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Scientific American on the Reality of Race

[1]1,932 words

Editor’s Note:

This essay is from Michael Polignano’s book Taking Our Own Side, available in hardcover, paperback, and PDF download here [2].

Translations: Finnish [3], French [4], German [5]

December 16, 2003

The scientific study of race is at a crossroads. With the mapping of the human genome, scientists know more about race and racial differences than ever before. But as society invests more and more in the lie of racial equality, it becomes harder and harder for scientists to speak these truths. Furthermore, in a desperate attempt to stave off the dire political consequences of racial truth, egalitarian spin-doctors have spread a great deal of disinformation about recent genetic discoveries.

We are told, for instance, that from a genetic point of view the differences between the races are negligible, a matter of just a few genes. Therefore, we are asked to conclude, racial differences are negligible, period. Racial differences, we are told, should have no practical implications at all.

But this is as absurd as arguing that, since from the point a view of subatomic physics, solid objects are mostly empty space, it is a matter of pure prejudice that we prefer to drive on the road and not off a cliff.

The truth is: from small genetic differences, great physical, spiritual, cultural, and political differences grow. If geneticists can’t see these differences, maybe they are looking in the wrong place.

We are also told routinely that there is more genetic variation within races than between them. There might be 100 IQ points difference between an extremely smart and an extremely stupid White person. But there is only 30 points difference between Whites and Blacks on the average. Therefore, we are asked to conclude, we should deal only with individuals and ignore the group averages.

The trouble with this argument is that societies do not consist of isolated individuals, for individuals are parts and products of breeding populations. Breeding populations that have become geographically isolated and subjected to different environmental conditions over a long period of time become different races.

And if the average intelligence—or any other important characteristic—of two breeding populations sharing the same geographical area differs dramatically, there is bound to be conflict. The superior group will inevitably resent the retarding effect of the inferior, and the inferior groups will resent the impossible standards imposed by the superior.

But the practical implications of racial truth are hard to deny, and the truth is seeping out, sometimes in unlikely places. A case in point is the cover article of the December 2003 issue of Scientific American, which despite its title is usually as politically correct as any news or entertainment magazine. The cover depicts six female faces appearing to belong to different races, along with the caption, “Does Race Exist? Science Has the Answer: Genetic Results May Surprise You.” In the table of contents, we read: “Does Race Exist? From a purely genetic standpoint, no. Nevertheless, genetic information about individuals’ ancestral origins can sometimes have medical relevance.”

This got my attention. If race is medically relevant, then why is it not psychologically relevant, culturally relevant, morally relevant, and politically relevant as well? And if genetic science regards such pressingly relevant distinctions as unreal or minuscule, then isn’t there something wrong with genetic science or with our interpretation and application of its findings?

The authors of the article, Michael Bamshad and Steve Olson, argue that “people can be sorted broadly into groups using genetic data.” These groups, furthermore, appear to be geographically distinct—at least before the massive population shifts of the modern era. Now this is a huge admission, for the existence of genetically distinct human groups is certainly part of what is meant by “race,” and precisely what is denied by those who claim that race is merely a “social construct.”

The basis for the claim that “from a purely genetic standpoint” race does not exist is the conflict between genetic classifications and traditional racial categories. Such categories are based not on an analysis of genes (genotype) but on the visible expression of these genes (phenotype). This may well be true, but it does not prove that “race does not exist.” It merely proves that there is a conflict between genotypic and phenotypic definitions of race.

For example, the authors note that sub-Saharan Africans and Australian Aborigines look and behave similarly, but genetic markers indicate their ancestors separated long ago. But the conflict between classificatory schemes is more real than apparent, for Australoids and Negroids look alike only to an untrained eye. Anyone who compares members of the two groups will readily see the differences, and with sufficient experience it is virtually impossible to confuse between them.

The authors also note that social definitions of race vary from region to region: “someone classified as ‘black’ in the US . . . might be considered ‘white’ in Brazil and ‘colored’ . . . in South Africa.” But this is also an attempt to discredit phenotypic differentiation by referring to only its crudest forms. However, in societies with a great deal of miscegenation, phenotypic classification schemes can be quite complex in order to precisely reflect the complexities of the underlying genotypes:

The early French colonists in Saint-Domingue identified 128 different racial types, defined quite precisely along a mathematical scale determined by simple calculations of ancestral contributions. They ranged from the “true” mulatto (half white, half black), through the spectrum of marabou, sacatra, quarterón, all the way to the sang-mêlé (mixed blood: 127 parts white and one part black. . . . The sociologist Micheline Labelle has counted 22 main racial categories and 98 subcategories (for varying hair types, facial structure, color and other distinguishing factors) used among Haiti’s middle class in Port-au-Prince in the 1970s. Within each category, the words are often as imaginative as they are descriptive: café au lait (“coffee with milk”), bonbon siro (“candy syrup”), ti canel (“little cinnamon”), ravet blanch (“white cockroach”), soley levan (“rising Sun”), banane mûre (“ripe banana”), brun pistache (“peanut brown”), mulâtre dix-huit carats (“18-carat mulatto”) . . . .[1]

A deeper problem with the authors’ emphasis on genotype is that even though different genotypes can give rise to similar phenotypes—nature can use different means to achieve the same end—the forces of evolution didn’t give a damn about specific genotypes, they only “cared” about how those genotypes were expressed in an individual. Selection works directly on the phenotype, only indirectly on the genotype. Thus from a practical point of view, phenotype is more important than genotype.

The authors do, however, admit that phenotypic racial categories work well for dividing groups by propensity for certain diseases, such as sickle cell anemia (most common among Africans) and cystic fibrosis (most common among Europeans). The alleles for sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis rose in frequency because carriers (i.e., those with a copy from either their father or mother, two copies being needed for the disease) were resistant to parasitic microorganisms found in Africa and Europe, respectively. Another example is that the same polymorphism in the CCR5 gene is shown to retard AIDS progression in Whites but accelerate it in Blacks.

Because of the mounting genetic evidence of the medical relevance of race, the US Food and Drug Administration braved the inevitable controversy and recommended in January of 2003 that researchers collect racial data in clinical trials.

Hence the authors’ extremely cautious conclusion: “in cases where membership in a geographically or culturally defined group has been correlated with health-related genetic traits, knowing something about an individual’s group membership could be important.”

This is another huge admission. For if racial differences are medically relevant, why are they not culturally, socially, and politically relevant as well? For instance, the fact that Negroes produce higher testosterone on average than other races means that Black men are at higher risk for prostate cancer. But high testosterone production also means that Black men are more prone to aggressive behavior. So if doctors should racially profile Black men, why shouldn’t policemen?

Compared to Whites, Blacks also have lower IQs and levels of empathy, weaker senses of personal efficacy and responsibility, greater propensities to sociopathy and psychosis, fewer behavioral inhibitions, greater impulsiveness, higher sexual activity and lower parental investment, etc. Surely these racial differences have important practical implications as well.

When you pare away the authors’ nervous qualifications and cautious quibbles, “Does Race Exist?” admits that there is a genetic basis for race differences and that these differences have practical importance. This is an encouraging sign in today’s climate of ideological Race Denial™. Frankly, it is remarkable that it was published in Scientific American at all.

An explanation for its publication might be found in John Rennie and Ricki Rusting’s editorial “Racing to Conclusions.” They begin by recalling the failure of Proposition 54, the recent California ballot initiative that would have forbidden the government to collect racial data in many areas. Even though Proposition 54 explicitly allowed the collection of racial data for health purposes, many physicians and medical groups claimed the measure would impede efforts to track and treat diseases that afflict various races differently. The editors question these dire predictions, not because the Proposition addressed their concerns, but because they misconstrue the Bamshad/Olson article and falsely assert that its authors firmly oppose the use of racial classification in medicine. One wonders if the article would have seen print if the editors had understood it!

The editors cite the difficulties of racial classification, especially the classification of mixed-race individuals. Then they lament that “race is being used as a surrogate for genetic differences” in research, as if the correlation between the two were insignificant. They point out the FDA’s recommendation, and cite J. Craig Venter’s remark: “Using self-identified race as a surrogate for testing a person directly for a relevant trait is akin to recording the average weight of a group rather than weighing each individual.”

Of course Venter can be expected to oppose racial classification in medicine. By doing so, he’s not only being politically correct, he’s also taking a position from which he could substantially profit, since his company Celera was the first to sequence the human genome and would likely be the first to mass-market individual genetic sequencing.

The editors omit any mention of the benefits of racial classification in medicine. Those who do not read the main article would incorrectly conclude that race has no use in medicine. Yet another example of how the media spins and distorts the truth. Fortunately, anyone reading the article can see through the spin. However, were a story like this to be covered by the major media, you can be sure that spin is all the viewer would get.

The cover art also reeks of politically correct Race Denial™. The images of six attractive female faces apparently of different races were created by Nancy Burson using a morphing program designed to simulate various racial characteristics. Only the blond, blue-eyed woman is real. The other images were created by altering hers. But one can see that the woman’s underlying bone structure, lips, and nose remain unchanged, even though these vary significantly among the races. Only skin color, eye color, and hair color seem to vary. The obvious message of the photos is that race is only skin deep. The world consists merely of White people of different tints. What harm could there be in that?

[6]I’m reminded of a storybook image I saw as a child, where lions snuggle alongside lambs and wolves dance with sheep, where appearances alone differentiate animals that are otherwise, deep down, all the same and thus capable of living in bliss and harmony.

Apparently some adults still subscribe to such wishful thinking.


1. Robert Logan, “Hispaniola: A Case History in Multicultural Madness,” http://www.barnesreview.org/html/hispaniola.html [7].