I took part last week in a discussion at the Royal Institution in London entitled ‘What does science tell us about race and racism?’. The other participants were geneticist Aoife McLysaght, sociologist Heidi Mirza, and the writer and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, who chaired the event. None of us gave a formal talk as the evening was more a free-flowing conversation. But here are roughly the points I was trying to make about the complex relation between scientific research and the reality of human group differences. For a longer discussion of these issues see my lecture ‘Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’ and my book Strange Fruit.
The character of race in scientific research is ambiguous because the peculiarity of the human condition. What we call ‘races’ are social categories but social categories can have biological consequences.
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, while there may be no such thing as a ‘natural’ human population, many of the ways in which we customarily group people socially – by race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, geographic locality and so on – are not necessarily arbitrary from a biological point of view. Members of such groups often show greater biologically relatedness than two randomly chosen individuals. Such groups may have 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’ or ‘Ashkenazi Jew’ may be significant 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.
But while race and ethnicity can be surrogates for biological relatedness, they are not necessarily good ones. We all know, for instance, that sickle cell anaemia is a black disease. Except that it isn’t. In the USA, the presence of the sickle cell trait may help distinguish between those with, and without, African ancestry. But not in South Africa. In South Africa, neither blacks nor whites are likely to possess the trait. Sickle cell is not a black disease, but a disease of populations originating in areas with high incidence of malaria. Some of these populations are black, some are not. There are four distinct sickle cell haplotypes (a haplotype is a set of linked genes) two of which are found in equatorial Africa, one in parts of southern Europe, southern Turkey, and the Middle East, and one in central India. The majority of people in Africa do not suffer from sickle cell disease. Most people know, however, that African Americas suffer disproportionately from the trait. And, given popular ideas about race, most people automatically assume that what applies to black Americans applies to all blacks and only to blacks. It is the social imagination, not the biological reality, of race that turns sickle cell into a black disease. And such social imagination can be medically detrimental. Many groups that have a higher incidence of sickle cell – such as those with a Mediterranean background, for instance – may be ignored because it is seen primarily as a black disorder. At the same time viewing sickle cell as a black disorder has led to widespread discrimination. It was a weapon wielded by colonial administrators in Africa and racist politicians in the USA to brand black people as unhealthy and unclean. Until the 1980s, both the US Air Force and many commercial airlines banned black pilots with sickle cell for fear of the effects of the disease.
The importance occasionally of group differences in medicine does not reveal the reality of race. Indeed, what we popularly call races are generally least suited to genetic research. That is because the degree of biological relatedness in what we call races is barely greater than in a randomly chosen group of people. Races are, however, socially significant and a major way by which we divide up our societies. Researchers and clinicians often use race as the basis by which they divide up the population for social reasons. The irony is that in order to study human genetic diversity, scientists need socially defined categories of difference. The real question we have to ask ourselves today is not so much why people imagine race to be a valid biological category as why so many believe it to be a valid social category, and why society continues to define people by race.
The real debate about race is not whether there are any differences between populations, but about the significance of such differences. The fact that a BMW saloon is of a different colour to a Boeing 747 is of little significance to most people. The fact that one has an internal combustion engine and the other a jet engine is of immense consequence if you want to travel from London to New York. But if you are a Yanomamo Indian living in the Amazon forest, even this difference may not be of that great an import, since it is quite possible that you will be unable – or will not need – to use either form of transport. If we want to understand the significance of any set of differences, in other words, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Significant for what? And in what context? One of the problems of the contemporary debate about race is that these two questions get too rarely asked.
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The top image is from Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana. The cover image is a detail from Nature’s 2001 cover about the Human Genome Project.