Harvard geneticist David Reich had an op-ed in the New York Times today that I find stimulating. As stupid genetics rants about human variation go, actually this one is better than many of them. Reich positions himself against Henry Harpending, James Watson, Nicholas Wade, and Hitler. So far, so good.
But Reich, like many geneticists writing about race, does not really know what he is talking about. One of the major scientific accomplishments of the 20th century was to distinguish the study of race from the study of human variation. Reich works on the latter. But he writes about the former because (1) it’s more interesting; and (2) he doesn’t understand the difference.
He argues against two groups of non-existent scholars: Those who believe everyone is the same, and those who believe genetics has no effect on cognition or behavior. He condescendingly refers to the first category of strawmen as “well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations.”
Anthropologists have in fact been studying the differences among populations for a long time. At issue are its patterns. They are, in order: (1) cultural; (2) quantitative; (3) clinal; and (4) local. If there were no differences among populations, we would not have been able to find that.
The other category of strawman involves the denial of genetic “influences on behavior and cognition”. Once again, nobody denies it; at issue are its patterns. Time was, when geneticists were taught to distinguish between the causes of variation within groups and between groups. The old Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin explained it back in the days of the racist psychologist Arthur Jensen and the racist physicist William Shockley. Suffice it to say that Reich’s examples are all within-group examples. (They are also correlations, which he implies are causative. Time was when geneticists were taught that distinction as well.)
This is why it is important, even urgent, that we develop a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such differences, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and being caught unprepared when they are found.
Yes, indeed. The problem is that apparently he has not read widely enough to encounter such a framework.
This is why knowledgeable scientists must speak out. If we abstain from laying out a rational framework for discussing differences among populations, we risk losing the trust of the public and we actively contribute to the distrust of expertise that is now so prevalent. We leave a vacuum that gets filled by pseudoscience, an outcome that is far worse than anything we could achieve by talking openly.
I generally don’t use the word pseudoscience, since it’s usually being propounded by scientists, and only visible in retrospect, like phrenology and eugenics. Unfortunately the biggest boost that racial pseudoscience has traditionally gotten is the combination of arrogance and ignorance that geneticists have brought. Remember Bruce Lahn, who identified the genes responsible for the backwardness of Africans in Science in 2005? It’s not that, as Reich says, “discoveries could be misused to justify racism.” It’s that racism inheres in the research, because the people doing it have often been ignorant and myopic. They are technologists, not scholars; that is the danger.
Reich fears, like Lahn, that the rest of us may be “anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations.” Again, no, that’s not the problem at all. It’s that we don’t want racists studying human variation any more than we would want creationists studying bipedalism. We know that their intellectual prejudices corrupt their research. It’s been going on for a long, long time.
I can’t wait to read his new book on the racial invasions throughout prehistory.
And so I guess this reinforces that the answer to the question I posed last year is still "yes". It's a newer and more benign scientific racism - not the scientific racism of Harpending, Watson, and Wade - but whether it's ankle-deep or hip-deep, racist bullshit is still racist bullshit.