As a biologist, it irks me when ideologues distort biology in the service of politics. My view, which I absorbed from Steven Pinker, is that we should be able to accept scientific facts without perforce turning those facts into government policy. After all, since morality is subjective and not objective, facts can never by themselves dictate what we should do, which in the end comes down to a reasoned matter of preference. Of course facts can inform policy: learning more about when human fetuses can feel pain might inform debates on abortion. But even so, it’s still a matter of preference to decide whether abortions are permissible, and, if so, at what point in pregnancy should we no longer permit them.
There are three areas where ideology has impinged on biology, trying its best to distort data: differences between human ethnic groups (“races”), between human males and females, and the study of evolutionary psychology. I’ve written about these at length on this site, and won’t go into detail, for this post is just to point you to a good article on race.
The ideologues’ problem with all these areas is the same: were biology to show, for example, that there are genetic differences between sexes, ethnic groups, or cultures, that could be used to justify racism, sexism, and exceptionalism. And indeed, this has happened in the past: all of us know the sordid history of assuming biology translates directly into human rights, which led to eugenics, racism, the denigration of and lack of opportunity for women, and so on.
But there are two ways to respond to any genetic differences that we find. The ideologues’ way is simply to deny the existence of any meaningful genetic (and presumably evolved) differences between human groups or sexes, and to denigrate any findings that show them. (This is, of course, confirmation bias, for these people never look critically at studies that support their ideology.) Evolutionary psychology is denigrated as “pseudoscience”, a phony discipline populated by sexist and misogynistic scientists devoted to propping up the status quo. I’ve been a critic—sometimes quite severe—of evolutionary psychology, as there are a fair number of pretty bad studies. But there are good ones, too, and results showing humans favoring those most closely related, or uncovering evolved differences between men and women in sexual behavior, seem pretty solid. It’s just dumb to say that the entire field is intellectually bankrupt, for if our bodies bear the traces of ancient selection in our ancestors, why not our minds? After all, while non-African human groups evolved in geographic isolation for at most 60,000-100,000 years, males and females have been maneuvering to reproduce for the six million years or so since we separated from our closest relatives.
The other way to deal with distasteful scientific findings is to realize that they shouldn’t even inform political policy, for science is an “is” and policy is an “ought”. It’s unlikely that all ethnic groups, or males and females, will be exactly the same in every aspect of behavior, physiology, intelligence, interests, and so on—down to the third decimal point. But so what? The basis for moral equality and equal opportunity does not rest on genetic endowment, but on philosophical considerations: nobody has a right to claim that they, by virtue of their ancestry or sex, have privileges that allow them advantages over anyone else. Further, the substantial overlap in abilities (except, perhaps, for things like upper-body strength in men versus women) is sufficiently large that it would be just dumb and societally injurious to bar someone from opportunities based on sex or ethnicity.
Further, if you base your notion of moral equality on genetic equality, that makes equality vulnerable to future discoveries in biology that could reveal various forms of genetic inequality. But this can’t happen when the argument for equality and equal opportunity is a moral and philosophical one.
On to “race”, a loaded word if ever there was one. Browsing through Quillette, I found a short but very good 2016 article about race by Bo Winegard, Ben Winegard, and Brian Boutwell, “On the reality of race and the abhorrence of racism“. It’s one of the more sensible pieces on race written for a popular audience, and takes the position I mentioned above; as the authors say, “Promoting a tolerant cosmopolitan society doesn’t require denying basic facts about the world.” Or, as they say, using italics to emphasize their view, “Racism isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals.”
As far as I can see, their biology is accurate. Winegard et al. reject, as do I—or any sensible biologist—the idea that there are a finite number of easily-demarcated “races” that differ by single diagnostic genes. Rather, we have a genetic spectrum of populations that are fuzzy around the edges, but still reflect some genetic differentiation that occurred in geographic isolation. You can’t diagnose someone’s ancestry or geographic origin from looking at a single gene, but you can do a pretty good job if you look at many genes taken together, as “allelic” differences among different loci are correlated. Using an entire spectrum of genes gives us the ability to discern groupings. Granted, those groupings are not discrete, but are still useful in finding out where someone’s ancestors came from (including Neandertal ancestors). Were this not true, firms like 23 And Me would be of no use whatsoever.
I recommend you read the article. I’ll just reproduce three “objections” that, say Winegard et al., ideologues or those willfully or simply ignorant of genetics raise against the concept of “race”. (Since that word is now irretrievably loaded and pejorative, I prefer to use the term “ethnic groups”.) Their words are indented (mine flush left), and they deal with each objection at length.
(Objection 1): Human variation is clinal or gradual, not discrete. Skin pigmentation, for example, does not come in four, five, or seven distinct colors, but varies gradually from very dark near the equator to very light in Northern Eurasia.
True, but that doesn’t constitute a refutation of genetic clustering.
The most common objection we meet among those denying biological differences between groups is the next one:
. . . . (Objection 2): Human genetic variation is much greater within human populations than among human populations; therefore, variation that exists between groups is of little scientific interest.
This claim is true in a circumscribed sense, but is largely irrelevant to the question of whether population group differences are biologically meaningful. As pointed out by Jeffry B. Mitton and A.W.F. Edwards, the original finding that genetic diversity among human races is insubstantial compared to genetic diversity within races [JAC: this “original finding” came from an analysis by my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin] was based on a peculiar way of measuring genetic variation. Roughly speaking, the original claim about genetic diversity was based on analyses at single genetic loci (spots on the chromosome where genes are located) and not on analyses that considered the correlated structure of multiple genetic loci (many locations). Failure to consider multiple loci assures that broad, distinct patterns of allele (gene) frequencies get lost in the noise of diversity at single loci. This sounds painfully abstruse, but the basic point is this: patterns that are nearly invisible for individual genes become visible if one examines multiple genes at the same time (i.e., looks at gene 1 + gene 2 + gene 3 + gene 4…et cetera).
Empirical studies bear this logic out. The geneticist Hua Tang and her colleagues, for instance, found that self-reported ethnicity corresponded almost perfectly with genetic clusters from 326 microsatellite markers (a microsatellite marker is a piece of repetitive DNA in which a series of DNA base pairs are repeated). Other studies have demonstrated even more power to identify people’s ancestry accurately. These studies illustrate that, whatever the meaning of the claim that there is much more variation within than among races, researchers can, if they use the appropriate procedures, distinguish human ancestral groups from each other with remarkable accuracy. The significance of these genetic differences among groups is entirely an empirical question.
Here’s a quote from the abstract of the Tang et al. paper, published in The American Journal of Human Genetics, an excellent journal. The article is free online:
Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity. On the other hand, we detected only modest genetic differentiation between different current geographic locales within each race/ethnicity group. Thus, ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ethnicity—as opposed to current residence—is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population.
Finally, the last objection:
. . . . (Objection 3): Human racial classifications are arbitrary. For some purposes, categorizing by skin color is useful; for other purposes, categorizing by, say, antimalarial genes, is useful. These classifications, although equally valid, lead to radically different racial categories. Thus, one particular classification scheme is no better than the other and none are particularly illuminating.
This claim is wrong. While a particular “classification” may be somewhat arbitrary, that doesn’t deny that some classification schemes are better than others. It would be ludicrous, for example, to classify groups simply by the frequency of Landsteiner blood type (A, B, AB, or O), while it makes a lot more biological sense (and tells us a lot more about evolution and human history) to do multivariate grouping using as many genes as you can.
This article is PCC(E) Recommended Reading.
A final point. The article doesn’t deal with another question that’s worth debating: is all research on differences between sexes and ethnic groups even worth doing? That question is a hard one. If you think “yes, because any result would be interesting”, consider whether you’d approve of a project that sets out to determine whether Jews are genetically more acquisitive of money than are other groups.