Race and Genetics

Since race is clearly still very much with us in our putatively post-racial society, it may be worthwhile to take a closer look at race, genetics, and the actual relationship between the two. It has often been claimed that race is just a social construct with no actual validity, yet others assert that race represents a valid, undeniable genetic reality. Which point of view is accurate, or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

Let’s start with the first, scientifically proven fact. Strange as it may be to imagine, any given man in the world is more genetically like even the most genetically distant other man in the world than like his own sister or mother, because any man and woman have an entire chromosome of genetic difference, whereas any two men have at most genetic differences. Second, outside of Y-chromosome linked differences, we are all 99.9% genetically identical. We vary an average of about 0.1% genetically from each other, which means we are all quite closely related.

Of course, it could be that the 0.1% is decisive. However, even in terms of relative genetic diversity, race is very poorly aligned with what modern, accepted science tells us about our genetic lineages. The traditional conception of race divides the world up into three categories, Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid, or what we would now typically call European, East Asian, and Sub-Saharan African. In modern day America, the usual categorizations are white, black, Asian, Native American and Hispanic (with some confusion about where to categorize South Asians and those from the Middle East).

What science tells us, however, is that all humans originated relatively recently in sub-Saharan Africa, and that the genetic distance between any two distinct ethnicities within Africa is roughly equal to the genetic distance between any one African and any one non-African genetic heritage. In other words, if we imagine Grandmother Africa as having seven children (genetic haplogroups L0-6), then Europeans, Asians and Middle Easterners would all be children of the single one of those siblings who left the continent (with Native Americans as a child of the Asian lineage). The genetic diversity in Africa is greater than the genetic diversity in the entire rest of the world combined. Another way of looking at it is that if we want to think of Europeans and Asians as genetic-based racial categories, then we should view there being somewhere around twenty distinct African races, each one entirely as genetically valid as the European and Asian groupings. The Igbo of Nigeria (L1) are roughly as genetically close to the Scandinavians of Norway (L3) as to the Luo of Kenya (L2).

It might be argued that race tracks phenotypal, or manifested differences, rather than genetic ones, but this too can be shown to be inaccurate. Skin color was chosen as the marker of racial difference because it was a match to the predetermined racial categorizations, not the other way around. Why should it be considered more decisive than, for instance, the marked differences in average height between one African ethnicity and another?

Beyond the genetics, the changes and inconsistencies in these supposedly immutable categories makes clear their socially constructed nature. For example, what we call “black” in America is typically a mixture of many distinctly different African lineages, as combined with an often significant, and occasionally even majority European ancestry, while nearly one third of what we call “white” Americans have enough African ancestry to have been considered black throughout most of American history. Meanwhile, in Britain, “Irish” and “Welsh” were historically considered distinct (and distinctly inferior) races as compared to the “English,” a fact hard to imagine for modern Americans who have a monolithic conception of whiteness. The “Hispanic” racial category describes people with a wide variety of European, African and Native American genetic heritages. Finally, “Jewish” was considered a separate racial category within living memory in the United States, before being admitted into the category of white relatively recently, while Middle Eastern was traditionally considered as white, but seems on the verge of losing that status in the wake of increased religious and political tensions between America and the Middle East.

This range of facts should be enough to show that any statistically significant difference that maps closely to race, from intelligence to math test scores, to rates of poverty, infant mortality and early morbidity, must primarily be a response to some socially constructed and maintained reality, rather than to genetics.

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