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The new science of race Add to ...

Henry Harpending is about to titillate the world's conspiracy theorists with one of the most politically incorrect academic papers of the new millennium.

Why, he and his colleagues at the University of Utah asked, have Jews of European descent won 27 per cent of the Nobel Prizes given to Americans in the past century, while making up only 3 per cent of the population? Why do they produce more than half the world's chess champions? And why do they have an average IQ higher than any other ethnic group for which there's reliable data, and nearly six times as many people scoring above 140 compared with Europeans?

Prof. Harpending suggests that the reason is in their bloodline - it's genetic.

The 61-year-old anthropologist's explanation is not easily dismissed, but it crosses into the territory scientists fear most.

His group's theory is that during 1,000 years of persecution, social isolation and employment restrictions in Europe that kept Ashkenazi Jews from farming, they were forced into (then disreputable) jobs such as trade and finance, which demanded mental agility. Success in these fields could lead to food, shelter and family. Under such pressures, the paper suggests, genetic traits related to intelligence became more prevalent among central and northern European Jews.

Two U.S. journals refused the paper, an unusual experience for this widely published scholar. "We finally had to send the paper to England, where they're not so obsessed with political correctness," Prof. Harpending said.

The danger of bolstering bigots is what has scientists so nervous. If a complex trait such as intelligence can be inherited, for instance, and you say one ethnic or racial group tends to have more of it than others, does it follow that another group has less?

Ever since the eugenics movement a century ago, which led to forced sterilizations in Canada and the United States to improve the racial stock of the human species, and then the horrors of Nazi Germany, such questions have been taboo.

University of Western Ontario psychologist J. Philippe Rushton was internationally condemned 15 years ago for claiming to discover differences in brain size, intelligence, sexual habits and personality between whites, blacks and "Orientals."

Yet the role of race in genetics is a subject scientists now believe they can't ignore. The future of medicine may depend on it.

In fact, a massive international effort, which includes many Canadian researchers, has been quietly under way for nearly four years to catalogue and compare the genetics of people with African, Asian and European ancestry.

It is called the Haplotype Project. You may not have heard a word about it before now. But by the end of this year, society may have to start facing its implications.

It was not supposed to be this way.

When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2000, its most touted result was that it showed no genetic basis for race. In fact, some scientists went so far as to dub race a "biological fiction."

The project was a 13-year international drive to map all of the three billion chemical bits, or nucleotides, that make up human DNA. Particular nucleotide sequences (represented by the letters A, C, G and T) combine to form the estimated 25,000 genes whose proteins help to produce human traits, from the way your heart beats to the wave in your hair.

The map indicated that humans as a species are 99.9 per cent genetically identical - that, in fact, there are greater differences between two frogs in a pond than between any two people who find themselves waiting for a bus.

A teeny 0.1 per cent, a mere genetic sliver, helps to account for all the profound diversity within the human race, with its freckles, dimples, afros and crimson tresses, its shy and bombastic types, its Donald Trumps and Dalai Lamas, Madonnas and Mr. Dressups, Bill Gates, Billie Holidays, George W. Bushes and Osama bin Ladens.

It was a message of harmony: Hardly a hair of code separates us.

But five years later, one of scientists' main preoccupations has become to chart the genetic variations between and within racial groups - to parse that 0.1 per cent. These differences arise through mutations, which all begin as one-time flukes, but become more prevalent in a particular place if they offer a survival advantage, carriers have more children or they result in a trait a society finds desirable.

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