March 13, 2005

NYT: "A Family Tree in Every Gene"

Excellent NYT Op-Ed arguing that Race Does Too Exist, which sounds like a summary of my writings (complete with emphasis on the Andaman Islanders):

A Family Tree in Every Gene
The idea that human races are only social constructs has been the consensus for at least 30 years. But now, perhaps, that is about to change.

His conclusions are pretty much exactly the same as mine, even using many of the same examples. In blue are links to my articles where Leroi (of the U. of London) appears to have found much of the material for his fine essay, with much of the rest coming from GNXP:

One of the minor pleasures of this discovery is a new kind of genealogy. Today it is easy to find out where your ancestors came from - or even when they came, as with so many of us, from several different places. If you want to know what fraction of your genes are African, European or East Asian, all it takes is a mouth swab, a postage stamp and $400 - though prices will certainly fall.

Yet there is nothing very fundamental about the concept of the major continental races; they're just the easiest way to divide things up. Study enough genes in enough people and one could sort the world's population into 10, 100, perhaps 1,000 groups, each located somewhere on the map. This has not yet been done with any precision, but it will be. Soon it may be possible to identify your ancestors not merely as African or European, but Ibo or Yoruba, perhaps even Celt or Castilian, or all of the above.

The identification of racial origins is not a search for purity. The human species is irredeemably promiscuous. We have always seduced or coerced our neighbors even when they have a foreign look about them and we don't understand a word. If Hispanics, for example, are composed of a recent and evolving blend of European, American Indian and African genes, then the Uighurs of Central Asia can be seen as a 3,000-year-old mix of West European and East Asian genes. Even homogenous groups like native Swedes bear the genetic imprint of successive nameless migrations.

Some critics believe that these ambiguities render the very notion of race worthless. I disagree. The physical topography of our world cannot be accurately described in words. To navigate it, you need a map with elevations, contour lines and reference grids. But it is hard to talk in numbers, and so we give the world's more prominent features - the mountain ranges and plateaus and plains - names. We do so despite the inherent ambiguity of words. The Pennines of northern England are about one-tenth as high and long as the Himalayas, yet both are intelligibly described as mountain ranges.

So, too, it is with the genetic topography of our species. The billion or so of the world's people of largely European descent have a set of genetic variants in common that are collectively rare in everyone else; they are a race. At a smaller scale, three million Basques do as well; so they are a race as well. Race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences.

But it is a shorthand that seems to be needed. One of the more painful spectacles of modern science is that of human geneticists piously disavowing the existence of races even as they investigate the genetic relationships between "ethnic groups." Given the problematic, even vicious, history of the word "race," the use of euphemisms is understandable. But it hardly aids understanding, for the term "ethnic group" conflates all the possible ways in which people differ from each other.

Indeed, the recognition that races are real should have several benefits. To begin with, it would remove the disjunction in which the government and public alike defiantly embrace categories

Second, the recognition of race may improve medical care. Different races are prone to different diseases. The risk that an African-American man will be afflicted with hypertensive heart disease or prostate cancer is nearly three times greater than that for a European-American man. On the other hand, the former's risk of multiple sclerosis is only half as great. Such differences could be due to socioeconomic factors. Even so, geneticists have started searching for racial differences in the frequencies of genetic variants that cause diseases. They seem to be finding them.

Race can also affect treatment. African-Americans respond poorly to some of the main drugs used to treat heart conditions - notably beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. Pharmaceutical corporations are paying attention. Many new drugs now come labeled with warnings that they may not work in some ethnic or racial groups. Here, as so often, the mere prospect of litigation has concentrated minds.

Such differences are, of course, just differences in average. Everyone agrees that race is a crude way of predicting who gets some disease or responds to some treatment. Ideally, we would all have our genomes sequenced before swallowing so much as an aspirin. Yet until that is technically feasible, we can expect racial classifications to play an increasing part in health care.

The argument for the importance of race, however, does not rest purely on utilitarian grounds. There is also an aesthetic factor. We are a physically variable species. Yet for all the triumphs of modern genetics, we know next to nothing about what makes us so. We do not know why some people have prominent rather than flat noses, round rather than pointed skulls, wide rather than narrow faces, straight rather than curly hair. We do not know what makes blue eyes blue...

There is a final reason race matters. It gives us reason - if there were not reason enough already - to value and protect some of the world's most obscure and marginalized people. When the Times of India article referred to the Andaman Islanders as being of ancient Negrito racial stock, the terminology was correct. Negrito is the name given by anthropologists to a people who once lived throughout Southeast Asia. They are very small, very dark, and have peppercorn hair. They look like African pygmies who have wandered away from Congo's jungles to take up life on a tropical isle. But they are not... that many, perhaps most, scholars and scientists say do not exist.

Happily, most of the Andamans' Negritos seem to have survived December's tsunami. The fate of one tribe, the Sentinelese, remains uncertain, but an Indian coast guard helicopter sent to check up on them came under bow and arrow attack, which is heartening.

Or maybe it's just parallel evolution, like how pygmy negritos and pygmies look a lot alike, but don't seem to be closely related to each other. It didn't require any unique brilliance on my part to come up with my ideas, mostly just perseverance and honesty.

Let me add a couple of things to Leroi's attack on Lewontin's Fallacy. I wrote back in 2000 in "Seven Dumb Ideas about Race:"

Dumb Idea #6: Most variation is within racial groups, not between racial groups. Two members of the same race are likely to differ from each other more than the average member of their race differs from the average member of another race.

Sure, but so what? No single human category can account for a majority of all the many ways humans differ from each other. Try substituting other categories like "age:" "Most variation is within age groups, not between age groups." Yup, that's true, too. But, it doesn't mean that Age Does Not Exist.

You often hear that between-group racial differences only account for 15% of genetic variation. This number comes from a 1972 study by Richard Lewontin of 17 blood types, comparing variation between continental-scale races and between national-scale racial groups (e.g., Swedes vs. Italians). Now, blood types are, I suppose, important, but they hardly represent all we want to know about human genetic diversity. Certain other traits are known to be more racially determined -- the figure for skin color, not surprisingly, is 60%. What the overall number is for all the important genes remains unknown.

Still, let's assume that Lewontin's 15% solution is widely applicable. That's like going to a casino that has American Indian and African American croupiers, and 85% of the time the roulette spins are random, but 15% of the time the ball always comes up red for Indian croupiers and black for the black croupiers -- pretty useful information, huh?

Also, it's crucial to put Lewontin's 85-15 finding in a comprehensible perspective by comparing it to family relatedness, which we are all familiar with. (Racial groups are, by definition, partly inbred, so the degree of relatedness within a racial group can be comparable to the degree of relatedness within a small extended family.) I wrote in VDARE last year:

Take race denier Richard Lewontin's famous 1972 finding that only 15% of genetic variation is among population groups. This is always interpreted in the popular press to mean that, because there is more genetic diversity within racial groups than between them, therefore (non sequitur alert!) RACIAL DIFFERENCES DO NOT EXIST!!!...

Henry Harpending, a genetic anthropologist at the U. of Utah, says the variation between groups is even lower, more like 12.5%, so let's use that.

What Harpending discovered, and anthropologist Vincent Sarich (UC Berkeley) confirmed, is that Lewontin was using Sewall Wright's way of calculating relatedness, and you need to about double it to make it equivalent to Hamilton's way. So, 12.5% times two is 25%, which is the degree of relatedness between an uncle and his nephew…which, after all, is where the word "nepotism" comes from!

In other words, on average, people are as closely related to other members of their subracial "ethnic" group (e.g., Japanese or Italian) versus the rest of the world as they are related to their nephew versus the rest of their ethnic group.

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