About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On race

I’ve recently touched on the delicate topic of human nature. Now it's the turn of the even more inflammatory subject of race. The occasion is provided by a short commentary in Science (7 November 2008), reporting on a meeting of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). The reason that meeting was contentious is because of increasingly common research on differences in the genetic susceptibility to diseases among human populations, where “population” is often a thinly veiled synonym for race.

Apparently, participants to the meeting were trying to come up with new language that was based on “non-fraught” terminology, such as “geographic ancestry,” even though researchers acknowledged that they cannot control how the media and the public will interpret what they do anyway. For instance, Carlos Bustamante of Cornell complained that a paper he published was understood by the media to imply that blacks are fitter (presumably, in evolutionary terms) than whites. What Bustamante had actually said was that African-Americans have fewer deleterious genes in their genomes than European-Americans. Not exactly (or even approximately) the same thing!

Apparently, an interesting exchange occurred between Celeste Condit (a professor of speech communication) and Bruce Lahn, who in 2005 had co-authored a paper on natural selection in two genes regulating brain development, genes that are more frequent in Eurasians than in Africans. Condit complained that this sort of study may easily be read as having a “political message” embedded in it, suggesting for instance that Eurasians’ intelligence evolved faster than Africans’, an implication that Lahn firmly denied.

I often discuss the issue of race with my good friend Guido Barbujani, of the University of Ferrara (who occasionally comments on this blog). He is a population geneticist, and doesn’t believe the concept of human race has any biological foundation. I disagree, although with my other friend Jonathan Kaplan (a philosopher, and also occasional commentator on Rationally Speaking) we published a paper in which we made it clear that we don’t think “folk races” exist. (See: Kaplan, J. and M. Pigliucci (2004), On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans. Philosophy of Science 70: 1161-1172.) That is, we think that what most people call “races” are actually independently evolved sub-populations, but that human races exist in the same sense as ecotypes exist among other animals and plants. An ecotype is a locally adapted population (say, characterized by an “alpine” phenotype for a plant, or a “high light intensity” phenotype for a human), which is not genetically much different from other populations of the same species, except for genes specifically influencing whatever traits are adaptive in that environment (say, short and branched stalks in alpine plants, to protect against strong wind; or dark skin in humans living near the Equator, to protect from high light intensity).

Be that as it may, the question of what a race is, and whether it is a useful biological construct, is an empirical one, though with interesting implications for philosophy of science. It is not, however, something that should be dictated out of political correctness, as in the above mentioned rather silly (and intellectually offensive) statement by Condit. As another participant to the NHGRI meeting, philosopher Allen Buchanan (Duke) put it: “A visible, concerted effort to change vocabulary for moral reasons is likely to trigger a backlash.” Not to mention that it would look really stupid.


  1. I find it intriguing that biologists (of which I am one) always put so much emphasis on disputing (or not) the empirical basis of "races" in humans, even though, at least to me, that question seems largely irrelevant to that of actual racism. To rephrase that point: whether or not "races" can be empirically justified should have nothing to do with whether or not it is "ok" to discriminate against people based on their "race". This sounds like a varietion on the naturalistic fallacy, but I'm not entirely sure.
    At any rate, maybe empiricists that use "race" as a "useful biologist construct" would do good to clarify the fact that their moral stance towards racism is independent from their empirical results on race. Although, I admit, it'd be even nicer if people recognized said independence from the start...

  2. The thrust behind changing vocabulary is not to satisfy moral urges, but arises from the understanding that such vocabulary (terms and their usage) is an active agent in shaping perceptions and in turn the reality (almost always the reality of underprivileged groups).

  3. Well "race" is just a word that can mean anything we want. If we are careful enough we can invent a definition that is scientifically useful. The only question is is it worth the trouble for a word with so much baggage.

    The way the question is stated "Does race exist?" is as idiotic as a similar question "Is Pluto a planet?". This hopelessly platonistic phrasing make it seem as if things like "race" and "planet" exist out there and we must discover what they are.

  4. I've often discussed with people the question of whether there are certain avenues of research that should not be pursued for purely moral reasons. "Race biology" is often one of the research avenues that people cite as an example of something which should be left alone, as it were. The suggestion seems to be that the answer to the question might have such dire consequences that it should not be asked in the first place.

    For my own part this goes entirely against my intellectual beliefs. I think we should not shy away from knowledge, no matter how it might be twisted by the wider world. Besides the gains would outweigh the negatives. Imagine we did identify slight differences in intelligence between racial groups (in the first place this would be incredibly hard to do due to the myriad environmental factors); this would give us insight into the nature and causes of intelligence, which would allow us to foster its development in all people.

    Also, as also stated, empirical results do not have bearing on morality.

  5. Great post. I guess that it is very easy for this kind of research to be appropriated by particular groups which is why we ought to be particularly careful to maintain independence of any of these groups (racial/non-racial).

    Perhaps this should be treated like other sensitive/dangerous scientific information. If the human genome is different enough that we could create race-specific diseases then I would suggest that this information ought to be regulated (just as atom bomb research was regulated). I'm not sure though, I hate to be the on who suggests blunting scientific inquiry.

  6. dark skin in humans living near the Equator, to protect from high light intensity

    Just a little nit-picking here, to make it explicit for everyone, but you don't just mean the protection against melanomas, right? That would explain the darker skin in the tropics, but not why we lose the color when in less sunny regions. The balance between synthesis and breakdown of vitamins B and D in the skin is a better explanation. I don't have a handy reference for that right now though...

    Regarding the races... Well, I am inclined to go with the population geneticists and pretty much ignore race as a biological concept (and I agree with Arnulf above that no matter what, the racism problem is still there). Although I do sympathize with the most recent "common ancestor" idea, and have been juggling the two in my mind since I started thinking about this long ago.

    Have you seen those twin boys born earlier this year in Germany, where one is white and the other, black? (and yes, they did paternity tests and they were from the same father, and yes, both would more precisely be defined as mulattoes or some other term for mixed) Now, how can those two be members of independently evolved subpopulations (races) if they came from the same parents? They can't (some of their genes can, though). But they apparently will be considered to be from different races by people who don't know that. It would be interesting to know what happens as they grow up, and hair texture and other features develop, etc..

    In the end, race is what people consider you to be. Obama is as black as he is white, if you want to consider his ancestry. But when it's time for prejudices, he's more than black enough, ta very much.

  7. This topic, and the comments above, very nicely get at the problems Massimo and I were grappling with in our paper. (One minor correction -- perhaps a typo -- "we think that what most people call “races” are NOT actually independently evolved sub-populations...". Anderseen thinks they are, but she's wrong.) :)

    I've been working on the competing notions of race lately in the context of the health disparities between Black and White Americans.

    Some medical researchers think that because "self-identified race" correlates "fairly well" with ancestral population, and because the latter are more genetically similar than the population as a whole, that self-identified race can be an OK proxy for genetic information, and hence medically useful.

    Others have argued that because the populations identified on the basis of ancestral populations are genetically quite heterogeneous (a fact compatible with there being more similarities within than between populations), and because self-identified race is unlikely to be a good proxy for ancestry in many individual patients, there is no individual medical use of self-identified race (though epidemiological uses will remain).

    (For those interested, I'm arguing that self-identified race *might* be medically relevant at the individual level, but *not* because of shared genes. Rather, since racism and the historical legacies of racism are most likely the causal agents behind the health disparities, race might be useful because it might point towards different disease etiologies, etc.)

    The question is not (nor was it ever) "are there human population that differ in their proportions of alleles?" Everyone knew that to be true since the "biological race" concept was developed by Dobzhansky. The question is whether differences in proportions of alleles makes any (biological) difference of interest in these cases... And, with respect at least to the "major" populations identified by continent of ancestry, the answer to that looks very likely to be 'no' (on the basis of the massive heterogeneity of those huge populations). With respect to smaller populations, the answer is clearly "yes" but how much it matters is still being determined...

    And J is of course right -- dark skin is almost certainly the "root" state, so it would be more appropriate to speak of light skin as an adaptation to low-light, low-vitamin D diets (though some light-skinned populations no doubt shifted back towards darker skin, in which case the opposite would be true...)


  8. "The balance between synthesis and breakdown of vitamins B and D in the skin is a better explanation."

    And the breakdown of folate, according to an article in Discover Magazine some years ago.

    On terminology, I think Ravi has it backwards. As long as there are negative perceptions attached to a concept, the words used to describe that concept will be saddled with the same negative connotations. The "N word" has a negative connotation because of the way it was used to imply inferiority, not because it referred to people whose ancestors came from Africa. The word did not create the racism, it had the racism attached through usage. The fact that young people use the same word, albeit misspelled, in a more-or-less positive way argues for my point, I think.

    On whether the actual differences between or among human races is a legitimate subject for research, the results of such research will always be misunderstood simply because of common statistical misperception. Just because a population as a whole tends to have a certain trait, whether physical or behavioral, doesn't mean that any particular individual also possesses that trait. If, for instance, I am a member of a population with lower than average intelligence (to really open a can or worms) that doesn't mean that I am stupider than a particular individual in a "higher IQ" population. Statistical differences between races do not justify racism, even if they do exist.

  9. And the breakdown of folate

    Sorry to be a pedant again, but folate IS one of the B vitamins. :-)

    Another thing I forgot to add in my earlier (lengthy) post: take an Italian and a Frenchman, for example. Are they considered different races? Could they be considered two different populations by pop gen standards? Maybe yes, maybe not. How about a Pole and an Englishman? All these guys will be called "white". As am I -- when people try to guess, I've heard "white Italian", which is not too far off (mostly Italian, with a quarter Portuguese, a quarter Spaniard, and a little (undefined) African).

    What about a Zulu and a Bantu? Or a Xhosa and a Massai? They would all be put in the "black" bag in the Western world, but I guess they are quite different genetically.

    I guess I have to read Jonathan and Massimo's paper, to begin with... :-)

  10. BaldApe,
    I agree with your statements on statistical misconceptions, especially with that illustrative IQ-example. But do you mean that statistical differences do not justify racism because they do not support the conclusion that being *of* a certain population with a certain average trait value is the
    *reason* for an individual trait value? (i.e. variance vs causes -- thanks to Massimo for the interesting Lewontin reference on the topic a while back) I'm asking because I think that the often misperceived link between variation and causality is actually a different problem than the good old is-ought-fallacies that came up above. But I completely agree that these statistical issues and their "folk" misinterpretations add yet even more complexity to the issue of "race".

  11. Massimo,

    I just read over your race paper (2003). I am a little confused by your section on page 1166 about many traits varying simultaneously in organism races/ecotypes. You and Kaplan say this rarely or never occurs. I wonder if this is true. For example, benthic versus limnetic stickleback fish varieties do seem to covary on multiple traits simultaneously. As I recall, benthic stickleback have a very distinctive morphology and do not school much compared to limnetics (even when placed in identical artificial pools). I suspect there are many other physiological and metabolic differences attributable to different nutrition and predatory regimes.

    Am I mixing terms here?

    I am not aware of such a strong set of correlated traits across human populations, but I am not sure it should be ruled out in some more modest form.


  12. It seems the ability to prescribe drugs Rx suitable to different 'races' is strong, good evidence for so categorising humans.
    Eg, sickle cell anemia, and 100s of others yet unidentified.
    Whatever one calls it, it exists, and denying such categories seems an attempt to change reality.

  13. I think what you, dtae, talked about touches upon whether we expect the adaptation of different human sub-population to the different environments they live in to result in several traits being changed simultaneously or in just one "major" trait being changed. I just heard an interesting talk by Patrik Nosil where he presented intermediate results that supported the first idea (i.e. weak multifarious selection). Yet, the situation could be different in humans (i.e. strong selection on a single trait, as exemplified by the beaks of Darwin's finches). So the stickleback example need not necessarily imply that multiple traits covary between human ecotypes.
    Is someone else an expert on the multifarious vs. strong selection debate, especially in humans? I'd be very curious to know...

  14. Well, my take on few vs. many coevolving characters is that it is not crucial to the concept of ecotype. It will depend on the organism and its life style, as well as what one means by "character" and how many we can reliably measure.

  15. For what reason other than medical treatment do we need to know a person's race/genetic heritage? Off the top of my head, I can think of none. But as some of the replies here have stated, even that is not completely valuable on an individual basis due to variation. With the rapid advances in DNA technology I would suspect that it won't be long before we have individually tailored treatments anyway, in which case knowledge of group heritage loses all import.
    I was just listening to a news item about 2nd and 3rd generation French citizens of North African descent. How many generations before they are considered Europeans and not North Africans?

    Still, as noted by the earliest posts, the problem is not that we note differences between people but that we mistreat people based on those differences.

  16. Arnulf,

    I simply meant that even if one group has some trait more commonly than another, predictions of a person's individual traits based on the group to which they belong are not very reliable. It would be foolish to insist on hiring an Asian as a computer programmer, an African American as a basketball player, a Jew as a lawyer, or whatever other stereotype-based discrimination you might think of, even if you could show that the relevant traits varied between the groups on average.

    But the other part of my point is that, foolish as it is, people will insist on being fools.

  17. I see, thanks! Your wonderfully absurd examples had me smiling over here -- I think I'll have to steal them for future discussions...

  18. You say that the existence of human "races" is an empirical question, but this sounds more like a semantic argument to me. The definition of "race" is far too amorphous and too connected to the idea of "folk-races." I'm sure that there are important genetic differences with medical implications, but why are scientists so focused on rescuing the term "race," a maladapted word with tons of baggage?

    Also, the fact that locally adapted phenotypes have long and often intermixed has to further complicate the issue.

  19. Also, did anyone see William Saleten's Slate series on race and IQ. Some of the worst science journalism the world has ever seen...

  20. Ryan,

    the term race is certainly loaded, as far as humans are concerned. But the concept of ecotype is solidly established in the literature, and I don't see why it shouldn't be extended to evolving human populations, if empirically appropriate.

  21. J asks:
    "...take an Italian and a Frenchman, for example. Are they considered different races? Could they be considered two different populations by pop gen standards? Maybe yes, maybe not."

    Funny you should ask! Take a look at:


    "Genes mirror geography within Europe"

    The answer would seem to be "yes" to both questions (at least using Dobhaznsky's definition of race as populations that differ in their allelic frequencies...).

    But this really should be a surprise. Anyone who had given it a moment's thought realizes that a) you are more likely to share alleles with someone whose ancestors lived on the same continent as yours than someone's whose didn't; b) you are more likely to share alleles with someone whose ancestors spoke the same language as (and/or shared a culture with more broadly)yours than someone's who didn't. Well, yeah. Gene flow is a matter of degree, and while human evolutions seems to have been marked by regular gene flow, mating isn't *random* with respect to distance, language, culture, etc.!

    dtea -- the one thing to note is that those sicklebacks are different species, and gene flow between those populations ground to pretty much a halt. So it isn't surprising that there are many correlated differences. In ecotypes (or for that matter in Dobhanzsky-style biological races), where gene flow generally continues (albeit to greater or lesser extents), the differences will tend to be less well correlated.

    Padreag claims that "It seems the ability to prescribe drugs Rx suitable to different 'races' is strong, good evidence for so categorising humans." There are a few ways to think about this claim. The first is that *if* we find drugs that work (on average) differently on different "races" then this implies that there are (average) genetic differences between the races, and hence that race emerges from biological differences. The problem is that even a difference in drug action would not imply a genetic difference. It would imply a biological difference, but the biological difference in question might itself be created by the social categories. If that's true, than genetic testing wouldn't make race-based medicine obsolete -- only an end to racism would. I think the evidence is good that much -- if not all -- of the health disparities between black and white Americans is caused by "race" -- race as a contingent social category that nevertheless has profound impacts on how people are treated, see themselves, and their chances of success in life.

    So on another reading, the claim is exactly right -- the fact that race maters to medicine is indeed good evidence that race exists! But that race exists doesn’t make it inevitable, or make it emerge inevitably from the biological “facts” out there.

    I should note though that the evidence for drug effectiveness differing in systematic ways between the regularly recognized “races” is weak at best. BiDil, the most common example, is a poor one for a variety of reasons, the main one being it has never been tested in a setting that permitted the comparison of its effectiveness between black and white Americans. The story behind that is a long and tortured one...

    One reason to suspect that the genetic differences between the major socially recognized races can’t matter (much) to medicine is that they are so genetically heterogeneous, and that the differences in the proportions of alleles tends to be rather small. This doesn’t make the differences less real, but it does mean that while it is easy to go from a bunch of markers to a good prediction of someone’s ancestry, it is usually impossible to go from someone’s ancestry to an even decent prediction of their particular alleles. Since it is the latter that matters for medicine based on genetic differences, it seems likely that race won’t matter much. Ancestry – very particular locations – might matter quite a bit (as it does in the HbS case, Tay-Sachs, etc.), but the ancestry that provides information with respect to rare diseases tends not to align well (or at all) with socially recognized “races”.

    Ryan – I agree with you completely re: race being in part a semantic issue. One of the points Massimo and I made in our article was that since “race” as a term pre-dates population genetics, it isn’t clear that Dobzhansky gets to define race however he wants. What he calls a “race” and what most people meant by (and still do mean by) “race” in ordinary language are not the same thing. That’s the main reason we recommended avoiding the term in biological studies. Also, thanks for the tip re Seleten’s series. It is really an amazing piece of crap (or series of pieces of crap) and nicely highlights how hard some people find it to think clearly about these issues....



  22. Thanks for the great post and the link to the Nature paper, Jonathan. Their conclusion strengthens my point, methinks... :-) I guess nobody would look at two European populations as anything but "white", but they do have different allelic frequencies after all.

    And I agree, "personalized medicine", if it ever comes to be a practical and widespread resource, should be the end of this discussion.

  23. If you can track this book down, this paper (reference below) deserves to be more widely read. In it, Bolnick (Deborah, not Daniel) picks apart some of the studies by Rosenberg et al., and Bamshad et al.,--these were high profile studies that were interpreted by the media as showing the genetic variations corresponded to geographic ancestry. Bolnick not only takes issue with the basic premise, but also picks apart the methods used to obtain these results. She spends a good deal of time showing how STRUCTURE, the program used to generate the results, also produced equally likely results using the same data set.

    Bolnick DA. 2007. Individual ancestry inference and the reification of race as a biological phenomenon. In: Koenig B, Lee S, Richardson S, editors. Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

  24. The work Rich sites is important and does deserve more attention. These population genetic studies rely on various kinds of assumptions to generate plausible results.

    Similar points are made in a nice piece by Wiess and Fullerton --

    They point out that to get the kind of groupings Reiss et al do you need to pick the "right" people to start the process with.

    None of this changes the fact that there are genetic differences (different frequencies of alleles) between populations. But it does bring home the point that this fact doesn't justify any belief in our usual "race" categories...


  25. Since this paper was published no one has attempted an ecotype classification for humans. I undertook this task however, and traced back each ecotype or what I called "climatic race". You can check my work out my book here which was recently published:


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