committed genocide, or perhaps even practiced kindness? Human equality is a contingent fact of history.

Other plausible scenarios might also have led to marked, inequality. Homo sapiens is a young species, its division into races even more recent. This historical context has not supplied enough time for the evolution of substantial differences. But many species are millions of years old, and their geographic divisions are often marked and deep. H. sapiens might have evolved along such a time scale and produced races of great age and large accumulated differences--but we didn't. Human equality is a contingent fact of history.

A few well-placed mottoes might serve as our best antidotes against those deeply ingrained habits of Western thought that so constrain us because we do not recognize them--so long as these mottoes are epitomes of real understanding, not the vulgar distortions that promote "all is relative" as a précis of Einstein.

I have three favorite mottoes, short in statement but long in implication. The first, the epitome of punctuated equilibrium, reminds us that gradual change is not the only reality in evolution: other things count too; "stasis is data." The second confutes the bias of progress and affirms that evolution is not an inevitable sequence of ascent: "mammals evolved at the same time as dinosaurs." The third is the theme of this essay, a fundamental statement about human variation. Say it five times before breakfast tomorrow; more important, understand it as the center of a network of implication: "Human equality is a contingent fact of history."

Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University.