From the New York Times today:
Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed)
By Amy Harmon
Oct. 17, 2018
Amy Harmon is a national correspondent covering the intersection of science and society. She has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for her series “The DNA Age,” and as part of a team for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” Follow her on Twitter @amy_harmon
One of the many HateGraphs published in the NYT today to show how evil white supremacists are using facts, logic, and science.
Nowhere on the agenda of the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, being held in San Diego this week, is a topic plaguing many of its members: the recurring appropriation of the field’s research in the name of white supremacy.
“Sticking your neck out on political issues is difficult,” said Jennifer Wagner, a bioethicist and president of the group’s social issues committee, who had sought to convene a panel on the racist misuse of genetics and found little traction.
I will put in bold all words like “misconception” and “distortion” so you can know what is Goodthink. (Otherwise, you might, almost, get the impression that Ms. Harmon is trolling the Goodthinkers by dumping a lot of politically incorrect science on them in the guise of deploring what the Badthinkers are up to.)
But the specter of the field’s ignominious past, which includes support for the American eugenics movement, looms large for many geneticists in light of today’s white identity politics. They also worry about how new tools that are allowing them to home in on the genetic basis of hot-button traits like intelligence will be misconstrued to fit racist ideologies.
In recent months, some scientists have spotted distortions of their own academic papers in far-right internet forums. Others have fielded confused queries about claims of white superiority wrapped in the jargon of human genetics. Misconceptions about how genes factor into America’s stark racial disparities have surfaced in the nation’s increasingly heated arguments over school achievement gaps, immigration and policing.
Instead of long-discounted proxies like skull circumference and family pedigrees, according to experts who track the far-right, today’s proponents of racial hierarchy are making their case by misinterpreting research on the human genome itself. And in debates that have largely been limited to ivory-tower forums, the scientists whose job is to mine humanity’s genetic variations for the collective good are grappling with how to respond. …
One slide Dr. Novembre has folded into his recent talks depicts a group of white nationalists chugging milk at a 2017 gathering to draw attention to a genetic trait known to be more common in white people than others — the ability to digest lactose as adults. It also shows a social media post from an account called “Enter The Milk Zone” with a map lifted from a scientific journal article on the trait’s evolutionary history.
In most of the world, the article explains, the gene that allows for the digestion of lactose switches off after childhood. But with the arrival of the first cattle herders in Europe some 5,000 years ago, a chance mutation that left it turned on provided enough of a nutritional leg up that nearly all of those who survived eventually carried it. In the post, the link is accompanied by a snippet of hate speech urging individuals of African ancestry to leave America. “If you can’t drink milk,” it says in part, “you have to go back.”
In an inconvenient truth for white supremacists, a similar bit of evolution turns out to have occurred among cattle breeders in East Africa.
Scientists need to be more aware of the racial lens through which some of their basic findings are being filtered, Dr. Novembre says, and do a better job at pointing out how they can be twisted.
But the white nationalist infatuation with dairy also heightened Dr. Novembre’s concerns about how to handle new evolutionary studies that deal with behavioral traits, such as how long people stay in school.
Anticipating misinterpretations of a recent study on how genes associated with high education attainment, identified in Europeans, varied in different populations around the world, the lead author, Fernando Racimo, created his own “frequently asked questions” document for nonscientists, which he posted on Twitter.
Racimo has come up with a hypothesis somewhat similar to that of David Piffer’s that we can already guess the findings of the next decade or so of racial genomics research by looking at the genetic-driven traits already discovered to have been under different selection pressures among different populations and assume that we will discover more such DNA to have been selected for by the same selection pressures.
I find that theory interesting, but I’m also perfectly happy to wait out the decade or whatever it will take to find out for sure through ever more accurate huge sample size brute force genomic studies. For instance, we saw the first one million sample size study of the genetic correlates of educational attainment published in July.
The Racimo-Piffer theory might turn out to be a brilliant shortcut, or it might turn out to be mostly wrong because, for example, it could be that blacks are so different from whites genetically that studying how white genomes work doesn’t tell you much about how black genomes work. (That would be ironic.)
For example, if I recall correctly (and I may not), Pygmies appear to be short for genetic reasons that aren’t particularly similar to the genetic reasons why short Europeans are shorter than tall Europeans.
The genetics of height, while still complicated, appears to be much simpler than the genetics of intelligence, so height will likely provide us with possible examples of the various natures of racial differences before IQ gets wholly unraveled (if it ever does).
Anyway, time will tell.
And in a commentary that accompanied the paper in the journal Genetics, Dr. Novembre warned that such research is “wrapped in numerous caveats” that are likely to get lost in translation.
I linked to Dr. Novembre’s commentary in my iSteve blog last May.
“Great care,” his commentary concludes, “should be taken in communicating results of these studies to general audiences.”
As I blogged in response, endorsing Novembre’s caution, “This seems like a pretty reasonable way to proceed.” On the other hand, it’s important that the public keeps an eye out for explicit or tacit agreements among scientists not to investigate major questions, such as the genetics of racial differences in intelligence, for reasons of political correctness.
For example, the Cochran-Harpending theory of why Ashkenazi IQs are high on average, has, to my third hand awareness, been seriously proposed as the subject of a medical study three times, with each time the study getting called off before it began for fear that the results, whatever they might turn out to be, would be politically unpopular.
Back to the NYT:
Already, some of those audiences are flaunting DNA ancestry test results indicating exclusively European heritage as though they were racial ID cards. They are celebrating traces of Neanderthal DNA not found in people with only African ancestry. And they are trading messages with the coded term “race realism,” which takes oxygen from the claim that the liberal scientific establishment has obscured the truth about biological racial differences.
Some scientists suggest that engaging with racists would simply lend credibility to obviously specious claims. Many say that they do not study race, in any case: The racial categories used by the United States census correlate only imperfectly with the geographic ancestry groupings of interest to evolutionary geneticists. “Black,” for instance, is a socially defined term that includes many Americans who have a majority of European ancestry.
Of course, what that means is the opposite of what poor NYT subscribers assume it means: In reality, the average traits of self-identified blacks, including, for example, Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, Ben Jealous, who looks more like a golfer than a cornerback, are going to be less distinctive in behavior from whites than if only blacks who are genetically highly black are studied.
For example, the last 64 finalists in the Olympic 100m dash going back through 1984 have all been socially identified as black. Judging from their pictures, only a small handful (such as Frankie Fredericks and Jimmy Vicaut) appear to have had much white admixture.
But as the pace of human population genetics research has accelerated, it has yielded results that, to many nonscientists, appear to challenge the idea of race as a wholly social construction. Genetic ancestry tests advertise “ethnicity estimates” (Senator Elizabeth Warren appealed to the perceived authority of DNA this week to demonstrate her Native American heritage, in response to mocking by President Trump), and some disease-risk genes have turned out to be more common among certain genetic ancestry groups. Doctors use patients’ self-identified race as a proxy for geographic ancestry, because individual readouts of DNA are costly, and though the correlation is imperfect, it exists.
As DNA databases tied to medical records and personal questionnaires have reached a critical mass for individuals of European descent, moreover, so-called polygenic scores that synthesize the hundreds or thousands of genes that contribute to many human traits into a single number are being developed to predict health risks, and in some cases, behavior.
Last summer, researchers developed a score that can roughly predict the level of formal education completed by white Americans by looking at their DNA. And while those scores cannot yet be compared among racial or population groups, the new techniques have prompted some scientists to feel it is the field’s responsibility to head off predictable misrepresentations.
“You have to make a judgment when you have powerful information that can be misused,” said David Reich, a Harvard geneticist who has publicly called on colleagues in a recent book and in a New York Times Op-Ed to more directly address the prospect of identifying genetic differences between populations in socially sensitive traits.
There is no evidence, scientists stress, that environmental and cultural differences will not turn out to be the primary driver of behavioral differences between population groups.
At the same time, the advances in genetic technology have put white supremacists into a kind of anticipatory lather.
“Science is on our side,” crowed Jared Taylor, the founder of the white nationalist group American Renaissance, in a recent video that cites Dr. Reich’s book.
Dr. Reich was among those to decline an invitation to lead a discussion on the topic at the San Diego meeting. “I really wanted to return to research,” he said.
The widespread uncertainty among Americans over what scientists know about genetic differences between racial groups, experts say, has left many flummoxed in the face of white supremacist claims that invoke genetics. …
And when a blogger at the far-right Unz Review noted that the DNA variations associated with high IQ in a 2017 study of Europeans were at the lowest frequency among Africans,
No link is given (must protect readers’ innocent eyes), so I don’t know whether that was me, Anatoly, or Dr. James.
the study’s lead author, Danielle Posthuma, wrote in a published reply that such cross-population comparisons were spurious.
Although I’ve mentioned Dr. Posthuma’s name frequently, I’ve been cautious about letting the published papers speak for themselves. We will know more about genetic racial differences and their relation to IQ and educational attainment, if any, with a higher degree of certainty soon enough, so I’m content to wait.
“This,” she wrote, “is a very deep-rooted misunderstanding.”
Update: Although the NYT would not provide a link, that was the Unz Review blog post “Comments on Piffer from Prof Posthuma” by Dr. James Thompson of University College London.
Back to the NYT:
Many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic. Some suggest journalists might take up the task. Several declined to speak on the record for this story.
And with much still unknown, some scientists worry that rebutting basic misconceptions without being able to provide definitive answers could do more harm than good.
And so forth and so on. A most interesting article …
By the way, here’s Ms. Harmon’s 2007 NYT article “In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice” about what’s happening now that “genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA.”