A Couple of Wild-Eyed Wackos: Me and the New York Times

While many journalists write about race, I’m widely considered beyond the pale because I frequently write about it from a scientific perspective. My approach is seen as prima facie evidence of my extremism. Last year, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and David Frum both announced that they were shocked, shocked that I often “concentrate on genetic questions,” as Jonah put it.

Neither has taken up my offer to publicly debate the topic. But that seems to be their point: some entire subjects are just so far beyond the boundaries of polite discussion that all a dignified pundit need do is point and squeal in horror.

After all, who else besides me reports on the genetics of race?

Well, the New York Times is who.

For several years now, the newspaper of record’s distinguished correspondent Nicholas Wade has been making the case for the biological reality of race. Wade is a veteran science journalist who worked at the most prestigious British science journal, Nature, then moved to the top American scholarly periodical, Science, before going to the NYT. He is the author of Life Script: How the Human Genome Discoveries Will Transform Medicine and Enhance Your Health and the editor of a long series of New York Times Books on Genetics, The Brain, Archaeology, Language and Linguistics, Fossils and Evolution, and the like. He is clearly the most important genetics reporter in the United States.

Below are excerpts from a dozen of his NYT articles. I hope calling attention to this major aspect of Wade’s work doesn’t get him fired. But he definitely has the science on his side.

Much of Wade’s work is clearly driven by a concern for improving humanity’s health. He fears that the “Race Does Not Exist” crowd will condemn sick people to death by keeping doctors from learning what treatments are appropriate for each patient’s genes. (Last year, the New York Times Magazine printed a fascinating article by Sally Satel, “I Am a Racially Profiling Doctor,” making a similar point.).

Here is one of Wade’s earlier efforts on this theme:

Race Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease, NYT, July 30, 2002

“Challenging the widely held view that race is a ‘biologically meaningless’ concept, a leading population geneticist says that race is helpful for understanding ethnic differences in disease and response to drugs. The geneticist, Dr. Neil Risch of Stanford University, says that genetic differences have arisen among people living on different continents and that race, referring to geographically based ancestry, is a valid way of categorizing these differences.”

Wade expanded on Dr. Risch’s views last month:

2 Scholarly Articles Diverge on Role of Race in Medicine  NYT, March 20, 2003

“A view widespread among many social scientists, endorsed in official statements by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association, is that race is not a valid biological concept. But biologists, particularly the population geneticists who study genetic variation, have found that there is a structure in the human population. The structure is a family tree showing separate branches for Africans, Caucasians (Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent), East Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians.

“Biologists, too, have often been reluctant to use the term “race.” But this taboo was broken last year by Dr. Neil Risch, a leading population geneticist at Stanford University. Vexed by an editorial in The New England Journal that declared that race was “biologically meaningless,” Dr. Risch argued in the electronic journal Genome Biology that self-identified race was useful in understanding ethnic differences in disease and in the response to drugs.

“Race corresponded broadly to continental ancestry and hence to the branches on the human family tree described by geneticists, he said. Expanding this argument today, Dr. Risch and nine co-authors say that ignoring race will ‘retard progress in biomedical research.’ Racial differences have arisen, they say, because after the ancestral human population in Africa spread throughout the world 40,000 years ago, geographical barriers prevented interbreeding. On each continent, under the influence of natural selection and the random change between generations known as genetic drift, people would have diverged away from the common ancestral population, creating the major races. Within each race, religious, cultural and geographical barriers fostered other endogamous, or inbreeding, populations that led to the ethnic groups.”

Wade wrote two articles last Christmas reporting on a recent population genetics study:

The Palette of Humankind NYT, December 24, 2002

“Humankind falls into five continental groups – broadly equivalent to the common conception of races – when a computer is asked to sort DNA data from people from around the world into clusters.”

Gene Study Identifies 5 Main Human Populations NYT, December 20, 2002

“Scientists studying the DNA of 52 human groups from around the world have concluded that people belong to five principal groups corresponding to the major geographical regions of the world: Africa, Europe, Asia, Melanesia and the Americas. The study, based on scans of the whole human genome, is the most thorough to look for patterns corresponding to major geographical regions. These regions broadly correspond with popular notions of race, the researchers said in interviews.”

Personally, I’m not that enthusiastic about these top-down attempts to lump humanity into a small number of continental-scale races. Clearly, there are lots of hybrid and intermediate groups. Plus, it’s fairly arbitrary when to lump and when to split. For example, should New World Indians be considered a separate race – or merely a subset of East Asians?

I prefer a more scaleable, bottom-up approach to thinking about race that starts with the simple but enormously useful definition: “A racial group is a partly inbred extended family.” (See my VDARE.COM article “It’s All Relative: Putting Race in Its Proper Perspective.”)

Still, this kind of simplified model is valuable for medical care. Are East Asians and American Indians different enough genetically that they should be treated as separate major races? I don’t know. I suspect that if you are a doctor in, say, Morocco, the differences between East Asians and Amerindians aren’t worth learning about. You’ll treat either one so rarely that it’s just not worth your time to study.  But here in the U.S., there are millions of East Asians and millions of American Indians. So our doctors should learn how they differ.

Doctors, for example, often advise their patients to have a glass of red wine every day for the good of their hearts. They must, however, learn not to tell an American Indian to do that. His risk of becoming alcoholic is too great.

Here are some other important articles by Wade:

Genome Mappers Navigate the Tricky Terrain of Race NYT, July 20, 2001

“Scientists planning the next phase of the human genome project are being forced to confront a treacherous issue: the genetic differences between human races.”

For Sale: A DNA Test to Measure Racial Mix, NYT, October 1, 2002

“A company in Sarasota, Fla., is offering a DNA test that it says will measure customers’ racial ancestry and their ancestral proportions if they are of mixed race.”

Study Breaks New Ground on Variations in Genome, NYT July 13, 2001

“A large-scale study of the variability in the human genome has shown that each human gene may come in 12 different versions on average. The authors also say their findings cast doubt on the way that a large government and industry program is mining the genome for the genetic basis of common human diseases.”

Here is Wade’s review of the bestseller The Blank Slate by my friend Steven Pinker. (By the way, congratulations to Steve and Harvard University President Larry Summers for his move from MIT to Harvard last week. Pinker, a linguist who is evolving into his generation’s leading generalist, told the Boston Globe, ”For verbs, MIT is the best place; but for human nature and its implications, Harvard is the most important place.”)

In Nature vs. Nurture, a Voice for Nature , NYT, September 17, 2002

“Who should define human nature? When the biologist Edward O. Wilson set out to do so in his 1975 book “Sociobiology,” he was assailed by left-wing colleagues who portrayed his description of genetically shaped human behaviors as a threat to the political principles of equal rights and a just society.

“Since then, a storm has threatened anyone who prominently asserts that politically sensitive aspects of human nature might be molded by the genes. So biologists, despite their increasing knowledge from the decoding of the human genome and other advances, are still distinctly reluctant to challenge the notion that human behavior is largely shaped by environment and culture. The role of genes in shaping differences between individuals or sexes or races has become a matter of touchiness, even taboo.

“A determined effort to break this silence and make it safer for biologists to discuss what they know about the genetics of human nature has now been begun by Dr. Steven Pinker, a psychologist of language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

One of the politically touchiest subjects in all genetics is DNA similarities and differences among Jews. Wade has not shied away from this delicate but captivating topic:

 In DNA, New Clues to Jewish Roots, NYT, May 14, 2002

“A new thread is being woven into the complex tapestry of Jewish history, a thread fashioned from a double twist of DNA.”

Y Chromosome Bears Witness to Story of the Jewish Diaspora, NYT May 9, 2000

“With a new technique based on the male or Y chromosome, biologists have traced the diaspora of Jewish populations from the dispersals that began in 586 B.C. to the modern communities of Europe and the Middle East. The analysis provides genetic witness that these communities have, to a remarkable extent, retained their biological identity separate from their host populations, evidence of relatively little intermarriage or conversion into Judaism over the centuries.”

Another subject that less courageous reporters have avoided is the confluence of head and brain size and shape, intelligence, and race:

Study Finds Genetic Link Between Intelligence and Size of Some Regions of the Brain, NYT, November 5, 2001

“Lunging into the roiled waters of human intelligence and its heritability, brain scientists say they have found that the size of certain regions of the brain is under tight genetic control and that the larger these regions are the higher is intelligence.”

A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race NYT, Oct 8, 2002

“Two physical anthropologists have reanalyzed data gathered by Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, and report that he erred in saying environment influenced human head shape. Boas’s data, the two scientists say, show almost no such effect. The reanalysis bears on whether craniometrics, the measurement of skull shape, can validly identify ethnic origin…

” ‘I have used Boas’s study to fight what I guess could be considered racist approaches to anthropology,’ said Dr. David Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. ‘I have to say I am shocked at the findings.’

“Forensic anthropologists believe that by taking some 90 measurements of a skull they can correctly assign its owner’s continent of origin – broadly speaking, its race, though many anthropologists prefer not to use that term – with 80 percent accuracy.

“Opponents of the technique, who cite Boas’s data, say the technique is useless, in part because environmental influences, like nutrition or the chewiness of food, would overwhelm genetic effects.  Boas measured the heads of 13,000 European-born immigrants and their American-born children in 1909 and 1910 and reported striking effects on cranial form, depending on the length of exposure to the American environment.

“But in re-examining his published data, Dr. Corey S. Sparks of Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Richard L. Jantz of the University of Tennessee find that the effects of the new environment were ‘insignificant’ and that the differences between parents and children and between European- and American-born children were ‘negligible in comparison to the differentiation between ethnic groups,’ they are reporting today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

In summary, let us praise Nicholas Wade and the New York Times for their contribution to public understanding of this hugely important area.

And phooey, not for the first time, to the Goldberg Review.

[Steve Sailer [email him], is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute. His website www.iSteve.com features site-exclusive commentaries.]