Race Is No More Real than Dragons. Doesn't Anyone Read History and Philosophy These Days?


Author: 
Theral Timpson

Spoiler alert:  Race was discovered years ago.  

To be bogus.

Yet for some reason the race to discover race is back in full swing.  We're all waiting to exhale!   Will scientists discover that race is genetic after all?  That it's real?

The question is as relentless as the talk of a wall.   Just as the New Year’s fireworks were fizzling out, the race and genetics question exploded again when PBS chose to start 2019 with a show on Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix and an unabashed racist to the end.  Or should we use the fashionable new parlance?  He’s just a racial realist.

As New York Times science correspondent, Amy Harmon, has shown, a new wave of racism is spreading--this time from the educated, the scientifically literate.  The white nationalists of our time are using genetic science to bolster their claims of racial purity.

Racial purity? 

First of all, let's applaud the milk chugging crowd on their decision to read some science.  But have they really thought this through?  If we all originally came from Africa, wouldn't that mean we all started with dark skin?  Wouldn’t racial purity mean dark people are the pure ones?  

It’s nothing new that racists use science.  Earlier in the 20th century, before the arrival of genetics, it was arguments about brain size or the fitness to work outdoors--you name it.  (For some reason penis size is rarely mentioned.)

What I found interesting about Amy’s pieces last year and her recent interview here was that she was reflecting a certain anxiety that scientists need to do something about this racism.   She talks about a high schooler who was working on a project who required assistance debunking racism, but he couldn’t find a scientist to help him.  Where were the geneticists?   Why were they not fulfilling their moral obligation?  Where were the scientific racism police?

And in fact, in an unusual move, the American Society for Human Genetics (ASHG) issued a public statement saying that "the study of human genetics challenges the concept of different human races."  Though the statement is brief, the studies which it cites are thorough and considerable.  One study in Nature Genetics titled, Conceptualizing Human Variation says the following, "The finding that the demographic group called 'African American' has a higher prevalence of prostate cancer, obesity and hypertension is not to be denied. This does not mean, however, that this is a 'racial' phenomenon, as disease is probably due to gene-environment interaction and not linked to the physical traits assumed to covary with this population. This group has heterogeneous ancestral continental origins, predominantly West African and West Central African. They are heterogeneous in their African origins also." 

Despite this blanket statement, Amy said that individual scientists have told her several things.  Responding to racists wasn’t their job.  They aren’t comfortable going out to the lay public talking on this topic.  And also they don’t know yet, that they are still “discovering the answer.”

Here there is a big disconnect among scientists.  ASHG issues a statement saying race is not genetic.  And yet there are many scientists out there--it’s obvious on Twitter--who feel that it is settled science that race is genetic or that we still are in the process of discovering it or haven’t discovered the answer yet.    

Furthermore, a Pulitzer prize winning science journalist for the New York Times is feeling the heat as well.  What was the title of one of her pieces . . . "Could Somebody Please Debunk This?: Writing About Science When Even the Scientists Are Nervous."

So what are we to think?  Why is this still an open question?  

Are scientists who study average genetic differences correlated to the way people self-identify racially for traits related to intelligence racist,  whereas scientists who study these differences for disease traits not racist?  

Is the term race scientifically meaningless, as ASHG claims?  

Is the term race changing in meaning, or is it already fixed?  

Are scientists promoting racism with the way they frame their studies, and if so, do they need to change this? 

In this blog I'd like to point the Mendelspod community to some fundamental scholarship on race that includes some science, yes, but also some philosophy and history. 

Is race a natural kind?  

The concept of a natural kind is one used by philosophers that has to do, obviously, with the natural world.  And second, it has to do with something which has exclusive or inalterable properties.   Water is a natural kind.  Tiger is a natural kind.   All tigers have properties which are unique to tigers (we now know they are gene sequences) and which no other animals have.   (There is brilliant work on whether species are a natural kind, but I'm not going to delve into that now.)  Gold is a natural kind.  Gold has a chemical makeup which silver does not.  

Most of the work on whether race is a natural kind has famously been done by Stephen Jay Gould and by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza who just passed away last year.   I like a more recent article by Chuck Tate and Diego Audette from Loyola University, Chicago (2001) who draw from Gould and Cavalli-Sforza but also update it with the most recent work at that time from Craig Venter and the Human Genome Project.  

Is race natural?  It appears so.  When I first went to the country of Vietnam, no matter which town I went to, I was followed by a group of children who wanted to look at me and touch me.   Those children saw with their natural eyes my natural height, the natural color of my hair, eyes, and skin, and they wanted to touch it.   

But, are there exclusive inalterable properties between races? 

As Tate and Audette show, there has been a history going back to the eighteenth century of attempts to classify race scientifically.  First it was done based on geographic origin.  It didn't take long for that theory to fail.   Then there was the theory of temperament: you know, levels of the four humors--blood, phlegm, choler and black bile.  Yes, if we lived at the time of the American Revolution, the white nationalists of the day would have been arguing their racism based on black bile.  (Not a comforting thought, considering that our founders would have been included in this category!)  

Fast forward to the present day and those who claim that race is a natural kind are in two camps.  The first argue that there are genes which are exclusive to one race which are not found in other races.  According to geneticists and Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, there is no reason to believe this is true.  In fact, the 1% difference that exists between humans is found as much between members of the same race as between races.   In one interview here on the program, a leading geneticist said there has been more genetic difference found between two populations living on either side of the same river in the heart of Africa than between one of those populations and Northern Europeans.  

The second theory that race is a natural kind has adapted to the recent evidence that there is a continuum of genetic characteristics across races.  It holds that geopgraphically isolated populations have differed in distinguishable traits.   But this new theory runs into problems as well.  For example, North America is a geographical area with its own population.  Is there a North American race?  This new continuum theory also posits the idea that race is based on physical characteristics.  But how are you going to average out the physical characteristics of the North American population?  Even using the current common racial divisions as “black” and “white”, there are the same diversity of physical traits in whites as in blacks.   And no one has ever solved the problem of grey, except perhaps in an erotic bestseller.

Many jump to other terms such as ancestry, which has become a popular surrogate for race in the age of personal genomics.   But Tate and Audette show that ancestry is just a repeat of the old “geographical” argument.    The difference between human DNA is irrespective of geographic location or supposed race.   Furthermore, the term ancestry has other cultural connotations.

Tate and Audette used the work of geneticists to show that race cannot be a natural kind.   But now having used their paper (out of many possible papers) to make this argument, I want to go beyond the scientific argument!

We live in a culture where everything must have its scientific explanation, and we are expecting race to as well.  But there are many examples where we have given up explaining through scientific discovery terms our ancestors might have thought to be real.   Black bile, for example, and the four humors.   Or how about Sagittarius.  For a long time many believed astrology was real.   But it is not a natural kind nor do we ever expect it to become one.  Or how about dragon, demon or ghost

Now let me make it harder.  How about the term weed?   This is something that we see in nature, that we can can touch, taste, and smell.   We can make scientific observations and discoveries about weeds.  Yet we know that weed is not a scientific term.  Plant, yes.  Weed, no.  

I think this is the case for the term race.  It is the vestige of an older vernacular of our ancestors trying to make sense of the natural world and at the same time imposing a hierarchy of values on that world.  Because make no mistake, one of the purposes of classifying the natural world into kinds is to imprint our own hierarchy.  Once we name a species and insert it into the taxonomy, we know where it exists in the pecking order.  And the impulse was no different for the Middle Age Europeans who developed the concept of the English word race.  However, despite all the efforts over the years, the term has never linked to any reality other than one made up by us.

That folks are going to college is great.  That they pick up some science is fabulous.  Why not add some philosophy and history as well? 

Scientists are not magicians.  That's the whole point.  They will never be able to rid the world of racists, who unfortunately grow like weeds.  But scientists can separate out their anxieties and stop jumping at the first calls of racism.  Perhaps they would benefit from some history and philosophy too.  

Perhaps this would help them cease worrying that they will accidentally "discover" race or magically turn it into a natural kind and thereby disadvantage certain populations.  Race is a term like weed or dragon or black bile.  It is more man-kind, more language-kind than nature-kind.  And that is racial realism.  Wasn't this a lesson of the 20th century?  Why are we forgetting it?  Is it the result of over STEM-ification of the 21st century? 



New to Mendelspod?

We advance life science research, connecting people and ideas.
Register here to receive our newsletter.

or skip signup