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."