Once again: are “races” social constructs without scientific or biological meaning?

July 19, 2022 • 9:20 am

Every day, it seems, I hear that “races have no biological reality or meaning; they are purely social constructs.” And that statement is somewhat misleading, for even the crudely designated races of “white, black, Hispanic, and East Asian” in the U.S. are, as today’s paper shows, biologically distinguishable to the point where if you look at the genes of an unknown person, you have a 99.86% chance of diagnosing their self-identified “race” as one of the four groups above. That is, if you ask a person how they self-identify as one of the four SIRE groups (SIRE: “self identified race/ethnicity), and then do a fairly extensive genetic analysis of each person, you find that the groups fall into multivariate clusters.

More important, there’s little deviation between one’s SIRE and which genetic cluster they fall into. Over 99% of people in the sample from this paper can be accurately diagnosed as to self-identified race or ethnicity by looking at just 326 regions of the genome.

This in turn means that there are biological differences between different SIREs, so race cannot be simply a “social construct.” This is in direct contradiction between the extreme woke view of “race”, as expressed in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a statement I discussed in an earlier post:

Race and ethnicity are social constructs, without scientific or biological meaning.

Nope, and we’ve known that statement is wrong for nearly 20 years. Of course, if you take “biological meaning” as “data show that there are a finite number of distinct groups with huge genetic differences”, then it is a correct statement. But nobody thinks that any more except for racists or those ignorant of modern population genetics in humans.

The meaning of the biological reality adduced in papers like the one we’re discussing today is this: genes can be used to diagnose biological ancestry, which is surely involved in one’s SIRE. And therefore “races” or “ethnicities” aren’t just made-up groups, but say something about the evolutionary origin of group members.

As I said, the “old concept” of races as a small number of genetic groups that differ strongly in their genes is dead. But there are still groups, and there are groups within groups, and groups within groups within groups. Thus genetic variation in our species is hierarchical, as expected if variation among groups evolved in geographically isolated populations, between which there was some but not complete mixing.

This view of human variation leads me to abandon the use of the word “race” in general and use “ethnicity” instead. I’ll use “race” in this article, though, as I’m addressing the JAMA statement above, and also using individuals’ own diagnosis of their own “race”.

I’ve emphasized this before—in August of last year. There I cited the 2002 paper of Rosenberg et al. reporting that “one can show by using data from many genes and gene sites, and clustering algorithms, that humanity can be shown to form genetic clusters that correspond to geography (different continents or subcontinents), which of course correspond to evolutionary history.” As I also said then,

. . . . the paper of Rosenberg et al.,. . .  shows that the genetic endowment of human groups correlates significantly with their geographical location (for example, if you choose to partition human genetic variation into five groups (how many groups you choose is arbitrary), you get a pretty clear demarcation between people from Africa, from Europe, from East Asia, from Oceania, and from the Americas. (To show further grouping, if you choose six groups, the Kalash people of Asia pop up). This is one reason why companies like 23 And Me stay in business.

This association of location with genetic clustering (and these geographic clusters do correspond to old “classical” notions of race) is not without scientific meaning, because the groupings represent the history of human migration and genetic isolation. That’s why these groups form in the first place. Now you can call these groups “ethnic groups” instead of “races”, or just “geographic groups” (frankly, you could call them almost anything, though, as I said, I avoid “race”), but they show something profound about human history. The statement in bold above could be used to dismiss that meaning, which is why I consider that statement misleading.

The Rosenberg et al. paper was published two decades ago, and since then we are now able to look at more genes (potentially the entire genome of individuals) and use bigger samples over smaller areas. When we do that, we’re able to see the clusters within clusters. Here’s a reference to a 2008 paper:

Even within Europe,a paper by Novembre et al. reported, using half a million DNA sites, 50% of individuals could be placed within 310 km of their reported origin and 90% within 700 km of their origin.. And that’s just within Europe (read the paper for more details). Again, this reflects a history of limited movement of Europeans between generations.

I wanted to delve a bit into the 2005 paper of Tang et al. (mentioned in my earlier post), because it concentrates on self-reported race or ethnicity, not geographic origin, but also looks at variation over space. geography. Click on the title below to read the paper (pdf here and reference at bottom).

Tang et al. got their data from a study of hypertension in which individuals gave blood and also indicated their self-identified race as one of the four groups mentioned above. Then, each of the 3,636 individuals (taken from 15 geographic locales in the U.S., and three from Taiwan) were analyzed for 326 “microsatellite” markers—short repeated segments of DNA. (These segments may not all be independent because of genetic linkage, but certainly a lot of them are independent. The authors don’t discuss this issue, which is relevant but not invalidating.)

Tang et al. then determined whether the microsatellite data fell into clusters using on multiple genes and the clustering algorithm “structure”—the method also used by Rosenberg et al. to show ethnic variation was correlated with geography. Remember, the Tang et al. study took place mostly in American populations, with each SIRE sampled from several places. But the geographic sampling within the U.S. was limited (e.g., “Hispanics” came from only one place in Texas), and this is a potential problem.

Tang et al. did indeed find clustering using multivariate analysis: here are the clusters for all sites and SIRE combinations. Note that there are four clusters: one each for self-identified Caucasians from 6 populations (upper left), East Asians from 7 populations (middle right), African-Americans from 4 populations (lower left), and self-identified Hispanics from a single location (“K” from Starr County, Texas). Clearly we need more data from self-identified Hispanics from other areas, especially because “Hispanic” can denote many diverse ancestries.

The clusters are pretty distinct. Not only do are they distinct, but they match almost perfectly an individual’s self-identified race or ethnicity. As the authors note:

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.

As I said earlier “there is almost perfect correspondence between what “race” (or ethnic group) Americans consider themselves to be and the genetic groups discerned by cluster algorithms.  Because these are Americans, and move around more, the genetics reflect ancestry more closely than geography, though, as Novembre et al. found, in Europe geographic origin is also important. Americans move around more than Europeans do!I

In other words, individuals within a cluster are more geographically dispersed than what Novembre et al. found, so that membership in a cluster indicates ancient ancestry, not geographic origin. For example, members of the “East Asian” cluster come from Taiwan, Hawaii, and Stanford.

But to show that there are clusters within clusters, so that “East Asian” can’t be considered a “race” in the old sense, the authors repeated the cluster analysis using only the East Asian sample, and found that those of Chinese ancestry formed a cluster distinct from those of Japanese ancestry.  This is expected if self-identified ethnicity still reflects genetic differences that evolved in Asia. You would doubtless find similar relationships if you dissected Caucasians or African-Americans by the location of their ancestors.

What this shows, then, is that in the US, and in a limited sample of populations whose members self-identified their “race” into one of four groups, those groups can be differentiated using multiple segments of the genome. Not only that, but the differentiation is substantial enough that if you had an individual’s genetic information without knowing anything about them, you could diagnose their “self identified race/ethnicity” with 99.86% accuracy.

The take-home message:

In the U.S.—and in the world if you look at the Rosenberg study—one’s self-identified race, or race (again, I prefer “ethnicity”) identified by investigators—are not purelysocial constructs. Ethnicity or race generally say something about one’s ancestry, so that those members of the same self-identified race tend to group together in a multigenic analysis.

Note that this does not mean that there is extensive genetic differentiation between self-identified races. The old conclusion from my boss Dick Lewontin that there is more variation within an ethnic group than between ethnic groups remains true. But there is enough genetic difference on average that, if you lump all the genes together, the small differences accumulate sufficiently to allow us to diagnose a person’s self-declared race. Remember, these are “self-declared” groupings, so you can’t say they are imposed on the data by investigators. (That of course doesn’t mean that they aren’t social constructs. They may be in some sense, but they’re also social constructs that contain scientific information.)

So, the big lesson is that the JAMA was wrong: if races/ethnic groups can be diagnosed with over 99% accuracy by using information from many bits of the genome, then the statement “Race and ethnicity are social constructs, without scientific or biological meaning” is simply wrong. Race and ethnicity, even when diagnosed by individuals themselves, do have scientific biological meaning: namely, they tell us about an individual’s ancestry and where their ancestors probably came from. This is true in the U.S. (this paper) or worldwide (the Rosenberg et al. paper). Further, if you look on a finer scale, as Novembre et al. did, you can even diagnose what part of Europe a European’s ancestors came from (it’s not perfect, of course, but it’s pretty good).

This is not a new conclusion, and the papers I’ve cited are older ones.  There may be newer ones I haven’t seen, but I’d be willing to bet that their results would be pretty much the same as that above. Though genetic differentiation between groups is not large, it’s sufficient to tell us where they came from, confirming that geographic origin (reflecting ancient geographic isolation) is the source of what we call ethnic or racial differences.

Just remember this: when you hear that human race/ethnicity is a purely social construct, and doesn’t say anything about biology or evolution, that’s just wrong.

I shouldn’t have to point out that these genetic differences in no way buttress racism, for we don’t even know what they mean in terms of individual traits. But they do give us insights into evolutionary history. And that is something of scientific and biological meaning.

________________________

Reference: Tang H, Quertermous T, Rodriguez B, Kardia SL, Zhu X, Brown A, Pankow JS, Province MA, Hunt SC, Boerwinkle E, Schork NJ, Risch NJ. Genetic structure, self-identified race/ethnicity, and confounding in case-control association studies. Am J Hum Genet. 2005 Feb;76(2):268-75.

42 thoughts on “Once again: are “races” social constructs without scientific or biological meaning?

  1. On the penultimate page of Watson’s Avoid Boring People (2007), he writes that “a priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically.” One wonders whether, at 94, he still stands by this statement.

  2. The “no scientific or biological meaning” claim is a form of blank-slatism mixed with virtue signalling, amounting to: “I’m so anti-racist I’ll deny that races even exist!”.

    1. In A Taste for Death (one of the best of her many fine novels), P D James created a character who had learned a new “religion” at school. “It was anti-racism. It meant what you wanted it to mean; it was easy to learn, a few platitudes, myths, and slogans. It was intolerant, and you could make a moral virtue out of despising the people you disliked. Best of all, it cost nothing. . . “

      1. Interesting that you mention PD James, as I just had a disappointing introductory experience reading a more recent work, ‘The Lighthouse’, which I found too wordy and self-indulgent. I will put your recommendation on my list, though, because I have a feeling that I am overlooking her better writing days.

    2. Yes, it’s somewhat ironic that JAMA, the AAP, and probably all the medical societies are parroting this, at the same time filling their journals with aspects of “racial” disparities in diagnosis, treatment, etc. Does seem contradictory.
      And throw out Bayes and his quaint theorem. If a pale, blue-eyed, blond Norwegian teen arrives in your clinic with joint pains, he needs to be tested for sickle cell disease, every bit as much as a darkly pigmented central African. Etc.

      1. They square the contradiction by increasingly claiming that the racial disparities are all the result of (presumably white) racism, systemic racism, etc., rather than any underlying biological differences.

      2. i think the best that can be said about the JAMA platitude is that it calls on doctors to treat all patients as individuals and not presuppose that the treatment, once you’ve made a diagnosis with the help of Bayes, will be circumscribed by pseudo-scientific racial considerations.* But certainly the AMA pretends the science doesn’t exist and it misleads seriously with its bald statement of ex cathedra fact. It is also, as you say, a curious justification for the social-justice crusading that they want us to join in with. Races don’t exist, except as a vehicle for group special treatment. Ordinary practising doctors must adopt a specific partisan political position. That’s one social construct I could do without.

        I can imagine a med school professor of hematology trying to teach sickle-cell disease. He would explain how the gene mutation for glutamate->valine remains at high frequency in falciparum malarious regions of Africa and would finish by reminding students they had to consider the diagnosis as a cause of joint pain in any patient “of African origin.”

        Puzzled student steeped in anti-racism all his life puts up his hand. “But how can we tell if a patient has African origin?”

        Loud voice from the back row: “Because he’s Black, Dumbass!!”

        Bayes lives!
        ———————-
        * As Jerry says, we know very little about what these racially correlated genetic differences code for in terms of individual traits—perhaps none of them do. They are allowed to vary and drift to the extent that they don’t compromise important biological processes or, like sickle, confer advantage in particular environments. But if you did find a gene, or a suite of genes, that predicted total failure of mRNA Covid vaccines and these genes were found only in many people who self-identified as Black, then you would have scientific justification to test for those genes in Black people before offering an mRNA vaccine. If those genes predicting non-response were almost never found in white people it would be wasteful to test them first. So a race-based testing policy which would result in less vaccination of Black people would be scientifically justified. Ergo, not merely a social construct. But the policy would still be attacked as racist.

        If the public health authority didn’t test, therefore, and vaccinated everyone, the lower efficacy in Blacks who had the genes would show up as more deaths. Even if you pointed to studies showing a high prevalence of non-response genes among Blacks, the advocates would decry the studies as racist—race is only a social construct, remember—and ascribe the higher death rate to systemic racism.

        1. And this is not just hypothetical. E.g. this from the UK:

          “… identified a stretch of DNA on chromosome 3 which doubled the risk of adults under 65 of dying from COVID. […] Sixty percent of people with South Asian ancestry carried this higher-risk version of the gene compared to 15 percent of those with European ancestry – explaining in part the higher death rates and hospitalisations in the former group.” (link)

          (And yes, at the time, the media did indeed attribute that differential death rate to “systemic racism”.)

          1. That’s an important study, thanks Coel. It is an example of genetic differences that you’re likely to find in real life. Since the baseline risk of death under 65 is very low, doubling it doesn’t seem like much. But everyone under 65 in a rich country who died of Covid died after a long stay weeks-months in an ICU. Doubling deaths could have meant tripling or quadrupling the ICU demands from severe disease (—not all ICU patients died.). This would have been an easily detectable signal, and was, in the suburban city of Brampton and adjacent North-West Toronto which are heavily South Asian. And Black. But Black people did not die in Canada at anything like the rates of South Asians, or like the rates among Blacks and Hispanics in the United States. Yet South Asians in Canada tell pollsters that they don’t experience racism in everyday life and out-marriage is common. Many recent immigrants are getting impatient with Canada because the government is too woke.

            But consider: given the two prevalences of 0.6 and 0.15, you have limited accuracy in guessing that a South Asian has the gene, and a white person doesn’t. You’d be wrong 40% of the time for the former, and 15% of the time for the latter. Further, even if you knew the South Asian had the gene, his risk of dying goes up to 1.5% from the 0.75% we had for all under-65s. (Both risks are of course much higher among the subset needing hospital admission, the likely focus of the study.). You’re not going to deny him a ventilator on the basis of futility just because of that test. You’re still going to treat as best you can because neither his race nor the gene result (if you knew it) condemns him to die.

            It does provide a meaningful counter to the argument that higher death rate in South Asians was all down to the provincial government’s refusal to make Amazon pay two weeks of sick leave to workers at their Brampton fulfillment centre, the systemic racism argument. Amazon did make diligent efforts to reduce infection in the warehouse but said two weeks off was not affordable. Vaccine uptake was slow to gain acceptance among South Asians too, and compliance with social lockdown orders was poor as well. Many also traveled to India for weddings and business at the height of the pandemic. So lots of reasons, as you see in real life. But racially distributed gene differences did play a role.

            Note: when I refer her to “South Asians”, I mean Canadian permanent residents of South Asian ancestry, typically from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, but also some Caribbean Islands and Guyana.

  3. I think the statement “Race and ethnicity are social constructs, without scientific or biological meaning” probably falls, for those using it, under the category of “things we must deny because even to allow discussion provides comfort and leverage for bad people”. Transgender absolutism is another example. Basically it’s the same sentiment as uttered by an Anglican bishop’s wife in 1859 when she first heard the idea of evolution by natural selection outlined: “I do hope that what Mr. Darwin is saying is not true; and if it is, I hope it does not become generally known.”

      1. Ah, thanks Lorna. I looked for a source online but couldn’t find one — can you direct me?

  4. I see nothing with which to argue about in this post. As I commented late yesterday in the Discussion Thread:
    The public discussion about race is based on local (in place and time) social constructs. In the USA, because of the whole slavery thing, we have pretty much polarized to Black and White, oh and then Asians, Hispanix (joke), Native Americans (formerly yellow, brown, red). Just dumbing all the way down to supposed skin color, at least in nomenclature. Another place, another time, you get different groups being socially recognized as different ‘races’, perhaps emphasizing other phenotypic characteristics instead of or in addition to skin tone.

    Ah but see the thing is, those phenotypic characteristics being used to differentiate local social-construct ‘races’ do in fact owe to genetic differences which are inherited. So aggregate phenotype does–pretty much–reflect one’s geographic ancestry.

    Human genetic diversity is hierarchical; there are differences between villages in Wales and between Wales and England, Britain vs. the Continent (a problematic phrase), equally Japan vs. Taiwan, Europe vs. Asia, Old vs. New World. At what level of the hierarchy do you want to differentiate groups? You can have as many races as you want to have. Armand Leroi: “Race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences…One could sort the world’s population into 10, 100, perhaps 1,000 groups”, and describes Europeans, Basques, Andaman Islanders, Ibos, and Castilians each as a “race” [source]

    But I agree that “ethnicity” better captures that hierarchical concept than the history-freighted term “race”.

    1. [ I’m hastily commenting – maybe typos ]

      Richard Lewontin wrote a book for Scientific America in the 80’s titled Human Diversity. Even though it is old, IMHO it is well worth study, and is masterfully written.

  5. This is all so very absorbing to this here non-biologist. So what does this tell us about the relationship between modern humans and ancient humans? Clearly there were physical differences. I understand Neanderthals can be identified by the structure of their inner ear. But we could have sex and produce viable offspring. Is it that our classification systems need revising?

    1. I think the answers are still coming in, but what we can say is that groups of ancient humans (or even humans from just 1000 years ago) had little ability to move around and mix their genes with other groups. (Researching my own ancestry, I was surprised to see that so many of my ancestors going back hundreds of years – and all their brothers, cousins, etc. – lived, married, and died in the same small town.) This allowed differential evolution into identifiable subgroups with different characteristics.

      For the past few hundred years, and especially the past 70 or so, technology has enabled rapid movement of people around the globe. Already this is blurring the boundaries between the discrete human groups. The mass migration expected in the coming decades may not only blur them further but blot some of them out entirely. But on the other hand most people (>90%) still marry within their ethnicity. Who knows what the final result will be?

      In short, isolation was key to the creation of discrete human populations, but that isolation is quickly eroding. We are in a transition period. Towards what, we don’t know…

  6. [ sigh ]

    Excellent piece, as usual, in this.

    “Race” is, of course, related to “racism”. We all know that.

    … part of what makes life interesting is where we all came from. It just adds to the mission of finding friends, to have an idea of that – race, ethnicity, etc.

    …just brainstorming. Thanks.

  7. I consider myself to be fairly progressive, but I have to wonder why these genetic facts aren’t embraced by the blank slaters. Racial identity has become so terribly precious, and here is an opportunity to build it on a firm foundation of undeniable fact. These genetic markers are a gift; a physical inheritance of my forebearers who I carry with me in all of my cells and will pass on into the future. How cool is that?
    I think I know why. The traditional racial stereotypes were also all about inherent abilities and non-abilities, a genetic pre-destiny if you will, and so there is a great anxiety to expunge and deny all of that negative stuff and anything that has to do with it. No whiff of inheritable traits can be even acknowledged to exist.

  8. This doesn’t convince me. As I proposed yesterday, we could split humans by their ability to wiggle ears. People would be able to correctly self-identify into the correct race, ear-wigglers and stiff-ears, and you could find the genetic basis, too, and tell from genes who goes into which category. That doesn’t make this classification system any better than any other. The “realness” you are after must go beyond picking out certain traits.

    You might argue that the clusters are about many traits, which correlate. But the evidence here suggests that you can tell with high accuracy where someone is from within 700km and yet I’m not aware of a race classification system that attempts to sort people into groups like Lombardians, Normandians or Silicians. It’s just a historical fluke that the USA wasn’t settled by great numbers of turkish people, else you’d wound up with a “Turkish Race”.

    Hispanics are a different race in the USA, therefore Spanish people in Europe must be a different race than the French and Portuguese that sandwich them, who are apparently caucasians? I think it’s not good enough that you can tell someone is from Spain, and from which region — that doesn’t make them a separate race.

    With your exact same data, I conclude that races are a (weak) social construction. While the classification is based on discoverable features, and genetic clusters exist, it doesn’t give enough justification for sticking to that level of granularity, and then give those specific clusters names.

    In which way is it meaningful to split Europe apart in a Caucasian Race, and an area where the Hispanic Race lives? This sounds somewhat silly to me. Further, why are people who live in Europe paired up with light-skinned people in the USA? Sure, there is obviously ancestry. But in 99% of the time “White” (or “Black”) is used to talk about a specific situation in the USA. But in that sense, Europeans aren’t those “whites” — they are Finns, Danes, Germans, Dutch and so on.

    Further, in what way are Nigerians who come to visit in the US “blacks”? I say, they aren’t. They have little to do with that conversation. They might be mistreated like Blacks, due to racism, which is where the social constructivist would say: black is someone who makes specific racist experiences. Of course, racist experience are based on how someone looks, which depends on genetics, too.

    1. Of course you’re not convinced; nothing could convince you. We are using gene clusters that probably don’t code for traits, but do correlated with traits that have been used to recognize ethnic groups and ancestry.

      And, as I said, and which you didn’t read, people are more mobile in the US than in Europe. Further, there are “ethnic groups” in Europe; they just don’t call them “races”. That’s why I use the term “ethnic group” rather than “race”. And of course you ignore the Rosenberg et al. data which show, using different genes, that genetic clusters correlated with geographic isolation, which is how ethnic groups arise in the first place.

      I didn’t do the splitting; people themselves, do, so don’t pin this on me. All I’m saying is that self-identified race is not biologically meaningless: it gives information about genetic relatedness and about ancestry.

      Your last paragraph is completely irrelevant to my point. In fact, Africans do cluster with other subsSaharan Africans in the Rosenberg study, so they are members of an ethnic cluster.

      You seem really hung up on the word “race”, which I don’t use myself but used here because it was the subject of the paper. The result of the paper is that one’s self-identification as a member of one of four races in the US can be diagnosed by using microsatellites, MOST OF WHICH PRODUCE NO TRAITS but just reflect evolutionary history. These are the data, and you don’t say why they don’t convince you. But the data are the data; you are “not convinced” for other reasons, most seemingly having to do with the word “race.”

      I don’t want to get into an argument with you, as other sets of data show the same thing: clusters of genes reflect evolutionary history. And a lot of that evolutionary history appears to be captured by one’s self-definition as a member of a “race”. You reject that, and you’re wrong, because the data show otherwise.

      As I said, you have had your say (repeatedly) and I have had mine. That’s enough.

      1. I am hastily commenting so far before reading (it’s a busy day!), so I appreciate this reply – thanks.

    2. In which way is it meaningful to split Europe apart in a Caucasian Race, and an area where the Hispanic Race lives?

      You are trying to look for clear-cut and discrete races here, and then saying that it doesn’t work. You’re right, it doesn’t work. Races are not clear-cut and discrete. That does not mean they are not real. Human “races” (ethnic clusterings) are fuzzy-edged, fractal branching (and sometimes merging) patterns. But fuzzy-edged, fractal branching/merging patterns can still be real and meaningful!

      Note that — in the US context — the term “Hispanic” refers to people who are a mixture of European-derived immigrants to South America and indigenous peoples who migrated down to South America from Siberia long before that. That does not mean that the term “Hispanic” has no meaning except as a social contstruct (my previous sentence is still meaningful!).

    3. Further, in what way are Nigerians who come to visit in the US “blacks”?

      Shared-ancestry clustering with the people taken to the US in the slave trade.

      They might be mistreated like Blacks, due to racism, which is where the social constructivist would say: black is someone who makes specific racist experiences.

      By that definition, people like Glenn Loury and John McWorther (who say that that they experience racism on “minor event once per decade” basis, but who also attest to lots of preferential treatment owing to being black) are not “black”. Now *that* definition is indeed a silly social construct.

      1. Neither Barack Obama nor Kamala Harris is “Black”, either, because neither is a descendant of an enslaved minority in the United States that was kept down by Jim Crow after Emancipation. (Certainly in Canada, where Ms Harris went to high school, she would be regarded as of West-Indian + South Asian heritage. “Brown”, maybe. But not Black.). Her Blackness now is the assumption of an identity for political advancement, specifically the entitlement to deference in her run for President, a social construct if ever there was one.

    4. We could classify people by ear-wiggling, or handedness, but neither are analogous to race. Race describes one’s ancestry, which branches over time in a hierarchical fashion. All Western Europeans are more closely related to each other than any Western European is to any Japanese. But all Europeans and Japanese are more closely related than any of them is to any sub-Saharan African. Etc. Secondly, a Japanese person has Japanese parents, grandparents, etc. going back thousands of years. There’s an unbroken chain of Japanese-ness. Neither the hierarchical grouping nor the unbroken chain of possessing the trait is true of ear-wiggling (presumably). If two Japanese have a child together, the child will be Japanese. If two ear-wigglers have a child, will the child be an ear-wiggler? Maybe not.

      I agree that the racial labels used in the US are sloppy and imprecise. They do roughly correspond to genetic reality, but they group some people that probably shouldn’t be grouped while separating some others who probably shouldn’t be separated. The kind of clustering analysis PCC describes above is on much better footing.

  9. The fashion trend among blank slaters is to insist on the old, vulgar usage of words like “race” and “gender”, and then virtuously to reject the words.
    Blank slaters start with a generalized dislike of Biology, and also of the mere phenomenon of inheritance, which they used to call “biological determinism”. Hence their suspicion of population genetics and of genetics generally, which surfaces here and there in assertions that Mendel (or Darwin) were “racists”.

    The fashion trend also reflects ignorance at a deeper level: a failure (or a willful refusal) to comprehend the phenomenon of distributions. Thus,
    the very concept of mulivariate clusters, or for that matter of mean or median of distributions, are outside their ken. The reason, I think, is the superstition
    that for true equality everyone must be the same. Hence the rejection of ability or achievement tests of all kinds. This misconstrual of “equality”, an old story on the Left, is fast becoming a new orthodoxy. Of course, their insistence on sameness as a virtue underlies cancel culture as well.

  10. On an adjacent subject here, I find the whole idea about “social constructs” to be just fascinating. Social constructs also “exist”, but these only exist in your head and in how one appears to others. When you meet a stranger, you right away get ideas about the persons gender, their possible sexual orientation, their race (more or less), and pretty quickly you start forming a tentative model about where they are from, and even their possible likes and dislikes. Without meaning to (or necessarily wanting to), one starts to put this acquaintance into a provisional box. And meanwhile they are doing the exact same thing to you.

  11. I think pointing out race has biological meaning is important but not sufficient. Because it is clear to me that people who insist race is simply a social construct is mostly politically motivated. They don’t care much about scientific facts and arguments.

    It seems they think if you admit race has scientific meaning, or IQ has scientific meaning, or there are gender differences, then you have to accept all the racism and sexism ideas together.

    Of course, serious thinkers know there are lots of different ideas are related, but also recognize that they can be differentiated. But for ideologically motivated people, it’s all or nothing. For them, to deny racism you have to deny race, to deny sexism you have to deny gender difference (or even gender/sex?), to deny IQ difference among groups you have to deny IQ, etc.

  12. There is madness in all this. Races do not exist, but racists know who to hate, anti-racists know who to blame, and college admissions offices know whom to exclude and whom to usher in. At the same time, we are all undoubtedly Africans if we look hard enough. And some of the groups identified above will be social constructs. A sensible person, being both realistic and trying hard not to offend, will say that race is an old word for clusters of genes that tend to be found together, and are associated with ancient geographic origin. My own cluster has undergone no end of genetic selection through its migration out of Africa, and every organ in my body bears witness to that (except my brain, as it seems to be forbidden to consider brains subject to that kind of evolution; they are all exactly the same all around the world!) As I said, madness!

  13. “Race and ethnicity are social constructs, without scientific or biological meaning”?
    That will lead to much delay in proper diagnosis of diseases, as diseases have different frequencies per ethnicity.

    1. At first I thought, well, if someone of African ancestry presents with sickle-cell symptoms, you’ll know their race without them telling you. But where it is really important is if two people of similar ancestry (say, Ashkenazi Jews) want to have a child, for you’ll want to do early prenatal tests on the fetus to see if it’s got the disease. A “social construct” view of race or ethnicity wouldn’t say that, I think.

      1. Genetic counseling has to be done with great sensitivity, taking into account the wishes and preferences of the couple and leaving society out of it, except that it should be willing to pay for it as a social good. (In societies that pay for other health care.)

        Consider the 2×2 table: (We assume that in all cases abortion is acceptable and available.)
        1) Two Ashkenazi parents want Tay-Sachs testing.
        2) Two Ashkenazi parents don’t want testing, despite having had an affected infant.
        3) Two non-Jewish parents want Tay-Sachs testing just in case. They are having other testing done anyway, so no additional risk from the add-on, just marginal cost.
        4) Two non-Jewish parents don’t want any Tay-Sachs testing.

        1) and 4) are straight forward. In both cases the parents have made some genetic construct of race, however defined, as being important to them and have indicated their preferences. I don’t have answers for 2) and 3) but I think how you answer them gets at not just what you mean by race but also the human dimension of people who have to interpret statistical frequencies and decide for themselves.

        1. All I was trying to say is that for some groups, like the Ashkenazi, they are at risk because of their genetic ancestry, and for them the idea of an ethnic group is important when it comes to inherited diseases. I do not pretend to have the sensitivity or training to advise people in the situations you mention, and am happy to let the experts handle it. That said, that’s sort of beside the point I was making, which is that ethnic groups (or “races”) do have some biological significance–certainly for evolutionary history but also for genetic counseling.

          1. I’m sorry. My reference to genetic counseling was only to add nuance to your, “You’ll want to do early prenatal tests”. You’re right: It was beside the point of scientific vs social constructing. I’ll try to make clear what I meant with Scenarios 2 and 3.

            In my scenario 2), the couple know they must both be heterozygous for the Tay-Sachs allele. For them, their genetic construct of race/ethnicity—the frequency of the allele among Ashkenazi Jews— doesn’t enter as a Bayesian prior into their estimate of their own gene frequency or of this fetus’s risk. They know they each have one and only one recessive allele at that locus. Even if they knew nothing at all about their ancestry, the fact of the affected infant tells them all they need to know, (assuming paternity is not suspect).

            In my scenario 3) the non-Jewish couple is also not appealing to a scientific concept of race/ethnicity. They would be advised that the gene frequency in a person drawn at random from their let’s say European population is so low that they don’t have to worry that both of them could be heterozygous. But, they reply, who’s to say we couldn’t both be carrying the allele from random mating in our ancestors? Instead of relying on the scientific construct of race to exclude them from testing, they lump themselves in with all humanity and want a test to exclude a terrible disease. (Of course, doing a test when the prior probability is exceedingly low is fraught with the risk that most positive tests will be falsely positive and could lead to abortion of a healthy pregnancy. This would be part of the advice they’d get.)

            We’d all agree that Tay-Sachs among Ashkenazi Jews is an excellent example of a scientific construct of race/ethnicity that directly influences medical care. Yet in the exceptions I described it seems not to bear on the preferences of the imaginary parents-to-be who have to decide what to do. In their specific situations, what it means to be Ashkenazi (or not) is more of a social abstraction than a scientific concept that affects their decision.

  14. The fact that studies of human genetics identify clusters of genes that correspond to historical populations or ethnic groups should be of great importance to the medical community, as disease incidence has a genetic component. Pretending that race is entirely cultural can have significant implications in the clinic. Imagine a doctor ignoring genetics simply because of ideology. Pity the poor patient whose doctor ignores the science that can save its life.

  15. “Race” outside of the domain of major genome-wide differentiation seems to not be a well-defined concept, and hence ought to be jettisoned to avoid perpetuating confusion; I agree that “ethnicity” is fine as a placeholder. The set of phenotypic characters that can cluster humans pales in comparison (subjectively speaking) to the uniformity for human language, our derived and unique mechanism of digital infinity. The significance of the latter for political and social equality is clearly far more important than some list of more trivial features (body size, skin color, etc.).

  16. When I visit schools (primary and secondary) here in the UK, I tell the kids that we are all one species – Homo sapiens – and that any differences between us eg skin colour, eye shape, hair type, ability/inability to resist certain diseases etc, are different traits exhibited by that one species. I also tell them that ‘race’ is a word often used to unfairly suggest that one ‘race’ is superior/inferior with regards to others, and that our ancestors in Africa would almost certainly have had dark skins to protect them from the sun’s UV. I continue by saying that if it has not been for the successful survival of our black-skinned ancestors in reaching sexual maturity, and coupled with successful migrations, paler skins would not have appeared. I suggest that ‘racists’ are unaware of this and that it’s a useful tool in combating racism based upon skin colour.

  17. I happened to look at Lasell University on Apple Maps just now – (it must mean something!) – those w/ products Designed in Cupertino can have a gander at this photo directly:

    [ begin quote]
    The Race Card Project
    R (orange) A (brown) C (yellow) E (white)
    Your thoughts
    6 words
    We all have a story
    [ end quote ]

    A sample “6 words” is visible :
    [begin quote ]
    (out of frame)
    inclusion
    acceptance
    fairness
    together
    diverse
    [ end quote]

    … so – observation from the field, I guess. Race is a story and we all have one.

  18. As is so often the case, the devil is in the details. If someone is saying that race categories have no relationship whatsoever to biological reality, they have clearly misunderstood any number of facts or concepts. The categories that you refer to above, however, “white, black, Hispanic, and East Asian,” is definitely a social construct in the sense that one could just as well add “mulatto” to the list, as many cultures do, and it would be an equally valid or functional categorization, perhaps even better. Thus, this list of 4 is in that sense socially constructed. Needless to say, one could also devise other more or less sensible or functional groupings that will pattern onto the genetic reality more or less precisely.
    A nice, though obviously imperfect, analogy is the color spectrum, or let’s say, the rainbow. It is now known that “colors” are constructed in the brain, and it has long been known that different cultures see varying numbers of colors in the rainbow. My WASP culture sees 7, which I obviously think is just fine. Still, it would be nonsense to conclude from this that our, in this sense, socially and neurologically constructed color schemes have no relation to varying light frequencies. They certainly do. Just how you see them and how you divy them up can vary and is a construction.

Leave a Reply