On March 23, I called your attention to paleoanthropologist David Reich’s op-ed in the New York Times, “How genetics is changing our understanding of ‘race’.” I thought the article was quite good, one of the few articles that takes a pretty objective and open-minded stand on “race”. It noted that conventionally named races are social constructs (that is, there is no homogenous “black” or “caucasian” race that is diagnostically different from other races), but that even the social constructs reflect elements of history (different groups evolved in geographic isolation, and their genetic constitutions, which still reflect that isolation, can be used to reconstruct evolutionary history and give some help with medical diagnoses).
Reich notes that there has been ample time for different populations to have evolved genetic differences and that, although most variation in humans is found within groups rather than between them, we still do not expect all groups to be exactly equal in any trait that is genetically variable—an expectation that goes for both morphology and behavior. Finally, Reich makes the point—one that I’ve always emphasized—that even if there are group differences, that says nothing about how we should treat individuals, and we need to make it a moral principle that all individuals, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or other biological status, should be afforded equal opportunities, as well as personal treatment based on individual qualities rather than group membership. It is always unwise to predicate moral views on biological realities, for that makes your morality vulnerable to future empirical findings in ways we don’t want. (Of course some aspects of morality, like views on abortion, can vary depending on what science finds out. But I don’t see race this way, as I can’t imagine any genetic discovery that would alter the kind of equality I want in our species.)
This is a reasoned approach to the data, but there are many scholars who reject it, for they are aware of the history of eugenics in which “racial” differences were used to discriminate among (and even kill) people. That happened, and we must be aware of it. But the solution is not to simply deny science or reject whatever science finds about ethnic groups. Rather, we must ground our morality on a fundamental equality of humans based on their individuality.
We should never use ideology as a basis to accept or reject science. That way lies both madness and dissolution, as evidenced by the Lysenko affair in Soviet Russia, in which “Western genetics” was rejected in favor of a bogus form of heredity more congenial to the socialist view of human malleability. The result: millions starved to death. For both gender and ethnicity, much of the Left has an a priori assumption that all groups are equal—something Pinker questioned in his book The Blank Slate. The denial of science, or suppression of research, comes from the fear that any differences could be used to justify sexism, racism, bias, prejudice, and lack of opportunity. But Reich and I are concerned to show that we can have our genetic cake and eat it too: we can create a society of equal opportunity while still studying group and gender differences in our species.
If Reich’s essay had any weakness, it was the conflation of “race” with “population”, though he was concerned with that. As for me, I’m happy to abandon any traditional racial classification of humans, or even the word “race” itself, so long as we replace it with terms like “population” or “ethnic groups” that can help guide genetic and evolutionary research. These other terms have a biological reality not contained in the conventional (i.e., erroneous) use of “race”. Futher, recognizing populations and ethnic groups, fuzzy as they are, is essential in understanding the evolutionary history of humans—and has medical implications as well. What we always need to remember is that human evolution involved the differentiation of geographically isolated groups who evolved some differences, but now, with human movement, those differences are blurring, so that we have a fuzzy and overlapping set of populations. And yet those populations still show statistical differences that are useful. If they didn’t, you couldn’t spit in a test tube and have places like 23andMe give you a pretty accurate take on where your ancestors came from. Nor could we use genetic patterns in modern humans to reconstruct our migration throughout the world. The patterns remain, and have afforded immense understanding of our evolutionary history.
Reich’s article was excerpted from his new book, which just came out and will surely be worth reading (click on screenshot to order):
Reich’s piece, temperate as it was, was widely criticized by readers, who wrote letters to the New York Times. That paper then gave Reich the unprecedented opportunity to respond in a longish piece that was published two days ago. You can read it by clicking on the screenshot below.
Readers were still concerned that science could be used to justify prejudice and inequality, and Reich once again says that we don’t have to let that happen. Some readers repeated the conclusion (first suggested by my advisor Dick Lewontin) that the notion of group differences is meaningless since most variation in our species is within rather than between populations. That’s true, but people don’t understand that this doesn’t bar us from using constellations of genes to discern (not define!) groups and learn something about population structure and human evolution. Finally, in his response Reich lays out six principles which seem eminently reasonable. Number 6 is especially worth your attention.
From my point of view, it should be possible for everyone to hold in their heads the following six truths:
1. “Race” is fundamentally a social category — not a biological one — as anthropologists have shown.
2. There are clear genetic contributors to many traits, including behavior.
3. Present-day human populations, which often but not always are correlated to today’s “race” categories, have in a number of instances been largely isolated from one another for tens of thousands of years. These long separations have provided adequate opportunity for the frequencies of genetic variations to change.
4. Genetic variations are likely to affect behavior and cognition just as they affect other traits, even though we know that the average genetic influences on behavior and cognition are strongly affected by upbringing and are likely to be more modest than genetic influences on bodily traits or disease.
5. The genetic variations that influence behavior in one population will almost certainly have an effect on behavior in others populations, even if the ways those genetic variations manifest in each population may be very different. Given that all genetically determined traits differ somewhat among populations, we should expect that there will be differences in the average effects, including in traits like behavior.
6. To insist that no meaningful average differences among human populations are possible is harmful. It is perceived as misleading, even patronizing, by the general public. And it encourages people not to trust the honesty of scholars and instead to embrace theories that are not scientifically grounded and often racist.
In short, I think everyone can understand that very modest differences across human population in the genetic influences on behavior and cognition are to be expected. And I think everyone can understand that even if we do not yet have any idea about what the difference are, we do not need to be worried about what we will find because we can already be sure that any differences will be small (far smaller than those among individuals).
Reich’s original piece (and response) was not sufficient for 68 scholars, who wrote a joint piece, “How not to talk about race and genetics” (clearly named after Reich’s piece above), taking Reich to task for his “misunderstandings.” This piece was apparently submitted to the NYT but was rejected, so it was published in BuzzFeed.
The thing is, most of the things these scholars criticize were already taken into account by Reich, including the notion that conventional races are social constructs. But the 68 also object to the notion of “populations”, an objection that is unwise given that they admit later in the piece that there are differences between populations—they just don’t fall into the conventional categories of “race”—something that Reich already admitted.
Their main beef seems to be that those like Reich who unravel the genetic patterns of our species need to constantly consult with people like cultural anthropologists and social scientists. I’m not sure this is good advice, since those people have, by and large, tried to foist ideological views onto research on human groups. The bit below, for example, smacks of an unwarranted hubris:
Precisely because the problems of race are complex, scientists need to engage these issues with greater care and sophistication. Geneticists should work in collaboration with their social science and humanities colleagues to make certain that their biomedical discoveries make a positive difference in health care, including the care of those studied.
Of course discoveries should be used constructively, but is that the responsibility of people like Reich, who simply look at the frequencies of disease genes in different groups and the pattern of genetic differentiation across the globe? I don’t think so. How to use the findings of geneticists in medicine is the purview of bioethicists and physicians, not paleoanthropologists.
And have a look at this:
Even “male” and “female,” which Reich invokes as obviously biologically meaningful, has important limitations. While these categories help us to know and care for many human beings, they hinder our capacity to know and care for the millions of human beings born into this world not clearly “sexed.’ Further, overemphasizing the importance of the X and Y chromosomes in determining sex prevent us from seeing the other parts of the genome involved in sex.
Well, yes, there are people not clearly “sexed”, but the categories of “male and female” fit the overwhelming majority of humans, and have and can lead to useful research: both biological and medical. What we see here is more Pecksniffery that invokes rare exceptions to criticize a binary classification that, in the main, is correct and useful.
As for the signatories, there are some geneticists and biologists among them, but they’re outnumbered by anthropologists (I suspect mostly cultural anthropologists), sociologists, physicians, gender and ethnic studies professors, biomedical ethicists, historians, and professors of law. In short, just the mix of people you’d expect to object to Reich’s reasonable take. But you can read and judge for yourself.