A response to Larry Moran


As I mentioned in my summary of my experience at Eschaton2012 in Ottawa, I had a brief exchange after my presentation with biologist ad blogger Larry Moran. He took me to task for a statement that I made during my presentation, in which I asserted that race is not a biologically-defined reality, but rather a socially-derived construct. In response, Larry had this to say:

My position is that the term “race” is used frequently to describe sub-populations of species, or groups that have been genetically isolated from each other1 for many generations. By this definition, races exist in humans just as they do in many other species.

The genetic evidence shows clearly that Africans form a distinctive, but somewhat polyphyletic, group that differs from the people living outside of Africa. Amongst the non-Africans, we recognize two major sub-groups; Europeans and Asians. I see no reason why these major sub-populations don’t qualify as races in the biological sense. Please read: Do Human Races Exist?.

I don’t think that denying the existence of races is going to make racism go away. Nor do I think that accepting the existence of biological races is going to foster racism.

I think that most of my disagreement with Dr. Moran (or perhaps more accurately his disagreement with me) is a product of a number of things. The first and most obvious one is my lack of familiarity with the full scope of the genetic literature when it comes to human beings and their (our) descendent trees. The second seems to be an unfortunate result of the time limit of the presentation and the imprecision of the language I chose. The third one is a bit more complicated, but has largely to do with what evidence we are using to arrive at a definition. I will discuss each of these issues in detail, with the hope of clarifying the problem.

The state of the genetic evidence

I should state unequivocally here that I am not a human geneticist, nor do I have any great background in genetics or anthropology, and so will take Dr. Moran at his word* that the genetic evidence suggests that genetic subgroups exist within a single human species. These subgroups (or ‘races’, if you prefer) are not at all the same thing as identifying different species (a point that I took as obvious, but that someone at the talk apparently found it worth fighting Dr. Moran over), but rather simply differences in some phenotypic traits that are due to a history of shared geography, of the kind that we see in many non-human species – the day before he had shown an example of Canadian Geese.

This fact, entirely non-controversial to me, does not affect my position whatsoever. It is to be entirely expected from the anthropological evidence that as different groups become separated by time and space, certain alleles will become more common in some populations than others, resulting in groups that resemble each other at both a phenotypic and genotypic level. If this is the definition of ‘race’ that Dr. Moran is using, then we have no disagreement. It is biological fact, nothing more.

My working definition of race

However, it should be noted that my position is not that “there are no genetic subgroups among human beings”. My position is that race, as is relevant to a conversation about racism, is not based on genetic subgroupings. It is based on a much more cursory, and much more fluid divvying up of the human population into groups, to which characteristics are ascribed. One of the more interesting examples of this phenomenon is in the gradual de-racialization of groups like Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants throughout the 20th century. Before relatively recently (and some would argue that it is still not complete), certain European people were not seen as ‘white’, but rather had a distinct racialized status. As generations passed, those groups were adopted into the “white” narrative – a feat that was and continues to be quite impossible for those groups who had been there longer (i.e., blacks and Latin@s).

Group membership in races, as understood and operationalized in the real-world context of our society, have never been about genetic differences. Dr. Moran rightly notes that there is a long history of pseudoscientific “scholarship” that ascribes phenotypic differences such as disposition, work ethic, intelligence, human decency, and overall merit, to those genetic differences, but that like all pseudoscience these attributions are inaccurate. And so when I make the statement that race is not biologically defined, that is the reference that I am making**.

Source of the discrepancy

And that speaks directly to the conflict that exists between Dr. Moran’s understanding of race, and my own. Dr. Moran is looking at the genetic data and seeing subgroups within homo sapiens. To deny the existence of that data is absurd in the extreme, which is (I gather) the reason why my presentation irritated him.

I, on the other hand, am looking at differences in outcomes, and the attitudes and beliefs that inform those differences, within a societal and historical context. I am looking at the fact that while both First Nations Canadians and Chinese people (to use one example) may both belong to the Asian ‘race’ (in a genetic sense), they most certainly do not occupy the same social ‘race’ (in an economic, political, historical, or sociological sense). The fact is that the genetic data do not, in any way, correspond to the way in which different groups are viewed or treated. In the context of a discussion of racism, the fact that some groups share more genes than other groups is not nearly so relevant as understand race in the way that we use it as a society.

The issue I still have with Dr. Moran’s genetic definition of ‘race’ is that I do not understand where the discerning line between ‘races’ is drawn – that is, why it is not simply arbitrary to group people. My father and Barack Obama’s father probably share more genetic traits than he does with Barack Obama’s mother. However, the senior Obama probably shares more with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki than he does with my dear old dad – what about grouping the three of them all together is non-arbitrary, except insofar as it is possible to observe two separate emigrations from ancient Africa? I would imagine that the people of Cambodia share a number of genetic markers that make them more similar to each other than to the people of either India or China – are Cambodians a hybrid ‘race’ or a separate ‘race’, and why?

As far as the bit about “accepting the existence of biological races” not being likely to be used to justify bigotry… I guess Dr. Moran has a much more optimistic view of humanity than I do.

I look forward to discussing this more with him.

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*”At his word” in this case means that he has extensively cited the source of his conclusions, not merely asserted it from thin air.

**I used the term “meaningfully different” in my presentation, by which I meant that there is nothing in the biological evidence to suggest that those characteristics that would inform achievement in a meritocracy are different between racial groups. To my knowledge, the genetic evidence still bears that out.

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    It is to be entirely expected from the anthropological evidence that as different groups become separated by time and space, certain alleles will become more common in some populations than others, resulting in groups that resemble each other at both a phenotypic and genotypic level…. [But] race, as is relevant to a conversation about racism, is not based on genetic subgroupings.

    Bingo. FWIW, this needs to be articulated far more clearly. I once made an argument very similar to Moran’s. I eventually got the message that you have succinctly articulated above, but the people I was debating with seemed to have a very difficult time getting that across for some reason… In my experience, there seems to be some resistance to acknowledge the existence of phenotypically-visible genetic subgroupings at all — a position which unfortunately allows people like Moran (and formerly me) to focus on that sticking point, rather than take the next step and realize that conventional racial classifications align very poorly with the genetics, and that therefore there is no contradiction between the statements “genetic subgroupings exist in H. sapiens” and “race is a social construct”.

  2. dustinarand says

    Crommunist
    Very interesting post. I think a lot of the problem comes from the fact that genetic “races” can’t be precisely defined, for the reasons you pointed out. There is no essential genetic trait that you can point to and say, ok, everyone with this trait belongs to race X, etc. Instead, what you have are populations that bleed into one another, with clear phenotypic and genotypic differences emerging, yet no discernible boundaries between them. On the other hand, race as we have used that term carries a presumption of clear boundaries of demarcation, both because of our innate tendency to elevate names to the status of logically necessary ontological categories, and because racial categories have been written into laws that made stark dinstinctions between people based on whether they were in or out of such and such a racial category. Most people still think in this way, and not in the way that scientists approach race. And I have to wonder, if the conversation is about race as a political or historical concept, why bother discussing the biological use of the word at all.

  3. says

    And Dr. Moran, at least to my reading, said that he was on board with most of the presentation. He just objected to my repeated assertion that race is not biological, which he took to mean that I meant that there is nothing whatsoever to suggest human subgroupings. I look forward to resolving this sticking point.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    So what Crommunist is saying is that the word “race” has two different meanings — it’s used one way in a biological sense, and a different way in a social sense. That makes sense. It’s kind of like the word “theory” means something different to scientists and non-scientists.

    Another argument you could use is that the biological “race” applies primarily to _populations_, whereas the social construct of “race” is usually used as a classification tool to apply to _individuals_. I think it’s in the latter sense that it’s actually a fairly meaningless term. Race as most people encounter the term means a box that you check off when you fill out forms — and as many have pointed out, that box is non-sensical if your name is Tiger Woods or Barack Obama or many others in our society.

    The question that I think this discussion leaves up in the air, though, is whether the social “race” concept has any usefullness left at all, or whether we should concentrate on scrapping its use across the board. I do think that Affirmative Action programs do a lot of good — but I worry that they do more harm by perpetuating this antiquated ideology.

  5. says

    Another argument you could use is that the biological “race” applies primarily to _populations_, whereas the social construct of “race” is usually used as a classification tool to apply to _individuals_.

    You could use that argument, I suppose. It would be wrong, but lots of wrong ideas enjoy great popularity.

    Race as most people encounter the term means a box that you check off when you fill out forms

    “Most people”? Maybe most of those people who don’t have to deal with the consequences of race every day. Otherwise, race is something that extends well beyond boxes on forms.

    I do think that Affirmative Action programs do a lot of good — but I worry that they do more harm by perpetuating this antiquated ideology.

    What harm do you think AA programs do?

  6. says

    You might want to call your definition “caste” instead of “race”.

    I think that more clearly spells out what you’re trying to get at.

    I agree with Dr. Moran on the genetics. And I agree with you on the existence of castes — which are primarily, though not exclusively, delineated by skin color.

  7. thetristantomes says

    When going over species concept in evolution, my professor said that species is a biological reality; every other classification doesn’t exist. I think it is especially true when you look at this.

  8. says

    The issue I still have with Dr. Moran’s genetic definition of ‘race’ is that I do not understand where the discerning line between ‘races’ is drawn – that is, why it is not simply arbitrary to group people.

    This. There is no purpose to classification that does not add information. I have yet to see any proposed “racial” grouping based on genetics or biological features that do so. They all seem to be more about “I like groups. Groups are tidy.” The problem is that “tidy” groups actually erase quite a bit of information about variation while offering us…what?

  9. says

    The genetic evidence shows clearly that Africans form a distinctive, but somewhat polyphyletic, group that differs from the people living outside of Africa.

    No.

    As far as the bit about “accepting the existence of biological races” not being likely to be used to justify bigotry… I guess Dr. Moran has a much more optimistic view of humanity than I do.

    That’s not optimistic. It’s positively deluded. It’s a standard part of the rhetoric, though. And when you point out that it’s not true, you can expect to have your substantive arguments dismissed as denialism based on misguided fear of the political consequences of “accepting” the “reality” of races. That’s the drill.

    ***
    You might be interested in the Social Science Research Council’s set of articles about race, especially this one by Ann Morning.

    I’ve found generally that most of the people insisting on the reality of races are more interested in dismissing their critics as biased ideologues than in engaging with the evidence.

    (By the way, if people start citing the Rosenberg or Bamshad studies – as they tend to do in these conversations – you can refer to the chapter by Deborah Bolnick in Race in a Genomic Age discussing the methods and interpretations of that work. It can be read online.)

  10. marcoconchuir says

    I’m so confused. When I took biology (a long time ago), my professors were keen to emphasise that race is a useless concept when dealing with genetics and that clines were a much better way of understanding variation in different populations.

    Has there been some major shift in thought since I studied this stuff? Or is Moran behind the times?

  11. Martha says

    This quote from the source to which SC linked makes me as puzzled as marcoconchuir about Moran’s point:

    [The scientists] agreed that human beings vary biologically, both genetically and phenotypically (e.g., in surface appearance); that this variation is shaped by evolutionary processes; that the patterns of variation are linked to geographic locale; and that each variant usually shades gradually into the next, without sharp, crisp borders separating people with trait A from those with trait B…

    Wouldn’t there need to be sharp(ish) borders for race to be a useful biological concept?

    Perhaps my response is partly emotional, but it makes me very uneasy to talk about scientific definitions of race when the social construct is so much more important in our society.

  12. BrandonS says

    This made me recall what I thought was an interesting exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum that I visited with my then girlfriend (the website for the no longer extant exhibit can be found here http://www.mnh.si.edu/race/). I’m a white guy, and she’s Korean, and it they had some really fun setups that helped show ways that people are biologically different, and biologically similar in a fun and informative way.

    More to the point, the same exhibit really punched home the idea that things that we typically think of as races in the United States are largely arbitrary distinctions, that they’re not shared across cultures. One of the effective ways of communicating this was to show people from various ethnic subgroups in Brazil, and show what races they each identified as and were termed as having; these were groups that we don’t really even have names for in the United States, yet they were considered as different there as Asians, black people, and white people are in the US. As other comm enters have pointed out, the extent to which we lump and split is largely arbitrary.

    I suppose this is a bit rambly, but I wanted to basically say that I think your blog post hits the nail on the head, and that I think we could use more effective communications along these lines and along the lines of what I’d seen in that Smithsonian exhibit. Sure, there’s biological differences between people of different genetic backgrounds, but the idea of races being objectively biologically different in a meaningful way, in the context of race in North America, just doesn’t really work well.

  13. says

    Your professor is wrong or at least oversimplifying things greatly. There is no definition of species that I am aware of that works for all organisms. The biological species concept works well for organisms that reproduce sexually, but is an abject failure for organisms that do not. One could propose a genetic criteria, but then the problem arises how does one define the cut off for divergence in a non-arbitrary manner.

    The fact is all classifications are human constructions and suffer accordingly.

  14. mas528 says

    I have nothing to say except this. Emphasis mine

    Dr. Cavelli-Sforza:

    “The phylogenetic trees offer “a simple graphic aid for visualizing those relationships [relationship between different populations] and a path to infer the possible evolutionary history behind them.”However, the clusters they identity in phylogenetic trees are not same as racial groups, because there is not enough genetic differences among human groups.
    He says “…we can identify ‘clusters’ of populations and order them in a hierarchy that we believe represents the history of fissions in the expansion to the whole world of anatomically modern humans.
    At no level can clusters be identified with races…there is no discontinuity that might tempt us to consider a certain level as a reasonable, though arbitrary, threshold for race distinction. Minor changes in the genes or methods used shift some populations from one cluster to the other.”

  15. unnullifier says

    If the concept of “race” is truly grounded in genetic science, then what other species of animal do we use the term “race” for? Are there really different “races” of poodles or tabbies? I’ve no background in genetics or biology, but I’ve never heard the term “race” used outside the human species. I concede that I lack the years of professional study and work to speak authoritatively here, however I remain skeptical that I would have failed to learn of the grouping of non-humans by “race” in genetics or biology (while accepting that it could be possible).

    So what I was going to ask is if we group only humans this way, then doesn’t that diminish the strength of the grouping rather than increase it? It would seem like a similar problem for geneticists that astrophysicists had with Ceres, Pluto, et al: that the way they were classifying planets was becoming less and less meaningful and therefore they had to seek better and more accurate classifications. I was going to be surprised that genetics/biology hadn’t faced a similar problem, but reading comments above, it sounds like it already has tackled this classification issue and that race isn’t really a valid grouping in those sciences?

  16. invivoMark says

    The problem with this objection is that you can say the exact same thing about “species” (or “genera”, “family”, “order”, etc.). The concept of species is very fluid, and in many cases no rigid demarcation exists. And in asexual critters like bacteria, that demarcation is even more fuzzy!

    This doesn’t make the notion of delineating critters by “species” useless, not even in bacteriology. Most definitions in biology are fuzzy, including the definition of “life”, because that’s just how biology is. But we still regularly make arbitrary definitions and distinctions because it’s useful in communicating ideas. The existence of the pizzly bear doesn’t render useless the distinction between polar bears and grizzly bears.

  17. johnharshman says

    The term “race” is nearly unused in modern biology. (It hangs on in the term “host race”, which has to do with insects segregating by preferred plant host.) The word we use instead is “subspecies”, and there’s a controversy over whether subspecies should ever be recognized, or whether diagnosably different groups should just be called species. Still, the majority still use the subspecies concept.

    How this relates to us is questionable. Can humans usefully be said to have subspecies? Not that I can see. Most often, subspecies are geographically isolated from other subspecies, and there are no geographically isolated human populations. The last such population to exist was claimed to be the Tasmanians, but since they’re all dead it’s hard to get genetic data to confirm that. There has for many thousands of years been gene exchange uniting the rest of the world, though there are a few areas of reduced exchange. Still, there has been contact even across the Bering Strait, so not even the Americas were isolated from the Old World. What we see is instead that populations near to each other are similar, and those farther away are less so. But there’s no place you can put a line and say “on this side is one subspecies, and on that side another”. So in fact I think Larry Moran is wrong in his central claim about biological races in humans. Some species can be nicely divided into subspecies, and some can’t. We’re one that can’t.

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