How to Talk About ‘Race’ and Genetics
By David Reich
March 30, 2018
In a Sunday Review essay last weekend, David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard, argued that science is changing how we think about “race” and urged a candid discussion of the findings, whatever they may be. Hundreds of readers left comments, many expressing worry about the possibility that the results could be misinterpreted or nefariously applied. Here are Dr. Reich’s responses to some of the comments. — The Editors
… With respect to today’s study of human variation, I am optimistic — I believe that it has been socially positive. It is making every racist view of the world untenable. In my just-published book, I explain how the ancient DNA revolution — which has provided far greater power to reveal what happened in our deep past than what was available before — has done far more to undermine racist beliefs than to support them. As I wrote in the final paragraph of my book:
… But in our time, the findings from ancient DNA leave little solace for racist or nationalistic misinterpretation. In this field, the pursuit of truth for its own sake has overwhelmingly had the effect of exploding stereotypes, undercutting prejudice, and highlighting the connections among peoples not previously known to be related.
Let me quote from p. 278-279 of Reich’s book about Britain:
For example, in Britain, we know that beginning after forty-five hundred years ago … ancient Britons harbored a blend of ancestries very similar to that of present-day Britons. …
The power of this approach can already be seen in the 2015 study “The People of the British Isles,” which sampled more than two-thousand present-day individuals from the United Kingdom whose four grandparents were all born within eighty kilometers of one another. The study found that the British population was very homogeneous by conventional measures. For example, the classic measure of genetic differentiation between two British populations is about one hundred time smaller than the same measurement of population differentiation comparing Europeans to East Asians.
On the other hand, race, which is more or less about who your relatives are, turns out to be, not surprisingly, highly relativistic. Although the British nation who fought and won the World Wars were extremely homogeneous genetically compared to the genetic differences between continental scale races such as Europeans and East Asians, current genome analyses is now so sophisticated that it can distinguish seventeen different indigenous populations with the UK, such as Cornwall and the Orkneys. And in Northern Ireland, DNA can distinguish the Protestant from the Catholics (even though they famously look alike to even the trained eye — Belfast taxi drivers display in their cabs on their licenses their pictures but not their surnames to prevent drunken passengers of the opposite religion from assaulting them for stupid sectarian reasons).
… My book also gives concrete examples of how it is no longer so easy to twist science to support long-cherished stereotypes because ancient DNA is now debunking the stories that used to be made up about the nature of human variation. As I wrote there:
The Nazi ideology of a “pure” Indo-European-speaking Aryan race with deep roots in Germany, traceable through artifacts of the Corded Ware culture, has been shattered by the finding that the people who used these artifacts came from a mass migration from the Russian steppe, a place that German nationalists would have despised as a source.
Or the Nazis would have declared that Reich’s findings morally justify their invasion and conquest of the Russian steppe that is the true homeland of the Aryan race. Hitler just plain liked conquering.
My idea is, contra both Hitler and Reich: Let’s not have invasions and conquests, just like we don’t have human sacrifice or cannibalism much anymore. We aren’t nomadic barbarians anymore, we are civilized peoples who have settled down in specific places that are clearly marked on maps.
I realize that progressives these days have lost almost all interest in progress and instead obsess over the sins of the past and how to visit Bronze Age-style invasion and rapine upon those whom they assert enjoy historical privilege. In contrast, I prefer peace, protection of property, and rule of law and their extension where possible. But that makes me a reactionary in 2018.
The Hindutva ideology that there was no major contribution to Indian culture from migrants from outside South Asia is undermined by the fact that approximately half of the ancestry of Indians today is derived from multiple waves of mass migration from Iran and the Eurasian steppe within the last five thousand years.
But didn’t the Nazis believe in the Aryan invasion of India that you have genetically documented?
Similarly, the idea that the Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi have ancestry from West Eurasian farmers that Hutus do not — an idea that has been incorporated into arguments for genocide — is nonsense. We now know that nearly every group living today is the product of repeated population mixtures that have occurred over thousands and tens of thousands of years. Mixing is in human nature, and no one population is — or could be — pure.
Reich’s next book:
Is ‘Pure’ Water Really Pure? Science Proves Shocking Fact that So-Called Pure Water Is Actually A Hybrid of Hydrogen and Oxygen.
Anyway, the colonial notion that the dominant Tutsis had some Caucasian ancestry would be an example of impurity, not purity.
The Hutus in 1994 were just doing what comes naturally, according to the prehistory of humanity recounted in Reich’s book. But as Katharine Hepburn tells Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen:
Charlie Allnut: What are you being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.
Having been immersed in the ancient DNA revolution for the past 10 years, I am confident that anyone who pays attention to what it is finding cannot come away feeling affirmed in racist beliefs. My childhood guesses about who we are and how we’re related to one another — and about the nature of differences among people — have been shown to be wrong again and again.
Okay, but Dr. Reich was raised in an arch-liberal family, which might have contributed to the empirical wrongness of so many of his earlier beliefs. From Wikipedia:
Reich grew up in Washington, D.C. His parents are novelist Tova Reich (sister of Rabbi Avi Weiss) and Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University, who served as the first director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. David Reich started out as a sociology major as an undergraduate at Harvard College …
Reich goes on:
Anyone who thinks they can guess what the nature of human variation is based on the data we had available to us before these breakthroughs is wrong.
But Reich’s data keeps validating 18th century European thinkers views, such as Edward Jones on the Indo-European language family and the Aryan invasion of India, and J.F. Blumenbach’s on the cohesiveness and boundaries of the Caucasian race. Maybe those views were not the ones he was instructed in as a teen in a cultural environment, where, I would guess, Stephen Jay Gould was considered a scientific authority.
I think the most important point in the article, that could’ve been emphasized a bit more, is that differences in individuals are far greater than that of populations.
When those who use the stats of the average I.Q. justify that for racist ideologies, they seem to fail to recognize the fact that there is massive variance from the average of all races.
That’s why those racist ideologues Herrnstein and Murray never mention the existence of bell curves in The Bell Curve … Oh, wait … It actually turns out that the Bad Guys like Herrnstein and Murray spend a lot more time talking about variance and overlap than the Good Guys like Gould, who mostly get worked up over the difference in means.
As well as the fact that institutional discrimination also has a negative impact on I.Q. of populations, which when those factors are controlled (education, economic upbringing, even being adopted and raised by parents who are of a different race), leads to even less substantial difference in even the average I.Q. of populations.
Differences in individuals vary far more widely than populations. Especially with intelligence. — Brian, Washington
Indeed, we have known for almost a half-century that for the great majority of human traits shaped by genetics, there is far greater variation among individuals than populations.
This means that when a teacher looks around a classroom of students of diverse “races,” she or he shouldn’t see them as members of fundamentally different groups of people. “Race” has trivial predictive power about an individual person’s biological capabilities. Even if there are slight average differences among groups of humans, individuals from any group are capable of excelling in any realm.
But the Obama Administration sure got worked up over black students getting suspended three times more often for bad behavior even though there is plenty of variation in misconduct among youths.
“It is important to face whatever science will reveal without prejudging the outcome and with the confidence that we can be mature enough to handle any findings.” Fat chance. What if many stereotypes are, in fact, confirmed by genetic research? What is the likelihood that ideologues of the left and right will have the maturity to handle it? Nonexistent. — BarrowK, North Carolina
It is likely that a few stereotypes will be validated by findings from genetics — even if it is also certain that a great majority will be disproved.
Plenty of honest scientists have studied common stereotypes, such as Lee Jussim and Stephen Goldberg. Their main finding is that most common stereotypes are indeed accurate in terms of the direction of difference perceived. As you get out to trickier questions, such as the size of the difference and its causes, public accuracy falls off. But the stereotype that Reich endorses that sterereotypes are almost always wrong is a rare stereotype that’s more fallacious than accurate.
When this happens, the findings will certainly be used in sound bites by people who, for whatever reason, need to believe that racist views of the world have been correct all along.
Like that 845 page sound bite The Bell Curve, or Arthur Jensen’s 664 page soundbite The g Factor.
Well-meaning people need to prepare for this possibility, which is exactly the issue I tried to grapple with in my article.
So how should we handle the eventuality that for a few traits, average differences among populations arising from genetics will be discovered? I do not think that the right approach is to pretend that scientific research has shown there can be no meaningful average genetic differences among human populations, because that message is contradicted by scientific facts.
The key point is that whatever science finds should not affect the way we behave toward one another. Whatever small average differences across groups might exist (and genetic studies have already made it clear that average differences across populations are much less than those between individuals), we are members of a single species, all of whom must be given every opportunity to flourish in every realm.
Okay, but we have an entire body of law and policy called “disparate impact” or “adverse impact” in which simplistic differences in means between racial groups are seen as justifying suspension of the equal treatment of the laws upon individuals on the grounds that it is unthinkable that there could be differences in average between groups.
For example, the Obama Administration war on police from Ferguson onward, which coincided with a historically unprecedented 20% increase in homicides from 2014 to 2016 is based on the notion that there is something inherently suspicious about all the statistics demonstrating more violent behavior by black males.
… From my point of view, it should be possible for everyone to hold in their heads the following six truths:
1. “Race” is fundamentally a social category — not a biological one — as anthropologists have shown.
Everything human has a social component. On the other hand, Reich’s research shows that what the Enlightenment thinkers so hated by Gould thought of as the major pre-1492 races were indeed pretty reasonable, and that natural features, such as oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, polar ice caps, and un-farmable steppes contributed to barriers to gene flow, just as Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and so forth figured.
2. There are clear genetic contributors to many traits, including behavior.
3. Present-day human populations, which often but not always are correlated to today’s “race” categories, have in a number of instances been largely isolated from one another for tens of thousands of years. These long separations have provided adequate opportunity for the frequencies of genetic variations to change.
4. Genetic variations are likely to affect behavior and cognition just as they affect other traits, even though we know that the average genetic influences on behavior and cognition are strongly affected by upbringing and are likely to be more modest than genetic influences on bodily traits or disease.
5. The genetic variations that influence behavior in one population will almost certainly have an effect on behavior in others populations, even if the ways those genetic variations manifest in each population may be very different. Given that all genetically determined traits differ somewhat among populations, we should expect that there will be differences in the average effects, including in traits like behavior.
6. To insist that no meaningful average differences among human populations are possible is harmful. It is perceived as misleading, even patronizing, by the general public. And it encourages people not to trust the honesty of scholars and instead to embrace theories that are not scientifically grounded and often racist.
In other words, calm down, people, this isn’t The End of the World, like you’ve been telling each other.
In short, I think everyone can understand that very modest differences across human population in the genetic influences on behavior and cognition are to be expected. And I think everyone can understand that even if we do not yet have any idea about what the difference are, we do not need to be worried about what we will find because we can already be sure that any differences will be small (far smaller than those among individuals).
“Small” sounds so reassuring, but it turns out that people often get very worked up over seemingly small differences. For example, the EEOC has used for many decades “the four-fifths rule” that if one race is employed in a field less than four-fifths as often per capita as any other race, than the government has a prima facie case for investigating this suspicious behavior.
As a society, we are already committed to giving everyone a full opportunity for self-realization — regardless of the particular hand each person is dealt from the deck of life. Since we are already committed to this, accommodating any slight differences in the average genetic influences on traits that might eventually be found should only be a little extra work to handle.
Actually … all this is a huge area of nonstop controversy and anti-white male rabble-rousing, but Reich ought to be forgiven for not knowing much about all this hullabaloo because he’s been extremely busy churning out an incredible number of studies on important questions in the history and prehistory of mankind, as well as writing, presumably with his science journalist wife, a very readable new book:
David Reich is a professor of genetics at Harvard and the author of the book “Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.”