Culture, Not Biology, Tears Us Apart on Race

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In his new book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, Charles Murray’s view is not that the 21st century orthodox rejection of the 19th century European concept of race is wrong, but that it goes too far in rejecting the biological basis of human variation. He thinks, however, that the term “race” is outmoded and not useful and should be replaced by the term “population.” Murray intends to explore, in an impartial and scientific fashion, human diversity among different populations, and to ascertain the extent to which genetic, that is, biological, factors account for the differences among these populations.

Murray presents evidence from psychology, neurology, and genetics about human variability and its biological basis. His section on race begins with an historical review of the concept and its application — from a definition of race as descendants of the same line to a definition based on external features such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. In the first part of the 20th century, the anthropologist Franz Boas began the reaction against the concept of race, and his position has become the academic orthodoxy. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists officially asserted in 2019 that, “The western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination. It thus does not have its roots in biological reality, but in policies of discrimination.”

It is well established empirically that “any human population becomes genetically distinctive by the mere facts of separation from others who share the same ancestry.” This does not mean that populations always remain isolated and stable; on the contrary, “ancestral population do not evolve quietly in isolation; genetic ancestry is endlessly fluid and dynamic” as populations mix and mingle. Nonetheless, “Proposition #5: Human populations are genetically distinctive in ways that correspond to self-identified race and ethnicity.” This is true even though, as the recent orthodoxy argues, that “the great bulk of variation in humans is within populations, not between them.”

[The Real Differences Between Men and Women]

Studies of genetic variation show “clusters corresponding to the geographic origin of the subjects at the continental level.” For example, the Human Genome Diversity Project studying individuals from 52 populations, using 377 autosomal microsatellites, found five genetic clusters according to five continents: Africa, Europe, East Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. The next study from the HGDP based their analysis on 642,690 single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) variants and showed distinct clusters for Africa, the Mideast, Europe, Central and South Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. Furthermore, the use of large numbers of SNP variants allows the identification of sub-population clusters. A study using 100,000 SNP sites found that Italians, Spaniards, Germans, and Romanians were all reasonably distinct, while British, Dutch, Swedish, and Irish were only fuzzily separated.

Murray argues that “genetic differentiation among populations is an inherent part of the process of peopling the Earth.” The findings indicate that genetic distinctiveness of populations “is minor compared to their commonalities.” The SNPs used to distinguish clusters are not influential in the characteristics of individuals. But what about the SNPs that do influence the character of individuals? What impact do they have on populations, and how do they have that impact? Murray’s “Proposition #6: Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.”

Evolution is driven through mutations in allele frequencies (differing versions of genes) through natural selection, sexual selection, migration, introgression, and genetic drift. Multiple extensive genetics studies have demonstrated that “the number of strong selective events thought to exist in the human genome today is considerably more than that imagined less than a decade ago….8% of the genome had been influenced by positive selection, and even larger fractions may have been subject to more modest selective pressure.” Even in historical times, the selection of complex traits has shaped both genotypic and phenotypic variation. These studies have shown that local adaptation was widespread, with ‘local’ meaning that the genes under selection varied by continent.

For example, of 579 regions of the genome found in populations of Africans (Yoruba), Europeans (western and northern Europeans), and East Asians (Chinese and Japanese), 76% were unique to one of the three populations, 22% were shared by two, and 2% were shared by all three. These genes were selected within around ten thousand years, so relatively recently. A review of 21 studies indicated that about 80% of the 722 genetic loci observed show evidence of local adaptation. The conclusion is that “evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.”

If, due to selection, genetics vary among different continental populations, what impact does this have on the characteristics of those populations? “Proposition #7: Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.” The genetic evidence is that “virtually all traits, whether physiological, related to disease, or related to cognitive repertoires, exhibit many large differences in target allele frequencies across continental populations.” Based on a half-million pairs of target allele frequencies, Murray finds significant differences, i.e., 20+%, in physiological traits (diseases, biomarkers, blood parameters) and cognitive traits (cognitive disorders, mental abilities, and personality features) in African—Asian, European—African, and Asian—European comparisons. The highest differences were in all cases between Africans and Asians, the next highest between Africans and Europeans, and the lowest (among large differences) between Asians and Europeans.

Further evidence of genetic variation between continental populations and subpopulations is found in well known and fully documented medical conditions. Three chronic inflammatory diseases (celiac, Crohn’s, colitis) and five autoimmune diseases (type one diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and lupus) have risk loci in Europe distinct from other populations. These risk loci have been adaptive and conferred some functional benefit in the past. Psoriasis, too, has strong European-specific loci that could explain over 80% of the difference between Europeans and Chinese. Adaptation to high altitudes on plateaus in Tibet, Peru, and Ethiopia included changes in pulmonary function, arterial oxygen saturation, hemoglobin concentration, and material physiology during pregnancy, but involving different genes in the three populations. “Resting ventilation among the Andeans is normal for humans in general; among Tibetans, it is 50 percent higher. Arterial oxygen saturation is elevated for Andeans and Ethiopians, not for Tibetans. Hemoglobin concentration is elevated among Andeans, shows a minimal increase among Ethiopians, and is lowered in Tibetans.”

Ashkenazi Jews exclusively have certain genetic disorders, such as Tay-Sachs disease, but several others, including Goucher’s disease and Niemann-Pick disease, are prominent among this sub-population. There are different rates of genetically-based prostate cancer in Europeans and Africans. Sickle cell anemia, a genetic defense against malaria, is a genetic condition found primarily among Africans and those of African descent. Still, it is also known in the malarial areas of southwest and south Asia. Inuit are genetically adapted to a marine diet rich in omega fatty acids, which increases fitness in a cold and dark environment. Local populations in Argentina adapted to high levels of arsenic in the groundwater through selections of SNPs involved in the arsenic methylation pathway.

According to Murray, “In the universe inhabited by the elite media and orthodox academia, it has been settled for decades that race is a social construct.” The advocates of “social construction of race” are also advocates of “diversity,” but they hate discussion of differences between human populations. Their position seems to be that “diversity” is good, but differences are bad. However, the evidence of genetic influence on many characteristics of individuals and average characteristics of continental population and subpopulations refutes the argument that “race is socially constructed,” although there are socially constructed beliefs, values, and norms about differences among human populations.

Fear of discovery of differences in cognitive repertoires is what drives the denial of differences. “That fear accounts for the taboo that has been attached to discussions of genetics and race. White Americans’ justified guilt about their history of discrimination against blacks, native Americans, and immigrants from Latin America and East Asia gives them a reason to worry that white supremacists will use genetics to rationalize that history.” But the differences in thinking and behavior between populations and ethnic groups are facts that cannot be doubted and should not be feared.

After all, “people around the world are similar in the basics and different in the details. We connect through the basics. We live with and often enjoy the differences.” In both genetic and phenotypic differences, “every population will be represented from one extreme to the other on every trait.” And, to be absolutely clear, Murray states that “there will be no moral or legal justification for treating individuals differently because of the population to which they belong.”

Murray tries to seal his argument with the observation that the differences between women and men are far greater than the biological differences among populations, and, if women and men can get along, relations between members of different populations provide no challenge. Whether relationships between women and men are models of harmony, I will leave to the reader.

An anthropologist would suggest to Murray that the serious differences between populations are cultural, not biological. Some cultures are egalitarian, while others are hierarchical. Some are democratic, while others are authoritarian. Some are traditional, others entrepreneurial. Some this-worldly, others other-worldly. Some defensive, others expansionary. Some individualistic, others collectivistic. The differences between cultures are, in most cases, much greater than the genetic differences between populations and are greater sources of difficulty among people and societies. Beyond the cultural question, different interests in material assets or honor are often a source of conflict among people who share the identical culture and genetic profile. A political scientist such as Murray undoubtedly knows all of this. Still, readers should not forget it as they follow Murray’s excursion into the different issues of differential biological influence on populations.

This review is the second in a series of three on gender, race and class.

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

2 thoughts on “Culture, Not Biology, Tears Us Apart on Race

  1. It is only reasonable to feel guilt for what one, as an individual, has done. What race or group wouldn’t be wracked with guilt if it were otherwise?

  2. Sickle cell anemia, a genetic defense against malaria, is a genetic condition found primarily among Africans and those of African descent. Still, it is also known in the malarial areas of southwest and south Asia

    People tend to forget that we used to have a lot of Malaria in the United States. It was a problem even in Northern venues like Massachusetts.

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