Science and race

The scientific conversation about race gets horribly warped in translation to the public — in general, a few right-wing crank sites are loud in their assertions that race is a biologically useful parameter, that it can be simplified into a few ‘obvious’ categories that somehow magically fall into perfect alignment with the assessment of bigots, and that culture is a relatively minor component that cannot overrule basic human nature…whatever that is. I highly recommend this article in which Agustín Fuentes and Carolyn Rouse talk about race — this is the biologically/anthropologically informed perspective.

One of the weird things I see over and over again is how recognizing the importance of human diversity is shoe-horned into simplistic categories. Rather than appreciating the complexity and ubiquity of genetic variation, it has to be mapped onto 18th and 19th century colonial perspectives, and it really doesn’t fit at all.

Agustín: There remains a strong desire to see that 0.1 percent as the “real” important part of the genome. In the United States, difference is always more important than similarity — the well-known “one-drop” racial classification categories. This is tied to the resilience of genetic determinism as an explanatory frame to make sense of social difference. There is an erroneous assumption that the variable genetic patterns in humans underlie relevant differences in health, behavior and even aptitude. This leads smack dab into the “race” issue.

Yes, different populations vary in some of the 0.1 percent of the genome that makes up much of human genetic diversity, but this variation does not represent biological races no matter how one manipulates/packages/represents it. Wade and others love to use standard data sets and compare the 0.1 percent variants in clusters of people from Nigeria, Western Europe, Beijing and Tokyo, and so on. Doing this does yield some patterned differences, but these populations do not reflect the entire continental areas of Africa, Europe and Asia, the classic “races.” A comparison of geographically separated populations within the continental areas also yields easily measurable variation of similar magnitude. Comparing 60 Nigerians to 60 European-descendant Americans to 60 people from Beijing and Tokyo gives the same level of differences in genetic variation as does comparing such clusters of people from Siberia, Tibet and Java (Asia) or from Finland, Wales and Yemen (“Europe”) or even Somalia, Liberia and South Africa (Africa). None of these comparisons give us races. Identifying a few genetic variants that are more common in some populations in some parts of some continents than they are in other populations in other parts of other continents does not come close to any biologically valid demonstration of race.

Then there are the academics that misrepresent the broader view that environment and genetics interact in complex ways that can’t be reduced to simple biological determinism. For decades, that’s been touted as the “blank slate” model, which is a total strawman, but it’s really easy to write popular essays and books that mock other academics for essentially recognizing the complexity of human behavior.

Carolyn: Some of these beliefs have been promoted for years by well-funded racist organizations such as the Pioneer Fund; this group had among its members the late Philippe Rushton, who believed that there is an inverse relationship between penis size and IQ. But there is also the more mainstream Heterodox Academy, an online forum dedicated to pushing the academy to the political right because, the group’s members believe, liberal scholars teach orthodox ideas “without any real evidence.” Listed among the entrenched, unsubstantiated orthodoxies held up for critique by the Academy is this one: “All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members” [11] They don’t like the idea that scholars question what actually constitutes human behavior. Notables listed on the Heterodox Academy’s advisory board in 2016 include Steven Pinker of Harvard, John McGinnis of Northwestern and John McWhorter of Columbia. It is fascinating that some scholars think evolutionary biologists who challenge the idea that humans can be neatly sorted into racial groups are doing so for political reasons.

It’s actually a pretty good recipe for getting well-known — conform to human biases, claim scientific justification, and write lots of reductionist tracts that pander to “common sense” attitudes about race. It’s especially successful in the US, I think, and then the people who know better have to write more complex dissections of reality that get ignored.

And then the lies simmer in the public consciousness and ooze up into academia. This is shocking:

While the compassion driving attempts to find genetic causes for racial health disparities can be celebrated, the insidiousness of the discourse must be noted. This can be seen in a 2016 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article that indicates many medical students think blacks and whites have significant physical differences based on their genes [14]. The authors interviewed first-, second- and third-year med students as well as residents about biological difference. The research showed, for ex- ample, that 63 percent of first-year students believed black skin is thicker than white skin. 46 percent of first-year students believed black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites’. The authors conclude, “A substantial number of white laypeople and medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites and demonstrate that these beliefs predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy.” Science historian Keith Wailoo wrote a response to the article in The Daily Beast, where he noted, “The UVA study turns our gaze to one important place where race problems are manifest — medical training and physician perceptions” [15].

While I agree that the findings are horrifying, I would like to highlight two things. First, the statistics seem to point not to medical school per se, but to undergraduate preparation and to public health discourses about race and biological difference. Notably, the data show that first-year and third-year students have vastly different beliefs about race. For example, 33 percent of first-year medical students said “Blacks have stronger immune systems than whites,” whereas only 5 percent of third-year students held this belief. Similarly, 42 percent of first-year students believed “Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites,” whereas 5 percent of third-year students agreed. Again, about 13 percent of first-year students believed “Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than whites,” whereas 0 percent of third- year students held this belief [16].

I’ve encountered a few students who enter undergraduate studies with the idea that men have one fewer rib than women, which is a horrifying level of ignorance. That can get corrected quickly the first time they’re shown a display skeleton, though.

But medical students — they’ve already completed 4 years of undergraduate work, usually with a biology major, and they come out of it with those gross misconceptions? I’ve been trying to readjust religiously warped brains in the introductory biology class I teach with two whole lectures on creationism and misunderstandings of basic evolutionary biology, but I think I’ve been missing an entire vast category of bad folk biology assembled around misunderstandings about race. I’m going to have to drop one of my creationism sessions and replace it with a biology of race session, instead. A discussion about that PNAS article might be a good place to start.

Or we could just require every college student to take an anthropology course.


  1. says

    I thank god everyday that my parents put me in public school. I too thought I had one less rib for along time. Respect for parents, their choices in going to the Baptist Church combined with the Luck of a Good public school saved my mental life, but not my soul. It has been hard to believe we are having these discussions and are actually regressing since I started my education process in 1968. The more I read and history or biology, the more angry I become as NO ONE should be subjected to or expected to believe this load of garbage. The Swerve by Greenblatt enraged me as I feel like had religion not been more obstructionist than the Putin Party under Obama, I would have started Education in a more enlightened space.

    With that said, the progressive view of discounting the Bible and its believers is the entirely wrong thing to do. Bible believers can be swayed by different interpretations of their main text to lead the flock to the progressive view. The Bible Believers also have the advantage of a common belief and an weekly episodic meeting that reinforces their views and provides a great base for a voting bloc, unlike progressives. Getting Progressives to have 10 Founding Ideas and hammering them week after week appears to be the only appropriate response to me. Otherwise the Abrahamic Religions will conspire to destroy us as their apocalyptic interpretation foretells. We progressives have been living well and navel gazing while the Religious Wrong have been used to divide our electorate through gerrymandering, race and the politics of the pulpit.

  2. Greta Samsa says

    Inverse correlation between…
    Amazing! There’s no way to lose!

    But, doesn’t this also make women far more intelligent than men, since their penises average only a few centimeters?

  3. Greta Samsa says

    Greg Hunter, #1

    Bible believers can be swayed by different interpretations of their main text to lead the flock to the progressive view.

    While this is true, I do not agree with the rather Nietzschean perception of voters – people – as beasts to be led on some canonical “just path”. They should have the capacity to evaluate the debate for themselves, which also sharpens our arguments and prevents some political war of attrition.

  4. wzrd1 says

    I do find the information that medical students can have such misapprehensions quite surprising.
    But, one could confound the misconceptions on “race” with a very real medical example.
    Three members of a US military unit present at hospital with severe hemolytic anemia. One is Jewish, one is African American and one is of Greek ancestry.
    History reveals that all three were receiving Primaquine for the prevention of malaria.
    How does the above information potentially impact treatment?

    All three groups are known high risk for G6PD deficiency. In the above case, all three are now emergency cases and may require dialysis to preserve kidney function and all three may require blood transfusions. Some Asian groups are also known to possess G6PD mutations, which can further damage the notion of race.
    Two variants, G6PD A− and G6PD Mediterranean, are suspected to impart resistance to Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax malaria.

    I’m fortunate in that, while Italians are also at a higher risk of carrying the mutation, I do not possess that mutation. I say fortunate, as I quite like eating fava beans, having enjoyed some without knowing what they were.

    There are a fair number of genetically caused diseases/deficiencies in humans, few respect the theory of race beyond the one thing that is real, all sufferers are of one race – human.

    Well, back to lunch. Leftover from last night’s dinner. Brussel sprouts, asparagus, half a yam and ham. All washed down with a bottle of Malta Goya.

  5. Morgan!? ♥ ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ says

    Greg Hunter, #1

    This list is from “Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century.”

    1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence. (Jeremy Jimenez)
    2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true. (Matthew Main)
    3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world. (Isaiah Jackson)
    4. Every person has the right to control of their body. (Chris Lager)
    5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life. (John Roso)
    6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them. (Jamie Andrews)
    7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective. (Carol Fly)
    8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations. (Michael Marr)
    9. There is no one right way to live. (Eli Chisholm)
    10. Leave the world a better place than you found it. (Maury McCoy)

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Who the hell counts Yemen as part of “Europe”?

    You couldn’t bomb Europe for months without US media noticing…

  7. lemurcatta says

    A good evolutionary biology course is an antidote for flawed thinking about human population differences. Unfortunately, giving students an adequate background in evolutionary biology has not been a priority in premedical curricula. Most premedical students take a lower-division sequence in biology which does cover evolution for a day or two, and then they never see it again in their lives. For example, at my institution none of the life science majors require an upper level evolutionary biology course.

    We have gotten a little bit better where we are now offering a minor in “evolutionary medicine.” This minor is for those entering the health professions and includes an upper level evolutionary biology course where application to medicine are covered in addition to human evolutionary history. The electives for this minor include a ton of anthropology courses and courses in the social sciences that straddle biological science (gerontology, bioethics in philosophy dept, etc). We also are addressing this at the medical school and even practicing-physician level. Once a year we bring evolutionary biologists into medical ground rounds to discuss health and disease form an evolutionary viewpoint. We actually had an older, attending level internist once ask why bacteria evolve faster than humans. There is profound ignorance in medicine for things immediately outside their specialties.

  8. Zeppelin says

    @Greta Samsa

    Manipulatively leading people on a canonical “just path” sounds like pretty much the exact opposite of a Nietzschean perspective to me.

  9. Greta Samsa says

    Zeppelin, #8
    I referred to the perception of people as tools for ideology as Nietzschean, as it seems to embody the Will to Power by treating the weak or easily manipulated as objects of the strong.

  10. eamick says

    There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation back in the day that had an alien doctor examining Riker and discovering he had one less rib. This was supposedly a show with science advisors, too.

  11. Greta Samsa says

    eamick, #10
    I was so curious as to why they didn’t have the doctor throw in some other random remark about human physiology, like that he had one less eye, or even just that males have two more testes than females (usually).

  12. Zeppelin says

    @Greta Samsa

    I don’t think that’s a fair characterisation of the Will to Power or Nietzschean ideals. The “will to power” isn’t about wanting to attain power over others, it’s what he calls the readiness to accept life and death and change in their fullness, “beyond good and evil”. It’s about realising your potential through striving and struggle, not political “power”.
    If anything I’d say a stereotypically Nietzschean approach to the situation described (how to get religious people to act morally) would be to disabuse them of their religious “slave morality” and show them how to be self-actualised individuals. You don’t exploit people’s weakness to get what you want, you engage in a forthright contest of wills.

    Here’s a quote I cribbed from the Wikipedia article because I’ve only read Nietzsche in German and he’s borderline impossible to translate:

    “I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule—and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me a sign of inward weakness: they fear their own slave soul and shroud it in a royal cloak (in the end, they still become the slaves of their followers, their fame, etc.) The powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger. Even if, during their lifetime, they bury themselves in a garden house!”

  13. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    While this is true, I do not agree with the rather Nietzschean perception of voters – people – as beasts to be led on some canonical “just path”.

    If having their habit of jumping and barking every time someone appeals to their prejudices employed to induce them to unwittingly do good bothers them, they could always, you know, stop having that habit.

  14. militantagnostic says

    there is an inverse relationship between penis size and IQ

    Of course there is. I am most likely to make bad decisions when I have an erection and I am most clear-headed after a cold shower or after a swim.

  15. says

    One thing in this article doesn’t make sense to me. Yemen is part of Asia not Europe. I have never heard anyone refer to Yemen as part of Europe.

  16. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Ah, as I thought. If one looks at an old map of the “races”, the people of the Middle East over to parts of India are considered Caucasian. By racist thinking, they are like Europeans.
    Now to go use some mental floss to prevent any of that from sticking.

  17. says

    I’ve been trying to readjust religiously warped brains in the introductory biology class I teach with two whole lectures on creationism and misunderstandings of basic evolutionary biology

    PZ, I know it’s a bit off topic, but is it possible to see or read these lectures online? I’d love to experience them.

  18. qwints says

    that culture is a relatively minor component that cannot overrule basic human nature…

    Plenty of racists are perfectly content to ground their bigotry in “culture” rather than biology.

  19. bargearse says

    English comedian whose name escapes me, “to a real racist there are only 4 races: white, black, Asian and people who could conceivably be played by Ben Kingsley.” Science is not needed apparently.

  20. chrislawson says

    I just looked over the Heterodox Academy’s website — it’s shockingly bad, full of dubious interpretations of research, motivated reasoning (which they claim to be against), Chris Martin taking pride in using his class time to “teach” his students to respect Trump voters even though he doesn’t respect Trump — you know, it’s the old “don’t make waves” argument against activism all over again (seriously, he actually says that Republicans have broken the electoral system, that this is “unequivocally immoral” and yet we’re supposed to treat these political goons with respect!), and even has Jonathan Haidt issuing a veiled threat to liberal academicians: “…But if you are a progressive professor who wants to strengthen the left in the long run, raise the credibility and federal funding of universities during a time of Republican dominance, and improve the reliability of the social science research upon which nearly all progressive reforms depend, then now, more than ever, is the time to join HxA.”

  21. says

    Notables listed on the Heterodox Academy’s advisory board in 2016 include Steven Pinker of Harvard

    I wished I could say I was surprised.

    It’s interesting how this is so popular in the USA, where white men have been raping black women and other women of colour for centuries, classifying their children as “black*”. It clearly has very little to do with “genetics” as the whole population is pretty intermixed anyway.

    *Of course lots of those “black” children managed to pass as “white”. There’s the story of the slaves who escaped by her posing as her husbands white male owner.


    But medical students — they’ve already completed 4 years of undergraduate work, usually with a biology major, and they come out of it with those gross misconceptions?

    Interesting cultural difference. To me a “first year medical student” is somebody who is 18 or 19 or maybe 20 and who just finished school.

  22. jrkrideau says

    # 6 Pierce R. Butler

    Who the hell counts Yemen as part of “Europe”?

    Well if Israel can compete in the Eurovision Song Contest, I don’t see why Yemen cannot be part of Europe.

    You couldn’t bomb Europe for months without US media noticing…

    I would not bet money on that proposition.

  23. Greta Samsa says

    Zeppelin, #13
    It is a good point, as he was strongly opposed to religion and would seek a society where everyone would be “neither master nor slave”, though this must’ve meant that his position on war was a parody.
    I suppose that the perception of his concept of Wille zur Macht as a desire for social power would come later (and isn’t really attributable to him) as he had redefined Macht as a more metaphysical force.

  24. Greta Samsa says

    Or he intended that wars (which are necessary) could be executed without creating class dynamics between the states, but I suppose in Nietzsche’s mind the distinction of cultural classes has no bearing on self-actualization.

  25. says

    @#10 I don’t remember that one, and couldn’t find it (Riker having one less rib). Though my favorite Trek science blooper was Spock reporting that a planet had a “standard oxygen-hydrogen atmosphere, no surprises”. Absolutely NO smoking on that away mission!

  26. cjcolucci says

    I used to think the story of Adam and Eve was a charming folk tale designed to explain a biological oddity. I never had a reason to count ribs, and took at face value the notion that men had one rib fewer than women did. Then I learned that there was no gender-based difference in numbers of ribs, though some individuals, apparently, have more or fewer ribs than is usual.