There have been a variety of responses to my column in The Crux on race. To be fair, because the audience for The Crux does not consist of genome nerds I engaged in some first approximations which some readers have taken objection to. For example, the genetic architecture of blue vs. brown eye inheritance is ‘quasi-Mendelian,’ with ~75 percent of the variation in Europeans on this trait attributable to variation in the region of the HERC2 and OCA2 genes. But I thought, and still think, that a rough re-characterization of the trait as a recessive one with a monogenic Mendelian inheritance pattern can be justified for didactic purposes (just like one can justify the idea that whole human genomes have been sequenced, even if there are large gaps, and known errors in regions of repeats).
But the comments over at Richard Dawkins’ website have been rather amusing as a whole. Some people were patronizingly pedantic, and I don’t have time respond in detail (the real response would be: read my blog!). But some comments are easy to answer:
I’d like to hear Dawkins’ response to this, I’ve read all of his books and he’d surely disagree with the author of that article.
Easy. He discusses race in The Ancestors’ Tale (a book the commenter claims to have read):
The African, who was the only black person there – and he really was black, unlike many “African-Americans” – happened to be wearing a red tie. He finished his self-introduction by laughingly saying, “You can easily remember me. I am the one with the red tie.” He was genially mocking the way people bend over backwards to pretend not to notice racial differences. I think there was a Monty Python sketch along the same lines. Nevertheless, we can’t write off the genetic evidence which suggests, all appearances to the contrary, we are an usually uniform species. What is the resolution to the apparent conflict between appearance and measured reality?
It is genuinely true that, if you measure the total variation in the human species and then partition it into a between-race component and a within-race component, the between-race component is a very small fraction of the total. Most of the variation among humans can be found within races as well as between them. Only a small admixture of extra variation distinguishes races from each other. That is all correct. What is not correct is the inferene that race is therefore a meaningless concept. This point has been clearly made by the distinguished Cambridge geneticist A.W.F. Edwards in a recent paper “Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy.” R.C. Lewontin is an equally distinguished Cambridge (Mass.) geneticist, known for the strength of his political convictions and his weakness for dragging them into science at every possibile opportunity. Lewontin’s view of race has become near-universal orthodoxy in scientific circles. He wrote, in a famous paper of 1972:
It is clear that our perception of relatively large differences between human races and subgroups, as compared to the variation within these groups, is indeed a biased perception and that, based on randomly chosen genetic differences, human 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
This is, of course, exactly the point I accepted above, not surprisingly since what I wrote was largely based on Lewontin. But see how Lewontin goes on:
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 taxnomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.
We can all happily agree that human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. That is one reason why I object to ticking boxes on forms and why I object to positive discrimination in job selection. But that doesn’t mean that race is of “virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance.” This is Edwards’s point, and he reasons as follows. However small the racial partition of total variation may be, if such racial characteristics as there are highly correlated with other racial characteristics, they are by definition informative, and therefore of taxonomic significance.
One minor point: I did not notice in the original reading of this passage that Richard Dawkins comes out against what we in the USA would term affirmative action!