And by “sensible,” of course, I mean a discussion that aligns with my own views. I’ve often written that while there are no finite and strongly genetically demarcated human “races”, there are meaningful and statistically diagnostic differences between populations, ethnic groups, or whatever you want to call them. This is in opposition to the common Left-wing view that races are purely “social constructs” having no biological reality.
Well, there aren’t a finite number of groups whose members are 100% genetically differentiated from other groups. But when you take all genes together, there are sufficient average frequency differences that one can discern statistical clusters that, in turn, allow you to use lots of genes to pretty much diagnose where somebody’s from and who their ancestors were. These “statistical clusters” are real, not social constructs, for they fall out regardless of the politics or biases of the investigator.
Recognizing their existence by no means justifies bigotry or stereotyping, but we shouldn’t dismiss the existence of those clusters simply because, in the past, people with an incorrect idea of “race” have used differences to justify segregation and prejudice. Yet all too often, as with genetic differences among ethnic groups, behavioral differences between the sexes, and evolutionary psychology, those on the Left simply dismiss entire fields because of a fear that scientific research will justify discrimination. And in theory it could, as it did in the past, but it’s better to know the facts and at the same time absorb the idea that the moral and legal equality of all humans, and the equality of opportunity they deserve, does not depend on evolutionary or genetic details. For if it did, then scientific findings could be used to justify prejudice—something that all humanists reject. Asserting that entire fields, like genetic analysis of human ethnic groups, are simply parsing “social constructs” is a form of anti-intellectualism that will stifle scientific progress. If some Leftists had their way, for instance, there would be no evolutionary psychology, no attempt to understand the evolutionary roots of modern human behavior. Do we really want to impose a moratorium on such work?
The recognition of genetic clusters as meaningful entities is the point that David Reich makes in the article given below. Reich, as you may know, is an accomplished professor of genetics at Harvard who’s done a lot of work on DNA-based human and primate phylogenies, human disease genes, interbreeding among ancient lineages of hominins (e.g., Denisovans, Neanderthals, etc.), and mapping human ancestry by looking at statistical grouping. (There’s a big NYT article about his work here.)
I highly recommend you read his essay in the New York Times‘s Sunday Review (click on screenshot):
I’ll give just two quotes from Reich: one about the scientific data and the other about its moral implications—or lack thereof. But read the article!
[After the 1972 paper of my advisor Dick Lewontin], a consensus was established that among human populations there are no differences large enough to support the concept of “biological race.” Instead, it was argued, race is a “social construct,” a way of categorizing people that changes over time and across countries.
It is true that race is a social construct. It is also true, as Dr. Lewontin wrote, that human populations “are remarkably similar to each other” from a genetic point of view.
But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy maintains that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.
The orthodoxy goes further, holding that we should be anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations. The concern is that such research, no matter how well-intentioned, is located on a slippery slope that leads to the kinds of pseudoscientific arguments about biological difference that were used in the past to try to justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews.
I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”
Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years. With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.
Recent genetic studies have demonstrated differences across populations not just in the genetic determinants of simple traits such as skin color, but also in more complex traits like bodily dimensions and susceptibility to diseases. For example, we now know that genetic factors help explain why northern Europeans are taller on average than southern Europeans, why multiple sclerosis is more common in European-Americans than in African-Americans, and why the reverse is true for end-stage kidney disease.
I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims.
And how we should handle the future discoveries of genetics:
For me, a natural response to the challenge is to learn from the example of the biological differences that exist between males and females. The differences between the sexes are far more profound than those that exist among human populations, reflecting more than 100 million years of evolution and adaptation. Males and females differ by huge tracts of genetic material — a Y chromosome that males have and that females don’t, and a second X chromosome that females have and males don’t. [JAC: I find this statement somewhat misleading, because he’s talking about “biological” differences, not differences in genetic content, and the Y chromosome doesn’t have many genes.]
Most everyone accepts that the biological differences between males and females are profound [JAC: Again, it’s not clear what he means by “profound,” but I’d agree that they are there and that they do explain differences between the sexes in both morphology and behavior.] In addition to anatomical differences, men and women exhibit average differences in size and physical strength. (There are also average differences in temperament and behavior, though there are important unresolved questions about the extent to which these differences are influenced by social expectations and upbringing.)
How do we accommodate the biological differences between men and women? I think the answer is obvious: We should both recognize that genetic differences between males and females exist and we should accord each sex the same freedoms and opportunities regardless of those differences.
It is clear from the inequities that persist between women and men in our society that fulfilling these aspirations in practice is a challenge. Yet conceptually it is straightforward. And if this is the case with men and women, then it is surely the case with whatever differences we may find among human populations, the great majority of which will be far less profound.
An abiding challenge for our civilization is to treat each human being as an individual and to empower all people, regardless of what hand they are dealt from the deck of life. Compared with the enormous differences that exist among individuals, differences among populations are on average many times smaller, so it should be only a modest challenge to accommodate a reality in which the average genetic contributions to human traits differ.
It is important to face whatever science will reveal without prejudging the outcome and with the confidence that we can be mature enough to handle any findings. Arguing that no substantial differences among human populations are possible will only invite the racist misuse of genetics that we wish to avoid.
Between the unwarranted pseudoscientific statements of Nicholas Wade and James Watson on one hand (both criticized in Reich’s article) and the genetic blank-slateism of various ideologically-biased scientists and cultural anthropologists (who don’t act like scientists) on the other, lies the reasonable position—the one limned by Reich.
Greg’s Take on Reich’s Article
by Greg Mayer
I also like Reich’s article, but if he hopes to be able to talk about genetic differentiation, he’s going to have to stop accepting the “race is a social construction” fallacy, because that means everyone who thinks race is a social construction, or been convinced it is because they keep getting told it is, will ignore everything else he says. As he points out, there is measurable genetic variation; that that variation can be important (clinically, cognitively, etc.); and that that variation allows the identification of the geographic origin of individuals– and the latter is what race means. (As always, I use the zoological definition of a geographic race or subspecies. Subspecies may be described when it is the case that if you show me a specimen I can tell you where it is from, and, conversely, if you tell me where it is from I can tell you what it looks like.) The mass of genetic data on humans now allows us to divide indigenous populations (i.e. pre-Columbian) into so many races that fit the zoological definition of a race that one of the chief arguments against recognizing races is that there are too many recognizable races– 23 and Me is selling microracial identification on television! Very fine scale genetic data make recognition of geographic groupings so easy that the problem with subspecies isn’t that you can’t tell them apart, but rather you can tell everything apart, even local populations. Nomenclaturally, subspecies are optional, and there could be reasons, both practical and social, not to name them.
Reich cites Dick Lewontin‘s 1972 apportionment of diversity finding (which, of course, is true), but then doesn’t mention (or perhaps even realize) that that finding says nothing about whether there are recognizable races. What Reich does do, although more indirectly than I would, is to argue that human moral equality must not rest upon an empirical finding of no genetic differences, because then the finding of genetic differences will undermine the argument for moral equality. I 100% endorse him on the principle that human moral equality should NOT depend on an empirical argument about genetic differentiation. 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. Tony Edwards, in his commentary on Dick’s 1972 paper, says it quite nicely:
“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.”
[Also, Reich seems terribly naive if he thinks “Most everyone accepts that the biological differences between males and females are profound.” I predict he will be assailed from the left on this point. And, Jerry and I wrote our commentaries independently of one another.]
h/t: Rodney, Greg