Paul R. Gross writes:
The Human Genome Project is on schedule. Its many promised uses, nevertheless, are for the long haul. The New York Times tells us, though, that it has already achieved one invaluable result. On August 22, Ms. Natalie Angier announced the glad tidings on page one: There is no such thing as race. Her title: “Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show.” Race, therefore, is about to join such other “social constructs” as quarks, atoms, motile sperm, and secondary sex characteristics.
Angier’s article collects opinion-sentences to that effect from two able leaders of the Genome Project—Dr. Craig Venter (the private branch) and Dr. Eric Lander (the public)—and from several others. All deny the biological reality of “race” among humans. Some fragments refer obliquely to Genome Project results. But separately or together, these statements allow no meaningful judgment on the significance of race, even from a geneticist or an anthropologist. The piece does mention in passing “a handful of researchers who continue to insist that there are fundamental differences among the three major races that extend to the brain.”
If, as claimed, races are not biologically significant, then they don’t exist. “Race” means biological difference. (And if races don’t exist, then there aren’t “three major races.”) If a mere “handful of researchers . . . continue to insist” that race means something biological, then the rest do not. So they regard all people as siblings who start life with the same endowment, including brains. Any differences we see or measure are then trivial or social. That is the Times’s message. It doesn’t work for anyone who knows what “race” means in science, and what the genetic data show.
Forty years ago, the distinguished evolutionist Ernst Mayr discarded “typological” notions from contemporary biological systematics. The difference was (and still is) important because of the then-stubborn remnants of idealism in biology and because advances in genetics had rendered the timeworn notion of fixed, racial “types” not even wrong, just irrelevant. In his 1959 essay “Typological Versus Population Thinking,” Mayr wrote:
Essentially . . . [the typological idea of “race”] asserts that every representative of a race conforms to the type and is separated from the representatives of any other race by a distinct gap. The populationist also recognizes races but in totally different terms. Race for him is based on the simple fact that no two individuals are the same in sexually reproducing organisms and that consequently no two aggregates of individuals can be the same. If the average difference between two groups of individuals is sufficiently great to be recognizable on sight, we refer to such groups of individuals as different races. Race, thus described, is a universal phenomenon of nature occurring not only in man but in two thirds of all species of animals and plants. [Emphasis added.]
That is what biological “race” means—except, in recent decades, for humanity. Many argue, by whatever means come to hand, that while there are races (or “varieties,” or “demes,” or “breeding groups”) in other species, humanity has none, that group differences are either trivial or sociocultural. This accelerating assault upon what seems obvious raises two broad questions. First, why the current fussing over “race” in humans? And why drag in “the brain”? Second, what evidence—from the Genome Project or otherwise—supports this radical claim? (It is radical; people can distinguish, sometimes imperfectly, at least those “three major” human groups—African, Asian, Caucasian.)
Race is a battleground of politics. So, today, is science, with enemies at both ends of the political spectrum. Therefore, like the nexus religion/science, race/science is fertile ground for politics and prejudice, and everybody has politics and prejudice. Now, the surest way to extinguish flare-ups of race/science is to deny that there is any science in “race” and to assert that group differences are social (and politically malleable). Of course, most people think the opposite, intuitively.
Yet we are familiar with counterintuitive science that is true. So there being “no biological reality” in race is a possibility. Certainly it is useful and comforting for respectable people, including scientists—they depend upon public good will and most have currently respectable politics. And the brain? That’s the touchiest of all race/science issues! It is considered crude to say that one race seems to have innate advantages in certain sports, but one does think it. But it is indecent, today, even to think of innate cognitive differences, however small, among races. That can cost you friends or your job.
What about evidence? It has long been clear that the gross genetic makeup (as DNA sequence) of humans and, say, chimpanzees differs hardly at all. A few percent at most. Nobody doubts that this makes a huge biological difference, or that the difference depends upon scores of genes. But we and chimps are different species. Within a species, DNA differences overall are even smaller, race to race. For the kinds of genes studied until recently population-wide (for example, blood groups), within-group gene variability can be greater than between groups. None of this means that varieties are not biologically different. A small subset of genes, relative to the multiple tens of thousands in a genome, can make enormous differences in the functioning body (the phenotype). That has been the salient outcome of developmental genetics. “Innate” characteristics can be and some are known to be encoded in an insignificant fraction of the genome. Every competent developmentalist knows this.
For the Human Genome Project, turning its splendid accomplishment into specific gene functions, and then into phenotypes, is in the future. Nothing new has happened —yet—to relegate group-related biological traits to the trash heap. We already know some such traits. What has been reinforced is what we’ve known for decades: real differences among the human varieties float upon an ocean of physiological (hence genetic) uniformity. But that’s just what makes us all human.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 2, on page 3
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