Nautilus

What Both the Left and Right Get Wrong About Race

Race does not stand up scientifically, period. To begin with, if race categories were meant primarily to capture differences in genetics, they are doing an abysmal job. The genetic distance between some groups within Africa is as great as the genetic distance between many “racially divergent” groups in the rest of the world. The genetic distance between East Asians and Europeans is shorter than the divergence between Hazda in north-central Tanzania to the Fulani shepherds of West Africa (who live in present-day Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Guinea). So much for Black, White, Asian, and Other.

Armed with this knowledge, many investigators in the biological sciences have replaced the term “race” with the term “continental ancestry.” This in part reflects a rejection of “race” as a biological classification. Every so-called race has the same protein-coding genes, and there is no clear genetic dividing line that subdivides the human species. Another reason for using the term “continental ancestry” in lieu of “race” is improved precision for locating historical and geographic origins when we look at the genome. Thus, continental ancestry allows for more genetically accurate descriptors. For example, President Barack Obama was not just the first socially “black” president. He was also the first (as far as we know) who has European and African ancestry.

Genetic differences are a potential—but highly unlikely—explanation for national, racial, or ethnic differences in behavior and success.

In sum, racial categories now in use are based on a convoluted and often pernicious history, including much purposefully created misinformation.

It is a good time, then, to dispel some myths about genetic variation that have been promulgated by both the left and the right alike. On the left, many try to discredit the notion that genetic variation underlies group differences by pointing out that there is more genetic variation within these groups than between them. Another favorite approach is to cite the fact that all humans are 99.9 percent genetically identical and that no group of humans has a gene (i.e., a coded-for protein) that another group lacks. Both of these arguments are canards. After all, we are also 98-plus percent identical to chimps and 99.7 percent similar to Neanderthals. Oh, what a difference that 2 percent (or 0.3 percent) makes!

CONTRARY TO APPEARANCE: The genetic distance between some groups in Africa, such as the Fulani of West Africa (above) and the Hazda of Tanzania, is greater than supposedly racially divergent groups such as East Asians and Europeans.Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola / Contributor / Getty Images

Simply stated: Overall genetic variation tells us less than specific differences that matter. Imagine a group of humans that had a mutation in the FOXP2 gene—­often called the language gene—­such that this transcription factor (a gene that helps stimulate the

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus5 min readPolitics
The Psychology of Greta Thunberg’s Climate Activism: Identifying the ingredients of an effective argument.
In September 2019, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist, excoriated world leaders for their ongoing failure to address the climate crisis. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said at one point during her sp
Nautilus8 min read
How to Predict Extreme Weather: Climate science is forging a more perfect union between humans and machines.
Thanks to advances in machine learning over the last two decades, it’s no longer in question whether humans can beat computers at games like chess; we’d have about as much chance winning a bench-press contest against a forklift. But ask the current c
Nautilus17 min read
The Day the Mesozoic Died: How the story of the dinosaurs’ demise was uncovered.
Built upon the slopes of Mount Ingino in Umbria, the ancient town of Gubbio boasts many well-preserved structures that document its glorious history. Founded by the Etruscans between the second and first centuries B.C., its Roman theater, Consuls Pal