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Race and Genomics

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One thing that came to the fore in late 2008 was the worry that a financial regulatory regime which had been exceeding lax was now more conscious of the excesses of the previous era. The problem being that one will not necessarily be prepared for the next crisis. Similarly, terrorist actions such as those of the 9/11 hijackers are probably unlikely in their specific details, because the element of surprise is gone. That’s what makes much of the TSA “security” measures so frustrating for many people, there is a strong suspicion that the authorities are aiming to prevent the previous operation, when real terrorists will naturally alter tactics.

I thought of that when forwarded a link to a new book by a friend, Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture. Here’s the summary:

Do advances in genomic biology create a scientific rationale for long-discredited racial categories? Leading scholars in law, medicine, biology, sociology, history, anthropology, and psychology examine the impact of modern genetics on the concept of race. Contributors trace the interplay between genetics and race in forensic DNA databanks, the biology of intelligence, DNA ancestry markers, and racialized medicine. Each essay explores commonly held and unexamined assumptions and misperceptions about race in science and popular culture.

This collection begins with the historical origins and current uses of the concept of “race” in science. It follows with an analysis of the role of race in DNA databanks and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Essays then consider the rise of recreational genetics in the form of for-profit testing of genetic ancestry and the introduction of racialized medicine, specifically through an FDA-approved heart drug called BiDil, marketed to African American men. Concluding sections discuss the contradictions between our scientific and cultural understandings of race and the continuing significance of race in educational and criminal justice policy.

The second chapter is titled “Natural Selection, the Human Genome, and the Idea of Race.” I was curious so I read most of it online. Though there were many correct elements within the narrative (e.g., 3 billion base pairs), there was also a lot of peculiar assertions and contentious information presented as if it was all uncontroversial established science. With the rise of human genomics within the last 10 years we know a lot more about the map of natural selection in our species’ evolutionary history than we did in the past. That’s because in the past we knew close to zero I would estimate. But much of this is not evident in a chapter which is ostensibly about natural selection in the human genome! Instead the text is given over to discussion about normative rather than positive questions, and some of the information is probably false, if plausible to someone who is not up on the scientific literature (e.g., the idea that Native Americans and Southeast Asians derive from light-skinned ancestors is not implausible, but I think we have a lot of evidence to suggest that the story is not the one told in this chapter).

So I was curious about the author. It’s Robert Pollack. He has an interesting background:

I am the author of more than a hundred research papers on the oncogenic phenotype of mammalian cells in culture. In addition I have written many opinion pieces and reviews on aspects of molecular biology, medical ethics and science education, and have edited two books on these matters for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

In 1994 I chose to cease my own basic research in the laboratory, and to concentrate instead on questions that lie at the junction of science and other intellectual and emotional domains, in particular religion. This work led to the publication of three books to date, and to the establishment of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion in 1999.

I’m never one to throw stones about qualification and credentials. I don’t have much myself. But, my personal experience is that molecular biologists often don’t follow the latest research in evolutionary genetics. Which makes professional sense. But, it does strike me as ill-thought to assign this chapter to Dr. Pollock, who admits that he isn’t even a practicing molecular biologist anymore.

He makes much of our common African origin in the chapter. I accept the preponderance of this fact, but there is a high likelihood that we’re going to have to modify this model. As I told my friend who forwarded me the link: people are still talking about race when evidence is coming to light of possible species-scale hybridizations in human populations? Seriously?

Over at Forbes John Farrell has a post up, “Less than human?”, where he alludes to the specter haunting us today, the specter of polygenism. This is the idea that humans lineages have very distinct ancestors. While Christian polygenists asserted separate creations for the human races, secular polygenists in the 18th century were attracted to this idea because they found it more plausible in explaining human differences than the monogenism of the Bible, and the short history of the earth argued for by many Christians. In its day polygenism was the latest science!

There’s a lot separating us from anything close to 18th or 19th century polygenism. For one, humans do share predominant recent ancestry from Africans. Admixture with other hominin lineages is more an accent upon a common base. Unity is still predominant over diversity. But that diversity does exist, and we humans as a species have profoundly divergent genetic lineages present within our normal variation. I have no idea how people will handle this sort of information. My friend Gregory Cochran is a Christian and has no great issue accepting these results. This implies to me that the Roman Catholics who are discomfited by the data which John Farrell is bringing to their attention will eventually update their views if the science remains robust.

As for the rest of us, I don’t know. It all depends on the person. When it comes to our best guess at positive description, that’s not hard. The problem emerges when we try and infer through the lens of our norms. We all have different norms, even if individuals are aligned explicitly (e.g., of the same religion) you never know what implicit axioms lurk beneath the exterior. My own personal attitude, which my friends can attest to, is that I’d think it would be amusing and somewhat cool if I was part gorilla or alien. But then my assumption is that my self, my identity, is fundamentally an emergent property of my brain. The details of my ancestry or the specific non-cognitive biological properties which define me are incidental. Not trivial, but definitely secondary.

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"