The Sociologists Are Out to Get David Reich
Print Friendly and PDF

From a site called Orgtheory:

race, genetics, and the lure of forbidden knowledge (guest post by ann morning)

Ann Morning is an Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University. Her book, The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference , was published by the University of California Press.

Recently geneticist David Reich published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race.’” In it he contends that “differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real”—and what’s more, that “as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’”

The invocation of his status as a natural scientist, the insistence on what is “real,” and the astonishing suggestion that race has been overlooked until now—I’ve seen it all before. Reich is using a rhetorical device that sociologist Reanne Frank has called the “forbidden knowledge” thesis, where academics who identify themselves with “science” (and are usually, though not always, male, white biological scientists) contend that anyone who questions the biological foundations of racial groupings is denying reality, or “sticking their heads in the sand” as Reich puts it. …

The problem in the geneticists’ arguments (science journalist Wade’s are of a whole other magnitude of weakness) is that basically they confuse “population” with “race.” They are absolutely correct when they talk about average differences between populations in terms of the frequency of particular genetic traits. They illustrate this with examples like the Andaman Islanders (in LeRoi 2005) or Northern Europeans or West Africans (in Reich 2018). The trouble is, none of these groups are considered “races” (or have been at least since the 1920’s). “Races” are huge groups spanning entire continents and thus remarkably varied ecological environments. “Races,” as described by Linnaeus in the 1700’s or on the U.S. census of 2010, group Koreans, Mongolians, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis together (as the “Asian” race); they group Moroccans, Norwegians, and Greeks together as another (the “white” race). Groupings like these, billions of people strong and traditionally inhabiting highly variable geographic terrains, just don’t demonstrate homogenous genetic characteristics that distinguish them, even if average differences can be calculated between them.

As I point out in my review in Taki’s Magazine, Reich writes in “Who We Are …”:
Today, the peoples of West Eurasia—the vast region spanning Europe, the Near East, and much of central Asia—are genetically highly similar. The physical similarity of West Eurasian populations was recognized in the eighteenth century by scholars who classified the people of West Eurasia as “Caucasoids” to differentiate them from East Asian “Mongoloids,” sub-Saharan African “Negroids,” and “Australoids” of Australia and New Guinea…. [P]opulations within West Eurasia are typically around seven times more similar to one another than West Eurasians are to East Asians. When frequencies of mutations are plotted on a map, West Eurasia appears homogeneous, from the Atlantic façade of Europe to the steppes of central Asia. There is a sharp gradient of change in central Asia before another region of homogeneity is reached in East Asia….
Morning goes on ….
That is why the statistics that Reich or others present are actually not about races; they are about much smaller-scale, local populations (including African Americans, an ethnic group that is hardly representative of the global “black” race).
Well, no, not always. As I quoted above, sometimes he gives statistics for very large scale races.
… So we are left with the question of why he is adamant that average genetic differences between races not be “ignored,” when he himself doesn’t seem to attend much to them.

It comes as no surprise though that “race” can’t do much work for him; the idea that race can help us characterize or understand human genetic variation in any serious way is laughable. Race is basically a very simple, 4-part color wheel assigning all 7.6 billion of us to a “black,” “white,” “yellow” or “red” category. Can anyone credibly claim that a taxonomy grounded in the humoral theory of Antiquity—remember the red blood, black bile, yellow bile, and white phlegm that the ancients believed determined our health and temperaments?—is a useful tool for analyzing genetic diversity at the start of the 21st century? That with the insights made possible by ever more sophisticated biological and statistical theory, growing DNA databanks, and formidable computing power, Linnaeus’ color scheme is the best we can do?

Reich implies above that the 18th Century scientists who first thought hard about these questions more or less got them right.
… As far as I can tell, the only advantage to dredging up the “race” notion is to be provocative and garner attention (especially if, like Reich, you have a new book to flog). …
Maybe it has something to do with how obsessed the federal government is with race?

Barack Obama was president of the United States for eight years. Did he order the Census Bureau to stop ask questions about the obsolete concept of race?

[Comment at]
Print Friendly and PDF