About a week ago, the Washington Post published, starting on its front page, a long article arguing that race is a purely social construct without reality or utility, and thus should be eliminated. The author Sydney Trent, is a science journalist who covers social issues, and that may explain why the article was replete with scientific problems, among them the neglect of existing research on ethnic groups (my preferred term for “race”). You can see the article by clicking on the headline below. Since it’ll probably be paywalled if you subscribe, I found the whole article archived here.
Leaving aside the misleading “science says” (science doesn’t say anything, scientists do; and not all scientists agree that race isn’t real), I’ll show you three small excerpts of Trent’s piece:
Yet unlike in decades past, more ordinary Americans are coming to see “race” for what it is, [Carlos] Hoyt maintains. In interviews he conducted for his doctoral thesis and book, these people describe gradually awakening to the idea — through traumatic personal experiences with discrimination, through foreign travel or something they read — that they had been sold a bill of goods. “Race,” they decided, does not exist.
. . . The truth, [Adrian] Lyles, 37, said, is that “race has no quantifiable metric,” like socioeconomic status, for example, he said. “Where you have unreliable input, your data is trash.”
. . . In 2003, the completion of the Human Genome Project — which found that humans globally share 99.9 percent of their DNA — gave waste to the notion of “race” among the vast majority of scientists. But the public appears barely to have noticed. The idea still lives everywhere — in discrimination and criminal profiling, in the rise in hate speech and acts, in the recent Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in college admissions, in the rhetoric of social justice advocates and the new capitalization of Black and White in the media. Racial categorization persists on job applications, medical forms, and most critically to Hoyt due to its high visibility, the Census.
Implicit in Trent’s effort to dethrone the term is the misguided idea that if you think “races” have any biological reality, then that buttresses racism. That need not be true, but, historically, belief in races has been associated with the idea of a racial hierarchy in various traits (most often intelligence), and so I prefer to use “populations” or “ethnicity”, which doesn’t carry that historical taint.
Trent concludes that racial categories should be eliminated everywhere, especially on the census. The problem is that from the DNA figures above, she concludes that “racial categories”—the half-dozen or so “races” recognized in the past (white, black, Asian, and so on)—have no biological significance. But she conflates “racial categories”, the named “boxes” above, with “race”, which I take to mean “a population that is genetically distinguishable from other populations of our species”.
Classical “races” were assumed to be absolutely demarcated geographically and morphologically, and to be separated by substantial genetic differences. We know now that this conception of “race” isn’t true. There are no absolutely clear-cut categories into which everyone fits, genetic differences between even the “classical” races are not large, and there are “races within races”: populations that can be distinguished genetically from other populations often put into the same classical race. Again, that’s why I use “ethnicity” or “population” to refer to such groups.
But there is no doubt that ethnicity, and even the “old fashioned” races, carry meaningful biological information and are genetically differentiable. If they weren’t, then you wouldn’t be able to pay companies like 23andMe to suss out your ancestry, or to trace the history of human migration by using genetic differences between populations. (23andMe told me from my DNA that I am 97.2% Ashkenazi Jew and 2.8% Eastern European, which matches perfectly with what I know from my family history.)
Ethnicity reflects evolutionary history, and if you use thousands of DNA sites (as you see in my letter below, even 99.6% identity between people—not 99.9% as Trent wrote—still leaves, in a genome of 3 billion base pairs, at least 12 million variable nucleotides. That variation is largely correlated with ancestry and geography, so that, for example, the DNA of most Europeans allows you to identify their birthplace to within 500 miles. Luana Maroja and I described the real situation in our recent paper (“The ideological subversion of biology“) in Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine published by the Center for Inquiry. (The race material is under point #5 of the paper.)
And, as I say in my published letter, one study showed that if you ask people to self-identify their “old fashioned” race (they used 3,636 Americans who self identified as either African American, white, East Asian, or Hispanic), and then independently look at their DNA in a blind study, you find that when you compare the DNA with the self-identification, you find a 99.84 percent match! That means that even the widely-reviled “classical” races are genetically differentiable using cluster analysis. This is not surprising because these groups evolved in different parts of the world, and for much of their history they evolved in semi-isolation, leading to the accumulation of differences in the DNA by either genetic drift or natural selection.
At any rate, the Post‘s article was scientifically misleading, and so I set out to correct it by writing a letter to the paper. Mirabile dictu, they published it, and you can find it by either clicking on the screenshot or by simply reading my letter reproduced below the headline.
They edited it fairly heavily for length, so I had to leave out stuff like locating someone’s birthplace from their genes. Still, I think I did make the point that there is substantial genetic variation among people and diagnostic genetic variation among ethnic groups, and that this variation is useful in several ways. If I could make one change, it would be to re-insert something that was cut and that I missed when I reviewed the edits: I would have inserted “large differences in” at the point where I put an asterisk in the letter below.
If you get the paper version of the Post, the letter is on page A27; if you have an online subscription, it’s here (or see my letter and another one by clicking the headline below). They changed the title of Trent’s article after the online version was published to what you see above.
This variation is correlated with ancestry and geography. It is used, for example, by genealogy services to tell people about their ancestry. In forensics, it’s used to identify criminals and bodies. And DNA variation is used to map the location of genes causing disease, an effort with great medical promise because the frequency of genetic diseases such as schizophrenia varies among populations.
Jerry A. Coyne, Chicago
The writer is emeritus professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.
There was also another letter making a different point about racial designations, and I’ll add that, too:
The front-page article “A categorical no to the concept of race” explained how treating race as objective rather than socially constructed has led to demographic confusion while shoehorning people into categories at variance with how they view themselves. As an example, the article mentioned the recent custom of uppercasing “Black” and “White” in American news media. The Post ought to champion a more nuanced standard, perhaps by using lowercase for how people (whose self-identification might be unknown) are viewed by others and uppercase for how they view themselves. The majuscule would then carry the same connotation of intentional membership as it does in the distinction between “Republican” and “republican” or between “Deaf” and “deaf.”
Charles H. Bennett, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Thanks to a reader who encouraged me to write my letter.