Genetics: Under the skin

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Nathaniel Comfort wonders at the enduring trend of misrepresenting race.

  • A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

    Penguin: 2014. ISBN: 978-1594204463

    Buy this book: US| UK| Japan

  • Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century

    Columbia University Press: 2014. ISBN: 978-0231168748

    Buy this book: US| UK| Japan

  • The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

    Harvard University Press: 2014. ISBN: 978-0674417311

    Buy this book: US| UK| Japan

Is race biologically real? A clutch of books published this year argue the question. All miss the point.

Michael Yudell's Race Unmasked and Robert Sussman's The Myth of Race can be read as inadvertent retorts to former New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance, published while the former were in the press. Wade's book is by far the most insidious, but all three are polemics that become mired in proving (in Wade's case) or disproving (in the others') whether race is biological and therefore 'real'. This question is a dead end, a distraction from what is really at stake in this debate: human social equality.

Illustrations by Darren Hopes

Race is certainly real — ask any African American. It originated long before the science of genetics, as sets of phenotypes and stereotypes. These correlate with haplotypes, clusters of genetic variation. In this sense, race is genetically 'real'. But those correlations depend on judgement calls. Wade cites population-genetics studies that identify three principal races: caucasian, African and East Asian. Elsewhere he cites five, adding Australasian and Native American; or seven, splitting caucasians into people from Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. A study in Scientific Reports this year identified 19 “ancestral components”, including Mozabites, Kalash and Uygurs (D. Shriner et al. Sci. Rep. 4, 6055; 2014). Palaeogeneticist Svante Pääbo and others have revealed the underlying human genetic variation to be a series of gradients. Whether and how one parses that variation depends on one's training, inclination and acculturation. So: race is real and race is genetic, but that does not mean that race is 'really' genetic.

The completion of the draft human-genome sequence in 2000 led some optimists to forecast the end of race (one of them, Craig Venter, wrote the foreword to Yudell's book), but use of the term in the biomedical literature has actually increased since then. For clinicians, race is a matter of pragmatism. Although each of us is genetically and epigenetically unique, our ancestry leaves footprints in our genomes. Consequently, clinicians use familiar racial categories such as 'black' or 'Ashkenazi Jewish' as crude markers of genotypes, in a step towards individualized medicine. For them, the reality of race is immaterial; diagnosis and treatment are what count (see page 301).

“Debates over the genetic Reality of race are not mainly scientific but social.”

Debates over the genetic reality of race, then, are not mainly scientific, but social. They deploy the cultural authority of science — considered society's most objective way of understanding the world — as a fig leaf for positions motivated explicitly or implicitly by ideology. All three of these books argue that if the proof or disproof of race is scientific, it must be true. The author must be right. More importantly, his opponents must be wrong.

For Wade, science proves that race is genetic. Much like Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), his book moves smoothly through seemingly reasonable arguments that humans are still evolving, to end up at the retrograde conclusion that Europeans have become the world's richest and most powerful people mainly because they are genetically the most open, curious, innovative and hard-working. Also like The Bell Curve, Wade's book draws heavily on a long tradition of what historians refer to as scientific racism, particularly research connected to the Pioneer Fund, chartered in 1937 in part to “support study and research into the problems of heredity and eugenics” and, as Sussman shows, still deeply involved in eugenic and racial research. Despite such transparently political sources, Wade insists that his argument is based on ideology-free science. On 8 August, 139 population geneticists — including several on whose work Wade based his arguments — signed a letter to The New York Times declaiming his use of their results. Now that those whose work he once categorized as “scientific” instead of “ideological” have come out against the book, Wade has denounced them, too, as being motivated by politics.

By contrast, the 'race realist' and 'human biodiversity' (HBD) groups are delighted with Wade's book. For example, Jared Taylor, editor of the HBD magazine American Renaissance, applauds Wade's argument that (in Taylor's paraphrase), “foreign aid is probably wasted because poor countries are not genetically prepared for the institutions necessary for wealth”. Other pillars of the race-realist movement, such as the website Stormfront and the writer John Derbyshire, gave Wade's book glowing reviews.

A Nature and Scientific American special issue

For both Yudell, a historian of public health, and Sussman, a cultural anthropologist, science proves that race is cultural. In making this case, both devote considerable space to eugenics, the science and social movement concerned with human hereditary improvement. The eugenics movement — particularly in the United States in the early twentieth century and in Nazi Germany — offers a cornucopia of evidence of scientific racism. But, in focusing on the US movement's most egregious leaders, such as Charles Davenport, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, both Yudell and Sussman over-simplify. Eugenics was about much more than just race. Recent scholarship has documented the pervasiveness and adaptability of the US and UK eugenic creed and the complicated ways it mingled with race, public health and feminism. Sussman and Yudell both, for example, discuss the efforts of the distinguished black leader W. E. B. Du Bois against white-supremacist eugenics in the early twentieth century. But both fail to mention his concern over black “dysgenics” and his eugenically inflected “talented tenth” campaign, which sought to identify the “best of this [black] race”. Not all eugenics is racist, and most racism is not — or not principally — eugenic.

For both Yudell and Sussman, the antidote to eugenic hereditarianism was cultural anthropology, developed by Franz Boas and his students in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Boas coined the word culture in its modern sense, and became perhaps the greatest opponent of the biological concept of race. He and his students studied human societies through an entirely cultural definition of human difference. Boas found, for example, that cranial characteristics that had been claimed to be innately racial were the result of differences in nutrition and overall health. Sussman and Yudell insist that Boasian anthropology scientifically proved that race is not genetic.

Their arguments then diverge. Sussman becomes, if possible, more polemical, whereas Yudell grows slowly less so. The former returns to the history of scientific racism, providing a passionate account of the continuing influence of the Pioneer Fund. Yudell's late chapters, by contrast, trace the struggle to strip racism from race science.

Yudell offers a rich analysis of the statements on race by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) — a string of contentious multidisciplinary reports that sought to document scientific knowledge on race while denouncing racism, starting in 1950. The project's myriad authors split into two factions. One, led by Boas's student Ashley Montagu, wanted to call race a fiction, a product of culture. The other insisted that genetics showed that race was real. Theodosius Dobzhansky, a brilliant population geneticist, was intellectually invested in the genetic concept of race, yet morally invested in anti-racism. “Dobzhansky's paradox”, in Yudell's phrase, was how to save biological race theory without sounding racist. He never did — and nor have we, Yudell concludes poignantly.

A full-throated, intellectually rigorous anti-racism must critically assess both biological and cultural evidence about race. It must acknowledge that no work on race science can be free of ideology — and, precisely for that reason, it must not place historical actors before a moral green screen showing an image of contemporary values. Rather, it must set the stage for each scene with meticulous, empathetic historical detail. Such work would allow the scientific study of 'racial superiority' — inherently grounded in subjectivity and bias — to fall on its own sword.

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  1. Nathaniel Comfort is at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. His latest book is The Science of Human Perfection.

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  1. Report this comment #64129

    Upinder Fotadar said:

    Evidently God (or Gods may be there are more than one) made our planet colorful by means of variety. While morally no Race or Religion must look up or down on any other, yet diversity makes life captivating for most of us. Imagine if we all looked alike; life would surely be monotonous!

    Many ancient people like us Indians have our own texts which describe our ethnicity pretty accurately since ancient times. For example, we in Kashmir have the Rajataringini (a credible history of Kashmir written in the 12 century C.E) which describes the looks of the Kashmiris quite vividly during that period.

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  2. Report this comment #64131

    Michael Lerman said:

    Race, intelligence, and human evolution are related problems and highly divergent views are contested. Here is a question: why "modern" humans originated in South Africa not anywhere else?
    Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.

  3. Report this comment #64133

    Upinder Fotadar said:

    The Out of Africa Origin hypothesis of Humankind is politically loaded and based on conjecture. While research on this discipline must be pursued, however, in my opinion we shall never have a concrete answer to this mystery.

    Moreover, under such circumstances I would rely more on our Hindu epics which describe Manu as the first man. The word Man probably is linked to Manu.

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  4. Report this comment #64141

    Nathaniel Comfort said:

    I am a historian, not a geneticist, but the thesis that Homo sapiens originated in Africa is based on solid fossil and genetic evidence. However, truly scientific theses are always open to revision--it is never wise to assume that any current theory will prove eternal. Currently there is hot debate over how much early and proto- humans hybridized (e.g. with Neanderthals), and whether we might better think of more than one species contributing to the formation of "modern man."

  5. Report this comment #64147

    Upinder Fotadar said:

    Even a good high school student could probably find the hypothesis ludicrous which suggests that the oldest fossil of a particular kind found is certainly the first of that specific organism. Imagine finding the oldest known coin and then suggesting it is the first one minted! Moreover, racial genetics quite in contrast to forensic genetics remains a subjective discipline and a clever expert has the ability (if he or she desires) to fix data.

    Dr. Upinder Fotadar

  6. Report this comment #64149

    Nathaniel Comfort said:

    Actually finding the oldest known coin and hypothesizing that coin-minting began there is a perfectly scientific approach--so long as one keeps searching for older coins, both there and elsewhere, and for other signs of coin-minting. How else would you do it?

    I agree with you on forensic genetics. It is different from racial genetics.

  7. Report this comment #64161

    Lewis Robinson said:
    "Boas found, for example, that cranial characteristics that had been claimed to be innately racial were the result of differences in nutrition and overall health. Sussman and Yudell insist that Boasian anthropology scientifically proved that race is not genetic."

    Boas and anthropology are a thin reed for arguments against racism. Boas data were re-analyzed --

    [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 99 pp. 14622 – 14623, 14436 – 14439 '02 ] Retzius invented the the cephalic index in the 1890s. It is just the widest breadth of the skull divided by the front to back length. One can be mesocephalic, dolichocephalic or brachycephalic. From this index one could differentiate Europeans by location. Anthropologists continue to take such measurements. Franz Boas in 1910 ? 1913 said that the USA born offspring of immigrants showed a ?significant? difference from their immigrant parents in their cephalic index. This was used to reinforce the idea that environment was everything.

    Boas made some 13,000 measurements. This is a reanalysis of his data showing that he seriously misinterpreted it. The genetic component of the variability was far stronger than the environmental. Some 8500 of his 13,000 cases were reanalyzed.

  8. Report this comment #64163

    Nathaniel Comfort said:

    Boas's work has come under scrutiny, from both scientists and historians. He too seems to have not only allowed his ideology to condition his questions--from which no one is immune--but to determine his answers. There wasn't space to include this analysis, but it strengthens my argument.

    Interestingly, since this came out, the HBD folks have been jumping down my throat, calling me a Boasian and a "dogmatic New Creationist." Hard to understand, given my critical take on Boasian environment-only arguments--unless "dogmatic" is simply a euphemism for "disagrees with us." Talk about ideology determining your conclusions.

  9. Report this comment #64165

    Lewis Robinson said:

    "Boas's work has come under scrutiny, from both scientists and historians. He too seems to have not only allowed his ideology to condition his questions--from which no one is immune--but to determine his answers. There wasn't space to include this analysis, but it strengthens my argument."

    Unfortunately, the lack of space makes the review read as though you agree with Sussman and Yudell's use of anthropology as being authoritative.

  10. Report this comment #64233

    John Bonaccorsi said:

    The author's intention is apparently to bring comparative study of the races to an end by suggesting that it involves epistemological challenges so great or so fundamental or so something that they render such study meaningless. He's unpersuasive and is obviously motivated solely by his own distress at racism. Even his initial acknowledgment of the reality of race is not scientific but polemical, quasi-literary, an expression of pity. ("Race is certainly real--ask any African American.") One wonders why such an article was published in a magazine of science.

  11. Report this comment #64335

    Adam Cherson said:

    As a researcher in the field of environmental genography I would like to add a few words to this discussion.

    The subject of genography and genetic ancestry triggers uneasiness due to its association with racist genetics, eugenics, and biological determinism. As written by Gould in his ?Mismeasure of Man?, the notion that ?the social and economic differences between human groups?primarily races, classes, and sexes?arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology?? is not scientificallly sustainable. The study of environmental genography is in complete accord with Gould?s verdict.

    Genography does not purport to explain social differences on the basis of genetics. However, the fact that these associations are not biologically determined does not negate the fact that associations do exist between ancestral genetic haplogroups and certain contemporary aspects of society and culture. For instance, it is possible to examine access to, or use of, certain natural resources according to ancestral haplogroup ( Similarly, it is possible to estimate current population densities of the ancestral haplogroups. These are but two example applications of genographic data for social science and policy purposes. I think Gould?s point is that these differences are not pre-determined; they are rather management choices.

    Therefore, while genetic differences are not determinative of social and economic differences, looking at social data through the lens of ancestral genetics can provide important information as to the actual state of the distribution of many social goods across the globe as well as the morality of these distributions. Furthermore, there is no reason to reject the hypothesis that social and economic differences between human groups are the result of cultural differences and that these cultural differences are in turn associated (albeit not caused) with ancestral genealogies. That these associations may be arbitrary and not biologically determined does not negate their existence nor the utility of studying the associations, nor does it deny the possibility that ancestral genetic haplogroup formations precede and are likely to be a causative factor in the divergence and geography of human cultures from prehistoric times until the present.

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