Today it is fashionable to contend that ethnic identity is a social construction. That fashion obviously has some genuine basis in reality. Univision host Jorge Ramos, a blue-eyed Mexican American, is considered a “person of color.” If his name was “George Romans” he would be coded as a white American simply on account of his physical appearance. This is due to the social construction of a Hispanic American identity, which has roots in decisions made by the United States government in ethnic classification in the 1960s. But this model of social construction allowing for plasticity is not universal. As outlined in The Cleanest Racist the North Korean national identity is strongly essentialist, to the point where even genetically close populations such as Japanese could never be part of the nation. Similarly, in Japan itself the native-born ethnic Koreans are still viewed as fundamentally guests in the Japanese nation. Both cases illustrate how social construction can impede rather than enable fluidity. Yet social construction as a total explanatory model has limits. Canada has the term “visible minority” to denote those populations which are distinct in origin from Anglophone and Francophone whites by virtue of their appearance. This is in contrast to groups like Ukrainian Canadians, which are minorities due to their chosen cultural distinctiveness.
When it comes to ethnic difference and conflict we can ascribe the divisions to both social and biological distinctions to varying degrees. In the mid-1990s there was a genocide in Rwanda. That genocide had an ethnic dimension, with conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus being one cause. The Hutu regime which implemented the genocide against the Tutsis co-opted theories of biological difference and foreign origin pioneered by European scholars in the 19th century. Whereas these distinctions once justified Tutsi domination of the Hutu, now they served to mark off the Tutsi as an alien infestation. After the takeover of Rwanda by a Tutsi dominated rebel movement in the wake of the genocide there was an attempt to elide these deadly distinctions. The rationale is clear. Remove the ostensible basis for genocide, and you remove the risk of genocide. The argument that the Tutsi-Hutu distinction is a purely socially constructed European invention has now crept into the mainstream discourse, such as in the film Hotel Rwanda.
But we don’t need the media or national governments, or even scholars, to tell us whether this is true or not. Genetic science has advanced enough that with a few hundred dollars and a modest effort one can analyze the differences between the Tutsi and Hutu on a home notebook computer. There is no need for committees, or the imprimatur of learned authorities. You as an individual can answer questions of possible national relevance.
A few months ago I asked if anyone had a Tutsi gentoype available which I could analyze to compare it to those of most Bantus, as there are plenty of Bantu genotypes in the public domain. Bantu here refers to the predominant broader ethno-linguistic group which dominates Africa east and south of Nigeria, from Kenya to South Africa. I wanted to test the question of whether Tutsis were genetically very different from the typical Bantu. Though the Tutsi now speak a Bantu dialect, the general assumption is that their origins are Nilotic or Ethiopian. The Nilotic people are the second major ethno-linguistic group in East Africa, and are most prominently represented by pastoralists such as the Masai in Kenya and Tanzania.
Recently I received the Tutsi genotype I was seeking. Within 24 hours I was able to conclude that the Tutsi individual was very different from any other Bantu. In particular the individual clustered with the Masai. Using free scientific software one can take the variation in the genes across individuals and populations and extract out patterns of relationships. When I plotted genetic variation on a two dimensional axis the Tutsi individual, who has a Hutu grandfather, fell on the edge of the Kenyan Masai cluster. The Luhya, a Kenyan Bantu group which is probably the best analog to the Hutu of Rwanda, form a tight cluster very distinct from the Masai and the Tutsti. Importantly the Tutsi is closer to the Luhya than most of the Masai, which is what you would expect from someone with Hutu ancestry. As an analogy, imagine two populations in Germany. One which resembles Spaniards, and another which resembles Poles. Spaniards and Poles are genetically very distinct, and their physical appearance differs. Though Tutsis and Hutus have been living cheek-by-jowl for hundreds of years, and intermarrying, the differences between the two groups remain rather obvious even after all this time. Everyone in the region believes that on average they look different, but now there is some genetic data confirming the non-Bantu affinities of the Tutsi.
This is a sample of one individual, so one has to be cautious of issues of representativeness. But starting out from nothing but the propaganda of interested parties with muddled motives, this is a a major advance. All that was required were the actions of three individuals, the one who donated the genotype initially, the individual who contacted me after seeing my web posting, and myself. Three individuals, a few hundred dollars, and one day, to take a major step forward in answering a question which has had significant geopolitical relevance in our time.
Finally, some of you may be wondering if it is irresponsible to report results which may be used to support hate. When the truth is just a tool for those with an agenda, the details of what the truth is matters little. In other words, the converse result would not change anyone’s mind. People don’t kill people because of what scientists report, they use the findings of science to justify their actions. Ideology is notoriously insensitive to the nature of the facts. But for those who seek the truth, facts are the ends, not the means. And that is a precious thing.
Razib Khan’s degrees are in biochemistry and biology. He has blogged about genetics since 2002 (see his Discover blog, Gene Expression) and is an Unz Foundation Junior Fellow. He loves habaneros.