Is race in the genes? A TNR Debate, Day 1

Editor's Note: This letter is a response to Merlin Chowkwanyun's article about why genetics can't explain race. Tomorrow, Chowkwanyun responds.

Dear Merlin,

I'm pleased to have the opportunity to respond since I wholeheartedly agree that our "assumptions behind...[our] notions of genetic determinism will hinder racial equality, and ... even imperil people's lives."

To get right down to it, you seem to find two chief problems with the slavery hypothesis for hypertension--namely, that it shifts attention away from environmental causes that may be at work, and that it "assumes a long[-]discredited biological basis for 'races.'" As for the first, that shift is obviously harmful only if the hypothesis--along with all other genetic explanations--is bunk. But even if a genetic explanation like the slavery hypothesis is correct, that doesn't mean environmental factors have no effect (and therefore shouldn't be studied). It's hard to imagine anyone denying that hypertension has both genetic and environmental causes.

Is it possible you're mistakenly assuming that, since black Americans have been an oppressed minority living under poor conditions, any disparities between their health and that of whites must be the result of environmental factors? Perhaps the best evidence for questioning that kind of thinking is the surprising fact that, according to the U.S. Census, Latinos, who have likewise suffered maltreatment, have a greater life expectancy than non-Latino whites. (Needless to say, the possibility that environmental factors don't account for all health disparities doesn't mean that we shouldn't oppose discrimination and other inherent wrongs.)

As for the tricky, highly sensitive question of the nature of race, I'd like first to address the conceptual problems people have with the subject. I think it's fair to say that most of the common arguments against treating race as a biological category apply just as well to biological sex: There are vague boundaries between the sexes (as shown by the existence of the "intersexed"); there is no way to define the necessary criteria for being considered one sex or another; the categories have been used as grounds for oppression, eugenics (e.g., selectively aborting fetuses) and quack science (including claims about innate abilities); there is disagreement over the number of sexes (e.g., biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling once claimed there were five sexes); cultures differ in how they categorize the sexes (e.g., in India hijras are considered to be a third sex that is neither male nor female); and so on. Yet despite this, few of us are willing to deny that biological sex exists or is a reasonable and useful way to classify human beings. (Admittedly, the recently deceased philosopher Richard Rorty once claimed that "'the homosexual,' 'the Negro,' and 'the female' are best seen not as inevitable classifications of human beings but rather as inventions that have done more harm than good." Is he the sort of humanities professor you want scientists to consult?)

As a result of having been used to justify numerous horrors, race has become such a freighted concept--and "race" has become such a hopelessly tainted word--that thinking straight about it can be extremely difficult. So consider less controversial human categories: Do you think that families exist? Clans? Tribes? Nations? Should these terms be used in scientific or ordinary discourse?

Much of the conceptual difficulty stems from the fact that--like species, sex, and other biological categories--race is what philosophers call a "cluster concept": although there are sufficient conditions for belonging to this or that race, there are no such necessary conditions. By their very nature, cluster concepts--or "family resemblances," in Wittgenstein's terminology--cannot be precisely defined, but that doesn't mean we can't understand their meaning or apply them accurately to things in the world. I suspect that an unsophisticated understanding of scientific thinking (perhaps a result of poor science education in this country) underlies the common misconception that all scientific concepts must be capable of precise definitions. But this is to misunderstand science--and definitions generally. If vagueness exists in the world, if there are fuzzy boundaries between actual phenomena, then our concepts should reflect that.

While this philosophical heavy lifting helps pave the way for a concept of race, we still have to explain what a truly scientific definition of race would be. Among mainstream scientists, Steven Pinker has made one of the best attempts. Never one to fear controversy, he writes in The Blank Slate:

Nowadays it is popular to say that races do not exist but are purely social constructions. Though that is certainly true of bureaucratic pigeonholes such as "colored," "Hispanic," "Asian/Pacific Islander," and the one-drop rule for being "black," it is an overstatement when it comes to human differences in general. The biological anthropologist Vincent Sarich points out that a race is just a very large and partly inbred family. Some racial distinctions thus may have a degree of biological reality, even though they are not exact boundaries between fixed categories. Humans, having recently evolved from a single founder population, are all related, but Europeans, having mostly bred with other Europeans for millennia, are on average more closely related to other Europeans than they are to Africans or Asians, and vice versa. Because oceans, deserts, and mountain ranges have prevented people from choosing mates at random in the past, the large inbred families we call races are still discernible, each with a somewhat different distribution of gene frequencies.
hereThe History and Geography of Human Genes a genetic map of the world

You're right that race is coming back as a respectable scientific idea, but I don't find very helpful your attempt to explain this phenomenon by pointing to "techno-utopianism" and the big business in (supposedly untested) genomic medicine. Surely the biggest rewards for pharmaceuticals and researchers come not from research grants but from the discovery of effective cures and treatments. To the extent that they're relying on ideas of race, it's because they have good reason to believe that those ideas could work. (By contrast, not only are there are no institutional or financial incentives for members of humanities departments to question their current dogma on the subject, but to do so is a recipe for career suicide.)

When well-meaning people are willing to risk being charged with racism (and with being falsely linked to malicious or mad scientists) it is a powerful sign that they believe their research assumptions to be both true and crucial for improving--and yes, saving--human lives. In short, the simplest explanation for the revival of race is that it reflects the truth. As the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick put it, "Reality is what's still there when you stop believing in it."

Indeed, as long as one accepts that various genotypes cluster in different groups--one of the tenets of evolutionary biology--it's hard to see what alternative there is to using group classifications in medicine. (It's ironic that some people who mock the yokels opposing evolution are themselves often unwilling to accept Darwinism when applied to human beings.) Are you saying that we should not perform studies to see whether a particular drug is more effective for the members of some groups rather than others, or whether genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, or sickle-cell anemia predominate in some populations? It's no answer to say that we should merely study individuals with the relevant genotypes, since, at the early stages of research, we typically don't know what those genotypes are. And even if we do discover the relevant genotypes, racial groupings are still useful in research precisely because genetics cannot always explain everything. If the subjects in a study are chosen solely for a particular cluster of genotypes, with no attention paid to their race, then we'll have no way of separating out the confounding genetic and environmental factors. After all, whether or not race scientifically exists, it is still an important variable in research, since it can affect a person's environment. And I think we can agree upon that.



By Merlin Chowkwanyun