Race, Genetics, and Taboo

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How does biology mesh with justice?

I was recently contacted by a social scientist interested in genetically-based cognitive differences among human races. He wanted my opinion of his ideas. Here is my response.

Thank you for your interest in my work. I read the articles you sent. Since you say you found me through my blog, I assume you’ve read The Armadillo Gauge, which is the post most relevant to your research focus. In it, I am pretty clear about my opinions of human biodiversity. Indeed, though I hadn’t read your pieces specifically, The Armadillo Gauge was a reaction to writings that are very similar to yours. Here are some additional thoughts. I plan to post this response on my blog, though I won’t give any identifying information about you. You are of course welcome to comment there. Thus, I’m writing for a broader audience here, in case I come across as telling you things you already know.

No biologist denies that there are real genetic differences among human groups. Maybe other academics in other fields do, but my own encounters with any such people have been negligible. Clearly, numerous scientists do study the genetic differences among human groups, and this is a hot topic in the the popular science press. We all agree that race exists, we just differ in what exactly we mean by “race”. Race is a social identity that has both biological and cultural aspects. It does not map particularly well onto genetics or evolutionary groups, as illustrated by the fact that we have a black president with a white mother. When scientists say that race is a construct, they don’t mean that our species is genetically homogeneous. They mean that the racial categories we all use are at least as much about nurture as they are about nature.

Geneticists who have worked on both humans and non-humans, such as myself, will tell you that human genetic diversity is paltry compared to most other widespread species. We don’t have anything like subspecies or ecomorphs, the truly distinct “races” that constitute many species of, say, fishes or butterflies. The physical differences we observe among humans on different continents are caused by atypical genomic outliers. We are still finding variants of small effect, but it’s clear that the biggest differences have already been identified. In fact, one reason I got out of human genetics is that it’s too boring. For evolutionary geneticists, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

In The Armadillo Gauge, I compare human biodiversity to creationism, and I’d like to continue that analogy briefly. So-called creation scientists will tell you that they are being open minded. Why not consider the possibility of an Intelligent Designer and test for it objectively? They often state that censorship is rampant. They say studying intelligent design is taboo for academics, which is why established scientists don’t touch it. However, the real reason scientists don’t touch intelligent design is that there is no evidence for it, and there is no clear way that one could even test for it scientifically. When someone touts a scientific approach to theism, my assumption is not that they are open minded. It’s that they already have their mind made up, and are trying to jerry-rig a scientific justification for it. Otherwise, why would they even bother? The same is true for the human biodiversity program. There is no evidence for cognitive differences among human groups. There is definitely no specific evidence for differences in criminal tendencies, as any study of history shows that all peoples have had violent pasts. In any case, we can’t set up a definitive test like one could with other species, since you can’t raise humans in a controlled environment. One can speculate, but there is no mystery that such differences would explain. No parsimonious reason to expect them to exist. It’s not taboo, it’s just a waste of time.

Just as you aren’t a geneticist, I’m no social scientist. Though I’m curious about the genetic basis of human behavior, it’s not my area of expertise. Still, it seems likely to me that behaviors related to crime have a heritable component, just not one that differs significantly among human groups. One book that really resonated with me was David Eagleman’s Incognito. There, he discusses how we are more inclined to be lenient to a criminal if we learn that there was a biological basis for his behavior, such as brain tumor. However, Eagleman points out that all behavior is due to physical properties of the brain. It makes no sense to prosecute differently based on whether or not we happen to be able to detect the biological basis. Instead, he says, our justice system should focus on whether or not a sentence is likely to prevent repeat behavior. I agree that giving our criminal justice system a solid grounding in biology is a worthy goal. But pursuing the genetic basis of interracial behavior differences is at best a red herring, and more likely to be fuel for existing bigotry.

Racism is a serious problem. I agree that we need scientists to speak frankly about race, which is why I do so on my blog and elsewhere. I am not alone. For example, over 100 senior human geneticists recently denounced Nicholas Wade’s book and the human biodiversity mindset it represents. I see no danger that people are going to underestimate the differences among human groups. Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that most people overestimate the differences. I think you and I are on the same page insofar as we would love for more people to have a better understanding of human genetics and evolution. Perhaps our biggest differences are in our priorities. To me, the main ethical goal of outreach in this field is to debunk the common emphatic belief in qualitative psychological racial differences. You seem more interested in fighting against a nonproblem.

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2 thoughts on “Race, Genetics, and Taboo

  1. This is the weakest response from a biologist to HBD arguments I’ve ever seen. Who even believes in qualitative psychological race differences? The differences are quantitative, and the evidence for them is overwhelming. The debate is about the causes of the differences.

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