In our technocratic, bureaucratic world you cannot avoid acronyms, initialisms, neologisms, and clunky phrases. If you spend any time in the less polite places on the Internet, you make have come across the phrase HBD – Human Bio Diversity. If your eyes did not reflexively glaze over at its heavyweight sound, you may have wondered what it meant, and why people talk about it.
Despite the ponderous academic title, it is very simple: HBD is the study of human differences. It is the study of how groups (i.e., ethnic and racial) differ in terms of temperament, tastes, and abilities. Most of us are comfortable with the notion that individuals differ in temperament, tastes, and abilities. Most will also be comfortable with the notion that related individuals (e.g., family) will share traits with each other but those traits make be different from their neighbors (e.g., musical parents with musical children, athletic parents with athletic children). HBD expands this to larger populations related by ethnicity or race; it looks at how different groups may show, or specialize in, different traits. By its nature, it looks at groups and averages across groups; where much social study investigates individual differences HBD focuses on group differences. HBD investigates in much the same way that demographers or marketers do; they look at groups while not particularly caring about any one person’s actions or traits. Like economics it is the study of how people act and interact, unlike economics it does not treat all individuals and groups as interchangeable units.
Because such studies cross the prickly topic of race and ethnicity it would be fair to wonder why bother. Some accuse HBDers of having bad will, and while that is plausible I suspect that there are more benign and banal reasons.
The first relates to the question we often ask ourselves: “Am I normal?” Rephrasing that question a bit might get to the motivating energy. We could ask the question as: “Am I average?”; the real question being “Am I above average?” I think all of us have some interest in how we stand, where we come in the pecking order, how we compare with our fellow humans. Whether it is how much we earn or how much we weigh natural curiosity compels us to wonder how we compare with others. The same question we have about ourselves we have about groups that we identify with or are part of (e.g., who earns more accountants or computer programmers?).
The second relates to a more general curiosity: how does the world work, why does this happen, etc. Societies are complex things with many complex interactions, for many systems thinkers attempting to understand some of that complexity makes a fascinating project. Like any study it starts by observing outcomes and wondering why that particular outcome was the result.
The third reason (and no doubt the one you were waiting for) is that in a multi-racial or multi-ethnic society, the relationships between groups will obviously be a matter of interest. While the first two reasons are important, it is this third reason that adds spice to the pot and turns up the heat. The intersection of the personal, the political, and the economic makes HBD so interesting. An added element is that in most (Western at least) societies such inquiries have an air of forbidden fruit. The thing is the study of group differences might explain the differences in outcomes that so often vex multi-ethnic or multi-racial societies. In short, the study of HBD provides a frisson of excitement while also providing potential answers to things we can observe but are discouraged from discussing.
Do some proponents of HBD have ill will towards other groups? Do some celebrate with excess glee the differences that HBD notes? Perhaps some do, but for most it appears to have more to do with frustration with the inability of general society to even contemplate such questions. If some seem fanatical in discussing group differences, it is only because society as a whole seems fanatical in denying them.