In the past month, National Geographic has made headlines for its decision to open up about its racist past. Its reckoning included an article by acclaimed journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, who asked the question: Does race really exist at all? She concluded that it doesn’t. Race, she wrote, is a human construction. “There’s no scientific basis for race – It’s a made-up label,” the headline said.
That has been the enlightened view for some time now. Any group differences between human populations are trivial, and to claim otherwise puts you in the same camp as the “scientific racists” and other unsavoury beings who have a long, dark history of promoting theories of racial inferiority and ethnic suppression.
And now comes David Reich to make things complicated.
Dr. Reich is a Harvard geneticist who has achieved world renown for his stunning discoveries about our prehistoric past – enabled by remarkable advances in genomic science that now make it possible to harvest treasure troves of information from ancient DNA. Three weeks ago – just as the National Geographic was publishing its race issue –he stuck his head above the parapet with a piece in The New York Times, entitled “How genetics is changing our understanding of ‘race.’ ” It’s true, he wrote carefully, that race is a “social construct.” But, he added, “I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ’races’ ...[D]ifferences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.”
These differences are more than skin-deep. They include other physical traits, such as height and body dimensions, as well as susceptibility to certain diseases. It is certain, he went on, that genetic scientists will find more and more predictors for cognition and behaviour. We don’t know how significant they’ll be. But unless we develop “a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such differences,” he warned, some people will seize and distort these findings to serve their own racist agendas. “I am worried,” he wrote, “that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position.”
Dr. Reich’s call for reasoned discussion is well meaning, but perhaps futile. For obvious historical reasons, any mention of possible genetic differences between population groups is currently taboo.
“The supposed science of race is at least as old as slavery and colonialism,” Gavin Evans wrote in The Guardian, who added that these ideas have been “completely debunked by scholarly research.” He claimed that these ideas are held only by a small group of fringe right-wingers. (The piece, which appeared shortly before Dr. Reich’s, didn’t mention him.) “Race science isn’t going away any time soon,” he concluded gloomily. “Its claims can only be countered by the slow, deliberate work of science and education.”
“Scientific racism isn’t ‘back’ – it never went away,” thundered a headline in The Nation, which denounced The New York Times for giving any air time to Dr. Reich at all.
Between the white supremacists on the extreme right and the race-as-fiction absolutists on the left, it’s hard to find a thoughtful middle ground. The subject is simply too inflammatory. Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York Magazine, did his best. Every species is subject to genetic variations, he pointed out. So why should humans be any different? A truly liberal response to new findings from genetics “must allow for the truth of genetics to be embraced, while drawing the firmest of lines against any moral or political abuse of it.” Predictably, he too was denounced.
Personally, I think Dr. Reich (and The New York Times) did a huge public service by expanding the range of what is sayable on a topic that is explosive, uncomfortable and also increasingly inescapable. We know already that you have your genes to thank (or blame) not just for your eye colour, but also in large part for your personality, intelligence, interests, social attitudes and proneness to various psychiatric illnesses. New discoveries in genetics will probably show that our genetic inheritance is even more consequential in shaping human nature than we think. But none of this is relevant to anybody’s status as a human being. The essential moral point is that our commonalities infinitely outweigh our differences. Whether we’re talking about individuals, or groups of individuals we call “races,” what unites us is far more consequential than what divides us.
Maybe I’m naive. I hope not.