Human population genetics & identity politics

By Razib Khan | March 25, 2011 12:53 am

Joshua Lipson has a column up in the Harvard Political Review, DNA and the New Identity Politics. I’m generally very keen on spreading insights from the biological sciences into other domains; not as an imperialist, but as a intellectual entrepreneur. There are few assertions Joshua makes which I would quibble with in the details, but it’s a good sign that assertions are being made in the first place. Just don’t tell everyone!

Right now the new human population genomics is robust and informative in phylogeny. In terms of function, not so much. But that will probably change at some point. Lipson states:

Fortunately, this discipline of science has little to say about important social or psychological differences between ethnic groups and races: as a result, access to new information about the genetic landscape of humanity has not prompted a spooky stir of neo-eugenics….

There may come a time in the very near future where we’ll know more about how populations differ in terms of average psychological dispositions. I pointed to a simple reason for possible differences already this week. But perhaps in a more novel vein, how about how parents and siblings will relate to each other? With whole genome sequencing we may be able to ascertain with some level of precision and accuracy the approximate mutational load of any given individual. Some scholars have argued that variance in offspring mutational load my explain the difference you see between siblings in intelligence and beauty.

My question is this: would knowing the root biological cause for differences which are already apparent to us change anything?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, Politics
  • Alice Finkel

    Professors in humanities and social sciences cannot even admit to any validity in the concepts of IQ or race. To persons educated by such professors (most educated people) there may seem to be no differences whatsoever — by definition. In other words, sometimes the obvious is not so obvious.

    It is difficult to tease out the biological from the cultural, but you bet it would change things if the root causes for obvious differences were known beyond dispute.

    If a child’s mother listened to hip-hop music while pregnant with him, he is more likely to prefer hip-hop. That is well known among researchers in early development. Hip-hop is likely to induce a different range of hormonal response in the listener than some other types of music, which would obviously affect fetal development and early brain development.

  • biologist

    would knowing the root biological cause for differences which are already apparent to us change anything?

    It’s obvious to you that there’s a contradiction here, but to the average educated person this makes total sense.

    The proximal reason seems to be that in thinking about “genetic” and “environmental” factors, the average educated person still fundamentally views “genetics” as equivalent to genetic determinism and “environmental” factors as equivalent to social norms or parenting tactics. In this black-and-white view of human development, quantitative distinctions and complex causal models have no place. Genetic causes are irremediable and ever-lasting, whereas environmental causes are a generation-away from disappearing with the right appropriations to social programs. That’s why an environmental cause for phenotypic differences doesn’t “count” but a genetic one is game changing.

    It seems as if the nature-nurture world view painted in the 1970s by the anti-heredity crowd has remained largely intact with only minor modifications in the mind of the average educated person. Since the 1970s, they now know to respond to questions about nature-vs-nurture by saying “both”, but their understanding goes no deeper than that. As best as I can tell, “both” to them just means genetic-determinism in some cases and environmental effects in other cases. When pressed, they also seem to believe that the environment ultimately determines which matters when — “genetics” matters only because we are nurturing enough.

    With this in mind, imagine their confusion and horror at being told about non-zero heritability. It’s as if a person who believes the world is flat is told that someone can sail westward from Europe to Asia. Because they can’t imagine a round world, they have to instead imagine that there’s a portal on the edge of the world that takes you from one side to the other. Granted that’s a limited analogy, but I think that’s what you’re seeing here — total confusion. Importantly, this is basically what everyone believes.

  • Pingback: It’s about heritability…. | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine()

  • Kiwiguy

    ***My question is this: would knowing the root biological cause for differences which are already apparent to us change anything?***

    Yes, rather than blathering about bad teachers & schools people will press for research into gene therapy.

    “That is why, as I’ve written before, I believe the wisest approach to addressing the persistent racial and social-class achievement gap is to supplement research to identify better environment-changing interventions with research that would enable prospective parents to elect to ensure that their children don’t start out life with a genetic two strikes against them.

    If such research were permitted by the government and especially if subsidized by the government, we would, within a decade or two, find gene clusters responsible for at least components of intelligence, empathy, impulse control, depression, addictions, etc. At that point, prospective parents could be given the option of having gene therapy to ensure their baby is born as–what liberal philosopher John Rawls calls–a “winner in the genetic lottery.”

  • Pingback: Garden Reviews − It?s about heritability?. | Gene Expression()


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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