Is biological race a mere myth or a troublesome fact better left unexplored? Some might suggest that, properly conceived, race is neither fable nor farce but rather a potential windfall for both science and society.
Some would see any notion of “race” recede unceremoniously into the dustbin of history, taking its ignominious place alongside the likes of phlogiston theory, Ptolemaic geocentricism, or perhaps even the Iron Curtain or Spanish Inquisition. But race endures, in one form or another, despite its obnoxious—though apparently captivating—dossier.
In 1942, anthropologist Ashley Montagu declared biological race “man’s most dangerous myth,” and, since then, most scientists have consistently agreed (Montagu 1942). Nevertheless, to most Americans in particular, heritable race seems as obvious as the colors of their neighbors’ skins and the textures of their hair. So too have a determined minority of researchers always found cause to dissent from the professional consensus.
Here, I recount the latest popular skirmish over the science of race and attempt to reveal a victor, if there be one. Is biological race indeed a mere myth, as the academic majority has asked us to concede for more than seven decades? Is it instead a scandalously inconvenient truth—something we all know exists but, for whatever reasons, prefer not to discuss in polite company? Or is it possible that a far less familiar rendition of biological race could prove not only viable but both scientifically and socially valuable as well?
“The productive questions pertain to how races came to be and the extent to which racial variation has significant consequences with respect to function in the modern world.”
—Vincent Sarich and Frank Miele, 2004
I have no reason to believe that Nicholas Wade, longtime science editor and journalist, is a racist, if “racist” is to mean believing in the inherent superiority of one human race over any other. In fact, he expressly condemns the idea. But in the more limited and hopefully sober context of the science of race, Wade is a veritable maverick. Indeed, his conclusions that biological human races (or subspecies, for these purposes) do exist, and conform generally to ancestral continental regions, appear remarkably more consistent with those of the general public.
In his most recent and certainly controversial book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Wade immediately acknowledges that the vast majority of both anthropologists and geneticists deny the existence of biological race (Wade 2014). Indeed, “race is a recent human invention,” according to the American Anthropological Association (2008), and a mere “social construct,” per the American Sociological Association (2003). First to decode the human genome, Craig Venter was also quick to announce during his White House visit in 2000 that “the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”
But academics especially are resistant to biological race, or the idea that “human evolution is recent, copious, and regional,” Wade contends, because they fear for their careers in left-leaning political atmospheres and because they tend to be “obsessed with intelligence” and paralyzed by the “unlikely” possibility that genetics might one day demonstrate the intellectual superiority of one major race over others.
According to Wade, “social scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race [indeed, biology] explains nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value.” But “the emerging truth,” he insists, “is more complicated.” Although the author sees individuals as fundamentally similar, “their societies differ greatly in their structure, institutions, and their achievements.” Indeed, “contrary to the central belief of multiculturalists, Western culture has achieved far more” than others “because Europeans, probably for reasons of both evolution and history, have been able to create open and innovative societies, starkly different from the default human arrangements of tribalism or autocracy.”
Wade admits that much of his argument is speculative and has yet to be confirmed by hard, genetic evidence. Nevertheless, he argues, “even a small shift in [genetically based] social behavior can generate a very different kind of society,” perhaps one where trust and cooperation can extend beyond kin or the tribe—thus facilitating trade, for example, or one emphasizing punishment for nonconformity—thus advancing rule-orientation and isolationism, for instance. “It is reasonable to assume,” the author writes, “that if traits like skin color have evolved in a population, the same may be true of its social behavior.”
But what profound environmental conditions could possibly have selected for more progressive behavioral adaptations in some but not all populations? As the climate warmed following the Pleistocene Ice Age, Wade reminds that the agricultural revolution erupted around 10,000 years ago among settlements in the Near East and China. Increased food production led to population explosions, which in turn spurred social stratification, wealth disparities, and more frequent warfare. “Human social behavior,” Wade says, “had to adapt to a succession of makeovers as settled tribes developed into chiefdoms, chiefdoms into archaic states, and states into empires.”
Meanwhile, other societies transformed far less dramatically. “For lack of good soils, favorable climate, navigable rivers, and population pressures,” Wade observes, “Africa south of the Sahara remained largely tribal throughout the historical period, as did Australia, Polynesia, and the circumpolar regions.”
Citing economist Gregory Clark (2007), Wade then postulates that, during the period between 1200 and 1800 ce—twenty-four generations and “plenty of time for a significant change in social behavior if the pressure of natural selection were sufficiently intense”—the English in particular evolved a greater tendency toward “bourgeoisification” and at least four traits—nonviolence, literacy, thrift, and patience—thus enabling them to escape the so-called “Malthusian trap,” in which agrarian societies never quite learn to produce more than their expanding numbers can consume, and, finally, to lead the world into the Industrial Revolution.
In other words, according to this author, modern industrialized societies have emerged only as a result of two evolved sets of behaviors—initially, those that favor broader trust and contribute to the breakdown of tribalism and, subsequently, those that favor discipline and delayed gratification and lead to increased productivity and wealth. On the other hand, says Wade, sub-Saharan Africans, for example, though well-adapted to their unique environmental circumstances, generally never evolved traits necessary to move beyond tribalism. Only an evolutionary explanation for this disparity, he concludes, can reveal, for instance, why foreign aid to non-modern societies frequently fails and why Western institutions, including democracy and free markets, cannot be readily transferred to (or forced upon) yet pre-industrial cultures.
So how many races have evolved in Wade’s estimation? Three major races—Caucasian, East Asian, and African—resulted from an early migration out of Africa some 50,000 years ago, followed by a division between European and Asian populations shortly thereafter. Quoting statistical geneticist Neil Risch, however, Wade adds Pacific Islanders and Native Americans to the list because “population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry” (Risch et al. 2002).
To those who would object that there can be no biological race when so many thousands of people fail to fit neatly into any discrete racial category, Wade responds, “to say there are no precise boundaries between races is like saying there are no square circles.” Races, he adds, are merely “way stations” on the evolutionary road toward speciation. Different variations of a species can arise where different populations face different selective challenges, and humans have no special exemption from this process. However, the forces of differentiation can reverse course when, as now, races intermingle due to increased migration, travel, and intermarriage.
“It is only tradition and shortsightedness that leads us to think there are multiple distinct oceans.”
—Guy P. Harrison, 2010
If we inherit from our parents traits typically associated with race, including skin, hair, and eye color, why do most scientists insist that race is more social construct than biological reality? Are they suffering from an acute case of political correctness, as Wade suggests, or perhaps a misplaced paternalistic desire to deceive the irresponsible and shortsighted masses for the greater good of humanity? More ignoble things have happened, of course, even within scientific communities. But according to geneticist Daniel J. Fairbanks, the denial of biological race is all about the evidence.
In his new book, Everyone Is African: How Science Explodes the Myth of Race, Fairbanks points out that, although large-scale analyses of human DNA have recently unleashed a deluge of detailed genetic information, such analyses have so far failed to reveal discrete genetic boundaries along traditional lines of racial classification (Fairbanks 2015). “What they do reveal,” he argues, “are complex and fascinating ancestral backgrounds that mirror known historical immigration, both ancient and modern.”
In 1972, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin analyzed seventeen different genes among seven groups classified by geographic origin. He famously discovered that subjects within racial groups varied more among themselves than their overall group varied from other groups and concluded that there exists virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance to racial classifications (Lewontin 1972). But Lewontin’s word on the subject was by no means the last. Later characterizing his conclusion as “Lewontin’s Fallacy,” for example, Cambridge geneticist A.W.F. Edwards reminded us how easy it is to predict race simply by inspecting people’s genes (Edwards 2003).
So who was right? Both of them were, according to geneticist Lynn Jorde and anthropologist Stephen Wooding. Summarizing several large-scale studies on the topic in 2004, they confirmed Lewontin’s finding that about 85–90 percent of all human genetic variation exists within continental groups, while only 10–15 percent exists between them (Jorde and Wooding 2004). Even so, as Edwards had insisted, they were also able to assign all native European, East Asian, and sub-Saharan African subjects to their continent of origin using DNA alone. In the end, however, Jorde and Wooding showed that geographically intermediate populations—South Indians, for example—did not fit neatly into commonly conceived racial categories. “Ancestry,” they concluded, was “a more subtle and complex description” of one’s genetic makeup than “race.”
Fairbanks concurs. Humans have been highly mobile for thousands of years, he notes. As a result, our biological variation “is complex, overlapping, and more continuous than discrete.” When one analyzes DNA from a geographically broad and truly representative sample, the author surmises, “the notion of discrete racial boundaries disappears.”
Nor are the genetic signatures of typically conceived racial traits always consistent between populations native to different geographic regions. Consider skin color, for example. We know, of course, that the first Homo sapiens inherited dark skin previously evolved in Africa to protect against sun exposure and folate degradation, which negatively affects fetal development. Even today, the ancestral variant of the MC1R gene, conferring high skin pigmentation, is carried uniformly among native Africans.
But around 30,000 years ago, Fairbanks notes, long after our species had first ventured out of Africa into the Caucasus region, a new variant appeared. KITLG evolved in this population prior to the European-Asian split to reduce pigmentation and facilitate vitamin D absorption in regions of diminished sunlight. Some 15,000 years later, however, another variant, SLC24A5, evolved by selective sweep as one group migrated westward into Europe. Extremely rare in other native populations, nearly 100 percent of modern native Europeans carry this variant. On the other hand, as their assorted skin tones demonstrate, African Americans and Caribbean Americans carry two copies of an ancestral variant, two copies of the SLC24A5 variant, or one of each. Asians, by contrast, developed their own pigment-reducing variants—of the OCA2 gene, for example—via convergent evolution, whereby similar phenotypic traits result independently among different populations due to similar environmental pressures.
So how can biology support the traditional, or “folk,” notion of race when the genetic signatures of that notion’s most relied upon trait—that is, skin color—are so diverse among populations sharing the same or a similar degree of skin pigmentation? Fairbanks judges the idea utterly bankrupt “in light of the obvious fact that actual variation for skin color in humans does not fall into discrete classes” but rather “ranges from intense to little pigmentation in continuously varying gradations” (Fairbanks 2015).
To Wade, Fairbanks offers the following reply: “Traditional racial classifications constitute an oversimplified way to represent the distribution of genetic variation among the people of the world. Mutations have been creating new DNA variants throughout human history, and the notion that a small proportion of them define human races fails to recognize the complex nature of their distribution” (Fairbanks 2015).
A SEVERE RESPONSE
“I use the term scientific racism to refer to scientists who continue to believe that race is a biological reality.”
—Robert Wald Sussman, 2014
Since neither author disputes the absence of completely discrete racial categories, one could argue that part of the battle is really one over mere semantics, if not politics. Regardless, critical aspects of Wade’s analysis were quickly and sharply criticized by several well-respected researchers.
The former president of the American Anthropological Association and co-drafter of its statement on race, Alan Goodman, for example, argues that Wade’s “speculations follow from misunderstandings about most everything, including the idea of race, evolution and gene action, culture and institutions, and most fundamentally, the scientific process” (Goodman 2014). Indeed, he compares Wade’s book to the most maligned texts on race ever published, including Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race, Arthur Jenson’s 1969 paper proposing racial intelligence differences, and Herrnstein and Murray’s 1994 The Bell Curve.
But Wade’s “biggest error,” according to Goodman, “is his inability to separate the data on human variation from race.” He mistakenly assumes, in other words, “that all he sees is due to genes” and that culture means little to nothing. A “mix of mysticism and sociobiology,” he continues, Wade’s simplistic view of human culture ignores the archaeological and historical fact that cultures are “open systems” that constantly change and interact. And although biological human variation can sometimes fall into geographic patterns, Goodman emphasizes, our centuries-long attempt to force all such variation into racial categories has failed miserably.
Characterizing Wade’s analysis similarly as a “spectacular failure of logic,” population geneticist Jennifer Raff takes special issue with the author’s attempt to cluster human genetic variation into five or, really, any given number of races (Raff 2014). To do so, Wade relied in part on a 2002 study featuring a program called Structure, which is used to group people across the globe based on genetic similarities (Rosenberg et al. 2002). And, indeed, when Rosenberg et al. asked Structure to bunch genetic data into five major groups, it produced clusters conforming to the continents.
But, as Raff observes, the program was capable of dividing the data into any number of clusters, up to twenty in this case, depending on the researchers’ pre-specified criteria. When asked for six groups, for example, Structure provided an additional “major” cluster, the Kalash of northwestern Pakistan—which Wade arbitrarily, according to Raff, rejected as a racial category. In the end, she concludes, Wade seems to prefer the number five “simply because it matches his pre-conceived notions of what race should be.”
Interestingly, when Rosenberg et al. subsequently expanded their dataset to include additional genetic markers for the same population samples, Structure simply rejected the Kalesh and decided instead that one of Wade’s five human races, the Native Americans, should be split into two clusters (Rosenberg et al. 2005). In any event, Rosenberg et al. expressly warned in their second paper that Structure’s results “should not be taken as evidence of [their] support of any particular concept of ‘biological race.’”
Structure was able to generate discrete clusters from a very limited quantity of genetic variation, adds population geneticist Jeremy Yoder, because its results reflect what his colleagues refer to as isolation-by-distance, or the fact that populations separated by sufficient geographic expanses will display genetic distinctions even if intimately connected through migration and interbreeding (Yoder 2014). In reality, however, human genetic variation is clinal, or gradual in transition between such populations. In simpler terms, people living closer together tend to be more closely related than those living farther apart.
In his review of Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, biological anthropologist Greg Laden admits that human races might have existed in the past and could emerge at some point in the future (Laden 2014). He also concedes that “genes undoubtedly do underlie human behavior in countless ways.” Nevertheless, he argues, Wade’s “fashionable” hypothesis proposing the genetic underpinnings of racially-based behaviors remains groundless. “There is simply not an accepted list of alleles,” Laden writes, “that account for behavioral variation.”
Chimpanzees, by contrast, can be divided into genetically-based subspecies (or races). Their genetic diversity has proven much greater than ours, and they demonstrate considerable cultural variation as well. Even so, Laden points out, scientists have so far been unable to sort cultural variation among chimps according to their subspecies. So if biologically-based races cannot explain cultural differences among chimpanzees, despite their superior genetic diversity as a species, why would anyone presume the opposite of humans?
None of which is to imply that every review of Wade has been entirely negative. Conservative journalist Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple), for example, praises the author lavishly as a “courageous man . . . who dares raise his head above the intellectual parapet” (Daniels 2014). While judging Wade’s arguments mostly unconvincing, he nevertheless defends his right to publish them: “That the concept of race has been used to justify the most hideous of crimes should no more inhibit us from examining it dispassionately . . . than the fact that economic egalitarianism has been used to justify crimes just as hideous. . . .”
Similarly, political scientist and coauthor of The Bell Curve Charles Murray warned readers of the social science “orthodoxy’s” then-impending attempt to “not just refute” Wade’s analysis “but to discredit it utterly—to make people embarrassed to be seen purchasing it in public” (Murray 2014). “It is unhelpful,” Murray predicts, “for social scientists and the media to continue to proclaim that ‘race is a social construct’” when “the problem facing us down the road is the increasing rate at which the technical literature reports new links between specific genes and specific traits.” Although “we don’t yet know what the genetically significant racial differences will turn out to be,” Murray contends, “we have to expect that they will be many.”
Perhaps; perhaps not. But race is clearly problematic from a biological perspective—at least as Wade and many before him have imagined it. Humans do not sort neatly into separate genetic categories or into a handful of continentally-based groups. Nor have we discovered sufficient evidence to suggest that human behaviors match to known patterns of genetic diversity. Nonetheless, because no “is” ever implies an “ought,” the cultural past should never define, let alone restrain, the scientific present.
CHARACTERIZING BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY
“Instead of wasting our time ‘refuting’ straw-man positions dredged from a distant past or from fiction, we should deal with the strongest contemporary attempts to rehabilitate race that are scientifically respectable and genetically informed.”
—Neven Sesardic, 2010
To this somewhat belated point, I have avoided the task of defining “biological race,” in large measure because no single definition has achieved widespread acceptance. In any event, the preeminent evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once described “geographic race” generally as “an aggregate of phenotypically similar populations of a species inhabiting a geographic subdivision of the range of that species and differing taxonomically from other populations of that species” (Mayr 2002). A “human race,” he added, “consists of the descendants of a once-isolated geographic population primarily adapted for the environmental conditions of their original home country.”
Sounds much like Wade, so far. But unlike Wade, Mayr firmly rejects any typological, essentialist, or folk approach to human race denying profuse variability and mistaking non-biological attributes—especially those implicating personality and behavior—for racial traits. Accepting culture’s profound sway, Mayr warned that it is “generally unwise to assume that every apparent difference . . . has a biological cause.” Nonetheless, he concluded, recognizing human races “is only recognizing a biological fact”: “Geographic groups of humans, what biologists call races, tend to differ from each other in mean differences and sometimes even in specific single genes. But when it comes to the capacities that are required for the optimal functioning of our society, I am sure that any racial group can be matched by that of some individual in another racial group. This is what population analysis reveals.”
So how might one rescue biological race from the present-day miasma of popular imparsimony and professional denialism, perhaps even to the advancement of science and benefit of society? Evolutionary biologist and professor of science philosophy Massimo Pigliucci thinks he has an answer.
More than a decade ago, he and colleague Jonathan Kaplan proposed that “the best way of making sense of systematic variation within the human species is likely to rely on the ecotypic conception of biological races” (Pigliucci and Kaplan 2003). Ecotypes, they specify, are “functional-ecological entities” genetically adapted to certain environments and distinguished from one another based on “many or a very few genetic differences.” Consistent with clinal variation, ecotypes are not always phylogenetically distinct, and gene flow between them is common. Thus, a single population might consist of many overlapping ecotypes.
All of which 1is far more descriptive of human evolution than even the otherwise agreeable notion of “ancestry,” for example. For Pigliucci and Kaplan, the question of human biological race turns not on whether there exists significant between-population variation overall, as Lewontin, for example, suggested, but rather on “whether there is [any] variation in genes associated with significant adaptive differences between populations.” As such, if we accept an ecotypic description of race, “much of the evidence used to suggest that there are no biologically significant human races is, in fact, irrelevant.”
On the other hand, as Pigliucci observed more recently, the ecotypic model implies the failure of folk race as well. First, “the same folk ‘race’ may have evolved independently several times,” as explained above in the context of skin color, “and be characterized by different genetic makeups” (Pigliucci 2013). Second, ecotypes are “only superficially different from each other because they are usually selected for only a relatively small number of traits that are advantageous in certain environments.” In other words, the popular notion of the “black race,” for example, centers on a scientifically incoherent unit—one “defined by a mishmash of [a] small and superficial set of biological traits … and a convoluted cultural history” (Pigliucci 2014).
So, while the essentialist and folk concepts of human race can claim “no support in biology,” Pigliucci concludes, scientists “should not fall into the trap of claiming that there is no systematic variation within human populations of interest to biology.” Consider, for a moment, the context of competitive sports. While the common notion that blacks are better runners than whites is demonstrably false, some evidence does suggest that certain West Africans have a genetic edge as sprinters, and that certain East and North Africans possess an innate advantage as long-distance runners (Harrison 2010). As the ecotypic perspective predicts, the most meaningful biological human races are likely far smaller and more numerous than their baseless essentialist and folk counterparts (Pigliucci and Kaplan 2003).
So, given the concept’s exceptionally sordid history, why not abandon every notion of human race, including the ecotypic version? Indeed, we might be wise to avoid the term race altogether, as Pigliucci and Kaplan acknowledge. But if a pattern of genetic variation is scientifically coherent and meaningful, it will likely prove valuable as well. Further study of ecotypes “could yield insights into our recent evolution,” the authors urge, “and perhaps shed increased light onto the history of migrations and gene flow.” By contrast, both the failure to replace the folk concept of race and the continued denial of meaningful patterns of human genetic variation have “hampered research into these areas, a situation from which neither biology nor social policy surely benefit.”
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