Torn between truth and identity

John Derbyshire is frustrated with geneticist David Reich’s one-step-forward, two-steps-back routine in Who We Are and How We Got Here.

It is plain from the evidence, amply presented in this book, that many—perhaps most—of the “mixture” events Prof. Reich urges us to “embrace” in fact involved one group of human males killing off another group’s males and mating with their females.

Does Prof. Reich really expect males from that second group to “embrace” their annihilation?

The last three chapters of Who We Are are marbled with incoherent gibberish like this, punctuated with shamefully gratuitous insults to more honest and brave human-science writers like Wade, Cochran, the late Henry Harpending, and even the great James Watson.

What makes it all very odd is that these preposterosities and insults are interleaved with commendably frank statements about the reality of biological race differences, e.g.

If selection on height and infant head circumference can occur within a couple of thousand years, it seems a bad bet to argue that there cannot be similar average differences in cognitive or behavioral traits.

Reich’s lurching between PC pablum and honest race realism left this reader feeling positively dizzy. Why is the book like this? The most charitable explanation: Prof. Reich believes he needs to do the signaling in order to preserve his funding.

It is more than a bit bizarre, as are Reich’s regular digressions into Jewish history, the myth of Jewish intelligence, and various other Jewish minutiae that have literally nothing to do with the science of ancient human DNA that is the nominal topic of the book. Reich is a serious and accomplished scientist, but as Derb points out, he lacks the basic literary competence of science popularizers like Dawkins and Wade, and he is almost astonishingly nasty and unfair to Wade as well as James Watson. That being said, Reich does step firmly, if not fully, away from the blank slate theory and leaves the anti-racist anthropologists without a single scientific leg to stand on. From Chapter 11, The Genomics of Race and Identity:

Beginning in 1972, genetic arguments began to be incorporated into the assertions that anthropologists were making about the lack of substantial biological differences among human populations. In that year, Richard Lewontin published a study of variation in protein types in blood.7 He grouped the populations he analyzed into seven “races”—West Eurasians, Africans, East Asians, South Asians, Native Americans, Oceanians, and indigenous Australians—and found that around 85 percent of variation in the protein types could be accounted for by variation within populations and “races,” and only 15 percent by variation across them. He concluded: “Races and populations are remarkably similar to each other, with the largest part by far of human variation being accounted for by the differences between individuals. Human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.”

In this way, through the collaboration of anthropologists and geneticists, a consensus was established that there are no differences among human populations that are large enough to support the concept of “biological race.” Lewontin’s results made it clear that for the great majority of traits, human populations overlap to such a degree that it is impossible to identify a single biological trait that distinguishes people in any two groups, which is intuitively what some people think of when they conceive of “biological race.”

But this consensus view of many anthropologists and geneticists has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy that the biological differences among human populations are so modest that they should in practice be ignored—and moreover, because the issues are so fraught, that study of biological differences among populations should be avoided if at all possible. It should come as no surprise, then, that some anthropologists and sociologists see genetic research into differences across populations, even if done in a well-intentioned way, as problematic. They are concerned that work on such differences will be used to validate concepts of race that should be considered discredited. They see this work as located on a slippery slope to the kinds of pseudoscientific arguments about biological difference that were used in the past to try to justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement to sterilize the disabled as biologically defective, and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews.

The concern is so acute that the political scientist Jacqueline Stevens has even suggested that research and even emails discussing biological differences across populations should be banned, and that the United States “should issue a regulation prohibiting its staff or grantees…from publishing in any form—including internal documents and citations to other studies—claims about genetics associated with variables of race, ethnicity, nationality, or any other category of population that is observed or imagined as heritable unless statistically significant disparities between groups exist and description of these will yield clear benefits for public health, as deemed by a standing committee to which these claims must be submitted and authorized.”

But whether we like it or not, there is no stopping the genome revolution. The results that it is producing are making it impossible to maintain the orthodoxy established over the last half century, as they are revealing hard evidence of substantial differences across populations.

It’s not a good book. But it is a useful one that may well point the way towards better-written, more intellectually coherent books in the future.