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Genetics and race: How do we have this awkward conversation?

| February 13, 2019

How do you talk about genetics and race?

One way is to calmly state the increasing evidence of meaningful genetic differences between human populations — and then engage in honest and robust debate about the social and political implications, if any, of such inter-group divergence.

Back in the real world, meanwhile — where open discussion of race and biology is largely taboo (a state of affairs recently exacerbated by DNA pioneer James Watson) — a better idea might be to quickly change the subject. So … what about the weather, eh?

But battening down the hatches and sitting out the storm isn’t really an option. For a start, it would mean blithely ignoring the deluge of data from the recent revolution in molecular biology about our species’ evolution — and of the genetic divergence of separate human populations over time. More importantly, it would also miss the opportunity to genuinely level the playing field for those very peoples most marginalised by an undeniable history of prejudice and neglect.

Note, though, the numerous alternatives for ‘race’ already employed above: populations, groups, peoples (to which ‘ancestry’, ‘descent’ and the like could also be added). Far from simply being politically correct euphemisms for a tainted term, it is important to distinguish between the word ‘race’ as it is socially used — say, the Black/African American, Native American, White, etc. racial categories used in the US census — from the biological sense, used to describe distinct populations within a species.

human skin color variationBecause of the historical misuse of the term ‘race’, this is an important distinction to make. In 19th century Britain, for example, two groups who would now be simply lumped together as ‘White’ were regarded as separate biological races — namely, and complete with the ‘picturesque’ descriptors of the time, the “careless, squalid, unaspiring” Irish and the “frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting” Scots. (Full disclosure: my own genetic ancestry is of the careless, squalid and uninspiring variety.) A more modern perspective, however, does not deny the existence of genetically distinct ‘indigenous’ British populations — such groupings do indeed exist — rather, it avoids describing them in meaningless racial terms. Similarly, the idea of an overarching ‘Black’ race utterly fails to capture the genetic diversity of African (or African-descended) peoples, irrespective of how we are now able to distinguish genetically related groups within the wider human population of Africa.

Nor is this simply overly-sensitive quibbling over the meaning of a word. Historically, ‘race’ was often used synonymously with ‘varieties’, ‘breeds’ or ‘sub-species’ (in the Descent of Man, for instance, Darwin considers at great length what was then still an open question: “Arguments in favour of, and opposed to, ranking the so-called races of man as distinct species”). But whether we like it or not, words have power, and once-acceptable descriptors of human inter-group variation now carry obvious egregious connotations (such as the slur “half-breed”).

Indeed, the limitations of language have long been a bane of everyday discussion of human evolution, with phrases and concepts — “survival of the fittest,” say, or “struggle for existence” — inevitably being interpreted in terms of intrinsic worth. Descriptions of sub-species of flora and fauna, for instance, would ruffle few feathers; similar talk of sub-populations of human beings, however, inevitably evokes hierarchical notions of superiority and inferiority. (As a light-heartened analogy, think of the hierarchical distinction between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ — then tell the Germans that their language is a dialect of Dutch.)

In sum, then, anyone discussing genetics and race must be conscious of the connotations and impact of words. And this is especially true when engaging in dialogue with those with a standard social science conception of ‘race’, one in which human evolved biology is seen as irrelevant to social issues — a paradigm, moreover, in which the very idea of human biological difference is treated with the utmost suspicion. Given this latter mindset — and the human tendency towards righteous indignation — it is hardly surprising that many liberal-minded people react badly when confronted with arguments about human difference that they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as morally offensive. If worthwhile or meaningful discussion of genetics and race is to proceed, therefore, it is beholden on geneticists and their ilk to take this into account — not through political timidity but through simple courtesy and common-sense.

racialdisparity web
Differently the same

Of course, as pointed out above, such is the toxic nature of this topic that open discussion is often avoided, especially by those cowed by the likely reaction of their peers. In this respect, political scientist James Flynn — discoverer of the eponymous ‘Flynn effect’ of rising IQ over time — points to the counterproductive nature of intellectual censorship: “[T]hose who boycott debate forfeit a chance to persuade. They have put their money on indoctrination and intimidation. A good bet in the short run but over the long course that horse never wins.”

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The sort of censorious indignation highlighted by Flynn also has another detrimental effect: it opens a space for nationalistic populists and race supremacists  to claim they are simply “telling it as it is” or bravely “saying what others are too scared to admit”. The losers here, of course, are the very people that the taboos were designed to protect — those marginalized minorities likely to face greater prejudice from emboldened bigots.

Moreover, Flynn’s own work provides a further explicit example of how such taboos can have counterproductive consequences; if Flynn had been unable to research the causes of reported racial differences in IQ he would never have discovered the Flynn effect, the best evidence we have of environmental influences on intelligence (and of how improvements in impoverished environments can lead to dramatic changes in IQ scores over time).

This points not only to the benefits of openly addressing sensitive subjects, but also to a possible way to assuage some of the suspicion that surrounds genetic research into inter-group difference — that even if such differences are shown to exist, this does not dictate any particular social or political response. Facts do not determine values.

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At the same time, however, facts can certainly inform social policy. Take, for example, the overwhelming evidence of strong genetic influences on academic achievement. Contrary to what many might pessimistically assume, this genetic evidence does not mean that nothing can be done for those currently failing in the education system. As the Flynn effect shows, environmental change does make a difference, despite the high heritability of IQ.

Indeed, the strong genetic determinants of educational attainment are much less straightforward than they appear. For example, some studies that indicate a causal link between genes and learning hinge on the observation that older mothers have offspring who are more likely to succeed in school. As older mothers also have fewer children (with whom they can devote more time and resources), the relevant genetic influence here pertains to fertility rather than ‘academic smarts’. Given this, and given a political desire to raise academic attainment amongst specific groups, ameliorative social policy could focus on women’s reproductive health and opportunities in marginalised communities.

Be this as it may. The point is that genetic facts — including evidence of genetic differences between racial populations — carry no necessarily social or political implications. Nevertheless,  these same genetic facts may help highlight obstacles to achieving desired social outcomes, and could provide information that assists in overcoming them. In this respect, just as greater awareness of social and environmental barriers can assist in designing policies to reduce inequalities, so too could greater recognition of possible genetic hurdles to improved life outcomes.

In the past — in the era of Social Darwinism and eugenics — hereditarian political beliefs equated biology with destiny. Unfortunately, much of the present-day antipathy to human genetic research appears premised on a similar erroneous belief: that if human behavior is under the influence of biology/genes then certain social outcomes, such as disparities in wealth or status,  are inevitable. Hence the desire to denigrate genetic research that touches on the raw nerve of race — for, as many well-intentioned egalitarians may mistakenly believe, if meaningful differences between different peoples really do exist, then the goal of greater equality could prove unattainable.

The biological study of human behavior is notoriously fraught — hardly surprising, given that fallible humans are both the subject and the object of scrutiny. Furthermore, given the egregious history of political ideas based on supposed ‘facts’ of human biology, the results of human behavioral research are often held to a higher standard of proof — and most especially with research relating to politically sensitive topics, such as race, gender or sexuality.

Whether always warranted or not, such critical inspection comes with the territory; indeed, one higher standard that human geneticists can impose upon themselves is to understand the motivation of the opposition, however wrong-headed this might appear. Such awareness would not mean avoiding discussion of troublesome topics — but it might avoid discussing them in ways more likely to inflame than inform.

Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a freelance writer with a particular interest in the social and political implications of modern biological science. Follow him on his website or on Twitter @WhittlePM

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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