Communication Currents

The End of Biological Racism

December 1, 2008
Critical and Cultural Studies

The biological sciences have a problem with race. As a discipline, biology seeks to be able to explain everything important about human beings. It is therefore primed to create messages claiming that biological factors cause differences in perceived abilities among races. Indeed, every few decades this issue gains public and media attention that follows a recurring script. A scientist claims to have discovered that perceived racial differences in intelligence are caused by biological factors. When the study is discovered to be false—sometimes even deliberately distorted—that fact doesn't get any attention. The most recent version of this cycle involved high profile publications in Science led by Dr. Bruce Lahn. A careful analysis of the message components in the recent episode gives us a clue as to how the long-running story might be changed.

Dr. Bruce Lahn's research team combed newly available sets of genetic data for genes that had evolved in recent human history. Two of the genes they found were related to brain size. These two genes appeared at different frequencies across the globe. The research papers implied that these genes caused the brains of African Americans to be smaller than those of other people. Newspapers and news magazines around the nation picked up the story. Shortly thereafter, three research studies showed that the original papers' suggestions were wrong. Dr. Lahn himself was one of the authors of these disconfirming studies. Other mathematical analyses showed that the statistical assumptions in the original papers probably also had been wrong. Unfortunately, the mass media ignored the studies that showed the original papers to be wrong. As a result, the inaccurate messages about biological differences and race continue to circulate as the truth in both scientific and popular publications.

It is obvious why racists might want to ignore the disconfirming studies. But why do biologists who are not supportive of racism also continue to suggest that some day new methods really will show that some races have smarter genes than others? An analysis of these messages indicates that many scientists may believe too much in the power of genes, even in the face of their own evidence to the contrary.

When the Human Genome Project gave us access to new information about genes, the news was very good. Genes do not cause big differences among large groups of people. But that impressive evidence still did not quash the idea that genes might create differences in brains among racial groups. Then two new resources became available (The International HapMap Project and Genome Wide Association Studies). To date these also have shown no large impacts of individual genes and few big cases of natural selection.

These data have revealed that most big changes in the genome are related to resisting viruses or to external physical traits like skin color or hair type. Most differences are also regional rather than related to the larger groups people think of as races. Thus, people who were living in dairying areas became able to drink milk, or people in regions with malaria developed resistance to the disease. Still many biologists are not willing to say that perceived differences in intelligence among races are not based on genes. They hold out the possibility that the next level of genetic information will reveal genetic causes of differences in IQ distributed across the globe. We have plenty of evidence now, however, to expect something different. The next level of data will present a more refined view, but it will likely be the same general picture. Many, many versions of different genes will contribute small amounts to different kinds of intellectual abilities, and these genes will be spread in different patterns around the globe. Being smart is an advantage everywhere, so natural selection has probably continued to act on populations everywhere to make them smarter in many different ways. Natural selection did not stop working in Africa just because some people migrated from there.

Why do biologists refuse to accept the evidence they have generated? It might be fear of being wrong. But one should be more fearful of being wrong in a way that supports racism than of being wrong in a way that combats it. Are biologists all just racists at heart? Probably not more than most other groups. An alternative explanation can be found in what biologists say and write. Examining these messages suggests that the scientific community has assumed that only genetic inheritance can explain human beings. So scientists must continue to project that some day biology will be able to account for perceived differences in intellectual abilities. The fix for this situation is for science to take a bigger view of the causes of human characteristics.

Even if all human traits are understood as grounded in biology, some are acquired biological traits rather than inherited ones. Language and culture are material things that make real differences in people. For example, neuroscientists have recently documented changes in the brains of taxi drivers as they learn to navigate large cities. This kind of evidence shows that in order to explain human characteristics, we need a science that includes the causal forces exerted by the cultures and environments that people encounter. It is fair to say that it is now unscientific to insist that only genes can explain human traits.

When people claim that genetics supports racism, the news media treat this as truth. In contrast, when people claim that genetics supports a non-racist account of human abilities, this is often dismissed as mere political correctness. These unjustified responses persist despite the overwhelming body of evidence that supports the egalitarian conclusion. Analyzing how such patterns of messages repeat themselves through time helps to uncover the motives that sustain such stories. In this case, it appears to be biologists' disciplinary biases toward genetic causation that continue to sustain projections of a future where racism will have biological grounding.

If we understand these motives, we can broaden our understanding of science. Ironically, that might allow us to accept at face value the existing biological evidence, rather than holding out for some future data that will overturn everything we have already found. Broadening the base of science would leave a lot of work to do for racial justice, but at least one could put to rest the repeated cycle of stories devoted to misidentifying genetics and race.

About the author (s)

Celeste Condit

University of Georgia

Distinguished Research Professor