the science of race and the politics of ignorance

the philosophers' magazine, issue 41, spring 2008

'I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa. All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.'

So claimed the Nobel Laureate, and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson in a controversial interview in the Sunday Times last October. Censure was swift and universal. The Federation of American Scientists condemned Watson for choosing 'to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science'. London's Science Museum, at which Watson was to have delivered a lecture, cancelled his appearance, claiming that the geneticist had 'gone beyond the point of acceptable debate'. New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, of which he was director, not only 'vehemently' disowned Watson's remarks but also forced him to resign.

The row over Watson's comments shows all that is wrong with the current debate about race. On the one hand, Watson got his facts in a double helix. There are certainly real genetic differences between human populations, the scientific study of which can help unravel the roots of disease, develop new medicines, unpick the details of deep human history - and perhaps even tell us something about the nature of intelligence. The concept of 'race', however, is a crude, and unscientific, tool through which to understand such genetic differences. On the other hand, implicit in much of the outrage over Watson was the belief that certain views cannot be expressed, because they lie 'beyond the point of acceptable debate'. That, too, is a deeply unscientific way of looking at the world.

To understand better the contemporary debate about race, we need to answer two questions. Is race a biological reality? And should political considerations limit scientific research?

For much of the past half century, politicians and scientists have largely spoken with a single voice on the issue of race. The experience of Nazism and the Holocaust made racial science politically unacceptable. It also shaped the scientific consensus that race was a social myth, not a biological reality. Today, however, that scientific consensus is beginning to crack. From heart drugs designed to be used only on African Americans to software programmes that allow anthropologists to determine an individual's race from the shape of his or her skull, race has, over the past few years, returned in a big way as a category in scientific and medical research. And this, in turn, has led to a fierce debate about the scientific meaning of race. According to the geneticist Craig Venter, one of the key figures in the unravelling of the human genome, 'The Human Genome Project shows there is no such thing as race'. Neil Risch, as distinguished a geneticist as Venter, insists to the contrary that 'A decade or more of population genetics research have documented biological differences between the races'.

So who is right? The answer, infuriatingly perhaps for those who think of scientific research in black and white terms, is both and neither. Different populations certainly show different patterns of disease and disorder. North Europeans are more likely to suffer from cystic fibrosis than other groups. Tay Sachs, a fatal disease of the central nervous system, particularly affects Ashkenazi Jews. Beta blockers appear to be less effective on African Americans than on those of European descent.

Yet race is not necessarily a good guide to disease, or indeed to any aspect of human diversity. Imagine that some nuclear nightmare wiped out the entire human race apart from one small population - say, the Masai tribe in East Africa. Virtually all the genetic variation that exists in the world today would still be present in that one small group. That is a dramatic way of expressing what geneticists have discovered about human differences. Around 85 per cent of human variation occurs between individuals within single populations. A further 10 per cent or so differentiates populations within a race. Only around 5 per cent of total variation distinguish what we call 'races'.

Since most variation exists at the individual level, doctors ideally would like to map every individual's genome to be able to predict better their potential medical problems and their responses to different drugs. Such individual genotyping is currently unfeasible. So, doctors often resort to using surrogate indicators of an individual's risk profile - such as his or her race. Race, the American psychiatrist Sally Satel suggests, is a 'poor man's clue' in medicine.

But a poor man's clue may be as reliable as an intelligence dossier from the British secret service. We all know, for instance, that sickle cell anaemia is a black disease. Except that it isn't. Sickle cell is a disease of populations originating from areas with high incidence of malaria. Some of these populations are black, some are not. The sickle cell gene is found in equatorial Africa, parts of southern Europe, southern Turkey, parts of the Middle East, and in much of central India. Most people, however, know that African Americas suffer disproportionately from the trait. And, given popular ideas about race, most people automatically assume that what applies to black Americans applies to all blacks and only to blacks. It is the social imagination, not the biological reality, of race that turns sickle cell into a black disease.

The ambiguous character of race in scientific research resides in the fact that race is a social category but with biological consequences. There is no such thing as a 'natural' human population. Migration; intermarriage; war and conquest; forced assimilation; voluntary embrace of new or multiple identities whether religious, cultural, national, ethnic or racial; any number of social, economic, religious, and other barriers to interaction (and hence to reproduction); social rules for defining populations such as the 'one drop rule' in America - these and many social other factors affect the character of a group and transform its genetic profile.

Yet, many of the ways in which we customarily group people socially - by race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, geographic locality and so on - are not arbitrary from a biological point of view. Members of such groups often show greater biological relatedness than two randomly chosen individuals. Such groups have often been ghettoized by a coercive external authority, or have chosen to self-segregate from other groups. Many have a distinct history, perhaps deriving from a small founder population or comprising an admixture of other definable groups.

Categories such as 'African American', 'people of Asian descent' and 'Ashkenazi Jew' can be important in medical research not because they are natural races but because they are social representations of certain aspects of genetic variation. This is why race is a 'poor man's clue' in medicine: races may not be natural divisions of humankind but socially defined populations provide, nevertheless, a rough and ready means of dividing humans into groups that show different degrees of biological relatedness. The irony is that in order to study human genetic diversity, scientists need socially defined categories of difference. The danger is that by using socially defined groups in research, biologists will endow differences between such groups with greater importance than is warranted.

If the concept of race is problematic, the notion of intelligence is equally so. Intelligence has never been properly defined, no one knows what IQ tests actually measure, and we are only beginning to identify the genes underlying the myriad attributes that collectively give rise to intelligence. Even if we were to ignore such fundamental issues, however, there remain considerable empirical problems in linking race and intelligence. For a start, there has over the past century been a dramatic rise in IQ scores - the so-called 'Flynn effect'. Results from every major IQ test, in every age range and in every modern industrialised country show a continuous and roughly linear increase of about three IQ points per decade from the earliest days of testing to the present - something that clearly cannot be explained in genetic terms and which therefore raises questions about the biological relationship between race and intelligence.

Not only has IQ in general risen but, in America, the IQ of blacks has risen faster than the IQ of whites, so much so that the gap between the IQ scores of the two groups has dramatically narrowed in recent years. Between 1972 and 2002 blacks reduced the IQ gap by between 5 and 6 points - even though the average IQ of whites themselves increased in that same period, thanks to the Flynn effect.

Other research has shown that group differences in IQ scores often reflect power relations. In America, both Korean and Japanese students score above average in IQ tests, helping to fuel the idea that East Asians are an especially intelligent race. In Japan, though, Koreans, who face considerable discrimination, have a much lower IQ score. In Northern Ireland, Catholics fare worse than Protestants. In South Africa, blacks do badly in IQ tests. But so do Dutch-descended Afrikaaners when compared to the English speaking white elite. There certainly are group differences in IQ scores, and some of those group differences can be seen as 'racial', but the belief that group differences in intelligence are linked to a putative genetics of race smacks more of alchemy than of science.

All this has led to demands that race should have no place in scientific research. Many critics oppose not just controversial research into race and intelligence but any scientific investigation that makes use of racial categories. One influential policy paper has recommended that all researchers receiving US federal grants should be banned from linking genetics with race and ethnicity, and a 'standing committee' be set up to scrutinise all papers to decide whether their use of racial categories is socially acceptable.

We should be wary of such calls to ban research. If we believe that a particular methodology is flawed, that is reason to challenge the methodology, not ban the research. In the Watson row, the Science Museum claimed that Watson had gone 'beyond the point of acceptable debate'. But what is acceptable debate? Two years ago, the then Harvard chancellor Larry Summers caused outrage by suggesting in a speech that evolved brain differences, rather than gender discrimination, may explain why men dominate science. Like Watson, Summers faced great condemnation. Like Watson, he was forced to apologise for his comments. And like Watson, he was pushed eventually to resign his post. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker was asked whether Summers had put himself beyond the pale of legitimate academic discourse with his comments. 'Good grief', Pinker exclaimed, 'Shouldn't everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigour? That's the difference between a university and a madrassa.' Of course, there was more than a little lack of rigour to Watson's comments. Yet the issue of race, and of the relationship between race and intelligence, remains a matter of legitimate scientific debate.

The question of academic freedom may be irrelevant, however, if research into population differences leads to troubling social consequences, such as the stigmatizing of certain groups as carriers of particular diseases. There is a long history of the use of science to 'racialise' medical conditions. The designation of sickle cell anaemia as a 'black disease', for instance, was a weapon wielded by colonial administrators in Africa and racist politicians in the USA to brand black people as unhealthy and unclean and to strengthen the arguments against miscegenation. It also led to widespread discrimination. Until the 1980s, both the US Air Force and many commercial airliners banned black pilots with sickle cell for fear of the effects of the disease. Given the history of racial science and the consequences of the desire to create a hierarchy of races based on the supposed natural intelligence of different groups, the attempts scientifically to link race and intelligence are even more contentious.

But the banning of scientific research will not necessarily prevent the stigmatisation of particular social groups. Do we really believe, for instance, that had references to sickle cell anaemia as a black disease been excised in the first part of the twentieth century, there would have been less discrimination against African Americans?

The issue, however, may not be as straightforward as this. The genetics of population differences are such that the claim that Africans are innately less intelligent than Europeans is scientifically meaningless. Suppose, though, that there really were group differences in an attribute such as intelligence, differences that could be linked directly to genetic variation. Would that be reason to ban such research? I do not believe it would. For here again the issue at stake is not the scientific research but the political consequences of such research.

A good analogy is with the debate about Darwinism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many turned their backs on Darwin's theory of evolution because of their worries about the implications of social Darwinism. 'By paralysing the hope of reform', wrote the Creationist William Jennings Bryan, who led the prosecution of the teacher John Scopes in the famous 'monkey trial' in Tennessee in 1925, Darwinism 'discourages those who labor for the improvement of man's conditions'. Its 'only program for man is scientific breeding, a system under which a few supposedly superior intellects, self-appointed, would direct the mating and movements of the mass of mankind'. Far from undermining the claims of social Darwinism, embracing Creationism would only have helped further entrench the climate of unreason in which reactionary ideas flourish. Social Darwinism had eventually to be challenged politically, not by denying the truth of evolutionary science. The same is true today of any social arguments drawn from scientific studies of group differences.

As in many controversies about the human condition, the argument over race is a debate, not so much about the facts of human differences, as about the meaning of these facts. Nobody on either side of the debate denies that there are myriad genetic differences between human populations. The question is: what is the significance of such differences and in what context are they significant? It is only through open debate that we will be able to decide which interpretation of the facts is the most meaningful. A scientific debate that is policed to ensure that opinions do not wander beyond acceptable moral and political boundaries is no debate at all and itself loses any meaning.

For many, though, science is political. There has grown, in recent years, a greater scepticism about the idea that science provides an objective view of the world that is universal and valid across all societies and cultures. 'All knowledge systems', the philosopher Sandra Harding has written, 'including those of modern science are local ones'. Rather than view scientific knowledge as universal, we should look upon it as 'multicultural', with every piece of knowledge relative to the needs and aspirations of particular cultures. The claims of science reflect the local prejudices of Western cultures. It has taken over the world 'not because of the greater purported rationality of Westerners or the purported commitment of their sciences to the pursuit of disinterested truth' but 'primarily because of the military, economic and political power of European cultures'. 'Science', Harding concludes, 'is politics by other means'. And if that is the case, then science clearly must be policed for its moral and political rightness. And nowhere more so than in the debate about race, an issue that reveals particularly clearly, and barbarically, the historical prejudices of Western societies. That is why James Watson was sandbagged as much by moral outrage as by rational argument.

The irony, however, is that, for all the vitriol directed at Watson, racial talk today is as likely to come out of the mouths of liberal antiracists as of reactionary racial scientists. There is no evidence that races exist in the old-fashioned sense of clearly delineated groups of people each with a special, essential quality. Not even most so-called 'race realists' - the term that those who insist on the biological reality of race use to describe themsleves - believe that these days. Rather, what race expresses today is a much vaguer belief about the importance of human differences, a sense that our particular identities are what matter, and that preserving and celebrating such differences and identities is essential to the healthy functioning of human societies. And such a celebration of difference has today become the hallmark, not of old-fangled, reactionary racism, but of modern, liberal antiracism. 'It's good to be different' might well be the motto of our times. The celebration of difference, the promotion of a pluralist society, tolerance for a variety of cultural identities - these are seen as the hallmarks of a decent, liberal, democratic, non-racist society. As UNESCO has put it, 'diversity is the very essence of our identity'.

From this perspective, modern 'race realism' is not a throwback to the nineteenth century but an expression of the contemporary embrace of pluralism. Through the emergence of cultural pluralism and of identity politics, the celebration of difference, which once was at the heart of racial science, has become a key plank of the antiracist outlook. More recently, race realists have returned the compliment. Diversity, the concept through which antiracists have understood cultural difference, has now become a central plank of the race realist outlook. Race, the biologist Armand Leroi has argued, 'is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences'.

The genetics of population differences is a biological reality. The interpretation of such differences is, however, deeply shaped by politics. Ironically what is driving a racial view of human differences today is not science, nor even racial science, but the pursuit of difference that lies at the heart of antiracism, the same antiracism in the name of which critics denounce the scientific study of racial differences. That is another reason to be wary of such denunciations.