A Debate Over A Troublesome Book, Ctd

by Patrick Appel


A biology professor writes:

While the scientific reviews of Nicholas Wade’s new book have been almost uniformly negative, your treatment of the matter seems to have missed the major point of both Wade’s book and the damning criticisms. What Wade gets wrong is not that there are genetic differences among human populations, and that you can tell where a person (or his ancestors) are from by looking at these differences (on this point he is simply correct: the geographic division of humanity into genetically diagnosable groups is not a “social construction,” but a fact of nature). Rather, Wade’s major and unsupported claim is that differences between contemporary human societies are genetic and have evolved extraordinarily quickly.

Here, for example is Jerry Coyne on the book. Allen Orr, in the New York Review of Books, has a very similar view of Wade’s book. Both Coyne and Orr are geneticists, experts in the study of species and their origins (they coauthored a book on the subject 10 years ago). While the fact of geographically-based genetic subdivision (which is what biologists mean by “race”) may drive some to apoplexy, its not news to a geneticist. It’s Wade’s “second part” that doesn’t hold up to critical analysis, and this is what knowledgeable scientific reviews have pointed out.

Wade’s application of genetics to the differences between societies is indeed the most troubling and evidence-starved part of his book. I didn’t miss it; I highlighted Coyne’s and Orr’s reviews last week. And I fully accept “the geographic division of humanity into genetically diagnosable groups.” But what’s the utility of calling those genetic divisions “race”? Having two definitions for race, one biological and one societal, is liable to make individuals think the socially constructed racial categories are exactly the same as the biological ones and lead individuals to incorrectly justify social hierarchies using biology.

The graphic at the top of this post, from Jennifer Raff’s review of Wade’s book, shows the “United States census classifications of race or color, 1890-1990.” A highlight from Raff’s takedown of A Troublesome Inheritance:

Human biological variation is real and important. I’ve studied it my entire professional career. We can see this variation most easily in physical traits and allele frequency differences between populations at extreme ends of a geographic continuum. Nobody is denying that. Let me repeat this: no one is denying that humans vary physically and genetically. All anthropologists and geneticists recognize that human differences exist. But Wade, and others who agree with him, have decided that certain patterns of variation—those which happen to support their predefined notions of what “races” must be—are more important than others.

Wade’s perspective fits with a larger pattern seen throughout history and around the world. Folk notions of what constitutes a race and how many races exist are extremely variable and culturally specific. For example, the Bible claims that all peoples of the world are descended from Noah’s three sons, mirroring the popular concept of three racial divisions (Caucasians, Africans, and Asians). On the other hand, the five-part division of races seems most “logical” to Wade. Anticipating confusion on this point he claims: “Those who assert that human races don’t exist like to point to the many, mutually inconsistent classification schemes that have recognized anywhere from 3 to 60 races. But the lack of agreement doesn’t mean that races don’t exist, only that it is a matter of judgment as to how to define them” (p. 92).

A matter of judgment. So, rather than being defined by empirical criteria, as Wade had asserted so confidently earlier in the book, it really is just a subjective judgment call. The differences between groups are so subtle and gradual that no objective lines can be drawn, so Wade draws his own on the basis of his own preconceptions.

A reader adds:

It should be mentioned that there are some reputable scientists who defend something like Wade’s conception of broad races, while being much more careful than he is to point out that these are not really discrete groups, that the number of them and boundaries between them are somewhat arbitrary.

You may have seen the recent comments by Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker and Alan Orr—none of whom is much bothered by Wade’s assertions of race-as-reality, though they’ve all rubbished his grand, gene-based account of human history. Personally, I have yet to see any of these guys fully justify the notion of fixed, coarse racial categories vs. the much more fluid and contextual idea of populations, which exist at various levels of scale and whose definition depends entirely on what you’re interested in learning.

There is a big cultural and, some would say, ideological split between this subset of evolutionary biologists who’ve denounced the “race as social construct” idea as a “myth,” and the majority of anthropologists, who continue to hold that position.

Another reader takes issue with Charles Mills’ speech on the social construction of race:

My gripe with this clip is that it attempts to illustrate the social construction of race by still preserving fairly recent forms of “racial” categorization as its model: i.e. “whiteness” and “blackness.” Mills then goes on to take these categories, which emerged slowly between four hundred and two-hundred and fifty years ago, and transpose them onto the medieval period.

Neither Medieval Europe nor any portion of Sub-Saharan Africa during Medieval days utilized these markers “white” and “black” as social divisions. A more useful alternative universe might imagine a social order in which completely different categorization schemes emerged. For instance, we know that through the early 1700s Europeans were more likely to classify Africans by their “tribal” origins (I’ll leave aside the problematic ways in which the encounter with Europeans actually served to construct these tribal boundaries as they came to be known). As such, where slave traders captured their labor force was a more prominent marker than that labor force’s “blackness.” “Blackness” emerges as a primary marker only after several generations of intermarriage in the Americas among slaves.

So we’re better served, I would argue, imagining a system that eschewed Blackness and Whiteness as the primary dividing line altogether, and imagine a world where, say, the Iberian Moors, with the help of darker skinned Africans from both East and Sub-Saharan Africa succeeded in displacing the authority of Europeans. In such a system, there may have been a hierarchy that placed Iberian Moors at the top of the social order (perhaps because of language skills that enabled them to serve in clerical positions in dominance of fellow Europeans). And then a “racial” scheme that divided the world according to gradations of skin (or hair, or a combination of features) that privileged something akin to a mocha over various gradations of lighter and darker skin (i.e., the darker or the lighter you were, the lower your status). Or perhaps one in which blonder and redder hair became the marker for subjugation.

The point (which I don’t think Mills did a great job of emphasizing), is that there was nothing inevitable about skin color even being a social marker. For much of human history, it doesn’t appear to have been so.

Another reader adds some context on epigenetics:

Jonathan Marks is quoted as writing:

“the ways in which DNA can be modified in direct response to the environment, and those DNA modifications can be stably transmitted…”

He should clarify what he means by “stably transmitted.” In fact, epigenetic modifications are very rarely felt beyond perhaps third generation. Jerry Coyne wrote, about 3 years ago, a great commentary on how epigenetics is being hyped.

And final reader theorizes about why Wade largely ignores culture:

Apparently Wade has it in his head that culture = easy to change through an implicit logic that if it’s not hard-coded it must be infinitely and immediately mutable. Which is sheer nonsense, of course, but betrays the unscientific bias in his thinking. There’s actually no reason at all to presume that it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another given actual institutional behaviors usually depend on a whole accumulation of wider behaviors.

The idea that cultural institutions, which have changed radically over the centuries in those regions, are hard-coded in genes is just kooky. And it’s dangerously self-excusing and deceptive to ascribe inability to easily, in a facile fashion, transfer institutions to genetics. All this is a pity as there is a lot of learning to come from the real – but subtle – influence of genetics in framing human action. That learning is deeply distorted by primitive and fuzzy-minded thinking.

Most of all, though it’s really disappointing to see a science writer for the Times betray the fact he really has a poor grasp of science.

Previous Dish coverage of Wade’s book here.

What’s Race’s Impact On Biology?

by Patrick Appel

While trashing Nicholas Wade’s book on race and genetics, Jonathan Marks points out that Wade ignores epigenetics:

It is hard to find a book on evolution today that fails to mention epigenetics—the ways in which DNA can be modified in direct response to the environment, and those DNA modifications can be stably transmitted—but this is one such book. Flexibility and reactivity are not in Wade’s evolutionary arsenal. To acknowledge the plasticity and adaptability of the human organism—which has framed most scientific work in human biology over the last century—would be to undermine Wade’s theme of the independent, unforgiving external world exacting its selective toll on the human gene pool.

Relatedly, Anne Fausto-Sterling reviews Richard C. Francis’s Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our GenesAnn Morning’s The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, and Dorothy Roberts’s Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First CenturyHere’s a quote from Roberts that explains her thesis:

Race is a political category that has staggering biological consequences because of the impact of social inequality on people’s health. Understanding race as a political category does not erase its impact on biology; instead, it redirects attention from genetic explanations to social ones.

Fausto-Sterling takes this argument and runs with it:

Morning and Roberts argue convincingly that race is a socially produced set of categories that has profound and often terrible biological consequences. Without putting words into Francis’s mouth, since he doesn’t discuss race per se, he would, I think, agree that epigenetics provides a well-understood tool that ought to be used more frequently in studies of biological correlates of racial inequality in health. If our goal is not just to understand race, but to improve health, then we don’t need research to find genes that cause essential hypertension as much as we need to address the sources of chronic stress. … Understanding race as a producer of health outcomes, but not a result of genetic programming, doesn’t suggest that we abandon biomedical research as it relates to race, but it does suggest that looking for race-oriented genetic precursors of disease is a fruitless labor. We need a different kind of investigation.

It’s true that epigenetics “ought to be used more frequently in studies of biological correlates of racial inequality in health.” But that doesn’t preclude looking for genes that influence health. And some of those genes may well be concentrated in populations with genetic simularies. Just because those populations are not races doesn’t mean that we should focus entirely on epigenetics.

Previous Dish on Wade here.

The Ideologue Who Doesn’t Know He’s An Ideologue

by Patrick Appel

Luke Ford interviews Nicholas Wade about his shoddy book on race and genetics:

Luke: “What were the biggest challenges in writing this book?”

Nicholas: “I think the biggest challenge was that I had so few scientific sources to guide me in interpretation because this is an area where academics cannot tread for fear of being accused of racism and careers destroyed. All of the coverage of this topic in the scientific literature has the basic facts but few people draw them together. So I found the lack of guidance difficult, even more so when I came to the second part of the book. Historians and economics just never consider human evolution as a variable. They just assume all of the populations they are dealing with are interchangeable and that natural selection never need be an explanation to even consider. So there again, there was no guidance for someone trying to figure out the possible consequences of the fact that human evolution has continued and has never come to a stop.”

This is a clever way for Wade to explain why he couldn’t find many academics who agree with his thesis. By blaming political correctness, as Wade does repeatedly in his book, he attempts to portray himself as a brave truth-teller and academics as victims of political correctness. Here’s a representative passage where Wade deploys this trick:

[A]t present most university departments lean strongly to the left. Any researcher who even discusses issues politically offensive to the left runs the risk of antagonizing the professional colleagues who must approve his requests for government funds and review his articles for publication. Self-censorship is the frequent response, especially in anything to do with the recent differential evolution of the human population. It takes only a few vigilantes to cow the whole campus. The result is that researchers at present routinely ignore the biology of race, or tiptoe around the subject, lest they be accused of racism by their academic rivals and see their careers destroyed.

This is a feeble attempt to dismiss the views of the academic community. At the very least, there are valid arguments to be made in defense of seeing race as a social rather than biological construct. Wade is free to reject those arguments, but he hardly bothers to recognize that they exist. Instead, he thinks “commonsense” refutes them. In most situations, I side with the belief favored by the majority of experts with relevant knowledge. Saying they are wrong because commonsense says so is a laughably weak attempt to challenge the general consensus in the relevant literature. Jonathan Marks’s review touches on Wade’s sleight of hand:

At the heart of A Troublesome Inheritance is a simple dissimulation. Wade repeatedly asserts that his interlocutors are mixing their politics with their science, but he isn’t, for he is just promoting value-neutral, ideology-free science. And yet the primary sources for Wade’s discussion of the history of human society are Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. One gets the impression that either Wade is lying, or he wouldn’t be able to recognize ideology if looked him in the eye and slapped him silly.

Noah Smith explains the psychological trap Wade has fallen into:

Academic racism is very alluring, for at least three reasons. First, it tells us that all our stereotypes and prejudices are basically right – and we humans like to be told that all our preconceptions are right. We suffer from confirmation bias. Second, academic racism feels cool and edgy and rebellious, because political correctness still often banishes it from the realm of acceptable discourse. It’s fun to feel like the scientific rebel, fighting for The Facts against the thought control of The Establishment. And third, academic racism provides a convenient excuse for racism of the non-academic kind. Scared that a big, masculine black guy will take your girlfriend? Worried that hard-working, intelligent (but “uncreative”) immigrants will take your job? Academic racism provides convenient stories to justify policies that protect you against threats like these – at the expense of the black guys and the immigrants, of course.

Previous Dish on Wade’s book here.

Wade’s Reckless Speculation About Races

by Patrick Appel

In his new book on race and genetics, Nicholas Wade incorrectly defines race biologically. But this is far from his worst error. Robert VerBruggen summarizes some of Wade’s main arguments:

(1) Why did the Industrial Revolution occur first in England? Wade lays out evidence, collected by the economist Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms, that those in England’s upper classes had been having more children than those in the lower classes — possibly affecting traits including “interpersonal violence, literacy, the propensity to save and the propensity to work,” and in turn transformingWade the population into one capable of immense economic output. An enormous population growth spurt starting around 1770 finally set the revolution off, and it quickly spread to other nations that were similarly situated.

(2) Wade says China had the right evolution but not the right institutions to take advantage of industry once it emerged, which is why its economy didn’t take off until it adopted economic reforms. Wade notes the examination system that was in place in China starting in 124 B.C., which he says created a sort of meritocracy that allowed the best scorers to rise in society and have the most children.

(3) Did violent tendencies evolve differently in different places? Wade notes that, among the Yanomamo of South America, men who have killed in battle have 2 1/2 times as many children as those who don’t. And he cites evidence that one gene that seems to contribute to violence — “MAO-A” — doesn’t show up evenly across populations, with one evidently violence-promoting variant being present in 5 percent of African-Americans but only 0.1 percent of Caucasians. The “gracilization” of the skull — the thinning that occurred as humans became less likely to try to bash each others’ brains in — shows a pattern too, but a very different one: It’s “most pronounced in sub-Saharan Africans and East Asians, with Europeans retaining considerable robustness.” Still another genetic variant, one related specifically to violence when drunk, has been found in Finns.

(4) Wade also digs into Jewish history, relaying theories that the religion’s emphasis on literacy — a skill with little practical value in a farming society — may have driven the less intelligent to join Christianity instead, and that European Jews’ being highly concentrated in intellectually demanding professions like moneylending may have further contributed to increased IQ.

In a review worth reading in full, H. Allen Orr declares that Wade “goes beyond reporting scientific facts or accepted theories and finds Wade championing bold ideas that fall outside any scientific consensus”:

Wade obviously appreciates the distinction between behavior that “could be” genetic and “is” genetic. The problem is that he doesn’t seem particularly interested in hard evidence or even in the prospects that relevant hard evidence could ever be obtained.

There is, however, another distinction that Wade doesn’t seem to appreciate at all. He’s right that political sensitivities shouldn’t distort scientific truth: the facts are the facts. But as [Steven] Pinker notes, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be particularly careful when discussing race. History has shown that this is an especially dangerous subject, one that has resulted in enormous abuses. There is nothing unscientific about recognizing this and treading carefully.

At times, Wade’s approach seems almost the opposite. Though he issues the requisite disclaimers about the dignity and moral equality of all peoples, he’s clearly tempted, under the cover of politics-shouldn’t-distort-science, to provoke. Indeed there is a species of bravado here, as though demonstrating that he, unlike others, is tough-minded enough to face unpleasant facts. But surely there is a difference between facing facts that are unpleasant and spinning tales that are improbable.

Jerry Coyne piles on:

Wade’s main thesis, and where the book goes wrong, is to insist that differences between human societies, including differences that arose in the last few centuries, are based on genetic differences—produced by natural selection— in the behavior of individuals within those societies.  In other words, societal differences largely reflect their differential evolution.

For this Wade offers virtually no evidence, because there is none. We know virtually nothing about the genetic differences (if there are any) in cognition and behavior between human populations. And to explain how natural selection can effect such rapid changes, Wade posits some kind of “multiplier effect,” whereby small differences in gene frequencies can ramify up to huge societal differences. There is virtually no evidence for that, either. It is a mountain of speculation teetering on a few pebbles.

In a later post, Coyne adds:

This is the problem with Wade’s book: it presents a sweeping hypothesis about the selective basis of human social differences ( a touchy subject), but gives virtually no evidence to support it. If you like stories, it’s fine; if you like science, it’s not so fine. Wade sometimes offers disclaimers, but the reader’s impression will be that he really is presenting scientific findings.

Tyler Cowen was disappointed:

There is much I admire about Greg Clark’s (previous) book, but Wade doesn’t seem to realize Clark has hardly any evidence in support of his “genetic origins of capitalism” thesis.

Arthur Allen pans the book:

Mr. Wade occasionally drops in broad, at times insulting assumptions about the behavior of particular groups without substantiating the existence of such behaviors, let alone their genetic basis. Writing about Africans’ economic condition, for example, Mr. Wade wonders whether “variations in their nature, such as their time preference, work ethic and propensity to violence, have some bearing on the economic decisions they make.”

For Mr. Wade, genetic differences help explain the failure of the United States occupations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. “If institutions were purely cultural,” he writes, “it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another.” It’s hard to know how to begin to address such a puzzling statement.

Indeed it is. This paragraph from A Troublesome Inheritance also made my jaw hit the floor:

When North Korea adopts market-friendly institutions, a safe prediction is that it would in time become as prosperous as South Korea. It would be far less safe to predict that Equatorial Guinea or Haiti needs only better institutions to attain a modern economy; their peoples may not have yet had the opportunity to develop the ingrained behaviors of trust, nonviolence and thrift that a productive economy requires.

Andrew Gelman’s takedown of such nonsense is worth a read:

As a statistician and political scientist, I see naivete in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior. For example, he writes that declining interest rates in England from the years 1400 to 1850 “indicate that people were becoming less impulsive, more patient, and more willing to save” and attributes this to “the far-reaching genetic consequences” of rich people having more children, on average, than poor people, so that “the values of the upper middle class” were “infused into lower economic classes and throughout society.”

Similarly, he claims a genetic basis for the declining levels of everyday violence in Europe over the past 500 years and even for “a society-wide shift … toward greater sensibility and more delicate manners.” All this is possible, but it seems to me that these sorts of stories explain too much. The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right. For example, the United States and other countries have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay rights in the past 20 years, a change that certainly can’t be attributed to genes. Given that we can see this sort of change in attitudes so quickly (and, indeed, see large changes in behavior during such time scales; consider for example the changes in the murder rate in New York City during the past 100 years), I am skeptical of Wade’s inclination to come up with a story of genetics and selection pressure whenever a trend happens to be measured over a period of hundreds of years.

Ian Steadman joins the chorus:

Wade often strays from his taxonomy – Caucasians sometimes stand equal alongside Africans and East Asians, while at other times “the West” is treated as separate to both the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. Modern nation-states are frequently talked about as if ethnically homogenous, and what discussion there is of internal variation (say, class difference) is waved away as irrelevant. Quite why the Jews benefited from being kicked around Europe for hundreds of years while other persecuted ethnicities didn’t is unclear – the inevitable, unpleasant implication of this is that we can just as easily decide that the Roma are predisposed to petty crime, for example.

Never mind that there are plausible social, historical and economic analyses, with substantial evidence, that also explain the trends Wade has identified – his view is almost fatalistic in attributing everything to genes, based on nothing more than a correlation between the time it takes for the human genome to be shaped by environmental pressures and the time it takes for societies to undergo significant change. He does not pinpoint the genes he suspects cause social change – he merely deduces they must be there, because it fits the pattern.

And that’s so, so weird. Nobody – nobody – denies that there is genetic variation between distinct groups of people. This is visible in the colour of our skin, in our different heights and hair colours, in the higher rates of sickle cell disease among Africans and higher rates of obesity among Pacific Islanders.

What Wade is arguing for, though, is a definition of race that is at once dangerous and useless.

And Anthony Daniels’s review provides an alternative explanation for differing crime rates in Africa and the West:

The author tries to make out that the decline in the homicide rate in the western world is the result of genetic changes that gave survival advantage in new social circumstances to those who were less inclined to aggression and personal violence. These social circumstances not having yet developed in Africa, the homicide rate in the latter continent remains much higher than in Europe or the United States, the implication being that Africans are genetically more violent than the populations of Europe and the USA.

The author paints with far too broad a brush. Are there really no variations in the regions and countries of Africa, both in time and place? Is there really such continental uniformity? This was certainly not my experience of Africa, and I once travelled across it by public transport, such as it was.

Moreover, the statistics that the author uses are suspect. He says of the United States that its homicide rate is less than 2 per 100,000. The last time I looked the rate was 4.7 per 100,000—itself a very sharp decline of recent years. But a paper not long ago suggested that if the same resuscitation and surgical techniques were used as were used in 1960, the homicide rate in the United States would be five times higher than it is today, that is to say 23.5 per 100,000. The new techniques in surgery and resuscitation are unlikely to have reached much of Africa, where (the author says) the homicide rate is 10 per 100,000. In other words, either the statistics in Africa are unreliable—which in my opinion is very likely—or the statistics prove precisely the opposite of what the author wants to prove. Either way, his point is vitiated.

It’s banal to admit that genetics has helped shape human history. But one must balance genetic explanations with those based in history, culture, institutions, and random chance. Wade, under the guise of science, invents out of thin air theories to explain and justify current racial inequalities. He admits that history and culture play a role in the fates of nations, but he minimizes those factors and does not go looking for non-genetic explanations for regional inequalities. I do not detect any racial malice in Wade’s writing, but he appears to be suffering from the Just World Fallacy.  in 2010. The short version:

The Misconception: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.

The Truth:
 The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.

For Wade, there must be an innate reason why one population succeeds and another fails. He cannot accept that historical circumstance and pure luck are perhaps larger reasons for the current state of affairs. For example, here’s Wade downplaying the role of colonialism in keeping Africa down:

If running a productive , Western-style economy were simply a matter of culture, it should be possible for African and Middle Eastern countries to import Western institutions and business methods, just as East Asian countries have done. But this is evidently not a straightforward task. Though it was justifiable at first to blame the evils of colonialism, two generations or more have now passed since most foreign powers withdrew from Africa and the Middle East, and the strength of this explanation has to some extent faded.

Incredibly, he uses the fact that a mere two generations have passed since colonialism to argue that is should no longer be considered an adequate explanation for Africa’s continued economic problems. It would funny if it weren’t so depressing.

Why “Race” Isn’t Biological

by Patrick Appel

This speech by Charles Mills, which we’ve posted before, does an excellent job explaining the social construction of race:

Nicholas Wade’s new book on race and genetics, which takes the biological basis of race as a given, provides no consistent definition for “race.” During his debate with Wade, anthropologist Agustín Fuentes pointed out that “Wade uses cluster, population, group, race, sub-race, ethnicity in a range of ways with few concrete definitions, and occasionally interchangeably throughout the book.” In a response to Wade’s book, Fuertes explains how A Troublesome Inheritance gets race so wrong:

The originators of the computer program most often used to support the argument that humans divide into the continental genetic clusters (which Wade says are “races”) comment that their model (called structure) is not well-suited to data shaped by restricted gene flow with isolation by distance (as human genetic variation data on large scales are). They warn that if one does try to apply this model to those data, the inferred value of K (how many clusters emerge) can be rather arbitrary. For example, one article Wade cites shows not three, not five, not seven but 14 clusters, six of which are in Africa alone.

So when Wade states in chapter 5 of his book, “It might be reasonable to elevate the Indian and Middle Eastern groups to the level of major races, making seven in all,” he notices a problem: “But then, many more subpopulations could be declared races.” But he has a solution: “[T]o keep things simple, the 5-race continent based scheme seems the most practical for most purposes.”

Sure, it is practical if your purpose is to maintain the myth that black, white and Asian are really separable biological groups. But if your goal is to accurately reflect what we know about human biological variation, then no, it is a really not practical at all; in fact, it is flat-out wrong. What we know about human genetic variation does not support dividing humans into three or five or seven “races.”

Other writers who argue that race is biological aren’t as sloppy as Wade. And, even though I do not believe that defining race biologically is correct, it’s best to engage with the strongest arguments of those who disagree. For starters, here is part of a 2012 post by Jerry Coyne that defends defining human races biologically:

What are races?

In my own field of evolutionary biology, races of animals (also called “subspecies” or “ecotypes”) are morphologically distinguishable populations that live in allopatry (i.e. are geographically separated).  There is no firm criterion on how much morphological difference it takes to delimit a race.  Races of mice, for example, are described solely on the basis of difference in coat color, which could involve only one or two genes.

Under that criterion, are there human races?

Yes.  As we all know, there are morphologically different groups of people who live in different areas, though those differences are blurring due to recent innovations in transportation that have led to more admixture between human groups.

Coyne, in the midst of a scathing review of Wade’s book, writes that “Wade’s discussion of genetically differentiated subgroups, whether or not you want to call them ‘races’—is not too bad.” H. Allen Orr, who tears Wade’s book to shreds, likewise defends a genetic definition of race:

The central fact is that genetic differences among human beings who derive from different continents are statistical. Geneticists might find that a variant of a given gene is found in 79 percent of Europeans but in only, say, 58 percent of East Asians. Only rarely do all Europeans carry a genetic variant that does not appear in all East Asians. But across our vast genomes, these statistical differences add up, and geneticists have little difficulty concluding that one person’s genome looks European and another person’s looks East Asian. To put the conclusion more technically, the genomes of various human beings fall into several reasonably well-defined clusters when analyzed statistically, and these clusters generally correspond to continent of origin. In this statistical sense, races are real.

Coyne adds:

This is what I also claimed, and of course got slammed by the race-denialists who are motivated largely by politics.  To a biologist, races are simply genetically differentiated populations, and human populations are genetically differentiated.  Although it’s a subjective exercise to say how many races there are, human genetic differentiation seems to cluster largely by continent, as you’d expect if that differentiation evolved in allopatry (geographic isolation).

Relatedly, Razib Khan argues that “the modern American consensus that race is a social construct is true but trivial”:

It’s true because a de facto race such as “Latinos/Hispanics” were created in the 1960s by the American government and elite for purposes of implementing public policies such as affirmative action. Obviously this is a classic case of a social construct, as the quasi-racial category is based upon social, not biological, factors (Latinos/Hispanic can explicitly be of any race, though implicitly it’s transformed into a non-white class in the United States). A group like “black Americans” ranges from people with considerably less than 50% African ancestry to more than 90% African ancestry (though almost always black Americans who are not immigrants from Africa or first generation offspring of those immigrants have some segments of European ancestry). The problem is that people move from this non-controversial point, that some racial categories are social constructs, to the assertion that all racial categories are social constructs, and that phylogenetic clustering of human populations is irrelevant or impossible. It is not irrelevant, or impossible. Human populations vary, and that variation matters. Human populations have specific historical backgrounds, and phylogenetics can capture that history through methods of inference.

I disagree with Khan calling “phylogenetic clustering of human populations” races, but Razib is far more intelligible here than Wade is in most of his book. Nevertheless, the biological definitions of race outlined above are problematic because they are not the same as the social definitions of race. There is significant overlap between the biological and social definitions but defining “race” two ways only confuses matters. In an interview, Wade offers an explanation for why he uses the term “race” as he does:

It seems that the problem might be, as you said, that there is so much historical baggage associated with the term race. Is there a way to get around that? Do we just need a different term than race to talk about these genetic differences?

I’m not sure how that will play out. The geneticists, if you read their papers, have long been using code words. They sort of dropped the term “race” about 1980 or earlier, and instead you see code words like “population” or “population structure.” Now that they’re able to define race in genetic terms they tend to use other words, like “continental groups” or “continent of origin,” which does, indeed, correspond to the everyday conception of race. When I’m writing I prefer to use the word race because that’s the word that everyone understands. It’s a word with baggage, but it’s not necessarily a malign word. It all depends on the context in which it’s used, I guess.

Wade says that “everyone understands” the word race. But what everyone understands are the social definitions of race: White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Samoan, and so on. Wade dismisses geneticists who use terms like “population structure,” “population stratification,” “ancestry” and “ancestry informative markers.” But those terms are useful when discussing genetics because they allow for far more complexity and specificity than our social definitions of race do.

Obviously, skin color and the other physical characteristics society uses to categorize individuals racially are biological. But skin color and other physical traits are not the same as race. And, as Khan noted recently, one “of the ironies of traits which we use to differentiate populations, such as skin color and facial features, is that these might actually have relatively shallow time depth within a given lineage.” So prioritizing skin color above all other ancestry informative markers finds little basis is biology. In a 2012 post, Fuentes argued against a biological understanding of race for related reasons:

Even something thought to be so ubiquitous as skin color works only in a limited way as dark or light skin tells us only about a human’s amount of ancestry relative to the equator, not anything about the specific population or part of the planet they might be descended from.

There is not a single biological element unique to any of the groups we call white, black, Asian, Latino, etc. In fact, no matter how hard people try, there has never been a successful scientific way to justify any racial classification, in biology. This is not to say that humans don’t vary biologically, we do, a lot. But rather that the variation is not racially distributed.

Alfred W. Clark, a strong defender of Wade’s book, has a useful round-up of commentary on A Troublesome Inheritance. In it, he dismisses Fuentes by arguing that he is suffering from a “slightly more sophisticated version of Lewontin’s Fallacy.” What is Lewontin’s Fallacy? In a 2005 NYT article arguing that race is biological, Armand Marie Leroi explained it:

The dominance of the social construct theory can be traced to a 1972 article by Dr. Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, who wrote that most human genetic variation can be found within any given “race.” If one looked at genes rather than faces, he claimed, the difference between an African and a European would be scarcely greater than the difference between any two Europeans. A few years later he wrote that the continued popularity of race as an idea was an “indication of the power of socioeconomically based ideology over the supposed objectivity of knowledge.” Most scientists are thoughtful, liberal-minded and socially aware people. It was just what they wanted to hear.

Three decades later, it seems that Dr. Lewontin’s facts were correct, and have been abundantly confirmed by ever better techniques of detecting genetic variety. His reasoning, however, was wrong. His error was an elementary one, but such was the appeal of his argument that it was only a couple of years ago that a Cambridge University statistician, A. W. F. Edwards, put his finger on it.

The error is easily illustrated. If one were asked to judge the ancestry of 100 New Yorkers, one could look at the color of their skin. That would do much to single out the Europeans, but little to distinguish the Senegalese from the Solomon Islanders. The same is true for any other feature of our bodies. The shapes of our eyes, noses and skulls; the color of our eyes and our hair; the heaviness, height and hairiness of our bodies are all, individually, poor guides to ancestry.

But this is not true when the features are taken together. Certain skin colors tend to go with certain kinds of eyes, noses, skulls and bodies. When we glance at a stranger’s face we use those associations to infer what continent, or even what country, he or his ancestors came from – and we usually get it right. To put it more abstractly, human physical variation is correlated; and correlations contain information.

Genetic variants that aren’t written on our faces, but that can be detected only in the genome, show similar correlations. It is these correlations that Dr. Lewontin seems to have ignored. In essence, he looked at one gene at a time and failed to see races. But if many – a few hundred – variable genes are considered simultaneously, then it is very easy to do so.

But this still fails to prove that races are biological. Calling these populations “races” is a semantic rather than a scientific decision. Wikipedia provides useful context on this front:

Philosophers Jonathan Kaplan and Rasmus Winther have argued that while Edwards’s argument is correct it does not invalidate Lewontin’s original argument, because racial groups being genetically distinct on average does not mean that racial groups are the most basic biological divisions of the world’s population. Nor does it mean that races are not social constructs as is the prevailing view among anthropologists and social scientists, because the particular genetic differences that correspond to races only become salient when racial categories take on social importance. From this sociological perspective, Edwards and Lewontin are therefore both correct.[13][14][15]

Similarly, biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks agrees with Edwards that correlations between geographical areas and genetics obviously exist in human populations, but goes on to note that “What is unclear is what this has to do with ‘race’ as that term has been used through much in the twentieth century – the mere fact that we can find groups to be different and can reliably allot people to them is trivial. Again, the point of the theory of race was to discover large clusters of people that are principally homogeneous within and heterogeneous between, contrasting groups. Lewontin’s analysis shows that such groups do not exist in the human species, and Edwards’ critique does not contradict that interpretation.”[6]

A Debate Over A Troublesome Book

by Patrick Appel

Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, which I finished reading last night, is a deeply flawed examination of human genetic difference. Andrew, who is more sympathetic to the notion of race as a biological construct than I am, often does not see eye-to-eye with me on matters of race and genetics. But he encouraged me to critically examine Wade’s book during this guest-blogging stint in order to move the conversation forward. Andrew will likely respond to the debate when he returns next week.

The best refutation of the book I’ve seen is comes from Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame. In an hour-long webinar hosted by the American Anthropological Association, Fuentes debates Wade and takes a jack-hammer to the factual foundation of Wade’s book. Alex Golub summarizes the Fuentes-Wade exchange for those who don’t have time to watch it. A key part:

Fuentes pointed out that “genes matter” but that “they’re just a small part of a whole evolutionary picture” which results in behavior. He also argued that Wade was imprecise in his terminology. “Wade uses cluster, population, group, race, sub-race, Wadeethnicity in a range of ways with few concrete definitions, and occasionally interchangeably throughout the book” he said.

Fuentes then went on to deal with the topic of human genetic variation. Humans share all of their genes and 99.9 percent of variation, he said, so what was being discussed in the webinar was just “0.1 variation of all the variation in the genome.” He emphasized that “most variation in human genetics is due to gene flow and genetic drift, which basically mean that the further apart two populations are, the more differences there are going to be between them.” Wade relied on a study which showed differences between people in Nigeria, Western Europe, Beijing, and Tokyo which showed differences between these groups but, Fuentes claimed, if you studied people from Liberia, Somalia, and South Africa you would get similar variation. “So for zoologists,” Fuentes concluded, “no human populations are different enough from one another to be called subspecies.”

Fuentes argued that the color-coded clusters of genetic data that Wade used in his book were a product of arbitrary choices made by Wade and scientists, and did not emerge automatically in the data themselves. In one study, the computer program Structure was asked to cluster data into 3, 4, 5, and 6 groups. Fuentes claimed that Wade noticed the arbitrariness of this scheme in his book and decided on a five-race scheme because it was “practical for most purposes” and not because it was naturally there in the data.

Another important point:

[Debate host Ed] Liebow asked Fuentes to talk about how biological evolution is linked with social evolution. Fuentes stresssed that “rather than just the environment shaping organisms and their gene pool, we know there’s interaction between organisms and the environment, which actually changes the way natural selection works. Evolution is ongoing over time and complex, it’s not just the environment targeting genes.”

For Fuentes complexity was clearly important. “The representation of little teeny minor differences in some areas of the DNA and connecting that to large sociopolitical and historical differences as Nicholas Wade did in his book, it’s misleading because it’s not giving true credit to the complexity of evolutionary biology and the complexity of understanding how things evolve.”

Pete Shanks comments on the webinar:

It was not so much a discussion as a debate, and in my view Fuentes defeated Wade thoroughly, though it was all very polite (too polite). Fuentes was well prepared, and able to identify, cite and comment on every study that Wade brought up to support his thesis. More important, he kept hammering away at the definition of “race” — as in, Mr. Wade, can you tell us, what is it? If you are going to claim that certain kinds of genetic variation between populations constitute a racial grouping, how do you define it?

Mostly Wade ignored the question. To the extent that he addressed it, he dismissed it as unimportant. Whether there are three or five races, or more, and where the boundaries are drawn: these are mere details until we admit the possibility of discussing race. (I’m being a little kind to him here myself; he burbled.)

Wade is full of factoids; the impressive thing about Fuentes’ performance was that he was familiar with all of them. That inevitably led to some points of agreement. For instance, at one point, Wade started to speculate about what percentage of genetic divergence would constitute a sub-species, and zoologically, they were in broad theoretical agreement. However, Wade seemed to be edging towards very dangerous waters when it came to the concept of human sub-species. Unfortunately, Fuentes and moderator Liebow were too polite to shove him in.

Over at his blog, Fuentes writes that “dialogue on such an important topic should be encouraged and as open minded as possible, but it must also be accurately informed by the science of human biology.” He provides a “mini-primer on what we what we know about human genetics to help such a discussion”:

1) Genes matter, but they are only a small part of the whole evolutionary picture and focusing on DNA segments won’t get you very far in understanding human evolution. The roundworm C. elegans has about 20,000 genes and humans have about 23,000 genes—it is pretty obvious that humans are more than 15% more complex than roundworms.

2) When making scientific argument about genetic variation you need to focus on populations–and be clear about your definitions (a common one for “population” is a geographical cluster of people who mate more within the cluster than outside of it). Many people talking about this subject use the words cluster, population, group, race, subrace and ethnicity in a range of ways, with few concrete definitions and occasionally interchangeably.  If you do not define something then you cannot measure it, test for it, or try to construct and refute or support hypotheses for it—in short you can’t do science.

3) Humans all share 100% same genes and 99.9% of the variation in the DNA. So the variation we are interested in is .1% of the entire genome. And yes, understanding that variation is important

4) Most genetic variation is due to gene flow and genetic drift so the further apart two populations are the more likely they are to have more differences

5) Nearly all the genetic variation in our entire species is found in populations just in Africa, with most of the variation found in all populations outside of Africa making up a small subset of that variation.

He ends his post with these words:

We do need to talk about Race without fear and with clarity. We certainly need more public discussions on Race, not less. But in doing so we need to accurately represent what the social and biological sciences actually tell us about genetic variation, about race, and about evolution.

That is exactly the kind of discussion I hope to engage in over the course of this week’s guest-blogging. Readers are invited to help me deconstruct Wade’s book. Even though A Troublesome Inheritance is hugely problematic, the reviews and debate surrounding it are worth examining in detail. I will follow up on this post with a series of posts focused on individual fault-lines within the larger debate.