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The always enterprising Professor Henry Louis Gates, who hosts the PBS series Finding Your Roots on which he reveals to celebrities their racial ancestry, tries to walk a fine line in the controversy over Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance in the Wall Street Journal. This review is more respectful than most, but toward the end it gets more obtuse.

OPINION

Race in the Age of Genomics

Uncomfortable truths must be dealt with, but we should stick to facts and call out rampant speculation.

By DAVID ALTSHULER AND HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.

Dr. Altshuler is deputy director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and was a leader of the HapMap and 1000 Genomes projects on genetic variation. Mr. Gates is the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, co-founder of AfricanDNA.com and executive producer of the PBS program “Finding Your Roots.”

June 6, 2014 6:47 p.m. ET

… As more becomes known about DNA, the impulse to view race strictly through the lens of genetic inheritance is gaining force.

The most prominent example is a new book by New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” The book starts by describing advances in genetic science, then proceeds to speculate about how human evolution and genetics shaped human culture and history. Such an approach takes square aim at the idea that race is a social construction—defining groups of people according to whatever criteria societies choose to impose—and encourages the framing of this matter as a conflict of political correctness vs. scientific truth.

That is an unfortunate development, because the rise of genomics just adds texture to an age-old question: What does “race” mean?

… We now know that biological variation among individual humans, while correlated with ancestry, stems from a variety of factors—genetic, environmental, cultural and behavioral. Widespread migration, urbanization and the relaxing of social boundaries over the past century has led to a vast number of people of mixed ancestry.

It is also true that, on average, people whose ancestors lived in the same place tend to be more closely related to one another than people whose ancestors lived in more distant locales. This shared ancestry can be detected based on differences in the frequencies of genetic variants across human populations. So, if the question of race is limited simply to whether our DNA contains information about where our ancestors lived, then genomic science can be said to inform thinking about race. But the history, legacy and meaning of race are more than biogeographic ancestry. The questions underlying the debate are the extent to which differences in characteristics among groups are determined by inheritance, can be shaped by environment and behavior, and are used to defend or attack social policies.

In recent years, we have started to learn about how specific genes contribute to variation in human traits. Commonly varying traits such as body weight and cholesterol levels and diseases like diabetes, cancer and schizophrenia are each influenced by a vast number of genes and by environmental factors. Nearly all genetic variants yet found to influence common human traits are either widely distributed across populations or vanishingly rare, existing only in a single individual or family.

A small proportion of genetic variants that influence diseases or traits are common in some places and rare in another, but these appear to be the exception and not the rule. Even where such genetic variants exist, they appear to explain only a small fraction of the variation in the trait within the population.

Sure, but the exact same could be said of your relatives, such as nephews. I wrote in 2011:

Political scientist Frank Salter’s 2003 book On Genetic Interests attempted to resolve van den Berghe’s quandary by employing population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s data and genetic anthropologist Henry Harpending’s math. In this era when the conventional wisdom is that racial groups are merely social constructs, Harpending was astonished to find that the typical human is almost as closely related genetically to the average member of his own ethnic group, relative to the rest of humanity, as he is to his own nephew, relative to their mutual ethnic group. Eventually, it occurred to Harpending that he might indeed have a harder time distinguishing an unknown nephew of his from a random group of children of the same race than he would have distinguishing among races.

Gates and Altshuler continue:

Moreover, most differences in frequency of genetic variants have arisen by chance rather than natural selection.

Sure — in non-functional (“junk”) genes. In functional genes, the ones that matter, we shouldn’t be so sure.

Even in special cases where natural selection can be evoked, differences track not with “racial” groupings but rather with the geographic range of an environmental exposure. For example, in the U.S., sickle-cell anemia is often considered a disease of African-Americans. But sickle cell is common in many places where malaria was once endemic, including Southern Europe and the Middle East.

This is an old cliche that I used to hear a lot of 15 years ago. In truth, sickle cell anemia is radically more common among African-Americans than even among pure Sicilian-Americans: at least an order of magnitude difference. And the rare sickle cell gene variant in Sicily likely got their racially rather than evolving anew there: through black slaves being dragged to Sicily during the Arab occupation in the middle ages. In contrast, lactose tolerance mutations in herding tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa appear to be different and thus not genealogically connected to the widespread mutation in Eurasia that made much of Northern Europe feasible for civilization.

In other words, attempting to draw conclusions about race from DNA evidence is a fool’s errand. What is now becoming clear about genomics, as has occurred regarding race over the past few centuries, is the tendency of some to extrapolate from outlier examples to the general case, to cherry-pick examples that fit a thesis and ignore the rest, and to speculate on how biological observations might translate in the social and political sphere.

Genetics is becoming a Rorschach test, too often employed to support racial arguments or to debunk them. The fact that genetic data can be used to cluster people based on ancestry, and that ancestry is correlated with racial labels, tells us nothing new about how human characteristics are shaped by environment, or about the social meaning of “race.” No data have yet documented a role for genetics in the social or political characteristics of human populations, other than the obvious fact that discrimination continues and is often based on skin color and surname, both of which are inherited.

Come now.

Documented genetic differences that are well understood play a sizable role in social and political characteristics of import. Height, for example, has been well worked out down to the individual genetic variant level. Genetic differences are one reason the NBA Finals going on right now don’t have a lot of Japanese players participating.

For example, consider the fraught racial politics of Bolivia and Tibet. The indigenous populations have their own separate gene variants adapting them to high altitude, which has made it difficult for the dominant white and Han populations, respectively, to displace the Amerindians and Tibetans from their highlands. The clever Beijing regime is searching out Han-acculturated Eastern Tibetans to colonize Tibet proper for them.

Similarly, when you read in the newspaper about Sherpas going on strike for better Mt. Everest-climbing compensation, these mountaineers are Nepalese-dwelling East Asian Tibetans who inherited the high-altitude adaptation. This gives them some degree of leverage in their labor struggle because the Caucasian masses of population in the lowlands of South Asian simply can’t do the job. In turn, the Sherpas don’t like living below about a mile high because they are more susceptible to warm climate diseases such as malaria.

I can go on endlessly like this about documented genetic differences between racial groups impacting issues you read about daily in the press.

Of course, the big one is IQ. Not surprisingly, a vast number of genes influence the highly complicated human brain, but genetic researchers are slowly making progress on this task. (Here, for instance, is David Piffer’s 2014 paper that may be promising.)

You hear a lot lately about people being on Wrong Side of History. Which side do you really want to bet on when it comes to genetics and intelligence?

We are all curious about our origins and the origin of our individual traits, and science is racing ahead to reveal these fascinating genetic stories. But we shouldn’t let the current focus on DNA dominate the vital discussion of race and society. We must embrace the conversation being sparked by what genetics teaches us about human variability—and if someday we learn uncomfortable truths, we must deal with them. But in doing so we should stick to the facts, both historical and scientific, and call out rampant speculation and biased arguments wherever they may be found.

How is science supposed to progress without speculation? Seriously …

 
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  1. Harold says:

    Gates wrote: “… the obvious fact that discrimination continues…”. Discrimination may continue, but to assert that it significantly affects outcomes is rampant speculation. Gates also wrote: “we should stick to facts and call out rampant speculation.” Somehow he doesn’t seem to take his own advice.

    Speculation regarding the extreme view that differential outcomes between races might be part genetic and part environment must be called out. Speculation regarding the scientific, moderate view that all outcomes are entirely environmental and anyone who suggests otherwise is a sinner with a hate-filled heart, is perfectly fine.

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  2. Haven’t read the book yet, but I suspect all the hot air and outrage surrounding it is more interesting than any common-sense truths or conventional wisdom contained within.

    Nevertheless I wouldn’t be surprised that races differ in deeper ways than mere complexion.

    Differences in raw intelligence get almost too much attention. Indeed intelligence is important but it’s not everything. Many are upset that one class of humanity scores statistically lower on standard measures of IQ. Racism is often blamed, but how can they be so closed minded to examining the evidence? Why would they deny the possibility that our differences are more than skin deep? That doesn’t make anybody less human — even if our differences make working in a single united community more challenging.

    Even if it means that one race is statistically less gifted on average than another, this doesn’t really excuse prejudice. By know doing a simple IQ assessment is probably easier than reviewing the complicated family trees of multiracial individuals. So there is really no reason to prejudge an individual’s intelligence based on their external racial characteristics.

    Furthermore intelligence isn’t the sole characteristic that people evaluate in order to determine if one is worthy of connection. I know all to well that there are plenty of folks to the right of me on the bell curve of intelligence, but I like to believe that I still have something to contribute to our civilization. Similarly I sure don’t mind working with the others who are the left of me on the same bell curve. Sure intelligence is important to contribute to the team, but we all know plenty of brilliant people who are totally worthless and nobody wants them on the team because they lack agreeableness, persistence and energy. That’s why it’d be very interesting to know how the races score on these other measures of personality.

    For all the thought our the greatest black American thinkers are dedicating to this topic, I’d really like to read what the expert voices of the other races think of the issues. The American perspective on race is without a doubt provincial and overwhelmed by the legacy of black slavery. Leading black American thinkers often view themselves as self-appointed representatives of all oppressed people of color. But what do our cousins in Asia, Africa, Europe think on this? In spite of all our differences at least all of these people are clearly recognizable as members of the human family. Australian aborigines seem perhaps even more distant relatives. What do they think of the whole thing? And do our black cousins view the Australian aborigines as their brothers and sisters as well or perhaps as something lesser?

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  3. It is also true that, on average, people whose ancestors lived in the same place tend to be more closely related to one another than people whose ancestors lived in more distant locales. –Steve Sailer

    Oh, wait, no. That was Henry Louis Gates!

    Your last sentence gets at the heart of the matter, Steve-O. You’ll find scientists jumping at the bit—speculating beyond the most settled of evidence—in any field, but when it comes to genetics, behavior, and race, apparently we’re all just supposed to turn the curiosity dial down to 0.

    Well, no, not “we’re all.” The Chinese and Steve Hsu make no excuses for their curiosity about humanity. To the curious, the knowledge.

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  4. anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    “It is also true that, on average, people whose ancestors lived in the same place tend to be more closely related to one another than people whose ancestors lived in more distant locales”

    ….so race exists?

    Can someone tell me what exactly the disagreement between Raff and Sailer is; and if anything Raff says, granting it’s correct, precludes an IQ gap between “populations.”

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  5. anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    People like Gates and Kaplan say that Wade’s science could be used for political purposes, but isn’t the last 70 years of American social policy based on environmentalism?

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  6. anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    “How is science supposed to progress without speculation? Seriously …”

    One funeral at a time.

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  7. eah says:

    In other words, attempting to draw conclusions about race from DNA evidence is a fool’s errand.

    Absolute idiocy. But then what do you expect from the average black social scientist?

    No data have yet documented a role for genetics in the social or political characteristics of human populations, other than the obvious fact that discrimination continues and is often based on skin color and surname, both of which are inherited.

    What a racket these people have put together: as long as Blacks continue to underachieve, it must be due to “discrimination” (and therefore requires remedial action by big government) because — as everyone knows — it has nothing to do with genes.

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  8. “Absolute idiocy. But then what do you expect from the average black social scientist?”

    Isn’t it likely that these arguments are being presented by distinguished MIT guy David Altshuler rather than Henry Louis Gates ?

    The “rampant speculation” is a good one. Isn’t that how we progress ? The mooted “curiosity deficit” sometimes rampantly speculated on as explaining Far Eastern relative scientific underperformance (given their IQ) seems to have been transferred to the West.

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  9. […] Altshuler & Henry Louis Gates Jr.: “Race in the Age of Genomics” (Although Gates hosts show on DNA, I don’t think he really understands DNA. Steve Sailer […]

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  10. The Z Blog says: • Website

    Like everyone, I drag around a steamer trunk full of biases and unproven assumptions. I try to adjust for that by asking myself what I would need to see in order to accept the opposing argument or theory. I’ve changed my opinion on a few issues simply by examining my biases. In the case of drugs, I’ve changed my opinion a few times as new arguments were made known to me.

    Anyway, I think about that when reading some of these rebuttals to Wade’s book. You see the same old lines from decades ago. In some of these reviews, it is as if the reviewer did not actually read the book and was instead working form Cliff Notes. There’s no amount of data and science that will change the mind of a man like Gates.

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  11. “”””””””””””””””””””In other words, attempting to draw conclusions about race from DNA evidence is a fool’s errand.”””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    Those loud admonitions of “Amen!; True dat!; Preach it, brother!!” are coming from the ghosts of Franz Boaz and both of his fraudulent disciples Benedict and Margaret Mead. Mead in particular, who faked most of her research regarding American Samoa. Mead’s main thesis “everything’s just naturally environment/cultural factors explain everything, doncha know!” was thoroughly debunked (at least in the case of US Samoan society) via Derrek Freeman’s work.

    “””””””””””””””””””No data have yet documented a role for genetics in the social or political characteristics of human populations, other than the obvious fact that discrimination continues and is often based on skin color and surname, both of which are inherited.””””””””””””””””””””””

    This is gobbleygook. Social/political = soft sciences and subjective speculation at best and ideologically driven hokum at worst. Is Gates a geneticist? Or a legitimate scientist? Oh that’s right, he’s a Harvard prof in the dubious BS discipline of African-American studies. So its all about race and skin color (his own) from where he’s sitting.

    This article of his makes one think that Idly would be most proud to adhere to his fellow Gouldian/Boazian concept that race is nonexistent and is a mere social construction of one’s imagination. Et tu, Idly? We think so!

    “The wrong view of science constantly betrays itself in the desire to be right.” –Karl Popper.

    Henry, your wrong view is showing and that rather quite badly!

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  12. “Uncomfortable truths must be dealt with, but we should stick to facts and call out rampant speculation.”

    Translation: We must deal with uncomfortable truths, but we must make sure that we never arrive at them.

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  13. Brutusale says:

    I read this anti-Wade garbage and I have the picture in my mind of a group of medical professionals in 1860s France telling Louis Pasteur that the science is settled, what’s this “germ” stuff, earthly humours cause infection.

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  14. Althusser is a really really big gun in population genetics. Easily the most knowledgeable person whose review I’ve read of Wade’s book, and I’ve read a score or more. I’m frankly surprised he signed off on some of it, but unlike Gates, he can’t be hand-waved away by referring to his expertise is in Signifying Monkeyes. He was one of leaders of the HapMap project, among many other sterling credentials.

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  15. Priss Factor [AKA "Skyislander"] says:

    Traits play out strangely.

    Cheetahs, for instance, are cats, not dogs.

    But unlike most cats, its claws are not retractable(only slightly so), and in that regard, cheetahs have someone in common with dogs.

    Mongoose is not a weasel and are genetically closer to cats, but in shape and behavior, more like weasels.

    So, when we’re talking of race, we have to look at the combination of the traits of the entire creature.

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  16. Priss Factor [AKA "Skyislander"] says:

    Sloth bear is a bear and not a sloth, but some of its bodily features are indeed sloth-like.

    And it has strange teeth that no other bears species has.

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  17. Priss Factor [AKA "Skyislander"] says:

    Race is about the forest, not the trees.

    A pine forest may have some maple trees and a maple forest may have some pine trees.

    But a pine forest is suited mainly for pine, and maple forest is mostly suited for maple.

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  18. Priss Factor [AKA "Skyislander"] says:

    “How is science supposed to progress without speculation? Seriously …”

    Isn’t the notion that race is just a social construct a form of speculation?

    Isn’t the notion that blacks lag in academics because of slavery a form of speculation? It hasn’t been objectively proven.

    We live in a strange world. It’s pushed as ‘scientific fact’ that homosexuality is just as naturally normal, meaningful, and healthy as real sexuality, but the science of race is attacked for being too speculative.

    We live in a world where the scientific community takes the ‘science’ of tranny identity more seriously than racial differences. So, if a black guy says he’s blonde woman, it must be true!
    But as for truly observable differences among races, you’ve committed a notice crime.

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  19. Isn’t it likely that these arguments are being presented by distinguished MIT guy David Altshuler rather than Henry Louis Gates ?

    Well, the division of labour in this piece would be interesting to know. Altshuler probably did the spade work, and Gates provided the air of piety.

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  20. Mr. Anon says:

    That genetic characteristics are correlated with race is so obviously true as to be self-evident. It is true for the simple reason that people originate from somewhere – their parents. It has taken decades of self-imposed willfull stupidity to make this obvious fact controversial.

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  21. Annek says:

    “Translation: We must deal with uncomfortable truths, but we must make sure that we never arrive at them.”

    Good one!

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  22. Paleo says:

    I am quite familiar with Altshuler’s work and he is an accomplished geneticist. It is disappointing to see him put political correctness before science just as his colleagues Lander, Venter, and Collins have. Wade is on the mark when he discusses the taboos that no respectible scientist must violate.

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  23. Priss Factor [AKA "Skyislander"] says:

    Race certainly matters in Gates’ case.

    He is what he is because he’s not pure black. If not for the racial mix of non-black blood, Gates would likely be considerably different(if he were entirely black).

    Same with Gladwell. He’s said to be ‘black’, but why is he different in look, demeanor, and personality from most black-blacks? Because he has a good deal of non-black blood.

    So, in both cases, it proves that races are real since how the races are blended do affect the outcome of mixed-raced people.

    Surely, Gladwell noticed that he’s not like most blacks. Why? Gee, could it be because his DNA is largely non-black?

    If races are all the same, then Gladwell would be like most blacks even if his DNA has a lot of white genes. But the inclusion of white DNA has made him considerably different from most black-blacks.
    Aint that true?

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  24. >>Skyislander said:
    “”””””””””””””””””””””Race certainly matters in Gates’ case.

    He is what he is because he’s not pure black. If not for the racial mix of non-black blood, Gates would likely be considerably different(if he were entirely black).”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    Can we get to it? How exactly is HLGates any different in quality than say, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton? Because he teaches at Harvard, is that it? So when he does a form of the hustle its more ‘scholarly’ and ‘credentialed’, huh? Cause he’s the chairman of the Black Studies dept at Harvard? That’s supposed to differ in kind than Sharpton’s Tawana Brawley episode? Wasn’t Gates the guy who couple yrs back claimed that white policemen were harassing him which then led to the beer summit w/the President and Holder’s entire “We must have a national conversation about race”? My, but these non-entirely blacks sure have quite the flair and style when playing that card of theirs, don’t they?

    “”””””””””””””””Surely, Gladwell noticed that he’s not like most blacks. Why? Gee, could it be because his DNA is largely non-black?””””””””””””””””””””””

    Let’s talk about Gladwell for a moment. Doesn’t he have in his tree a Sherman? Isn’t Gladwell a Sherman by genetics?

    “””””””””If races are all the same, then Gladwell would be like most blacks even if his DNA has a lot of white genes. But the inclusion of white DNA has made him considerably different from most black-blacks.
    Aint that true?”””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    So, Gladwell’s not ony not black-black, but he’s more of a white and Sherman-black. Hm….That does explain some things but not entirely sure what they are.

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  25. […] free from our index, Steve Sailer: iSteveOver at my iSteve blog’s new host, The Unz Review, I respond to Henry , Steve Sailer: iSteve Over at my iSteve blog’s new home, The Unz Review, I have a […]

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  26. Let’s stipulate that blacks have lower IQ’s on average than other groups. What follows from that? Some in HBD land act as if widespread acknowledgment of this would be the Rosetta Stone unlocking myriad problems, but I’m not so sure. For instance, it’s not hard to imagine a justification for affirmative action based on HBD.

    There’s also the problem that good and intelligent blacks would be unfairly discriminated against in intellectual fields. Clarence Thomas is one of our great Supreme Court justices. Would we really be better off if he was excluded from the court based on the reputation of black people?

    Conversely, Jews are widely regarded as intelligent. In many cases their reputation exceeds the actuality. The Jews on the Supreme Court exhibit precisely the sort of stupid tribalism which the HBD conventional wisdom would attribute to blacks.

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