From the New York Times
How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’
Gray MatterBy DAVID REICH MARCH 23, 2018David Reich is a professor of genetics at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book “Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past,” from which this article is adapted.
Razib’s early reaction to Reich’s book.
Greg Cochran is doing a fundraiser
at West Hunter
to pay him to review “Who We Are” in depth.
In 1942, the anthropologist Ashley Montagu published “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race,” an influential book that argued that race is a social concept with no genetic basis. …Beginning in 1972, genetic findings began to be incorporated into this argument. That year, the geneticist Richard Lewontin published an important study of variation in protein types in blood. He grouped the human populations he analyzed into seven “races” — West Eurasians, Africans, East Asians, South Asians, Native Americans, Oceanians and Australians — and found that around 85 percent of variation in the protein types could be accounted for by variation within populations and “races,” and only 15 percent by variation across them. To the extent that there was variation among humans, he concluded, most of it was because of “differences between individuals.”
Similarly, most of the genetic and phenotypic variations among members of an extended family are among individuals as well, but that doesn’t mean Extended Family Does Not Exist. Indeed, the genetic arithmetic is pretty similar for the relative size of similarities and differences by race and the relative size of similarities and differences by extended family such as nephew/niece and grandchild.
As the late great anthropologist and geneticist Henry Harpending
pointed out, if he discovered tomorrow that he had a seven-year-old grandson
he’d never seen, and he drove over to his grandchild’s house and there were a half-dozen seven-year-old boys from the neighborhood playing on the front lawn, which would be easier for him to do by sight from across the street: Sort the boys into their races or sort them into young Master Harpending and the non-Harpendings? Of course, he’d have an easy time distinguishing the boys by race on first sight, but he’d have a much harder time figuring out by sight accurately which little boy is a Harpending.
In this way, a consensus was established that among human populations there are no differences large enough to support the concept of “biological race.” Instead, it was argued, race is a “social construct,” a way of categorizing people that changes over time and across countries.It is true that race is a social construct. It is also true, as Dr. Lewontin wrote, that human populations “are remarkably similar to each other” from a genetic point of view.But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy maintains that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.The orthodoxy goes further, holding that we should be anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations. The concern is that such research, no matter how well-intentioned, is located on a slippery slope that leads to the kinds of pseudoscientific arguments about biological difference that were used in the past to try to justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews.I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years. With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.
Having spent a lot of time about 15 years ago on a project to demonstrate the absurdities of the current US Census Bureau racial categories, I eventually came to the unwanted conclusion that they were good enough for government work.
I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims.… To get a sense of what modern genetic research into average biological differences across populations looks like, consider an example from my own work. Beginning around 2003, I began exploring whether the population mixture that has occurred in the last few hundred years in the Americas could be leveraged to find risk factors for prostate cancer, a disease that occurs 1.7 times more often in self-identified African-Americans than in self-identified European-Americans. This disparity had not been possible to explain based on dietary and environmental differences, suggesting that genetic factors might play a role.Self-identified African-Americans turn out to derive, on average, about 80 percent of their genetic ancestry from enslaved Africans brought to America between the 16th and 19th centuries. My colleagues and I searched, in 1,597 African-American men with prostate cancer, for locations in the genome where the fraction of genes contributed by West African ancestors was larger than it was elsewhere in the genome. In 2006, we found exactly what we were looking for: a location in the genome with about 2.8 percent more African ancestry than the average.When we looked in more detail, we found that this region contained at least seven independent risk factors for prostate cancer, all more common in West Africans. Our findings could fully account for the higher rate of prostate cancer in African-Americans than in European-Americans. We could conclude this because African-Americans who happen to have entirely European ancestry in this small section of their genomes had about the same risk for prostate cancer as random Europeans.Did this research rely on terms like “African-American” and “European-American” that are socially constructed, and did it label segments of the genome as being probably “West African” or “European” in origin? Yes. Did this research identify real risk factors for disease that differ in frequency across those populations, leading to discoveries with the potential to improve health and save lives? Yes.While most people will agree that finding a genetic explanation for an elevated rate of disease is important, they often draw the line there. Finding genetic influences on a propensity for disease is one thing, they argue, but looking for such influences on behavior and cognition is another.But whether we like it or not, that line has already been crossed. A recent study led by the economist Daniel Benjamin compiled information on the number of years of education from more than 400,000 people, almost all of whom were of European ancestry. After controlling for differences in socioeconomic background, he and his colleagues identified 74 genetic variations that are over-represented in genes known to be important in neurological development, each of which is incontrovertibly more common in Europeans with more years of education than in Europeans with fewer years of education. …This study has been joined by others finding genetic predictors of behavior. One of these, led by the geneticist Danielle Posthuma, studied more than 70,000 people and found genetic variations in more than 20 genes that were predictive of performance on intelligence tests.Is performance on an intelligence test or the number of years of school a person attends shaped by the way a person is brought up? Of course. But does it measure something having to do with some aspect of behavior or cognition? Almost certainly. And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.You will sometimes hear that any biological differences among populations are likely to be small, because humans have diverged too recently from common ancestors for substantial differences to have arisen under the pressure of natural selection. This is not true. …
Okay, but now it’s time for one set of Russians in a sleigh pursued by hungry wolves across the tundra to throw another set of Russians out of the sleigh.
To understand why it is so dangerous for geneticists and anthropologists to simply repeat the old consensus about human population differences, consider what kinds of voices are filling the void that our silence is creating. Nicholas Wade, a longtime science journalist for The New York Times, rightly notes in his 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” that modern research is challenging our thinking about the nature of human population differences. But he goes on to make the unfounded and irresponsible claim that this research is suggesting that genetic factors explain traditional stereotypes.One of Mr. Wade’s key sources, for example, is the anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has asserted that people of sub-Saharan African ancestry have no propensity to work when they don’t have to because, he claims, they did not go through the type of natural selection for hard work in the last thousands of years that some Eurasians did.
I can’t see anywhere in Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance
where he cites Harpending to that effect. As far as I can tell, Wade’s book cites Harpending solely for his landmark 2005 paper with Cochran and Hardy: Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence
The late Professor Harpending, a National Academy of Science member, was a rare individual who was both a cultural anthropologist and a genetic anthropologist, spent 3.5 years living with hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa. He loved Africa
so much that he seriously considered moving there permanently to live in the bush.
Harpending noted in his West Hunter blog
with Greg Cochran that in typical African farming cultures, where weeding is done more with hoes than plows, black women tend to work harder than black men, an observation rather similar to the results found in Stanford economist Raj Chetty’s brand new paper
on the gender gap in earnings of African-Americans.
This anthropological observation that most of the farming work
in sub-Saharan Africa was done by women was not original to Harpending. The leftist anthropologist Jack Goody pointed out the African reverse gender gap in labor in the 1960s. From the Goody Lecture
at the Max Planck Institute in 2011 by Keith Hart explains Goody’s observations:
European feudalism was based on private property in land and this was absent from traditional West Africa. Why? Because land was scarce in Western Europe, but not in Africa, where the scarce factor was people; and control over them was exercised through monopolies of the “means of destruction” (horses, guns etc.), not the means of production. Africa’s polities were both centralized and decentralized, the former acquiring manpower by force through carrying out slave raids on the latter (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). Shifting hoe agriculture was the norm, with the bulk of manual labour being performed by women. In both types of society they were hoarded as wives by polygamous older men and their children were recruited to exclusive descent groups.
Indeed, Harpending noted that the in the two African peoples he lived with this anthropological stereotype was not true. In the hunter-gatherer Bushmen, the husbands tended to bring home the bacon much like among Europeans, and in the herding Herrero the husbands did much of herding.
There is simply no scientific evidence to support this statement.
Indeed, as 139 geneticists (including myself) pointed out in a letter to The New York Times about Mr. Wade’s book, there is no genetic evidence to back up any of the racist stereotypes he promotes.
Another high-profile example is James Watson, the scientist who in 1953 co-discovered the structure of DNA, and who was forced to retire as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in 2007 after he stated in an interview — without any scientific evidence — that research has suggested that genetic factors contribute to lower intelligence in Africans than in Europeans.At a meeting a few years later, Dr. Watson said to me and my fellow geneticist Beth Shapiro something to the effect of “When are you guys going to figure out why it is that you Jews are so much smarter than everyone else?” He asserted that Jews were high achievers because of genetic advantages conferred by thousands of years of natural selection to be scholars, and that East Asian students tended to be conformist because of selection for conformity in ancient Chinese society. (Contacted recently, Dr. Watson denied having made these statements, maintaining that they do not represent his views; Dr. Shapiro said that her recollection matched mine.)
Harpending, Cochran, and Hardy proposed a study of Jewish patients with the genetic disease torsion dystonia to attempt to replicate old observations that they tend to have particularly high IQ. Last I heard, three times that proposal has been taken up by researchers and three times shot down by bosses for political reasons.
What makes Dr. Watson’s and Mr. Wade’s statements so insidious is that they start with the accurate observation that many academics are implausibly denying the possibility of average genetic differences among human populations, and then end with a claim — backed by no evidence — that they know what those differences are and that they correspond to racist stereotypes. They use the reluctance of the academic community to openly discuss these fraught issues to provide rhetorical cover for hateful ideas and old racist canards.
Something must be done to shut up the Watsons, Wades, and Harpendings so that the Reichs and Shapiros can continue to get funding without danger of being cutoff by sniping from the Montagus and Lewontins.
P.S., here’s a comment by Gregory Cochran on his blog that he co-founded with Henry Harpending, West Hunter:
Reich is in a very odd place. Like many people with a similar background, he was brought up to be a good liberal, which entails believing in a lot of obvious falsehoods. But he’s smart, and the current of discovery in genetics strongly undermines some of those liberal beliefs. I have said that hardly anyone, maybe only a few hundred people worldwide, are going to become convinced of the existence of genetically caused differences between races because of genetic evidence – when obvious phenotypic differences aren’t enough? But there are a few such people and I think Reich is one of them. He’s been told about current and upcoming GWAS studies of intelligence. And although the emotional charge is lower, he’s been busily demolishing fashionable, false liberal ideas about prehistory (pots not peoples, no massive migrations, no fire-and-sword population replacements). He knows that these guys are reliably wrong in his field – that has to influence his thinking.He also knows that he works at Harvard, knows where his funding comes from, knows what happened to Watson. He knows that calling the shots honestly would destroy his career, destroy the careers of the young people working there, etc. It’s lot like trying to a decent job under Communism: you had to make compromises. Or being a policeman working for Vichy: there are still criminals that needed to be caught, right?Being a collabo is not as fun as it looks. But most Frenchmen were collabos, to some extent – DeGaulle was atypical.
[Comment at Unz.com