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Genes and Race: The Distant Footfalls of Evidence

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Nicholas Wade (Image: Wikipedia)

[Editor's note: Following criticism of this post on social media, Scientific American posted the this statement.]

A review of Nicholas Wade’s book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History“.

In this book NYT science writer Nicholas Wade advances two simple premises: firstly, that we should stop looking only toward culture as a determinant of differences between populations and individuals, and secondly, that those who claim that race is only a social construct are ignoring increasingly important findings from modern genetics and science. The guiding thread throughout the book is that “human evolution is recent, copious and regional” and that this has led to the genesis of distinct differences and classifications between human groups. What we do with this evidence should always be up for social debate, but the evidence itself cannot be ignored.

That is basically the gist of the book. It’s worth noting at the outset that at no point does Wade downplay the effects of culture and environment in dictating social, cognitive or behavioral differences – in fact he mentions culture as an important factor at least ten times by my count – but all he is saying is that, based on a variety of scientific studies enabled by the explosive recent growth of genomics and sequencing, we need to now recognize a strong genetic component to these differences.

The book can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part details the many horrific and unseemly uses that the concept of race has been put to by loathsome racists and elitists ranging from Social Darwinists to National Socialists. Wade reminds us that while these perpetrators had a fundamentally misguided, crackpot definition of race, that does not mean race does not exist in a modern incarnation. This part also clearly serves to delineate the difference between a scientific fact and what we as human beings decide to do with it, and it tells us that an idea should not be taboo just because murderous tyrants might have warped its definition and used it to enslave and decimate their fellow humans.

The second part of the book is really the meat of the story and Wade is on relatively firm ground here. He details a variety of studies based on tools like tandem DNA repeats and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that point to very distinctive genetic differences between populations dictating both physical and mental traits. Many of the genes responsible for these differences have been subject to selection in the last five thousand years or so, refuting the belief that humans have somehow “stopped evolving” since they settled down into agricultural communities. For me the most striking evidence that something called race is real comes from the fact that when you ask computer algorithms to cluster genes based on differences and similarities in an unbiased manner, these statistical programs consistently settle on the five continental races as genetically distinct groups – Caucasian, East Asian, African, Native American and Australian Aboriginal. Very few people would deny that there are clear genetic underpinnings behind traits like skin color or height among people on different continents, but Wade’s achievement here is to clearly explain how it’s not just one or two genes underlying such traits but a combination of genes – the effects of many of which are not obvious – that distinguish between races. The other point that he drives home is that even minor differences between gene frequencies can lead to significant phenotypic dissimilarities because of additive effects, so boiling down these differences to percentages and then interpreting these numbers can be quite misleading.

Wade also demolishes the beliefs of many leading thinkers who would rather have differences defined almost entirely by culture – these include Stephen Jay Gould who thought that humans evolved very little in the last ten thousand years (as Wade points out, about 14% of the genome has been under active selection since modern humans appeared on the scene), and Richard Lewontin who perpetuated a well-known belief that the dominance of intra as opposed to inter individual differences makes any discussion of race meaningless. As Wade demonstrates through citations of solid research, this belief is simply erroneous since even small differences between populations can translate to large differences in physical, mental and social features depending on what alleles are involved; Lewontin and his followers’ frequent plea that inter-group differences are “only 15%” thus ends up essentially translating to obfuscation through numbers. Jared Diamond’s writings are also carefully scrutinized and criticized; Diamond’s contention that the presence of the very recently evolved gene for malaria resistance can somehow be advanced as a dubious argument for race is at best simplistic and at worst a straw man. The main point is that just because there can be more than one method to define race, or because definitions of race seem to fray at their edges, does not mean that race is non-existent and there is no good way to parse it.

The last part of the book is likely to be regarded as more controversial because it deals mainly with effects of genetics on cognitive, social and personality traits and is much more speculative. However Wade fully realizes this and also believes that “there is nothing wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear”, and this statement could be part of a scientist’s credo. The crux of the matter is to logically ask why genes would also not account for mental and social differences between races if they do account for physical differences. The problem there is that although the hypothesis is valid, the evidence is slim for now. Some of the topics that Wade deals with in this third part are thus admittedly hazy in terms of corroboration. For instance there is ample contemplation about whether a set of behavioral and genetic factors might have made the West progress faster than the East and inculcated its citizens with traits conducive to material success. However Wade also makes it clear that “progressive” does not mean “superior”; what he is rather doing is sifting through the evidence and asking if some of it might account for these more complex differences in social systems. Similarly, while there are pronounced racial differences in IQ, one must recognize the limitations of IQ, but more importantly should recognize that IQ says nothing about whether one human is “better” or “worse” than another; in fact the question is meaningless.

Wade brings a similar approach to exploring genetic influences on cognitive abilities and personality traits; evidently, as he recognizes, the evidence on this topic is just emerging and therefore not definitive. He looks at the effects of genes on attributes as diverse as language, reciprocity and propensity to dole out punishment. This discussion makes it clear that we are just getting started and there are many horizons that will be uncovered in the near future; for instance, tantalizing hints of links between genes for certain enzymes and aggressive or amiable behavior are just emerging. Some of the other paradigms Wade writes about, such as the high intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, the gene-driven contrast between chimp and human societies and the rise of the West are interesting but have been covered by authors like Steven Pinker, Greg Cochran and Gregory Clark. If I have a criticism of the book it is that in his efforts to cover extensive ground, Wade sometimes gives short shrift to research on interesting topics like oxytocin and hormonal influences. But what he does make clear is that the research opportunities in the field are definitely exciting, and scientists should not have to tiptoe around these topics for political reasons.

Overall I found this book extremely well-researched, thoughtfully written and objectively argued. Wade draws on several sources, including the peer reviewed literature and work by other thinkers and scientists. The many researchers whose work Wade cites makes the writing authoritative; on the other hand, where speculation is warranted or noted he usually explicitly points it out as such. Some of these speculations such as the effects of genetics on the behavior of entire societies are quite far flung but I don’t see any reason why, based on what we do know about the spread of genes among groups, they should be dismissed out of hand. At the very least they serve as reasonable hypotheses to be pondered, thrashed out and tested. Science is about ideas, not answers.

But the real lesson of the book should not be lost on us: A scientific topic cannot be declared off limits or whitewashed because its findings can be socially or politically controversial; as Wade notes, “Whether or not a thesis might be politically incendiary should have no bearing on the estimate of its scientific validity.” He gives nuclear physics as a good analogy; knowledge of the atom can lead to both destruction and advancement, but without this knowledge there will still be destruction. More importantly, one cannot hide the fruits of science; how they are used as instruments of social or political policy is a matter of principle and should be decoupled from the science itself. In fact, knowing the facts provides us with a clear basis for making progressive decisions and gives us a powerful weapon for defeating the nefarious goals of demagogues who would use pseudoscience to support their dubious claims. In that sense, I agree with Wade that even if genetic differences between races become enshrined into scientific fact, it does not mean at all that we will immediately descend into 19th-century racism; our moral compass has already decided the direction of that particular current.

Ultimately Wade’s argument is about the transparency of knowledge. He admonishes some of the critics – especially some liberal academics and the American Anthropological Association – for espousing a “culture only” philosophy that is increasingly at odds with scientific facts and designed mainly for political correctness and a straitjacketed worldview. I don’t think liberal academics are the only ones guilty of this attitude but some of them certainly embrace it. Liberal academics, however, have also always prided themselves on being objective examiners of the scientific truth. Wade rightly says that they should join hands with all of us in bringing that same critical and honest attitude to examining the recent evidence about race and genetics. Whatever it reveals, we can be sure that as human beings we will try our best not to let it harm the cause of our fellow beings. After all we are, all of us, human beings first and scientists second.

A modified version of this review was first published on Amazon.com.

Update: My fellow Sci Am blogger Eric Michael Johnson has a characteristically thoughtful and well-written review of the book. I happen to disagree with Eric on the value of the book – and think that on one important level the debate is about the value of speculation in science – but I appreciate his take on it. It’s also a pity – although hardly surprising – that unabashed racists, white supremacists and creationists are using the book to support their ideas. Not the first time that a controversial work was hijacked by people on the extremist fringe. This would also be an appropriate time to point out that any comment catering to this fringe will be immediately deleted and the commenter banned.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. billbedford 8:33 am 05/14/2014

    >>For me the most striking evidence that something called race is real comes from the fact that when you ask computer algorithms to cluster genes based on differences and similarities in an unbiased manner, these statistical programs consistently settle on the five continental races as genetically distinct groups – Caucasian, East Asian, African, Native American and African Aboriginal. <<

    It has been known for some time that there is more human genetic variation within Africa than in the rest of the world. So if the computer algorithms that were used for clustering were truly unbiased wouldn't we expect to see multiple groups within Africa as well as the traditional 'race' groupings?

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  2. 2. curiouswavefunction 9:04 am 05/14/2014

    Yes, we do see multiple sub-groupings when more fine grained techniques are used. In fact more fine grained techniques also establish the populations of India and the Middle East as separate subgroups. But the five continental races seem to consistently emerge as the five largest groups. It’s also worth noting again that “more” or “less” can be a bit misleading since it depends on what kinds of alleles are actually different.

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  3. 3. carolcarre 12:19 pm 05/14/2014

    People tend to forget that algorithms are written by people, not some sort of gift floating down unbiased from the sky. That being so, it is worth trying to figure out if there is biasing in the algorithms or not.

    But on the other hand, why on earth are we so bound and determined to classify individuals into group slots and tell them what they are based on some human construct? Remember. all classifications we make ARE human constructs and as such worthy of trying to figure why we choose to build them the way we do. Is to to preserve our idea of how the world is organized? Genetic studies have repeatedly destroyed what biologists comfortably thought of as the “correct” way to classify living beings. It is also possible that the human bias in genetic “thinking” is creating subtle “distortions” of “fact”

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  4. 4. SJCrum 2:16 pm 05/14/2014

    The situation of different races on earth, and the differences between those races doesn’t involve genetics even in the slightest and are from some other things instead.
    In the history of earth, the enormous heat event that occurred in the year of 2500 B.C. caused many of the previously totally pale people to have their skin colors changed. Africans were totally pale before, and during that enormous heat, and full exposure their bodies were so severely burned that it charred the skin. And, that situation then got recorded in the body’s genetic pattern to where it then was passed on to offspring.
    The Chinese, for another, were hiding in caves to escape the enormous boiling atmospheric water, and had to tightly keep their eyes from being totally destroyed by that situation. And, this got transferred to their genetic body pattern also.
    many of the survivors were those who quickly escaped to the northern areas which were less hot. Norwegians are basically pale, and only because they were further away from the center blast of the heat.
    So, that was why the basic races came to be.
    As far as another item, the basic bad character trait of condemning people who appear to be less than acceptable to others also caused a separation.
    A final item is that whether believed or not, Satan does exist, and he has always used every single destroying thing he could to cause all kinds of discriminations, and everything else that has occurred in the entire history of earth also.
    In truth, God created all positive souled people, by making them from His own soul, and once made inside Him, He gave them their individual lives by separating them form His soul. The point of this is that all of those souls are made in the exact same way, and there isn’t any difference in the genetic makeup of any of their bodies also.
    Satan, though, has caused several genetic changes by all of the destructive activity that he has caused. And, quite frankly, the entire situation of why many people are unfortunately less attractive is entirely because of what he did to their ancestors.
    In the end, not a single thing that exists has ever evolved even in the slightest, and there are no evolving types of genetic changes. Or gene changes, if that is an issue. In real science, evolution is not only wrong, but it is scientifically impossible, and totally proven as such.
    By the way, the real science is also that God made the human body in one way, and also one way of duplicating. And, the only differences can be in the altering things that I have described here. And, they are not just mystically evolving, which is about as absurd as a purple clam saying one day to you, “I suppose you wouldn’t consider growing another nose would you? Since, we noseless clams think it would be rather humorous this week.”
    In the end, gene changes don’t occur just because of anything that comes waddling down the freeway.

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  5. 5. PBear 10:55 pm 05/14/2014

    carolcarre: in defense of clustering, it can easily done well, using blinded data. Thus the true categories are only revealed once the cluster predictions have been made. Alas, it can also be done poorly, with people tweaking and changing their parameter until the best looking cluster is found. So, yes, it depends on the author!

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  6. 6. larkalt 4:51 am 05/15/2014

    The question of genetic differences in mental abilities between groups is all tied up with the the group’s role in society – whether it’s oppressed, the target of insults or not.
    White people have on average a lower IQ than Asians, and white non-Jews have on average a lower IQ than white Jews. But as a non-Jewish white person, I feel no shame about either of those facts. I’m an individual.
    It depends on whether you’re regarded as an individual by the society or not, and whether you’ve been taunted about those facts.
    As a woman I’ve been targeted with prejudice against women, so I *am* sensitive about statements about male-female differences, and feel they’re attempting to say something about me. Even though I’m an individual.
    In light of that, I don’t know if it’s a good idea to do research on group differences or not. “Dirty secrets” are not generally good for people. But we shouldn’t be treating people with regard to their genetic categories either, and doing such research emphasizes those genetic categories.

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  7. 7. larkalt 6:20 am 05/15/2014

    I’m not intending to imply, however, that blacks and hispanics have a genetically lower IQ. There is much that is questionable about that idea.
    Thomas Sowell wrote a review of _The Bell Curve_ at http://www.samtiden.com/tbc/las_artikel.php?id=24 which has many excellent criticisms. He also says good things about the book.

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  8. 8. SAULT18 10:33 am 05/15/2014

    RE SJCrumb:

    There is ZERO evidence for the “heat event” you describe. In fact, 2500 B.C. was COOLER than it is today thanks to all the greenhouse gases humans have emitted:

    http://www.realclimate.org/images//Marcott.png

    Please try and ground your arguments in sound science if you want to be taken seriously.

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  9. 9. SAULT18 10:35 am 05/15/2014

    Ash, do the populations show a cluster of Aboriginal Australian or African? You already mention an African genetic group by itself, so are there 2 distinct groups in Africa or did you mean Australian?

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  10. 10. curiouswavefunction 10:46 am 05/15/2014

    Thanks, that was a typo.

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  11. 11. SJCrum 1:53 pm 05/15/2014

    Sault18 – As far as your statement about there being no evidence of the 2500 B.C. heat event, there is IN FACT enormously huge evidence for all of it. I could write a book in describing it. As for your other statement of me getting my information correct before I write anything, that is a total joke, and in reality, you are the total amateur here. As the following will prove entirely.
    First, the science of Mars, as it appears today, it has a huge blast spot on the side that was hit by the enormous heat, and which is all black. Also, all of the so-called craters on Mars are bubble holes where gas from beneath the surface bubbled upward through the liquid ocean of liquefied dirt – a fact that is fully proven.
    The enormous explosion also occurred when a star collided with a planet that used to be located between mars and Jupiter. Factual proof of this is that the huge space between the two planets REQUIRES in real science to have a planet in it. And, because all of the planets that do exist now are all perfectly spaced according to the core heat amounts. So, that is real science that is enormously beyond the science on this planet also.
    Also, there is an enormous amount of exploded planet rubble that exists between just outside of Mars and all the way toward the sun.
    As for earth, there are literally thousands of evidence proofs. One is that the Africans have pale palms of their hands,, also at the bottom of their feet, and under their fingernails. So, what science FACT could cause such an enormously impossible thing in any other way than an ultra-enormous heat event? The palms of ancestors were so tightly closed during the searing pain that the end result was the coloring was made a permanent part of their genetic body pattern, and passed on to offspring. Soles of their feet were protected also only because they were pressed to the ground. And, the fingernails were protected from the enormous burning rays only because of the density of the nails. Note, that all of the skin of the fingers around the nails is sunburned brown.
    You might not understand the heat science, but those were just a few of thousands of real science fact.
    All of the ocean plates in the Pacific, where the heat was hitting more at a location just west of the South American continent, are still shrinking even now, and all because of the total heat that had previously liquefied the ocean bottom after all of the water had been completely boiled out of it.
    All of the earthquakes on earth occur from the same.
    All of the oil ENTRELY exists only because of the heat, and because of bodies of sea life, dinosaurs and others on earth had fallen down into the ultra-heat bubbling mass of liquefied soil and rock. The body atoms then changed from carbohydrates into the hydrocarbons of oil. Previously, there wasn’t a drop of that kind of oil at all. Note that the LaBrea Tar pits all had dinosaur bones in them.
    For a final one now, of thousands, the ultra-heat tore the north and south American continents away from the west sides of Africa and Europe, and pulled them across the liquid magma to the location where they are now, and all of the Rocky Mountains and others on the west sides were all pointed right toward the heat hitting that leading edge.
    Another one for the record, is that all of the extremely high MONUMENTS in Arizona were made by all of the enormous amount of liquefed soil flowing toward the Pacific ocean basin, and leaving the tall solid rock monuments behind.
    So, I am sorry that you are so clueless, but you don’t have the slightest idea as to what the real science is at all. So, … YOU … get your crap right first before you spew your opinionated, amateur total slop.
    As for the REAL SCIENCE, I have stated it dead-on right.

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  12. 12. CherryBombSim 3:00 pm 05/15/2014

    The statement that Europe progressed faster than China is only plausibly true for the last few hundred years. If you want to believe this was at least partly due to genetic differences, you have to confront the reality that these same genetic differences were there during the Dark Ages.

    The fact is that cultural and behavioral evolution is a recursive function of genes interacting with environment over time. There is no “genetic component” that acts in an additive way over all environments and over all times.

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  13. 13. sciSam 5:52 pm 05/15/2014

    I am very impressed with this review. I think you have captured the topics in the book, which I have almost finished, very well with a balanced perspective. Whether the findings in the book are right or wrong, Nicholas Wade and yourself are helping to make what has been a taboo topic an open topic of conversation, research and ultimately agreement on what is, in fact, the truth.

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  14. 14. RonJohn16 9:54 pm 05/15/2014

    CherryBombSim– China was in no specific way more advanced than Europe at any time, including the “Dark Ages”. Europe has definite lack of written history from that era of the middle ages and certainly ascended extremely fast in the centuries following, but that does nothing to day China at any time was the standard bearer for human progress. There can be no serious debate of what people gave birth to the civilization in which we now live. The White European is the basis for all of our ideas of Democracy, individual rights, and education.

    We all know it has become near-illegal to speak openly and honestly about the generic factors of race. On average (and in every study ever done) a black person has about a 20 point IQ deficit against Whites/Asians. This is what science would call a fact, there simply is no argument against it. You will find ZERO evidence that the races perform equally as to IQ. However the political establishment has deemed this science to be wicked and “racist”, and those geneticists who would conduct research are quickly crushed and their careers ruined. That is a sin and all those who would call themselves honest and seekers of truth should stand up against this tyranny.

    Frankly we can all see quite clearly that physical attributes are often defined by the genetics of race. Will we declare it a societal issue that every great sprinter on earth is black? That the US Olympic sprinters are all black despite their being many times more white sprinters in the country and the NCAA over all? Of course we won’t because we are logical beings and it is an obvious fact that blacks are genetically better sprinters than whites. It is neither good nor bad… Not wicked or perverse, just a simple fact of nature and evolution.

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  15. 15. larkalt 6:17 am 05/16/2014

    @RonJohn The figure I’ve heard for the black/white average IQ difference in the USA is 15 points.
    IQ is influenced both by genetic and environmental factors. You seem to believe IQ is genetic.
    However, there are a lot of environmental factors. There’s the “Flynn effect”, where IQ scores have gone up by 5-20 points per generation, in many different countries. See http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/what-is-flynn-effect
    That has to be due to environmental factors, because the genes aren’t changing from generation to generation.
    Black children adopted by advantaged white families have higher IQs – see http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1977-07996-001 although this varies depending on the age at which they are adopted.
    Differences in performance, even in sports, aren’t necessarily genetic. It used to look like white people were genetically better at very long distance running, but there are now top black marathon runners.
    Blacks in sub-Saharan Africa have very low average IQ scores – in the 60′s as I’ve heard. This also points out a strong environmental influence on IQ, because the blacks who were enslaved and brought to North or South America were unlikely to have been selected for being smart. They were probably selected for being big and strong, but not for intelligence.

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  16. 16. CherryBombSim 9:52 am 05/16/2014

    RonJohn, you mention black sprinters. 100 years ago, the top sprinters in the United States were Caucasian. There has not been some selective sweep in the last century that has made black sprinters superior, trust me on this. My point was that there are genetic differences between races, but because the nature of cultural evolution is non-linear and iterative, it is impossible to predict how those genetic differences will play out in the future. You could not predict in 1914 that black sprinters would dominate a century later.

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  17. 17. RobFromLoveland 4:05 pm 05/16/2014

    Interesting review, and it makes me plan to obtain the book and read it. In our current politically correct mode, it is almost impossible to seriously discuss differences between genders and among races without immediately being labeled as a misogynist of some kind. Simply because the races differ does not make any race less advanced, or less important, or less valuable. And, as has been pointed out, the variation in any trait within a race is much greater than the corresponding average difference between any two races.

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  18. 18. jcollinsbx 4:38 pm 05/16/2014

    A corollary to Sagan’s “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs” might be that extraordinary claims should be made by the actual scientific experts in that field, and not by science writers. All due respect to Mr. Ward, his claims are based on evidence that is difficult to understand and interpret even by leading professionals in the field.

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  19. 19. larkalt 5:18 pm 05/16/2014

    @RobfromLoveland
    The problem about research on racial differences is that white people tend not to seeing black people as individuals anyway, because of the long and awful history of racial problems in the USA. So the reality of individual differences, while true, doesn’t help.
    It’s been shown that “stereotype threat” negatively affects test scores. If black people are told that black people do worse on a certain test, they’re likely to do badly on it.
    One has to ask about research what the benefit might be. The money for research is limited. I’m not sure what the point would be of research on race and IQ – we should be treating people as individuals anyway, not lumping them into these huge baskets called races.

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  20. 20. SJCrum 7:22 pm 05/16/2014

    Concerning all of the discussion concerning this topic of a possible genetic situation being involved with causing more, or less, success between races, the actual science IRONICALLY, is as follows.
    Females for one, have been put down during a very great amount of time during all of the history of earth. As in, not even being able to vote for literally ages, and even being accused of being less intelligent.
    Ironically, that is totally laughable in the real science that totally involves the truth.
    The totally humorous thing is that, because of females being suppressed, and virtually all other races as well, what really occurs is that all of them dig in and fight like crazy in order to prove exactly what they can do. Once they get the chance, that is.
    In the end, they learn far greater in new education opportunities, and can easily out-perform any of the endless oppressors in the entire world.
    In my ancestry, which isn’t even associated with anyone’s soul anyway, it is German. And, you might note the totally ignorant ones who declared themselves as the Arians of the world, and the supposed most genius of all. What a total load of crap.
    In the end, it is far more true that the ones who were suppressed were the ones that fought more for individual rights, and every single other thing on this planet also.
    So, once again, the “great experts” in the world have it totally ass backwards.
    On the good side, “HURRAY” for all of those who have been totally, and unfairly, suppressed, and for your ultra-fantastic great courage to fight against it, and totally win like all great heroes should have occur for them.

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  21. 21. American Muse 7:39 pm 05/16/2014

    Interesting review — I’ll buy the book.

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  22. 22. shimagyoh 8:41 am 05/17/2014

    Genes and the human brain determine intelligence. It is a fact that no human beings, not even identical twins have exactly identical genes and absolutely the same brain structure when examined in detail. Both change in the process of growth.
    The environment has huge influence on both genes and the brain. Look at a human baby—it is nearly all head! The vital processes of survival and every behaviour of the human being are all dependent on the brain. The outlet of genetically inherited intelligence can only be maximally expressed in a healthy brain that has not suffered any environmental bruise. It grows exceedingly fast during the first two years of life and another burst occurs at puberty, achieving over a hundred billion neurons and making astronomical synaptic connections. In in a milieu of heavy load of infective diseases coupled with starvation at these stages, the body diverts much of its energy to survival strategies, and the brain’s development will be compromised, (Christopher Eppig, Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill: Proceedings of the Royal Society, http://bit.ly/c2E4wD). Even in the same culture, individuals from families that subject babies from birth to challenging toys will exhibit better performance at intelligence tests than those that are not so brought up. Finally, intelligence tests are culture specific, and it is controversial to employ them across the board to compare people from different races.
    Genetics is a vastly interesting topic in all its ramifications, but one cannot draw valid conclusions about comparative intelligence from its study alone. The nearest to the ideal would be to use the same criteria to compare people of different races born of parents with similar education and social status living in the same geographical environments.
    I enjoyed the jokes, though.

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  23. 23. larkalt 9:42 am 05/17/2014

    @SJCrum
    Unfortunately oppressed groups often end up internalizing the stereotypes and colluding with their oppression.
    There’s a lot of anti-intellectualism in black culture, for example – where good students are unpopular, etc.
    And women often control each other into conformity with their idea of who a woman should be.

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  24. 24. lukelea 9:20 pm 05/17/2014

    Good social policy, which maximizes the welfare of all groups, requires a realistic assessment of human differences. It is a necessary, even if not a sufficient condition.

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  25. 25. larkalt 12:16 pm 05/18/2014

    @lukelea
    Sure, but assessing human differences on racial/gender basis makes no sense.

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  26. 26. VGrauer 12:26 pm 05/20/2014

    “For me the most striking evidence that something called race is real comes from the fact that when you ask computer algorithms to cluster genes based on differences and similarities in an unbiased manner, these statistical programs consistently settle on the five continental races as genetically distinct groups – Caucasian, East Asian, African, Native American and Australian Aboriginal.”

    No, the results are not consistent. I’ve seen clusterings divided into African, European, East Asian, Oceanic and Native American, which is NOT the same as the clustering you’ve referenced above. I’ve seen a very similar clustering that included the Hadza people of East Africa as one of the major clusters.

    The San Bushmen of Africa have consistently been regarded as a separate “race,” yet they don’t appear on any of these clusterings. It’s important to remember also that the most generally accepted “racial” breakdown was threefold: Negroid, Caucasoid and Mongoloid. And since American Indians were consistently included in the third category, then any clustering that identifies them as a separate group is NOT consistent with the notion of race — but IS consistent with a breakdown based on geographical distance from the source population in Africa.

    The inclusion of Oceania in some of these breakdowns is also highly questionable as far as race is concerned, since no one has ever claimed that “Oceanian” is a racial grouping. And this region is in fact highly varied, both morphologically and genetically. Again distance from Africa is by far the most likely reason, NOT racial distinction.

    I’m surprised that Scientific American chose a chemist and not a geneticist to write this review. The great majority of geneticists reject the notion that race is anything more than a social construct. Based on the science, NOT political correctness. The political correctness charge is equivalent to an ad hominem argument and if you want to make such a charge you had better be prepared to back it up with facts.

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  27. 27. VGrauer 12:48 pm 05/20/2014

    One of the clearest instances of the disconnect between racial perception and genetics has to do with the distribution of various “negrito” groups in Asia. Several such groups, such as the Andaman Islanders, the Semang of Malaysia, the Aeta, Agta, etc. of the Philippines, etc., have been studied. All bear a striking resemblance to African Pygmies, to the point that in many cases it’s all but impossible for anyone but an expert to tell the difference.

    To everyone’s surprise, when the genomes of these various groups were analyzed, it turned out that none were closely associated with any African population.

    “[Common] features include short stature, very dark skin, woolly hair, scant body hair and occasional steatopygia. The claim that Andamanese pygmoids more closely resemble Africans than Asians in their cranial morphology in a study of 1973 added some weight to this theory, before genetic studies pointed to a closer relationship with Asians.” Wikipedia

    Turns out that all the negrito groups studied so far are more closely associated, genetically, with neighboring Asiatic groups than Pygmies, or any other Africans. Additionally, also from the same Wikipedia article:
    “the genetic evidence refutes the notion of a specific shared ancestry between the “Negrito” groups of the Andaman Islands, the Malay Peninsula, and the Philippines.”

    Link to this
  28. 28. dubina 5:43 pm 05/20/2014

    Genes influence behavior, certainly. Down Syndrome is an extreme example of that. Envionments influence behaviour, as well. It is difficult to say for sure how genes and environments combine to influence cognitive development in individuals, but environments are obviously more malleable post hoc than genes.

    My impression of Wade’s admonition (that some of his critics espouse a “culture only” philosophy) is that he was trying to build the same kind of straw man that he decried. Culture is more malleable and the greater determinant of individual behavior by far, but genes underlie that behavior as well.

    Meanwhile, speaking of liberal tendencies, human rights have nothing to do with race, so we should put the racial canard to rest. That development is a work in progress but it is long overdue.

    Link to this
  29. 29. Rabochik 3:20 pm 05/21/2014

    Scientism in service to the status quo. Genes are now the magic handwave that allows interested parties to project their fantasies of genetic determinism as a justification for millenia of intergroup hostility and violence and a rationale for continuing social and political policies that reinforce the existing but threatened race hierarchy in the West.
    Using a chemist to address the text is fascinating, for the mindset of a chemist,like other physical scientists, is profoundly colored by laboratory environments, thought experiments and simulations. Purification of reagents sufficient to isolate reactions in a controlled environment to foster repeatability and scalability of products for marketable products in a rational system that purports to follow immutable physical laws.
    The reality of human interaction over millennia is never so clear or constrained, and from some of the comments the abject ignorance of actual history is damning.
    There are testable hypotheses that could be generated from this notion (without going into the depths of a Mengele or a Tuskegee experiment); but they would have to take into account the fact that the priors of such studies are flawed (racial categories, IQ), the categories are based on irrational cultural concepts (Pure Blood to Octaroon to almost white/passing), and the conclusions will have to be tailored to whichever audience is paying the bills: Murray et al’s Pioneer Fund or whoever funds anti-racist research, which seems to lack a constituency of idle rich hobbyists at the moment.
    Are there geographically dictated correlations in allele frequencies and other measures? Sure. Are these determinant of economic, intellectual or physical achievements of people or peoples? No. Is Europe a pinnacle of achievement? No, it is at the end of the Silk Road and the recipient of gene flow from the south and east, including Mongol hordes of multi-ethnic Eurasians that ran the gamut from NE Eurasians with epicanthic eye folds to the Hungarian tribes. Not even England, the race enthusiasts’ ideal, includes a vast array of imported genetic material from Europe, Asia, and Africa thanks to Rome, the Vikings and Norman French, and Pictish and Celtic residents.
    IQ tests are a farcical if dark joke and if anything measure acculturation to the expectations of a few egghead Ivy Leaguers who grew up in US Northeast industrial metropolitan areas, built environments in skin color ranked social contexts segregated by wealth and race, with incentives for normative behavior incompatible with other social or historic contexts and in direct opposition to the Abrahamic texts which dominate religions of the word (e.g. loaning money at interest, monogamy, treatment of slaves, and many others). They could well be Martians to folk from anywhere else in the US, let alone the greater world.
    Are we proposing to use genetics as a means to go back to the slavers’ categories for dark skinned persons, the mulatto, the octaroon? Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim vs. Ethiopian Jewry? Shall we fall back to the hoary old stereotypes that until very recently divided “white” ethnics in the US-the drunk Irish, the sullen Germans, the obedient Swedes, Polacks and Bohunks and Slovaks?
    How far are we (as scientists presumably) prepared to go in trying to use “science” (or the appearance of science, scientism) to reinforce decaying social rank systems based on bad typologies and accidents of history?

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  30. 30. M Tucker 4:10 pm 06/4/2014

    I have been waiting for a great review from an evolutionary biologist and now I have found one from Michael Eisen. He does a good job of explaining why “speculation” of this sort, couched in what appears to be scientific evidence and theory, is just a way to promulgate racist theory and get away with it, at least with some people.

    You can find Michael Eisen’s review here http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1609

    Link to this

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