Race, genetics, and the lure of forbidden knowledge

March 30, 2018

Recently geneticist David Reich published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race.’” In it he contends that “differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real”—and what’s more, that “as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’”

The invocation of his status as a natural scientist, the insistence on what is “real,” and the astonishing suggestion that race has been overlooked until now—I’ve seen it all before. Reich is using a rhetorical device that sociologist Reanne Frank has called the “forbidden knowledge” thesis, where academics who identify themselves with “science” (and are usually, though not always, male, white biological scientists) contend that anyone who questions the biological foundations of racial groupings is denying reality, or “sticking their heads in the sand” as Reich puts it. Another recent version of this was New York Times former science reporter Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. The Times also published an op-ed by geneticist Armand LeRoi in 2005 making pretty much the same case, so I’m not sure why they felt it was new in 2018. But the conceit is that there has been a cover-up (or “orthodoxy” in Reich’s words) denying the biological truth about race, so we need brave souls like Reich and Wade and LeRoi to reveal the truth (again!) to the public: race is a biological characteristic of the human species.

The problem in the geneticists’ arguments (science journalist Wade’s are of a whole other magnitude of weakness) is that basically they confuse “population” with “race.” They are absolutely correct when they talk about average differences between populations in terms of the frequency of particular genetic traits. They illustrate this with examples like the Andaman Islanders (in LeRoi 2005) or Northern Europeans or West Africans (in Reich 2018). The trouble is, none of these groups are considered “races” (or have been at least since the 1920’s).

“Races” are huge groups spanning entire continents and thus remarkably varied ecological environments. “Races,” as described by Linnaeus in the 1700’s or on the U.S. census of 2010, group Koreans, Mongolians, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis together (as the “Asian” race); they group Moroccans, Norwegians, and Greeks together as another (the “white” race). Groupings like these, billions of people strong and traditionally inhabiting highly variable geographic terrains, just don’t demonstrate homogenous genetic characteristics that distinguish them, even if average differences can be calculated between them. That is why the statistics that Reich or others present are actually not about races; they are about much smaller-scale, local populations (including African Americans, an ethnic group that is hardly representative of the global “black” race).

Indeed, Reich himself claims that the people we call “white” today descend from four genetically-distinct populations, thus shooting himself in the foot by suggesting that “races” are in fact not actually the same thing as genetically-identified “populations.” So we are left with the question of why he is adamant that average genetic differences between races not be “ignored,” when he himself doesn’t seem to attend much to them.

It comes as no surprise though that “race” can’t do much work for him; the idea that race can help us characterize or understand human genetic variation in any serious way is laughable. Race is basically a very simple, 4-part color wheel assigning all 7.6 billion of us to a “black,” “white,” “yellow” or “red” category. Can anyone credibly claim that a taxonomy grounded in the humoral theory of Antiquity—remember the red blood, black bile, yellow bile, and white phlegm that the ancients believed determined our health and temperaments?—is a useful tool for analyzing genetic diversity at the start of the 21st century? That with the insights made possible by ever more sophisticated biological and statistical theory, growing DNA databanks, and formidable computing power, Linnaeus’ color scheme is the best we can do? It’s like telling psychologists that phrenology could be a handy tool for understanding personality, or economists that astrology offers a promising avenue for research on income inequality. Who knows, some interesting correlations might turn up, but would these be “impossible to ignore”? And if so, why pour millions into contemporary research on human genetic variation when humoral theory will do just fine?

Reich is right to make a plea for better understanding of the biological variation that characterizes our species. (His piece also suggests that sharpening Americans’ statistical skills would help.) But “race” is a really lame, blunt, and–it has to be said–historically racist tool for such scientific inquiry. As far as I can tell, the only advantage to dredging up the “race” notion is to be provocative and garner attention (especially if, like Reich, you have a new book to flog). Because without the word “race,” there’s nothing new here except the well-known observation that human biological traits vary around the world in tandem with geographical location. The only thing that is surprising is that media outlets like the New York Times seem to have so little institutional memory that the same argument can be presented again and again as if it were a fearlessly iconoclastic novelty. Go figure! Honestly, Reich’s op-ed should’ve been titled, “How Race Is Warping Our Understanding of Genetics.”

This post originally ran on

Image: Smithsonian Institution.

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