by Greg Mayer
Jerry posted yesterday on an article at Quillette by Bo Winegard, Ben Winegard and Brian Boutwell on biology and race, commending it for its sensibleness. I thought I’d chime in with my own thoughts. Jerry’s a population geneticist and I’m a herpetologist, but our views turn out to be quite similar.
So, here, in a nutshell, is what biology has to say about race. To begin with, race is not a technical term in biology—it is used loosely for any differentiated subdivision of a species. For example, there is a fruit fly in Wisconsin that feeds on hawthorn and apple, and the flies that feed on the different trees are somewhat different, and so people refer to the “hawthorn race” and the “apple race”. Often, as in fact is true in this case, the term “race” is used because people aren’t quite sure exactly how different the forms are from one another.
In zoology, the term “geographic race” does have a well-defined meaning. It means that if you look at an individual of a species, you can tell where it is from, or conversely, that if you tell me where the individual is from, I can tell you what it looks like. For example, there’s a species of lizard in Jamaica that if you brought one back and showed it to me, I could tell you whether it’s from the vicinity of Kingston, or Montego Bay, or Negril, etc. Lizards from these various places are members of the same species because they interbreed with one another where they are in geographic proximity; they are geographic races because I can tell where they are from by looking at them. Geographic races, if they are given taxonomic names, are called subspecies.
With regard to humans, most of the genetic variability is within populations, not between local populations or races. This was pointed out by Dick Lewontin in 1972 (Dick, of course, was Jerry’s dissertation adviser, and my de jure adviser). However, just because most of the variation is within populations doesn’t mean you can’t tell where someone is from by looking at him. The geneticist A.W.F.
Tony Edwards later called the mistaken notion that a majority of variation being within populations precludes identification of population membership “Lewontin’s Fallacy”. [I’ve no idea where I got the idea he was called “Tony”. I’ve never met him, and people who do know him have assured me he’s called “Anthony”.]
As a former student of Lewontin’s, I’m not especially fond of Edwards’ choice of term, but nonetheless Edwards is entirely correct. It is of crucial importance to note that the scientific questions asked by Lewontin and Edwards were different. Lewontin asked “What proportion of genetic variation (in the analysis of variance sense) in humans is within and among populations?” The answer is that roughly 85% is within populations, the rest among local populations and races. That is the answer Lewontin gave in 1972, and it is entirely correct, confirmed by much more molecular data since that time. Edwards asked “Can individual humans be assigned to races from genetic data?”, or, alternatively, “Can human races be diagnosed (in the taxonomic sense of subspecies)?” The answer is yes, they can. Edwards shows that his answer to his question is entirely compatible with Lewontin’s answer to Lewontin’s question. A paper by Rosenberg et al. (2002) clearly illustrates for a large data set the truth of both Lewontin and Edwards’ answers to their respective questions. Lewontin goes on from his finding (with which Edwards entirely agrees), to argue further that this level of difference between races is not worthy of taxonomic recognition. Edwards doesn’t actually express an opinion about whether human races should be recognized taxonomically, but does show that the 85/15 division of within/among population variation is no bar to doing so.
One thing a bit off in the Quillette piece is their claim that Lewontin’s conclusion “was based on a peculiar way of measuring genetic variation.” It was not; it was based on a perfectly natural and obvious way of measuring genetic variation, and, indeed, Dick was right, as Edwards acknowledged. The distinction between single and multi-locus genotypes mentioned by Winegard et al. does not at all nullify Lewontin’s conclusion as to the apportionment of variation. What Edwards showed very clearly is that multi-locus genotypes allow individuals to be reliably assigned to populations, even when most of the variation is within populations. In understanding patterns of genetic variation in humans, it is very important to see that Lewontin and Edwards asked different questions, and that they are both right in their answers to their respective questions.
Lewontin and Edwards agree on the moral equality of human beings; Edwards just doesn’t want that moral equality to depend on any contingent facts of genetic similarity. Lewontin wouldn’t want it to, either, but sees the high genetic similarity among human races (genetic similarity is much lower among races in some other species) as empirical reinforcement for his moral conclusion. The problem with basing human moral and civil equality on empirical claims about human biological similarity is that such claims may prove to be mistaken. Because it does not depend on some empirical finding which new data may put into question, I think Edwards has the more robust basis for his moral conclusion.
As Edwards sums up:
“But it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, once revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality.”
Edwards, A.W.F. 2003. Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy. BioEssays 25:798–801. pdf
Lewontin, R.C. 1972. The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology 6:381-398. pdf
Rosenberg, N.A., J.K. Pritchard, J.L. Weber, H.M. Cann, K.K. Kidd, L.A. Zhivotovsky, and M.W. Feldman. 2002. Genetic structure of human populations. Science 298:2381-2385. pdf