Sep 24 2011

Simple Differences

The last century has seen science and technology used to justify any and all supremacist theories, culminating in the development of a pseudoscience called “Eugenics”, which advocated the improvement of society through what might me called selective breeding. Now, not all of the eugenic goals were crackpot and indeed many prominent scientists (including one of the greatest scientists of all, R.A. Fisher) allied themselves with the movement, at least in its early stages. Indeed one can still see some aspects of eugenic thinking in society’s use of prenatal testing and screening, genetic counseling and birth control.

However, eugenics had a far seedier side. For example, in July 1933 Germany passed a law allowing for the involuntary sterilization of “hereditary and incurable drunkards, sexual criminals, lunatics, and those from an incurable disease which would be passed on to their offspring.” Sweden, the USA, Canada, and virtually every non-Catholic country had Eugenic Societies. In the USA, immigration policies were motivated by the goals of eugenics, in particular a desire to exclude “inferior” races from the national gene pool.

As the human legacy of Nazism became known to the postwar scientific community, and it shuddered at its consequences, and many scientists began to look upon genetics and anthropology as the very opposite of race-definers; they saw it instead as a way of showing just how bankrupt the notion of racial stereotyping was.

William Boyd and Isaac Asimov put the first modern scientific approach to race forward in a simple, readable, and completely forgotten book called Races and People. Written in 1955, it is an unabashed championing of the essential value of any human being. Asimov, well known to three generations of Science Fiction readers, had grown up Jewish in an era when significant portions of the world found anti-Semitism innocuous or even virtuous. Boyd, blood type anthropologist, science fiction writer and the discoverer of of the blood type specificity of certain  lectins (talk about a life!), used research with blood groups to demonstrate that the superficial characteristics which so many of us use to define race and determine our value vis-à-vis other human beings are utterly without scientific basis. (1)

Publishing their book in a time when racial segregation and colonialism were still the norm and in the wake of terrible genocide, Boyd and Asimov set the pattern for all future anthropologic and genetic analysis of race. However, with the onset of those classic liberal values we so identify with the 1960’s and 1970’s and their effects in popular culture and academia, the pendulum began to swing the other way round. In scientific circles, race became a non-entity, possessing no significance whatsoever.

'Around a flowering tree, one finds many insects.' - Proverb from Guinea

Boyd defined later race as “not an individual, not a single genotype, but a group of individuals more or less from the same geographical area (a population), usually with a number of identical genes, but in which many different types may occur.” For Boyd, as with Livingstone, you got your racial characteristics from where you live more than from your genes, and this explained why the variability made the notions of race untenable. (2)

Rather than being racists themselves, I think we should consider the early blood group researchers rare beacons of tolerance in a world still coming to grips with the notion of equality for all.

However, just because you say something doesn’t exist doesn’t necessarily make it go away, and it is childish to think that we can contribute to the elimination of racism by putting our heads in the sand with the belief that there are no clearly defined races. One of the primary blood type/ anthropology sources I’ve cited, Frank Livingstone, (3) even rejected the concept of race altogether. Livingstone suggested that the variability in the frequency of any gene does not utilize the concept of race. He pointed out that although it is true that there is biological variability between the populations of organisms which comprise a species, this variability does not conform to the discrete packages we call ‘races’. In other words, there are no races, the are only clines (a ‘cline’ is a gradient of physiological change in a group of related organisms usually along a line of environmental transition). This is still the guiding principle in contemporary anthropology; at least in name, if not in practice. Instead of racial distributions, we now have “clines”: distribution lines very much like those you would see on a weather map. Not surprisingly, most of these clines do a very nice job of delineating population differences that any person could have arrived at by simply traveling to that area and having a look around.

Alice Brues, a well-known physical anthropologist, addressed the folly of avoiding race as a physical characteristic:

“A popular political statement now is, “There is no such thing as race.” I wonder what people think when they hear this. They would have to suppose that the speaker, if he were dropped by parachute into downtown Nairobi, would be unable to tell, by looking around him, whether he was in Nairobi or Stockholm. This could only damage his credibility. The visible differences between different populations of the world tell everyone that there is something there.”

An important paper written against the use of race as a method of classification argued that since the probability of mis-classifying an individual based on variation in a single gene is approximately 30%, race is an invalid taxonomic construct: In short because humans share 50% of their DNA with a rose bush, we must be 50% the same. This was countered by an argument (“Lewontin’s Fallacy“) that argued if one took into account more genetic markers, the possibility of a racial mis-classification rapidly dropped to almost 0%. The counterargument to this counterargument is that if we looked at enough genes we could presumably distinguish Swedes and Norwegians as two distinct races.

Let’s take a moment to remember while that Boyd and Asimov did not deny the existence of race, they demolished the notion of using race to determine an individual’s value. For our purposes, we’ll use race and ethnicity simply to get additional information that may be valuable in helping to design a more intelligent lifestyle for you, the reader. Let’s just assume that you can and do belong to certain human groupings whose members have more in common with each other than they do with other groupings.

What we call a “race” is really just another fact. Moreover, when we try to subsume it into non-existence, we do injustice to both sides of the distinction. When you share a fact with someone, it makes no one the better or worse, just better informed.

‘History is bunk,” wrote the industrialist Henry Ford. It is a quote with the ring of truth in it. We are destined to interpret past events through the eyes of who left the record (usually the winner) and our own modern day thoughts and rationales. Losers rarely write history, and it is just about impossible for the average person to put himself or herself in the mindset of a person living in a world without light, heat, supermarkets, and the Internet.

Science is fact-based, but scientists can sometimes be charmingly naïve. One of the most common ways they display this naiveté is the coining of politically correct euphemisms. Thus, instead of the negatively charged term “race” you sometimes see the phrase “mutually inbred ancestral groups” which, at least to me, sounds even worse.

Despite the gloss, we at least now have a framework to allow us to collect and categorize those genes and polymorphisms that show different frequencies between races.

Called Ancestry-Informative Markers (AIM) this category of genes includes blood groups, markers of pigmentation and other SNP’s that distinguish between races but don’t always result in some visually detectable difference. A collection of AIM’s that distinguish African and European populations contains over 3000 highly differentiated SNP’s.

An example of an AIM gene is called “Duffy,” which codes for the Duffy blood group, The Duffy blood group has a variant that codes for a Duffy blood type (Duffy Null allele) that is found 100% of Sub-Saharan Africans, but occurs very infrequently in other races. Interestingly, like some of the hemoglobins, this variant has been known to provide some resistance to malaria infection.

Another interesting variant of the APOA1 gene (the TT genotype) is seen in high concentration in African Americans. This variant may help to explain their higher rates of heart disease as a genetic factor leading to difficulty in adapting to new nutritional environments.  (1)

Once, after a public lecture, I was approached by an attendee who asked if I was aware that there were criticisms of my work as ‘racist’ on the internet, and that I had derived my conclusions from long-discredited research done by the Nazis in concentration camps. It turned out that the accuser was a zealous follower of veganism , who thought this might be an effective way to quell further interest in my conclusions.

In all of my trolling through the scientific literature on blood groups since 1910 I’ve not recovered a single reference on ABO blood group that supported any of the racial notions then in vogue in Nazi Germany. My suspicion is that if any research was done the results were not supportive of their racist prejudices — i.e. the subjects were more alike on a blood group basis than they would have liked to admit.

  1. Boyd WC and Asimov I. Races and People. Abelard-Schuman 1955
  2. Boyd WC. 1952 The Contribution of Genetics to Anbthyropology. in Anthropology Today, ed. by A.L. Kroeber,
  3. Livingstone FB. 1962 On the non-existence of human race. Current Anthropology 3 (3):279-281.
  4. Lutucuta S, Ballantyne CM, Elghannam H, Gotto AM Jr, Marian AJ. Novel polymorphisms in promoter region of ATP-binding cassette transporter gene and plasma lipids, severity, progression, and regression of coronary atherosclerosis and response to therapy. Circ Res. May 11; 88(9):969-73. (2001)

One response so far

One Response to “Simple Differences”

  1. Andrea A Wsec says:

    Thanks Peter.. sent this off to a friend. 🙂