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Citation: Moreno-Estrada, Andrés, et al. "Reconstructing the Population Genetic History of the Caribbean." PLoS genetics 9.11 (2013): e1003925.

Citation: Moreno-Estrada, Andrés, et al. “Reconstructing the Population Genetic History of the Caribbean.” PLoS genetics 9.11 (2013): e1003925.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article up on the intersection of genomics and sociology, In Research Involving Genome Analysis, Some See a ‘New Racism’. Most of the quotes are from sociologists, which is a problem, because whenever I try and delve into the topic it seems that sociologists don’t actually engage with the latest genomic research, but simply rehash older models which refute naive essentialism which biologists would never find plausible in the first place. But there was an intriguing quote in the piece from Jiannbin Shiao: …The social sciences should replace their biology-based rejection of race “with a version of the feminist distinction between biological sex and socially constructed gender,” he writes. With several co-authors, he has developed a concept called “clines,” adapted from how economists talk about social class, which reflects the continuous nature of human variation while allowing loose clusters to develop, depending on how you zoom into the data.

The paper is The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race. It is admirable in its attempt to engage in the recent literature. Unlike other sociologists the authors seem to have read publications from the 21st century. I do think it’s strange that they are talking about clines as if it is a new idea, seeing as they cite its long-standing usage in biology. But perhaps it is somehow a novel concept in sociology? That says something about sociology I suppose.

But in an area of research such as genomics citations that are six years old may be out of date. The authors published in the summer of 2012, and no doubt had been working on the paper for a few years before that. I’m pretty sure that Steve Hsu, a former colleague of the first author at the University of Oregon, actually told me about the genesis of this paper in the spring of 2011 when I had coffee with him at Berkeley. The authors state:

The primary tools for identifying population structure have been, in order of emergence, (1) comparisons of predefined populations, (2) the Bayesian clustering approach of the program STRUCTURE developed by Pritchard, Stephens, and Donnelly (2000), and (3) new variations on the classical technique of principal components analysis (Paschou et al. 2007). Although social studies of science continue to criticize the circular research design of the first method (Bolnick 2008; Duster 2006b; Marks 2006), the second and third methods have been preferred among academic researchers for over a decade (Risch et al. 2002; Rosenberg et al. 2002).

It has always been frustrating to me that social scientists who object to any utilization of race in a biological sense presume that everyone must have a typological model in mind. So it is good that the authors understand that model-based (STRUCTURE) and hypothesis-free (PCA) clustering are the norm now. But over the past few years genomics has opened up new avenues of analysis, which make these methods somewhat passe. In particular, admixture analysis using segment assignment gives a much finer grained window into the historical genomic landscape of a population. Additionally, segment analysis also leads me to suggest that a default clinal model may not even be defensible in the near future.

I outlined the thesis in my two earlier posts. In short, I propose that in fact because of the protean nature of human culture our species’ development over the last ~50,000 years has been subject to many expansions and replacements, which only requilibrate toward a clinal gradient through admixture. This shows the problems in rooting a normative world-view on an empirical scientific basis. I’m not being original here, and only need to nod to the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy. If your moral understanding of the world is predicated on empirical claims, you should be willing to update those claims. As it is most people are not so inclined, and will continue to reject those empirical results if they are at variance with their preferences. My own views are well known, science goes where it may, and we only delay the inevitable if we shy away from research that may cause us discomfort. Let me quote two evolutionary geneticists on this issue. First, James F. Crow on the study of intelligence and genetics:

I hope that such questions can be approached with the same objectivity as that when we study inheritance of bristle number in Drosophila, but I don’t expect it soon. There are too many strongly held opinions. I thought Lahn had a clever idea in thinking that the normal alleles of head-reducing mutants might be responsible for evolution of larger heads in human ancestry. Likewise, I think that Cochran et al. are fully entitled to consider the reasons for Jewish intelligence and I found their arguments interesting. In my view it is wrong to say that research in this area — assuming it is well done — is out of order. I feel strongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome.

Now, A. W. F. Edwards, one of Fisher’s last students:

A proper analysis of human data reveals a substantial amount of information about genetic differences. What use, if any, one makes of it is quite another matter. But it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, once revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality. One is reminded of Fisher’s remark in Statistical Methods and Scientific Inference… “that the best causes tend to attract to their support the worst arguments, which seems to be equally true in the intellectual and in the moral sense.”

Certainly over the years I have encountered many people who have come to the conclusion that the standard sociological arguments about the fictional nature of racial categories are false, and derive from the caricature that crude racist positions are tenable and correct, and defensible on normative grounds. I have to say that part of this is due to the appeal to science by those who defend liberal democratic values, when that science may not stand up to deeper inspection. Basing your ought on is is not always wrongheaded in my opinion, but you should be very clear on what you are doing.

• Category: Science • Tags: Race 
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  1. Dex says:

    What is the best metric for race that is helpful in a biological sense? Obviously considering human history, it makes no sense to argue that there’s no race.

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  2. Robert Ford says: • Website

    I’ve kind of given up engaging with these people as they seem to only update their knowledge when they absolutely have to and then will still spin it in some way to fit their narrative. Heck, even Kevin Mitchell still stops short!

    I think some are born with the stomach for it and most aren’t so I just listen to and admire those who will spit the info. Two different “clines,” if you will:) Hopefully eventually, research will make the “truth” undeniable to even to the most resistant.

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  3. ah. you said it, “useful.” i’m an instrumentalist, not a platonist, so the metric that is useful probably depends on your biological question. the non-biologists who assert that there is no race in a platonist sense are certainly correct. the problem is that they then infer that population structure is trivial. it’s not. it’s substantive, and multi-layered.

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  4. steve says: • Website


    Your recollection re: Oregon is correct. As of just now, it appears the Chronicle has removed all comments on the article, even though it is listed on the right as the most commented article of the day.


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  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Hi Razib,

    I have the reporter’s permission to blame him for his “dumb simplification” of my article.

    I’ve included what I wrote him, below.


    Hi Paul,

    This is Jiannbin Shiao, the first author of the Sociological Theory article that you mentioned in your CHE article, “In Research Involving Genome Analysis, Some See a ‘New Racism’.”

    First off, thank you for the mention and also for the even-handed treatment!

    You definitely got the gist of my paper, though I wish a couple of the details had been more accurate. Now I’m going to catch hell from anthropologists for claiming to have developed the concept of clines and (perhaps worse) for attributing the inspiration to economists! ;)

    The following would have been more accurate (changes in [**]): “With several co-authors, he has developed a concept called [* "clinal classes," synthesized from how anthropologists talk about genetic variation and how sociologists talk about social class *], which reflects the continuous nature of human variation while allowing loose clusters to develop, depending on how you zoom into the data.”


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  6. aeolius says:

    yes the world is the way the world is. Not how our philosophies want it to be.
    Whatever terms one uses ,it does seem as there is a split in genetic history in those who are descended from OoA with their subsequent hybridizations. And those who remained in Africa (with some later minor remixing)
    We do not know if or where this hybridization is expressed. But we can no longer assume identity of the two groups and look to environment rather then genetics as causative.
    One place remixing is important is of course in the Americas. In the US studies most generally follow the quaint philosophy based habit of lumping all levels of white/black admixture and defining the group as black. Means are now available to determine the degree of admixture. Skin color might also be a useful proxy of admixture.

    As racial differences in incidence rate and treatment our now regular findings in medicine. So further refinement by mixture level seems clear.
    Also we can no long just assume that educational methods will have the same effect two groups we may be contributing to school problems.
    These caveats also apply to the post-Beringian populations. Which may have a unique history for >25K years.

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  7. makes sense dr. shiao.

    re: american biomedicine. one of the more ridiculous things is that they actually use census terms. so indian americans are put with other asian americans in some studies. naturally they note that one group asians seems closer to their white (they usually use word ‘caucasian’) sample. of course that’s because the american census categories map onto biological race imperfectly. (i think the census categories are used probably because it makes things cleaner with grant writing for NIH; use the terms the feds use themselves)

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  8. Dex says:

    What are the biological races, devoid of sociopolitical use?

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  9. toto says:

    I agree that usefulness is a criterion of validity.

    It makes sense to use “race” (as opposed to explicitly specified populations) in situations where you have no problem claiming an Ethiopian is closer to a Senegalese or a “Bushman” than to an Arab. That may well include many social and political discussions, e.g. for prejudice impact. Biology? Not so much.

    Dex: see above.

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  10. In some parts of the world, the cline model works the best: e.g., the Eurasian steppe. In contrast, in other parts of the world, geographic barriers strongly intrude, most notably, oceans. For example, the 1600 miles between West Africa and South America saw virtually no intercourse up through 1491.

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  11. steve, but on the eurasian steppe the cline seems to be to recent admixture between distinct west and east lineages.

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  12. Tom Bri says: • Website

    In current American medicine, race taken into account explicitly. In my patient care (nurse, not doctor) lab values for example are separated according to race, X value typical for Whites, Y for Blacks. Drug dosages vary according to race. Whites and Blacks for example need higher doses of some psych meds than East Asians.
    The breakdown is pretty coarse. I have never seen any information on how South Asians might differ from East. They do break out Hispanics from both American Indians and Whites, but I have to wonder how well that works for individuals, although the averages are different.
    The textbooks give us neat charts, with races listed and what differences to expect to see. It is quite refreshing, considering how murky the whole topic is for the rest of society.

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