Friday, June 13, 2014

The pseudo-science of race claims

For more than a century there have been debates about how many human 'races' there are, that is, categories of people, the assumption being that these are natural categories, or types, of people.  Charles Darwin addressed this question in The Descent of Man (Darwin (1871), vol. 1, p. 226), but he was far from the first:
Man has been studied more carefully than any other organic being, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classified as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawford), or as sixty-three, according to Burke.
In numerous recent posts, we have tried to examine the nature of the genetic arguments, showing why people don't in fact fall into such categories and that there can be much more scientifically accurate and politically less loaded ways to view human variation.  We have pointed out the obvious fact that 'race' is a concept defined by people, and in that sense is a sociocultural construct.  But we have also  pointed out that humans do vary geographically for evolutionary genomic as well as cultural and historical reasons, and to deny those elements of difference is equally wrong.  The subtleties and nuances of the facts that we actually know are harder to deal with. Categorizing is easy, it can have emotional satisfaction ('us' vs 'them').  And its much easier than actual thinking.  But history shows its toll.

The killing parade: equal opportunity

Equal opportunity haters:  Brownshirts,  Crusaders, Kulaks, Jihadis, Southern gentlemen, Kristallnacht, Mao's bourgeois enemies, Palestinian life, Rwanda (as best I can identify using Google images).

Few if any group of any size or historical duration has avoided the temptation of energized hate-filled oppression of others.  There is usually a piously expressed reason why the victims are categorically guilty of some offense that makes them inherently unworthy.

In the course of a resurgence of categorical racism and genetic destiny-worship, expressed in feigned dispassionate discussion about "why can't we revel in human genomic diversity?", what quickly appears is the claim that modern genomic science 'really' shows us truth (uncomfortable though it may be to you).  We immediately started seeing internet hate traffic saying that those who suggest that environment has something to do with racial traits are [fill-in-the-blank], meaning stupid and ignorant and worse.  Invoking environment as a cause of human variation, those chatterati say, willfully and in the name of political correctness, ignores the underlying genomic truth, and one quickly sees that that means those guys really are inferior to these guys (usually meaning the speaker's clan), the inferiority is inherent to their category--and especial attention is usually paid to behaviorally sensitive traits, like intelligence.

We have seen it alleged that those who deny the existence of races as genetic categories will be the cause of many deaths in minority populations, because by denying that there are traits that may be distinguished by asking people to identify their 'race', they will be deprived of needed genomic health care.  Instead, the opposite is true: people would be better off if treated as individuals with their unique genomic and cultural context, than as categories within which we know there is considerable variation (a topic we've also recently discussed).   And of course this accusation ignores the facts that it's going to be a long time 1) before genomic medicine is a major part of health care, 2) that many pushing race-specific medical treatment are gaming the patent system for drugs they sell, and 3) that it will be even longer before it's available to anyone but the rich who don't proportionately represent all the 'races' in the population.

The idea that race exists as a genetic but not a social construct is advocated, despite such obvious facts as that people with 'race'-mixed parents are assigned to one or the other parental 'race'.  Even more, the accusation is made that reality deniers object to genetic classification of races because they deny the existence of race at all.  This is an awful, and often awfully intentional, misperception.  A person's identity involves far more, and far stronger, cultural than genetic factors, and thus 'race' is very and truly meaningful to many people.  Social standing, opportunities, legal rights, and discrimination are manifest aspects of what most people mean by 'race'.

This aspect of race is clearly a sociocultural fact, a fact of the world worthy of scientific study--even if it does not imply or is caused by race as a genomic category of nature.  People have been gassed and lynched and denied opportunity or basic rights in large numbers not because of their genomes, but because of their cultural category; you can't get more real than that.  One need not pretend that race categories don't exist, but can insist that by and large they are culturally based constructs that are only partly, and even inconsistently, determined by physical (or genetic) traits.  The consequences are an undeniable aspect of the factual reality of 'race'; in that sense race, as categories, certainly exist.

We have also seen, in the gurgling internet hate traffic, assertions that some Jewish critics of 'human biodiversity' oppose racial determinism because they are Jewish (and, incidentally, liberals), while the authors of a lot of the hate discussion are not themselves Jewish.  This is rather far off the wall.  The current batch of race authors, though not Jewish, actually claim that Jews are genomically superior to other races when it comes to intelligence (because they were selected for money-lending).   From that point of view, Jews should be eagerly embracing the new racism bestowed upon them by non-Jewish authors!  Indeed, we have several times had Jewish colleagues sidle up, quietly, and ask sotto voce whether we don't think, as geneticists, that though one can't say it out loud, Jews really are genetically smarter. Or whether we'd have to agree, though we couldn't say that out loud either, that there was something genetically wrong with Arabs.

The images we show above are intended to remind readers that the treatment of others as being inferior or unworthy, as a group, which justifies doing the most awful things to them, is rather widespread, with a wide range of ideological rationales, including 'science'.  It's humans ganging up on other humans for a whole panoply of emotionally self-reinforcing reasons.  Since Darwin, it has often been asserted that the inherent value differences of groups are Evolution's will rather than God's, but the commonality is that the judgment is always credited to some external and hence objective force relative to the denigrating speaker, and applies to purported group characteristics.

There is misunderstanding galore about how human genomic variation is distributed around the world, how it got that way, and how an individuals' genomes, cultural and physical environmental circumstances affect their traits.  There is a culpable willingness to ignore the complexities as well as the human sensitivities about all of this.  Some traits are more clearly 'genetic' and others more 'environmental', a topic we've recently discussed.  But the recent delving into complex traits, especially behavioral ones with societal and emotional content, has gone right off the deep end, after which serious, measured scientific discussion no longer takes place and, sadly, otherwise sub rosa racism and policy objectives quickly float to the surface (justified in the name of objective truth).

The facts of human variation are sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes deal with things that can't easily be changed (like skin color or cystic fibrosis), as well as things that change so fast that clearly the cultural environment is largely responsible.  The facts do not need artificial categories when more accurate, more quantitative analysis can be carried out without doing what is often hateful violation to reality.  But people like the emotional side of hatred.

Thinking about the facts of the world is very difficult and there are often no easy answers to scientific questions.  It's a whole lot easier to jump on a bandwagon that offers you thought-free reinforcement of your own personal value 'category', and whips up tribal animus towards others of a different view. 'They' become objects, things to which you can do whatever with impunity, because they are inherently inferior....just like animals.

Hating is more fun, more energizing, and a lot easier than thinking.


Thiago Carvalho said...

Very nice post.
As a biologist, I am often amused by the "race" fields in various forms and documents. As a Brazilian biologist, this is magnified many-fold. First, we do not fall under "hispanic"- even if Brazil were purely an ethnic offshoot of Portugal, that would have to be "iberian" (I know live in Portugal, and the natives are very touchy about that distinction). And would that be white or European in any sense? Portugal is a pretty good mix of North Africa/Sephardic with celtic/germanic and other European groups, with abundant sprinklings from subsaharan Africa, China (Macau) and India (Goa), among others.
But that was just the portion of my family that immigrated from here to Brazil. When you get to Brazil, it really becomes impossible for simple classifiers, and I have African slave ancestors, Italians, native Brazilians, and that's just what I know so far.
It is also interesting, as many have noted before, that the categories Americans and Brazilians call Black don't overlap very well. And you try explaining to a Han Chinese and a Hmong person that they form this homogenous group called "Asian". Finally, to talk about a "black african" genotype requires a complete and total ignorance of population genetics and human evolution.

On a side note, it should be noted that while Darwin often spoke of race as a valid biological category, in his time and place (both geographic and social) he was quite progressive in arguing for the unity of the human species- which was not at all consensual in the second half of the 19th century, to say the least.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for this comment. Brazil is a well-known example, and it's good of you to point out that Portugal is,too. The people insisting on race, however, will just point out that the races they really mean are the indigenous or aboriginal ones, before all of this historical moving around. That assumes of course that we can identify such people easily and that gene flow was negligible before that relative to the categories they find the way they analyze the data. They are trying to make a different point, which is their view that major genetic adaptations for important traits characterize their category groups. So there isn't a chance that view would cede an inch to what you say--it's like people speaking two different languages. And add to this, that they are working a strong political agenda, and feeding subterranean hate-groups as well.

Sto-ology said...

Nice post on a delicate subject. On another point - I feel we all are guilty of being egocentric specie-ists - as in humans being the center of the universe.

Ken Weiss said...

It's a problem, partly because we have to eat and that means other species have to be our dinners. But our extreme egocentrism when it comes to industrial level society poses long or even short-term risks of unprecedented amounts. Are we egocentric enough to fix things---for our own good--before it's too late?