Racism, what about speciesism?

By Razib Khan | September 8, 2011 12:49 pm

One thing that came to the fore in late 2008 was the worry that a financial regulatory regime which had been exceeding lax was now more conscious of the excesses of the previous era. The problem being that one will not necessarily be prepared for the next crisis. Similarly, terrorist actions such as those of the 9/11 hijackers are probably unlikely in their specific details, because the element of surprise is gone. That’s what makes much of the TSA “security” measures so frustrating for many people, there is a strong suspicion that the authorities are aiming to prevent the previous operation, when real terrorists will naturally alter tactics.

I thought of that when forwarded a link to a new book by a friend, Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture. Here’s the summary:

Do advances in genomic biology create a scientific rationale for long-discredited racial categories? Leading scholars in law, medicine, biology, sociology, history, anthropology, and psychology examine the impact of modern genetics on the concept of race. Contributors trace the interplay between genetics and race in forensic DNA databanks, the biology of intelligence, DNA ancestry markers, and racialized medicine. Each essay explores commonly held and unexamined assumptions and misperceptions about race in science and popular culture.

This collection begins with the historical origins and current uses of the concept of “race” in science. It follows with an analysis of the role of race in DNA databanks and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Essays then consider the rise of recreational genetics in the form of for-profit testing of genetic ancestry and the introduction of racialized medicine, specifically through an FDA-approved heart drug called BiDil, marketed to African American men. Concluding sections discuss the contradictions between our scientific and cultural understandings of race and the continuing significance of race in educational and criminal justice policy.


The second chapter is titled “Natural Selection, the Human Genome, and the Idea of Race.” I was curious so I read most of it online. Though there were many correct elements within the narrative (e.g., 3 billion base pairs), there was also a lot of peculiar assertions and contentious information presented as if it was all uncontroversial established science. With the rise of human genomics within the last 10 years we know a lot more about the map of natural selection in our species’ evolutionary history than we did in the past. That’s because in the past we knew close to zero I would estimate. But much of this is not evident in a chapter which is ostensibly about natural selection in the human genome! Instead the text is given over to discussion about normative rather than positive questions, and some of the information is probably false, if plausible to someone who is not up on the scientific literature (e.g., the idea that Native Americans and Southeast Asians derive from light-skinned ancestors is not implausible, but I think we have a lot of evidence to suggest that the story is not the one told in this chapter).

So I was curious about the author. It’s Robert Pollack. He has an interesting background:

I am the author of more than a hundred research papers on the oncogenic phenotype of mammalian cells in culture. In addition I have written many opinion pieces and reviews on aspects of molecular biology, medical ethics and science education, and have edited two books on these matters for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

In 1994 I chose to cease my own basic research in the laboratory, and to concentrate instead on questions that lie at the junction of science and other intellectual and emotional domains, in particular religion. This work led to the publication of three books to date, and to the establishment of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion in 1999.

I’m never one to throw stones about qualification and credentials. I don’t have much myself. But, my personal experience is that molecular biologists often don’t follow the latest research in evolutionary genetics. Which makes professional sense. But, it does strike me as ill-thought to assign this chapter to Dr. Pollock, who admits that he isn’t even a practicing molecular biologist anymore.

He makes much of our common African origin in the chapter. I accept the preponderance of this fact, but there is a high likelihood that we’re going to have to modify this model. As I told my friend who forwarded me the link: people are still talking about race when evidence is coming to light of possible species-scale hybridizations in human populations? Seriously?

Over at Forbes John Farrell has a post up, “Less than human?”, where he alludes to the specter haunting us today, the specter of polygenism. This is the idea that humans lineages have very distinct ancestors. While Christian polygenists asserted separate creations for the human races, secular polygenists in the 18th century were attracted to this idea because they found it more plausible in explaining human differences than the monogenism of the Bible, and the short history of the earth argued for by many Christians. In its day polygenism was the latest science!

There’s a lot separating us from anything close to 18th or 19th century polygenism. For one, humans do share predominant recent ancestry from Africans. Admixture with other hominin lineages is more an accent upon a common base. Unity is still predominant over diversity. But that diversity does exist, and we humans as a species have profoundly divergent genetic lineages present within our normal variation. I have no idea how people will handle this sort of information. My friend Gregory Cochran is a Christian and has no great issue accepting these results. This implies to me that the Roman Catholics who are discomfited by the data which John Farrell is bringing to their attention will eventually update their views if the science remains robust.

As for the rest of us, I don’t know. It all depends on the person. When it comes to our best guess at positive description, that’s not hard. The problem emerges when we try and infer through the lens of our norms. We all have different norms, even if individuals are aligned explicitly (e.g., of the same religion) you never know what implicit axioms lurk beneath the exterior. My own personal attitude, which my friends can attest to, is that I’d think it would be amusing and somewhat cool if I was part gorilla or alien. But then my assumption is that my self, my identity, is fundamentally an emergent property of my brain. The details of my ancestry or the specific non-cognitive biological properties which define me are incidental. Not trivial, but definitely secondary.

  • Darkseid

    yes, it seems quite obvious to me and to those who pay attention (Steve S.) but most of those of the left would disagree regardless of the massive amount of official and anecdotal evidence available now. and not to change the subject, but someone should tell greg that there’s no real evidence jesus existed:)

  • phanmo

    @Darkseid
    What does the left have to do with anything? I reread the article several times and couldn’t find anything at all that might be a left/right issue apart from (and this is a bit of a stretch) the first paragraph.
    Cryptic comments are usually just that, cryptic instead of useful. You should try developing your ideas next time.

  • Darkseid

    maybe you’re just too dumb to understand what i was saying so it seems cryptic. many left wingers don’t believe in the concept of race and have memorized the line about “more variation within groups than between groups” even though they have no understanding of what it means. it’s a very widely held belief on the left – not hard to grasp what i was saying.

  • ackbark

    Whereas most conservatives think we all just popped out of a fairy bubble and that’s so much more realistic and level headed.

  • Darkseid

    i’m not talking about evolution, retard. i’m talking about what groups embrace the idea of inherent genetic differences between racial groups. Razib highlighted an example of this in the post: greg is a religious conservative who notices and understands this concept. (pretty much QED in this thread, huh?)

  • Sandgroper

    With the discovery of Neanderthal admixture, the question arose whether it is any longer correct to think of Neanderthals as a separate species. What does the Hammer et al paper do to that? At what point do archaic humans cease to be the same species and start being different? And does it matter?

  • Onur

    Right is superior to left in almost all respects. I think the only weakness of right is that it attracts people with a religious and/or nationalist bent. I am against religion because, well, it is stupid as it is a self-delusion and a mass delusion. I am against nationalism as it divides human races into many micro sub-groups through dividing lines that have very little, if any, racial bearing. Racism (the variety that is scientifically-based), in all fairness, is much more logical than nationalism as it is at least based on concrete and easy to distinguish physical and genetic qualities thus conspicuously more natural/instinctive.

  • chris w

    Much derpage in this thread.

    http://i.imgur.com/DQ0XH.jpg

  • ackbark

    #5, how’s the weather up your own dark side?,

    what you were saying, if you imagine anyone missed it, was to make a statement about which groups are more rational.

    That you didn’t mention evolution isn’t material to what I meant. Even the cartoon image wingnuts try to imagine of leftists on most matters has infinitely more science in it than a religious myth or anything between the ears of 90% of conservatives in America, that is what I meant if and if you’re really too thick have followed it you’re simply thrashing about in the dark for your own entertainment.

  • Colugo

    The most parsimonious – and obvious – formulation is that Heidelbergs, Denisovans, Neandertals, amhs are simply temporal and regional variants (subspecies, whatever) of a single chronospecies. The burden of proof is now on those who argue otherwise. Furthermore, the archaic vs modern distinction is obsolete since so-called archiac populations have derived features of their own. It’s a gradistic dichotomy that doesn’t make sense anymore.

  • Colugo

    And we’re already seeing arguments about the implications – beyond genetic bookkeeping – of some populations (apparently) having more archaic admixture than others, or of some populations’ archaic ancestors (apparently) diverging from the modern lineage at an earlier date (1-200K = BFD) than others. (Making them ‘more’ archaic, I guess. But what if one contemporary population has 1% ‘really archaic’ ancestors and another has 5% ‘less archaic’ ancestors – which is more archaic in that case?)

    What difference does that make? Heck, maybe some contemporary human populations have recently inserted viral or who knows what metazoan genes that others don’t. Or had a great gran who bred with a hobbit or something. Even hardline genetic determinists are not ancestral essentialists – or shouldn’t be because it’s wooly mysticism. Especially these days when we can pluck genes from wherever we want from the tree of life, or manufacture them outright. What matters is what these populations and individuals comprising them are now. (Even HBDers and non-HBDers should be able to agree on that.)

    These remarks will probably be misinterpreted.

  • Darkseid

    oh, i was talking about which group is more rational? wow, that’s news to me. i didn’t know i was talking about something i definitely wasn’t talking about.

    “i’m talking about what groups embrace the idea of inherent genetic differences between racial groups”

    i’m pretty sure that this statement clarifies what i was talking about.

  • Ian

    @5:
    i’m talking about what groups embrace the idea of inherent genetic differences between racial groups

    Step 1: define your terms. What do you mean by “racial groups”.

    Step 2: be less hopelessly vague. The only people who don’t have “inherited genetic differences” are identical twins.

    Congratulations – you’ve managed to assert that not all of us are clones! I am stunned by the deftness of your intellectual prowess!

  • http://shinbounomatsuri.wordpress.com Spike Gomes

    Has Cochran ever written on his faith? I often find the writings of believing scientists to be of interest, no matter what sect or theological bent they are. It’s always fairly idiosyncratic. Wanted to ask that before this thread gets shut.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I wish this thread hadn’t gone in that direction, it had potential but will likely be closed.

  • ForeverAlone

    Can we say that there are subspecies of humans (i.e., subdivisions within H. sapiens sapiens)? Does genetic data support this? Based on phenotype, there are clearly a few marked taxon of human groups: Eurasian, Negroid, and Australoid. You can probably merge Eurasian and Australoid and simply make the distinction between the human group which left Africa ~100,000 years ago and those whom stayed in Africa.

    Can you produce any genetic data to support this, Razib?

  • Sandgroper

    Colugo, yep, I think I get your points.

  • Onur

    I am against nationalism as it divides human races into many micro sub-groups through dividing lines that have very little, if any, racial bearing. Racism (the variety that is scientifically-based), in all fairness, is much more logical than nationalism as it is at least based on concrete and easy to distinguish physical and genetic qualities thus conspicuously more natural/instinctive.

    Sub-groups, which we call ethnic groups.

    BTW, I know many nationalists who treat ethnic groups as if they are races and even consider them as races. Even some non-nationalists use this ethnicity = race terminology of nationalists.

  • Onur

    be less hopelessly vague. The only people who don’t have “inherited genetic differences” are identical twins.

    Congratulations – you’ve managed to assert that not all of us are clones! I am stunned by the deftness of your intellectual prowess!

    Did Darkseid say people from the same race don’t have any inherited genetic differences? Obviously no. He just referred to a specific group of inherited genetic differences, the ones that differentiate racial groups (any person who is familiar with SNP-based genetic tests knows them). So read before you comment.

  • Onur

    My friend Gregory Cochran is a Christian and has no great issue accepting these results. This implies to me that the Roman Catholics who are discomfited by the data which John Farrell is bringing to their attention will eventually update their views if the science remains robust.

    ***

    i’m not talking about evolution, retard. i’m talking about what groups embrace the idea of inherent genetic differences between racial groups. Razib highlighted an example of this in the post: greg is a religious conservative who notices and understands this concept. (pretty much QED in this thread, huh?)

    ***

    Has Cochran ever written on his faith? I often find the writings of believing scientists to be of interest, no matter what sect or theological bent they are. It’s always fairly idiosyncratic. Wanted to ask that before this thread gets shut.

    Dienekes Pontikos is both religious (Orthodox Christian in his case) and nationalist (Greek nationalist in his case), but these don’t seem to affect his inferences on genetics, anthropology, archaeology and even evolution, culture and history in a significant way (they just seem to significantly affect his focus areas and this is normal).

  • ackbark

    12, There’s a distinction between ‘embracing inherent genetic differences’ and accepting them, but you use ‘embracing’ as a pivot to define liberals as people who deny the obvious, ‘embracing’ it being your idea of smart.

    Your attitude is clear, when we hear ‘Make him an offer he can’t refuse’ we don’t think it means ‘invite him over for a nice cup of tea’.

  • Darkseid

    Thank you, onur. Ill leave it at that as I think I’ve proven my point. Merely made the most obvious generalization and these butt-hurt, willfully ignorant dorks start crying about it.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    Maybe this whole “species” concept is overblown. It originated pre-Darwin, so it doesn’t fit all that well with how we ought to think now, but it still inflicts a sort of conceptual strait-jacket on us. Plus, modern scientists have strong career incentives to assert that their discoveries are separate species rather than just partly inbred extended families. I would recommend that when it comes to humans, whether modern or ancient, that we think less in top-down taxonomic terms such as species and more in bottom-up genealogical terms, such as extended families.

  • Onur

    Exactly. We need a fresh new and Darwinian approach to the classification of organisms. We should abandon the concept of taxonomic ranks and should define organisms genealogically from bottom to top without lumping them into one-size-fits-all categories.

  • Shawn

    “I thought of that when forwarded a link to a new book by a friend”

    I’m confused. Is the new book by your friend or was it your friend who forwarded you the link?

  • Onur

    people are still talking about race when evidence is coming to light of possible species-scale hybridizations in human populations? Seriously?

    What if those “species”-scale hybridizations are directly at the root of the extant human races?

  • Stiofan

    The following book may also fit in with the one under discussion:

    Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century
    http://www.amazon.com/Fatal-Invention-Politics-Re-create-Twenty-First/dp/1595584951/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316052959&sr=1-1

  • Sandgroper

    Lawyer and sociologist, eh? Well that’s a book I’m definitely going to rush out and read. Not.

    From the review, she’s got it about as wrong as it is possible to get it.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »