Genes are not a justification for racism

David Colquhoun opines on that disgraceful eugenics conference at UCL. It’s all good, but I just want to single out this part, with its useful links:

Recently some peope have demanded that the names of Galton and Pearson should be expunged from UCL.

There would be a case for that if their 19th century ideas were still celebrated, just as there is a case for removing statues that celebrate confederate generals in the southern USA.  Their ideas about measurement and statistics are justly celebrated. But their ideas about eugenics are not celebrated.

On the contrary, it is modern genetics, done in part by people in the Galton lab, that has shown the wrongness of 19th century views on race. If you want to know the current views of the Galtan lab, try these.  They could not be further from Thompson’s secretive pseudoscience.

Steve Jones’ 2015 lecture “Nature, nurture or neither: the view from the genes”,

or “A matter of life and death: To condemn the study of complex genetic issues as eugenics is to wriggle out of an essential debate".

Or check the writing of UCL alumnus, Adam Rutherford: “Why race is not a thing, according to genetics”,

or, from Rutherford’s 2017 article

“We’ve known for many years that genetics has profoundly undermined the concept of race”

“more and more these days, racists and neo-Nazis are turning to consumer genetics to attempt to prove their racial purity and superiority. They fail, and will always fail, because no one is pure anything.”

“the science that Galton founded in order to demonstrate racial hierarchies had done precisely the opposite”

Or read this terrific account of current views by Jacob A Tennessen “Consider the armadillos".

These are accounts of what geneticists now think. Science has shown that views expressed at the London Intelligence Conference are those of a very small lunatic fringe of pseudo-scientists. But they are already being exploited by far-right politicians.

It would not be safe to ignore them.

Exactly. Remember this when the people calling themselves “race realists” or “scientific racists” try to tell you that they’re arguing on the side of science. They’re not. The scientific consensus is clear, and if you talk to credible geneticists or anthropologists or social scientists, they’ll all tell you that the claims of consistent racial distinctions in behavior or psychology or physiology are pretty much a load of hooey contrived to justify bigotry.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    ( In case you were not miserable already; Cranberries singer Riordan O’Connor has died. She was 46. )

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    Are we not all Homo sapiens sapiens? We are all so closely linked that we don’t have subspeciation?

  3. lemurcatta says

    Right on. Except the last part: social scientists usually know jack shit about genetics and often bungle it. There are genetic differences between peoples of different geographic areas (whole basis of determining ancestry with SNP chips, for example, like 23 and me). But these differences are small and do not correspond in any good way to the races we have invented socially. I have an undergrad background in anthropology and am now a grad student in evolutionary biology, and it’s amazing how wrong some of my cultural anthropology professors were about genetics (while still across the overall point that race is a construction quote well). They usually latch on to Lewintoins one gel study of a few different proteins done in like 80s, and Farley use it as evidence of ‘zero genetic differences between popularions’. The problem with social scientists opining on biology is that it’s easy to accuse them of bias and ignoring reality, because those charges are often true. But the people who benefit from the lies of social science are legit human biodiversity clowns and racists.

  4. imaginggeek says

    I think it is somewhat disingenuous (and ultimately harmful) for geneticists like Rutherford to claim that race doesn’t exist as a biological entity. And I’ve seen racists use these sorts of claims as “evidence” that scientists are lying. Genetically definable groups of humans do exist, and they emerge when you generate a cladogram of modern human lineages (i.e. real science, not quackery). Many things about those groups don’t align with our conventional concepts of race – e.g. “blacks” split into several discrete groupings long before you start getting the “non-black races” forming unique groups. But most of the normally identified racial groups can be found as discrete groups within that cladogram, though-be-it, at different distances from the LCA and often as paraphyletic groups. But regardless, a motivated racist could then use as evidence of race being biologically real –
    and in doing so, would not be entirely incorrect.

    Its also somewhat disingenuous in that race is a real social concept, and the fact that it doesn’t exist in a simplistic genetic manner doesn’t alter that social construct one iota…although that is very off topic to the point of your post.

  5. says

    I’m pretty sure there is a white gene that makes a large number of us incapable of remembering that MLK said anything other than judging people by the contents of their character and not the colour of their skin (and assuming he meant that white people shouldn’t be criticized and that we shouldn’t do anything to correct structural imbalances and if white people are over-represented in anything it just means we have the best character contents).

  6. microraptor says

    I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a geneticist that claimed that race didn’t exist as a social construct.

  7. lemurcatta says

    Well said, imaginggeek. It does fuel the fire when scientists oversimplify to the point of spouting what are ultimately mistruths, and then getting caught on it. It makes science look like a biased and motivated enterprise. The answer that I hear respected geneticists at my institution, when asked about race and genetics, is always “its nuanced and complicated.” This is in contrast to the usual social scientists that responsive of sticking their head in the sand after promptly claiming no such differences exist

  8. monad says

    @4: I’m curious about these cladograms? A cladogram is usually something to show how distinct groups diverge separately from a common ancestor, and really presumes that horizontal interaction can be neglected, since each node only has a single parent. When talking about races, it seems to me that already begs the main question, whether people did diversify into relatively separate groups like that.

  9. Vivec says

    In my experience, the Social Constructionist viewpoint doesn’t hold that “is a social construct” and “has some irl referent” to be mutually exclusive.

    Race as the modern concept is a product of 17th-18th century thought and maps poorly to the actual science of the matter – hence why Italians, Irish, Eastern European, Northern European, and racially mixed people have had radically different racial classifications within the span of a few centuries.

    It’s very trivial to find 1800’s comics decrying the irish as being /less/ white than african americans, or to see genetic siblings being treated as different racial categories due to their appearances despite having the same parents.

    Probably the most damning thing is that when you dig into self proclaimed “Race realists”, they seldom actually stick to the science – you’ll hear appeals to “White culture” or “shared ethnic heritage”, not “shared genetic markers”.

  10. lemurcatta says

    Also agree with you, Vivec. And love your avatar btw. These aren’t mutually exclusive. Problems arise when scientists of both the social and biological variety fail to see that and want to quietly sweep (trivial) genetic differences under the rug, saying “nothing to see here.” And actually, many biologists who espouse this nonsense probably were influenced by richard lewintoin, who was a fantastic scientist but in his later years became strangely skeptical of both selection as a force of evolution, and of genetic diversity in our species. Maybe PZ has thoughts that..

  11. unclefrogy says

    Probably the most damning thing is that when you dig into self proclaimed “Race realists”, they seldom actually stick to the science – you’ll hear appeals to “White culture” or “shared ethnic heritage”, not “shared genetic markers”.

    that illustrates that generally people do not understand the difference between the physical inheritance that is an expression of the genes (the body) and the learned part of their inheritance, the heritage they share with others of similar background. They seem to barely understand the least about what biology is and how it works.

  12. Vivec says

    Quite so. The way these people use the phrase “cultural heritage”, you’d think that there was some kind of Freedom and Democracy gene that only western/central European white people have.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    The genetic differences between different groups of africans probably exceed the differerences between europeans and asians, even if the latter two groups have superficial differerences.
    Europeans and Asians may have traces of neanderthal- and denisovan DNA, but apart from that, we are just local african variants.
    — —
    Re. Differences, I heard somewhere that a tiny subset of women have four types of colour cells in the eye instead of the usual three. If that is true, it is a more interesting detail than the amount of melanin.

  14. imaginggeek says

    @7 exactly – it is complicated, but not so much so that it cannot be explained easily to a lay audience. Won’t help with those who are motivated by racism, but is easily digestable by those who are curious – and it eliminates the appearance of lying by us scientists.

    @8 PZ can explain this far better than I, but cladograms are generated by statiatical processes that infer relationships based on genetic similarity. Intermixing increases similarity between groups, but doesn’t necessarily preclude the identification of discrete groups.

  15. says

    Vivec@12, unfortunately there are probably some non-Europeans that would use such an argument to justify why their people shouldn’t have democracy.

  16. imback says

    @14: The groups are not discrete. Probably everybody living today has both a Jewish ancestor and a Native American ancestor in their tree. Yes of course we can outline genetic groupings with various patterns of connectivity and distinction. But no group is discrete.

  17. petesh says

    @3: You believe (word picked deliberately) in the accuracy of ancestry tests? Really? I do not know their level of accuracy and I would like to see a definitive study (AFAIK there has never been one), but I do know of lots of obvious errors, such as triplets reported to have different ancestry, and children to have different ancestry than both their parents. Actually, there could be an explanation for the second example, but it emphasizes what a con job these tests are. Yes, there are statistical indicators but all you need to disprove an overstated generalization is a counter example, and the racist eugenicists are 99.99999% wrong. (I have spoken.) Though of course the percentage could be inaccurate. It could be higher. :-)

  18. raaak says

    One thing commonly forgotten in the debate about race is that even if we concede that race is a well definable and measurable concept, this concept has absolutely nothing to do with the stereotypes laypeople base their understanding of the word “race” on.

    The trick is to give a long technical lecture about how race can be defined while attacking other academics who disagree and leaving the question that what a layperson can get out of this in the air.

    It is such a dishonest way of arguing. But it almost always works in taking the discussion off-rail and divide the laypeople into teams some of which cheering for the supposedly technical position that race exists.