the return of racial science?

conference on 'race in the modern world', goldsmiths college. london. 2 april 2009

In 2005, in an essay for the New York Times, the distinguished developmental biologist Armand Marie Leroi argued that one of the reason ‘race matters’ is that ‘it gives us reason… to value and protect some of the world’s most obscure and marginalised people’. Leroi referred to an article in the Times of India published shortly after the tsunami of 2004 that devastated the lands around the Indian Ocean. Headlined ‘Tsunami May Have Rendered Threatened Tribes Extinct’, the article bemoaned the fate of the Onge, Jarawa, Great Andamanese and Sentinelese, all tribal groups living on the Andaman Islands, and who numbered some 400 people in all. Several of the islands were low-lying and in the direct path of the wave, so casualties were expected to be high. ‘Some beads may have just gone missing from the Emerald Necklace of India’, wrote the Times colourfully.

Why, in a catastrophe that cost more than 150,000 lives, should the survival of a few hundred tribal people have any special claim on our attention? Partly because, Leroi argued, ‘The people of the Andamans have a unique way of life’. As hunter-gatherers they are ‘a rarity in the modern world’. Linguists, too, find them interesting ‘since they collectively speak three languages seemingly unrelated to any others’. And most importantly, Leroi suggested, because the islanders are racially unique. As the Times of India out it, they are of ‘Negrito racial stocks’, the ‘remnants of the oldest human populations of Asia and Australia’.

It may seem old-fashioned, even Victorian, Leroi observed, to talk of ‘Negrito racial stocks’ but it is also biologically ‘correct’. 'Negrito ', he wrote, is ‘the name given by anthropologists to a people who once lived throughout Southeast Asia’ and who are ‘very small, very dark… have peppercorn hair’ and ‘look like African pygmies who have wandered away from Congo’s jungles’. They are, in fact, the descendants of the first group of migrants to have come out of Africa along the coastal route to Asia. Today they are largely confined to the Malay Peninsula, a few islands in the Philippines and the Andamans. Negrito populations, Leroi warned ‘are so small, isolated and impoverished that it seems certain that they will eventually disappear.’ And when they do ‘the unique combination of genes that makes the Negritos so distinctive, and that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, will have disappeared. A human race will have gone extinct and the human species will be the poorer for it.’

Leroi’s biological argument about the unique characteristics of the Negrito populations are, not to put too fine a point on it, nonsense. Populations are not fixed and sealed. Genes flow in and out of every population. The Negrito population today is different genetically from what it would have been a thousand or ten thousand years ago.

Nor are Negritos distinct because they possess unique genes. Apart from in rare circumstances, particular gene variants (or alleles) are not confined to any one population. What makes a population different is simply that the proportions of different genes are unique to it. Thirty percent of population A has gene X, as compared to 50 per cent of population B. Seventy per cent of population A has gene Y, as compared to 40 per cent of population B. And so on. Preserving the Negritos as a so-called ‘race’ would simply mean preserving a particular combination of alleles each at a particular proportion. Why this would make the world a better place, Leroi does not say.

What is notable about the essay, however, is the case that Leroi makes for the social and political significance of race. He talks the language not of superiority and inferiority but of diversity. This is not because he wants to wrap genuine but unacceptable racial beliefs in a politically acceptable idiom. But because he genuinely views the biological concept of race through the lens of cultural diversity.

In his seminal 1996 book The Race Gallery Marek Kohn tracked the slow re-emergence of race as a scientific category, and suggested that only the strength of the postwar political consensus about race had kept racial science in check. For much of the postwar period politicians and scientists spoke 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.

If the political consensus that racial discrimination was unacceptable was to crumble, Kohn suggested, the scientific consensus would also crumble. Should there be a ‘change in the [political] Zeitgeist’, he warned, ‘modern Darwinism appears to present few theoretical barriers’ to the return of racial science.

It hasn’t quite happened like that. The postwar zeitgeist has in many ways held firm. Indeed the political and intellectual classes are probably more sensitive today to the charge of racism than they were half a century ago. Yet over the past few years we have become much less inhibited in using the language of biology to talk about race. From science and medicine to genealogy and pop culture, discussion of racial differences has become acceptable.

Race has returned as a category in scientific research and medical practice. But, outside of the lunatic fringe, those who contentiously call themselves ‘race realists’ – that is, those who accept the biological reality of race – are broadly liberal in their attitudes towards racism, equality and diversity. What I want to do this morning is to explore the significance of this new marriage of racial science and the liberal attitude to racism.

That race has returned as a scientific category seems incontestable. In 2005 the US government licensed BiDiL, a heart drug to be used only on African Americans. The following year the pharmaceutical company, Schering Plough, trialled a white-only anti-hepatitis drug. These are the first in a whole series of race-based medicines that will soon be on the market.

In the HapMap project, a biggest and most important international follow-up to the Human Genome Project, geneticists are ‘analyzing DNA from populations with African, Asian, and European ancestry’ to help provide data for treating diseases. There are in fact four populations involved in the study: Yoruba from Nigeria, Japanese from Tokyo, Chinese from Beijing, and Americans with ‘northern and western European ancestry’.

The HapMap is simply the very big tip of a very big iceberg. Virtually every issue of every genetics journal contains studies or disease or disorder in which sample populations are defined as racial categories. Equally there is a burgeoning scientific interest in tracing the genetic roots of racially defined populations.

Anthropologists have created a number of software programmes to determine an individual’s race from the shape of his skull. These programmes are now routinely used both by police forces and by international NGOs working in places like Bosnia and Iraq to identify bodies, say in mass graves.

All this has led to a fierce debate about the scientific meaning of race. The geneticist Craig Venter, one of the key figures in the unravelling of the human genome, has suggested that ‘The Human Genome Project shows there is no such thing as race’. Celera Genomics, the private corporation that Venter had founded that had revolutionised the process of mapping the genome, used DNA from three females and two males who had identified themselves as Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian or African American. ‘In the five genomes’, Venter said, ‘there is no way to tell one ethnicity from another. Society and medicine treat us all as members of populations, whereas as individuals we are all unique and population statistics do not apply.’

It’s a common refrain. The journal Nature Genetics has declared that ‘there is no biological basis for race’. According to the New England Journal of Medicine ‘race is a social construct, not a scientific classification’. The distinguished New York Times journalist Natalie Angier concluded that ‘the more closely that researchers examine the human genome… the more most of them are convinced that the standard labels used to distinguish people by “race” have little or no biological meaning.’

The trouble is that many researchers say the very opposite. Neil Risch, as equally a distinguished a geneticist as Craig Venter, insists that ‘A decade or more of population genetics research have documented biological differences between the races’. ‘From a scientific perspective’, he argues, there is ‘great validity in racial / ethnic self-categorisations, both from the research and public policy points of view.’

‘Looked at the right way’, Armand Leroi suggests, ‘Genetic data show that races clearly do exist.’ According to the anthropologist George W Gill, more than half of his colleagues accept ‘the traditional view that human races are biologically valid and real’.

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? And answering this question has proved difficult for both scientific and political reasons.

One reason that we have such difficulty with the idea of race is that race is a social category but with biological consequences. ‘If we look at enough genes’, the doyen of population biologists Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza observed more than a decade ago, ‘the genetic distance between Ithaca and Albany in New York or Pisa and Florence in Italy is most likely to be significant, and therefore scientifically proven.’

Cavalli-Sforza added that while ‘the inhabitants of Ithaca and Albany might be disappointed to discover that they belong to separate races’, the ‘people in Pisa and Florence might be pleased that science had validated their ancient mutual distrust by demonstrating their genetic differences.’

Geneticists, in other words, can distinguish between all sorts of populations. Some these distinctions are useful scientifically, some are not. Whether or not they are useful depends on the question we want to ask and the context in which we ask it. But the populations that geneticists distinguish are socially defined ones. That’s because 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 impact upon the character of a group and transform its genetic profile. That is why racial categories are so difficult define scientifically.

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 biologically 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. Hence they are inbred to a certain degree and can act as surrogates, however imperfectly, for biological relatedness.

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. They can become means of addressing questions about human genetic differences and human genetic commonalities.

Races are not 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.

The concept of race embodies not just scientific but political ambiguity too. Let us return to the Armand Leroi essay in the New York Times. Leroi worries that Negritos will ‘eventually disappear.’ And when they do ‘the unique combination of genes that makes the Negritos so distinctive, and that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, will have disappeared. A human race will have gone extinct and the human species will be the poorer for it.’

If Negritos disappear it will not be because they have been made extinct by some sort of Holocaust. It will be because they have intermarried with members of other populations, or moved away from the land of their birth. Why should this be seen as a disaster?

Only because Leroi subscribes to a Romantic view of human authenticity in which beauty is beheld as the pickling in genetic aspic of populations whose diversity can be displayed to the world in an ethnic zoo. And such a view has been developed in recent years primarily not by race realists but by multiculturalists and cultural relativists. In that sense race realists are simply holding on to the coat-tails of pluralists, refashioning the idea of race in the language of diversity.

The problem for race realists today is the very opposite of that for nineteenth century racial scientists. Then racial scientists ‘knew’ the significance of race but could find no way of defining differences. ‘Race in the present state of things is an abstract conception’, wrote Paul Broca, the leading physical anthropologist of the late nineteenth century, ‘a conception of continuity in discontinuity, of unity in diversity. It is the rehabilitation of a real but directly unobtainable thing.’

Even the staunchest advocates of racial science despaired of establishing race as a real, physical entity. Every ‘scientific’ measure of racial type, from headform to blood group, was shown to be changeable and not exclusive to any one group. As racial scientists searched desperately for more and more trivial manifestations of race, the biologist WJ Solas noted, apparently without a hint of irony, that ‘it is on the degree of curliness or twist in the hair that the most fundamental divisions in the human race are based.’

Today, as numerous genetic studies reveal, we can clearly define differences between populations. But the significance of such differences no longer seems clear. Race only appears to have any validity if we are willing to be deliberately vague as to what constitutes a race, and what racial differences mean.

Not even most ‘race realists’ believe these days that races exist in the old-fashioned sense of clearly delineated groups of people each with a special, essential quality. Rather, what race expresses today is a much vaguer belief about the importance of human differences, a sense that what matters are our particular identities, and that preserving and celebrating such differences and identities is essential to the healthy functioning of human societies.

This is why modern ‘race realism’ is less a throwback to nineteenth century than an expression of the contemporary embrace of pluralism. Diversity, the concept through which anti-racists have understood cultural difference, has now become a central plank of the race realist outlook. Race, as Armand Leroi puts it, ‘is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences’.

Genetics, he suggests, can help us ‘sort the world’s population into 10, 100, perhaps 1000 groups, each located somewhere on the map’. Europeans form a race; so do Basques. And so do the Andaman Islanders. Any group with a distinct genetic signature is, in Leori’s view, a race. Race becomes a badge to say ‘This is who I am, this is who my family is, this is where we’ve come from’. Race has become an emblem of identity and a form of family history. And indeed, Leroi suggests that one of the ‘pleasures’ of the return of racial concepts into science is ‘the discovery of a new kind of genealogy’.

In an age in which ‘Who am I?’ has become a defining question, and in which people increasingly mine the past to find meaning in the present, genetics-as-genealogy is beginning to change not simply the meaning of race but also the concept of identity. For if race realists talk increasingly in terms of identity and genealogy, multiculturalists increasingly look to biology for answers to questions of identity. ‘One of the many impacts of biotechnology concerns the issue of identity’, the geneticist and activist Jose Morales has written. ‘The existential question “Who am I?” will be answered by asking the question” Where did I come from?”. This will have noteworthy consequences for the social reality of people of colour in the United States.’ Among those consequences is that political and cultural notions of identity are increasingly underpinned by DNA.

Over the past decade geneticists have traced the histories of countless populations. Dozens of commercial companies have sprung up to help individuals trace their family history. Many see this not as an entertaining bit of genealogy, but a fundamental act of recovering their authentic identity.

Rick Kittles is co-director of National Human Genome Centre at Howard University, Washington. He is also the founder of African Ancestry Inc. which, for $349 will test the ancestry of African Americans. Kittles traced his maternal ancestry to the Hausa tribe in Nigeria. ‘I then went to Nigeria and talked to people and learned a lot about the Hausa's culture and tradition’, Kittles has written. ‘That gave me sense about who I am. In a way, it grounded me.’

One of the first such genealogy companies to set up in Britain was the Cambridge-based Roots for Real. Among the first customers of Roots for Real were Rachel Hunt and Matthew Barrett. They were married in October 2003. The couple turned to Roots for Real ‘to bring something from their ancestral roots into the ceremony’ so they could understand ‘who they are and where their culture comes from’.

‘Our DNA holds perhaps the most intact record of our family, our lands, language, tribes, customs and traditions’, Rachel Hunt told a reporter. ‘It would be so satisfying to know that our children can grow up with a strong sense of identity and heritage by being able to unravel a time we thought would be lost for ever.’

One of the founders of Roots for Real, the geneticist Peter Forster was a consultant to a 2001 BBC documentary called Motherland, in which three black Britons traced their genetic ancestry. Bristol youth worker Beula McCalla was told that that her ancestry traced back to the island of Bioko, off the coast of Cameroon. She immediately got onto a plane to be reunited with her long-lost relatives. ‘I’ve found who I am’, she sobbed when she arrived on Bioko. ‘I’ve found my home.’

Where once black identity might have been seen as a cultural or a political expression, now it is increasingly seen as genetic heritage, inextricably linking race, culture and identity. As Joseph Harker, former editor of the Voice, has put it genetics provides African Caribbeans people with ‘a route to a new identity’, a reconnection with ‘their own brothers sisters and cousins’ and the possibility of ‘a whole new history and culture’.

The emergence of new genetic techniques to map genes both in the body and in the world, and to link the internal and the external is helping, in other words, at a time when political ideas of universality and solidarity have become so transformed, to bridge the gap between race realism and identity politics.

Cultural diversity itself has become a natural aspect of the human condition. The evolutionary biologists Mark Pagel and anthropologist Ruth Mace asked why it was that around 1,000 different languages, about 15 percent of the total on Earth, are spoken in Papua New Guinea whereas only 90 are spoken in China. The answer, they suggested, is that human cultures distribute themselves around the world in a pattern similar to animal species. The density of species is highest in equatorial regions and declines steadily toward the poles. Human cultures, Pagel and Mace argued, behave just like animal species. ‘Humans have a proclivity for drawing a ring around themselves and saying, “This is my territory and I'm going to exclude others from occupying it”’, Pagel observed. ‘That leads to different cultures arising through the usual processes of diversification and drifting apart when they’re isolated from each other.’ There is, Pagel added, a ‘natural tendency for cultures to be quite cohesive and exclusive’.

The contemporary idea of diversity, as the cultural analyst Brady Dunkee neatly puts it, acts as a ‘double entendre’. As a valued liberal standpoint, it gives race realism a political legitimacy. As an expression of genetic variation, it gives political arguments scientific legitimacy. Diversity, Dunkee writes, ‘kills two authority birds with one stone and extends the already flexible term “population” to substitute in another way for race’.

Racial science today is not the resurrection of the racial science of Broca or Cuvier or Morton or Coon. The idea of race clearly means something very different today than it did 50, 100 or 150 years ago. But that is precisely why we should worry about it.