Race!

Changes in the number and order of genes (A-D)...

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Go to any 10 South African “intellectuals” and, I’m guessing here, 9.9 of them (joke!!!) will tell you there is no such thing as race. If you insist that there are “races”, in the non-trivial sense that through the analysis of genetic variation at sufficient sites (not that many) one can demonstrate genetic clusters which unambiguously differentiate between populations, you will mainly get two generic kinds of reply:

firstly, that such genetic variation is biologically unimportant or that it is swamped by cultural-political differences and thus is, once again, utterly unimportant; or

secondly, and more commonly, flat denial accompanied by the suggestion that you’re a racist.

Both these answers are absolutely wrong, though one must take the more seriously the  cultural-political issue, which I will return to. For the technical basis for my assertion regarding “race” see the excellent post by “Gene Expression“. It may be a bit technical for some, but is as simple as it gets in this field. It is replete with links for those who wish to follow up some of the material and I strongly recommend the second figure in the post. I may also add that a recent paper demonstrates just how easily and unambiguously Ashkenazi Jews can be differentiated from neighbouring populations using genetic analysis.

Let me do “Gene Expression” the courtesy of quoting from his excellent post:

Let’s bring it back down to earth. Population structure exists. Phylogenetic analyses of humans are trivial in their difficulty. They track geography rather closely, at least before the age of mass migration. Additionally, they tend to follow endogamous social groups, such as Ashkenazi Jews. A South Asian is going to be more genetically related to a South Asian than they are to an African. There are many cosmetic differences between populations. But there are also less cosmetic differences which are very important. You can even assign different regions of a chromosome to different ancestral components.

Personally I have no problem with abandoning the word race and all the baggage which that entails. But there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water here. In the “post-genomic” era human population substructure is taken for granted. The outlines of the history of our species, and its various branches, are getting clearer and clearer. There’s no point in replacing old rubbish with new rubbish. We have the possibility for clear and useful thought, if we choose to grasp it.

Obviously, much more work needs to be done to map the fine structure of populations and to monitor changes over time. This information has immediate and obvious medical benefits in various contexts, from predicting the action of drugs in different groups to the discovery of medically useful genetic variants – eg. those conferring immunity or resistance to infectious or other disorders. And so on and on…this territory is ripe for exploration if humanity doesn’t get excessively diverted into the pursuit of material status and reward.

Such research is also tremendously interesting and valuable in understanding the history of human migration, interaction and population distribution. But let’s take a moment to look more seriously at the role of race in a political context, because that is where it possesses an evil potency. We can hardly forget the use the Nazi abuse of “racial science” to underpin one of the most ruthless and malignant mass political movement in history. We need to accept that “truth” does not always set us free, especially in the short-term. Partial understanding of truth is often worse than no understanding at all, and humans are capable of abusing truth and lies alike in pursuit of their own ends.

So, bearing this in mind, we can ask the question: does genetic clustering carry with it significant biological information? The answer to that question is unequivocally, YES. “Africans” are better runners and “Europeans” better swimmers due, at least in part, to differences in the leg:torso ratio. There are differences in disease patterns and in responses to medication – and this line of reasoning can be extended even at this stage of our knowledge.

OK, but what about IQ? … the hot question on everyone’s mind. The question itself is a reflection of a crude and incomplete understanding of intelligence and the factors which make for “success” – or even what the word “success” means. But let us take it at face value for now and then see where we go with it.

High IQ?

 

From what I have read, and my reading is very partial in relation to the size and complexity of the topic, I would argue that there is pretty good evidence for significant gradients between populations on the measure of IQ – understood as a general statistical measure of “intelligence”. There seems to be some biological substance to this statistical factor since educational-material-political “success” is correlated with IQ both between and within populations. This empirical fact (and others – see reference under IQ) has been seized on with glee in some quarters and despair in others, depending on orientation.

I would argue that both are premature and misplaced and I’ll mention the following reasons (doubtless there are others):

Firstly, the word success needs very careful definition. Are we talking about Darwinian success (in terms of relative net reproductive rates) or material success or are we talking of sporting success, or political success? Or indeed aesthetic preferences? And, if any one of these (or others), we need to ask what privileges it above other definitions and is the time-scale of measurement appropriate and just how reliable are the measurements?

For example, there is evidence that IQ measures are changing over time-scales too short to be accounted or by genetic changes and that many cultural, social and local factors can affect the measure of IQ? So we need more robust measures but a global trait like IQ will probably vary in response to a host of factors.

Even if we can satisfactorily deal with these confounding factors (and of course real efforts are being made to do just that) and come up with a reliable measure, just why should we privilege IQ above a host of emotional factors, other more specific cognitive-musical-artistic talents, physical factors and aesthetic abilities? Such abilities are undoubtedly significant in the life of individuals and communities and are susceptible to more-or-less the same confounding influences derived from social, cultural, political and physical sources. Surely it is time that attention is broadened to include a wider range of important behavioural and other characteristics which have a significant genetic contribution?

In short, we have very little solid understanding of what contributes to the “success” of communities or even how we should define the word productively and meaningfully, except in specified (and narrow) contexts. We certainly know that by altering the social, political, economic environment we can have a big effect on socially important outcomes. So it would seem sensible for the present that at the pragmatic, interventional level we must put our energies into those global factors which broadly impact on the lives of individuals and communities.

But, with real advances in genetics the possibility of timely and useful interventions of various kinds become possible. Some of this is already a reality but the field is wide open, and will need considerable thought from ethicists and others. What is not helpful is a knee-jerk reaction which refuses even to seriously consider the issues.

So the bottom lines are these:

1. Biologically meaningful races exist. It is important to study this further so as to extract value from such information for the benefit of mankind.

2. We are not sure of all the genetic-phenotypic factors that make for “success“. These are likely to be environment and context dependent and the word success needs careful operational refinement. We are not sure to what extent relevant human characteristics  may be influenced by the environmental route (and I’ve not even mentioned epigenetic variation) and how rapidly the genetics of populations are changing. We need to study all this further with an open mind while remaining cautious in the light of the limits of our knowledge and the complexity of the topic.

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About Mike Berger

I have followed an exciting and demanding career as a medical doctor and scientist with an equally challenging and varied retirement. I love both writing and photography in all their interactive and diverse manifestations. I have a couple of blogs, Aperture and Solar Plexus, which reflect my interests and commitments. They both lubricate and motivate the creative process and facilitate communication. Through the process of exchange we join a wider family of fully engaged fellow travellers on the journey of life.
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