Directing "Affirmative Action" to Those Who Most Need and Deserve It

Is NYT columnist Bill Keller right that it is “a blessing in disguise” for “a supporter of diversity” for the Supreme Court to restrict even further “the use of race as a factor in college admissions?”

The Court has said since Regents v. Bakke (1978) that the only reason race can be used in admission decisions is for the educational benefit of “diversity.”  It can’t be used to remedy the effects of past discrimination in the pursuit of justice.

What is the biggest “diversity” issue today?  Class, everyone says!  Or the declining mobility for members of the bottom half of our middle class and below.  The truth is “[r]acial preferences don’t help that much in promoting class diversity, because selective colleges heavily favor minorities from middle-class and affluent societies.”  But an emphasis on class diversity would surely favor minorities too.  After all, “blacks and Hispanics are more heavily represented among the poor.”

Not only that, “enrolling students from poor and working-class backgrounds is likely to increase ideological diversity.”  As it stands now, the sophisticated and privileged kids filling up our elite universities don’t, to say the least, challenge the nearly uniform liberal or leftist or left libertarian opinions of their professors.  The voices marginalized to silence in the classrooms often turn out to be, for example, those of “the deeply religious and children of military families.”  And so “political discourse can be glib, predictable, and impoverished.”

The only justification allowed for affirmation action under our Constitution is to expose students to a diverse array of opinions in the classroom.  Surely the opinions in the classroom, to some extent, should be representative of the opinions actually found in the country.  Otherwise students too readily come to believe that “smart conservative” or “smart observant religious believer” are oxymoronic.  I once was given the countercultural challenge of giving a seminar on the place of religion in a liberal education at highly elitist (and quite excellent) Pomona College.  I asked the students up front about the place of religion in their lives.  Nobody seemed to have one; I can’t help but guess that the student or two who did wasn’t about to speak up in such an unwelcoming environment.  There was a big diversity issue there, despite the presence of many blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and so forth in the room.

So lots of Americans have thoughtful objections to the pursuit of racial diversity as an end in itself.  And lots more would be, not with reason, scornful of the direct pursuit of ideological diversity.  But maybe more attention to the economic status of students would be the way of indirectly and less offensively guaranteeing that racial and ideological diversity actually show up in our elite classrooms.

Now my own view is that class-based admission attentiveness need not depend on actually treating applicants as members of definite economic classes. And so it wouldn’t be affirmative action in the accepted sense of the term.  The first imperative, of course, is to make the elite private education as affordable as state public education would be for those in tough economic circumstances. As far as I can tell, our most elite institutions typically can get this done, but more of our somewhat less elite and less wealthy schools need to buy into this priority.

The second imperative would be an aggressive recruiting effort, compensating for the relative cluelessness of guidance counselors and such at ordinary or worse high schools. Time and again I run into good students of modest means from rural Georgia public schools that have no idea that a fine education at a private college might well be made affordable for them.  What college actually costs, after all, is pretty much confusing for everyone right now.  Most private colleges have steep and seemingly rather arbitrary discount rates.  Going to college is like riding an airplane; if you start to ask around, it’s clear that just about everyone on board paid a different price for the same ticket to fly.  Because “buying” a college is pretty much like buying a used car right now, the sucker is the student who isn’t savvy enough about what the product—and oneself—fare really worth.  There’s the scandal of unprivileged or un-savvy kids being suckered into big loans.  But the bigger scandal is the unprivileged kids not knowing what opportunities might really be available to them at a cost they can actually afford.

The third imperative would be de-emphasis on standardized test scores and extracurricular activities as factors for admission.  Elite students take those tests time and again and have expert coaches, and the extracurricular “resume” is often pretty a much a perk of the privileged.  Students from struggling families typically have to work hard inside and outside their homes to make ends meet.  Different and more accurate standards have to be developed to figure out how admirable and how promising particular applicants are.

So class-based enrollment attentiveness is really about making our meritocracy more of a genuine meritocracy—not suspending standards of merit to achieve other social goals.  But because it doesn't treat students as members of fixed and unyielding classes, it certainly still is constitutional.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.