Pester Wilkins

The guy who started the interesting discussion about race is Wilkins—so go argue with him. So far, I’m still on his side of the issue—these claims of correlated groups of linked genes tell us something about ancestry and history, but don’t rescue the concept of race at all.


  1. Brent T. says

    I think that most of us that agree with Biological Evolution (instead of special creation) agree on the topic in general. The problem is mostly with the definition of race. Correlation of groups of linked genes coming from ancestry, I believe, explains evolution in general at any level (me vs. my in-laws or fish vs. rats). We are talking about variation and not different “kinds”. I think it is only when you believe that the different “kinds” were specially created (some being favored) that a person runs into problems.

  2. says


    not necessarily. keep in mind that most people have no idea what “correlations of groups of linked genes due to ancestry” means. Even a smart non-creationist (yet also non-statistical geneticist) can fall into the trap of thinking that, because groups can be differentiated on a statistical level, one has to be “better” than the others.

    Or imagine we do a study saying levels of LDL cholesterol are higher in Asians than Europeans. how many intelligent people will think that a given Asian person must have a higher LDL level than a given European person? In my experience, a lot. even smart people don’t think in terms of probability distributions all the time (if ever). substitute intelligence for LDL levels and you have yourself an ugly situation.

  3. noahpoah says

    JP said: …substitute intelligence for LDL levels and you have yourself an ugly situation.

    But surely the fact that people make errors in their (statistical) thinking regarding a concept is not grounds for dismissing that concept as (biologically) irrelevant. Now, I’m not going to make grand claims about what race is (or isn’t), but it seems to me that, insofar as things like skin color and whatever morphological features are related to race, then race is, at least in part, genetic and, therefore, biological.

    As you (JP) point out, this doesn’t mean any one race is any better than another, but it indicates that there is biological ‘reality’ to race. Or, rather, that race as it is typically conceived – again, skin color and whatnot – is a (probably fairly lousy) predictor of something biological. Of course, whatever the superficial characteristics are predictors of, it’s probably (or primarily) just the presence of whichever genes give people the skin color and morphological characteristics we use to group by race.

    Now, it doesn’t always seem to be the case that race just predicts itself – there’s an article in the new issue of the economist about race and medicine and how, if race had been ignored, some subtle patterns of genes, illness and drug therapy effectiveness likely would have been missed.

  4. says

    The culturally dominant racial typology may not match up very well with the actual distribution of gene frequencies in human populations, but “race” is a natural fact in another way. As Dawkins pointed out in the Ancestor’s Tale, it does appear that people have a great proclivity to obsess about (literally) superficial markers like skin color that mark off in groups and out groups. Race is, along with gender, the first thing people notice about the people they encounter. Which is probably why so many people are skeptical of scientists who discount the reality of race.

    Racism, sensu latu, seems to be as natural to human beings as religion, hard-wired errors.

  5. great_ape says

    I am dismayed at the number of public scientific figures that have accepted wilkinsons (i.e. lewontin’s) position on race.Too often the possibility of misconstruing the actual biological aspects of race is used to justify abolishing it–or something similar–as a concept with biological significance. While I understand the legitimate concerns people have, those concerns are *political*, not scientific. When we start letting our political philosophies dictate what constitutes biological reality, we’re heading down a dangerous path. At the moment, that path yields answers consistent with enlightened and progressive ideologies. All well and good. But if we take that road now, how do we go on to argue with any integrity when people start bending scientific truth to support more regressive ideologies? (As if some aren’t doing so already…)

    Lewontin’s in group variance vs. between group variance argument has been debunked repeatedly (insofar as it’s an argument against the reality of race). Even those who pursue this line of reasoning are smart enough to realize that they are twisting the interpretation (for a single genetic locus) severely to give the conclusion they wish. Or rather, twisting their interpretation to give the *impression to the uninitiated in the nuances of population genetics* (i.e. most everyone) that race is a vacuous concept. This activity smells a lot like the tactics of Intelligent Design proponents. It’s disingenuous, and it’s jeapordizes the integrity of science as a vehicle for truth.

  6. G. TIngey says

    Erm, I’m just a pyhsicist/engineer, but isn’t the correct technical term for a group with common ancestry and characteristics a CLADE ????

  7. says

    noahpoah said: But surely the fact that people make errors in their (statistical) thinking regarding a concept is not grounds for dismissing that concept as (biologically) irrelevant

    true. nor did I dismiss it as irrelevant. all I’m saying is that it’s too easy to say that only people who believe in “special creation” could possibly be racist. that’s patently false; it’s easy for anyone to make errors in their statistical thinking.

  8. Brent T. says

    I guess I wasn’t clear. Anyone can make errors in their thinking. I just think that Biological Evolution offers very little justification for making general absolute VALUE statements saying RELATIVELY VERY small population level variation are important. If you believe in special creation, than I think that you could argue that any difference (probablistic or otherwise) could be infinitely important because a god in its infinite wisdom decided to make that difference.

  9. great_ape says


    In my understanding of the usage in literature–not so sure about the formal definitions–“clade” is typically invoked when the populations in question are largely not interbreeding and presumably embarking on different evolutionary trajectories, such as when they are geographically isolated in some way. In that sense, it is a stronger division than “race,” which is admittedly poorly defined. (for the sake of discussion, let’s use the sociological “self-reported” notion as pertains to humans) Clearly humans quite readily interbreed across racial lines, however you draw them, and they have been doing whenever in history they were given opportunity. If anything, the genetically distinguishable groups that remain are dissolving. Nevertheless, while admixture among populations is rampant and increasing, and while humans as a whole are much more genetically similar to each other than other examined species (e.g. chimps have much more diversity amongst themselves.), there are allelic frequency signatures that cluster in a way that corresponds to “self-reported race” and are indicative of ancestry in many cases. This can/does have biological relevance, particularly in regards to medicine/pharmacogenomics. Ultimately, we will be able to sidestep “race” and simply use “genetic ancestry” of various admixed components in genetic medicine. For now, self-reported race can be useful in limited contexts. Those who try to tell you differently are either a)simply ignorant or, more likely, b) peddling their high-minded “feel good” ideology at the expense of scientific rigor and respect for truth. The former can be remedied. The latter presents a far more persistent and, ultimately, dangerous problem for all of us.

  10. windy says

    Erm, I’m just a pyhsicist/engineer, but isn’t the correct technical term for a group with common ancestry and characteristics a CLADE ????

    No, a clade is “a group of organisms which share a common ancestor and which includes the ancestor and all the descendants of that ancestor.” You can pick any point in a “tree” but after that you have to include all the branches. So it’s not a very useful concept in human ancestry, because there’s no group that has stayed completely isolated.

  11. MAJeff says

    I’m a sociologist, and I teach classes on race, so take this with those caveats in mind. I’ll admit, I approach “race” as a social system, a mode of organization and set of meanings that divides people into categories along the lines of phenotypical differences that are perceived to be significant. One thing that keeps me from accepting an essentialist notion of race is that no one has really been able to tell me where in the body race resides.

    Recently, Henry Louis Gates had one of his annual PBS series on Race in America (hmm..they always seem to be aired in February). In this one he, along with several prominent African Americans, had some genetic testing done, to see what kind of racial admixture they were composed of. Gates himself shared approximately 50% of his genetic material with European populations and 50% with African populations. OK, people will say this is about phenotype and not genotype so we can treat his race as “black.” His father, who was also on the show, is incredibly light-skinned, though. What is the dividing line between being black and being white?

    In law, we can see how such confusion over the concept has worked. Through different varieties of “measuring” race, we’ve created more blacks and fewer Indians (higher blood quanta requirements for Native Americans mean that fewer people will be counted as Native American because of intermarriage). Those were based on forms of race-thinking that said “white blood” was “polluted” by mixture with “black blood,” but that some blood could “civilize” indigenous people through mixture. Where is the substance of race? How do we measure it? Does it become diluted to the point of non-existence? Do new races get created if people from different races have babies: are they creating new phenotypes? What are the significant differences that produce the dividing lines between races?

    I just don’t see much use in salvaging the concept. Race thinking has played a huge role in such things as the Middle Passage, the genocide of indigenous populations, colonial brutality, and the Holocaust. Tell me again why it’s such a useful concept?

  12. Brent T. says

    I would also argue that biological race is not a particularly meaningful concept the vast majority of the time. In fact, I think that the term biological race is probably completely inappropiate for the usage that I am thinking of, which involves the use of self-reported race/ethnicity to serve as a marker (albeit poor) for ancestry (which has both a biological and social/cultural component). Specifically, the only times that self-reported race/ethnicity has served some useful biological purpose, in my experience, is when it has served as a marker for ancestry in a genetic study that didn’t have a better marker of ancestry. This role for self-reported race/ethnicity could be completely replaced if there were better markers for ancestry available. In the recent past the only way to get any marker of ancestry was to either ask people directly about their ancestry (time-consuming and most people don’t have very accurate information) or at a very minimum ask for their self-reported race/ethnicity and maybe country of origin. The problem with current genetic studies is that they often developed from existing studies where genetics wasn’t even contemplated at the study’s onset, but the study may have collected and stored blood for other purposes. Over the years the these originally non-genetic studies (which often cost millions or tens of millions of dollars) have accumulated vast amounts of information about health and disease. For example, a study of heart disease that is 20 years old might have data on 20 years of heart disease outcomes and many other relevant indicators of health over that 20 year period. The study also might have stored blood. This blood can now be tested for various genes and instantly there could be a study talking about how genes impact the progression of heart disease over a 20 year period. The problem is that the scientists didn’t have the forethought to ask all of the participants about their ancestry, but they did likely collect information on self-reported race/ethnicity. Now the only way for the scientists to try to control for differences in ancestry between people with disease and people without disease (take my word for it this is important) is to use the markers for ancestry that they have available. Sadly, often times self-reported race/ethnicity is all that is available. In the recent past scientists have been faced with 2 alternatives, either use the less than ideal information that is available, or ignore all of the data. The people that are using self-reported race/ethnicity as a marker for ancestry in genetic studies, for the most part, are trying to get as much information as they can until better methods are developed. Fortunately, genetic markers of ancestry are being developed, so this issue may be moot in a few years when these newer methods are improved and their costs decrease.

    So I guess my response to “Tell me again why it’s such a useful concept?” is to say it likely will only be a useful concept for a short period of time. The very fact that people who self-report a minority race/ethnicity have historically been poorly treated and often have poorer health as a result, gives reason to why we must take this historic poor treatment into account when studying genetic causes for health outcomes in populations with both minority and majority groups. One of the common excuses for only conducting genetic studies in majority populations is that then you can avoid any of the complex issues regarding admixture or ancestry differences within the population. If minority and majority populations were expected to have identical non-genetic sources of disease (equal poverty, equal access clean food and water and quality health care) than none of this would be necessary. However, until genetic methods of ancestry are improved the best solution for how to include minority populations in genetic studies is to incorporate self-reported race.

  13. MAJeff says


    As I see it, you’re not really defending the retention of “race.” From what I can tell, you’re saying that it will remain useful for a while as a sort of inexact proxy for biological heritage (something I’d be perfectly willing to accept…with the caveat that it be recognized as such a proxy and not as a thing in itself). I’d argue that’s not really an argument for the retention of “race” in ways that others have been (in this and the other thread) been arguing for. A central claim of theirs seems to be that there is some deep, essential, biological thing called “race” that really creates distinct types of people. That’s the position I’m arguing against, and one that you seem to not be terrible amenable to either. There’s an ontological difference in these approaches to race.

  14. says

    A central claim of theirs seems to be that there is some deep, essential, biological thing called “race” that really creates distinct types of people.

    who claims this? ie., “deep” and “essential.”