The straw man of 'race'.
Ideological doublespeak on evolution is now infiltrating genetic science. The latest volley in the hundred-years war can be traced to statements issued earlier this year by National Human Genome Project Director Francis Collins and Craig Venter of Celera Genomics. When these two distinguished scientists unveiled their crude maps of the human genome, they went out of their way to emphasize that, in the words of Venter, "race has no genetic or scientific basis."
Venter's unambiguous declaration created hardly a ripple in social science circles, which have long embraced this position. "Differentiating species into biologically defined 'races' has proven meaningless and unscientific as a way of explaining variation," the American Anthropological Association proclaimed two years ago in a widely publicized encyclical on race.
One can hardly blame scientifically challenged journalists who report such statements as fact, such as the one who wrote, "There are no scientific differences between humans. Race has no biological reality; it is only a social construction that perpetuates racism." More disturbing, however, is when science writers for publications like the New York Times endorse this faux conclusion. "As it turns out," wrote Natalie Angier in "Do Races Differ? Not Really, DNA Shows," "scientists say the human species is so evolutionarily young, and its migratory patterns so wide, restless and rococo, that it has simply not had a chance to divide itself into separate biological groups or 'races' in any but the most superficial ways." This politicized interpretation, echoed in endless media reports, is so simplistic and out of context as to be misleading.
MYTHS ABOUT HUMAN DIFFERENCES
So, what's behind this scientific tartuffery? Unfortunately, those with large research budgets often dissimulate when the incendiary issue of human biodiversity, popularly known as "race," is broached. After all, the Human Genome Project is based on isolating patterns of gene-based differences.
How do we sort out sometimes-slippery facts about race from folkloric nonsense? A number of commentators, such as Steve Sailer, founder of the Human Biodiversity Society, have deconstructed the popular myths that underlie the cant that human differences are only "skin deep." Here are my six myths of race:
1. Humans are 99.8 percent the same. Therefore, race is "biologically meaningless."
This statement finds its origins in the research of Harvard University geneticist Richard Lewontin during the 1960s. "Human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations," Lewontin concluded in The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change (1974). "Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance."
Lewontin's views had enormous influence, and he was making a valid argument at the time. As Laval University anthropologist Peter Frost points out, Lewontin was referring to classic genetic markers such as blood types, serum proteins, and enzymes, which do show much more variability within races than between them. But his comments are widely misinterpreted even today to extend beyond that limited conclusion. Further research has shown that this pattern of variability cannot reliably be extrapolated to all traits with higher adaptive value.
The fact that 99.8 percent of the population shares the same genes does not "prove" or even necessarily suggest that there are no population or "racial" differences. The percentage of overall differences is a far less important issue than which genes are different. Even minute differences in DNA can have profound effects on how an animal or human looks and acts, while huge apparent variations between species may be almost insignificant in genetic terms. The 99.8 percent figure also applies to DNA sequences and not to genes per se. In
theory, 0.2 percent of every gene could be different between two individuals. And you don't have to change very many sequences to change the way a gene functions.
Consider the cichlid fish found in Africa's Lake Nyas. The cichlids, which have differentiated from one species to hundreds over a mere 11,500 years, "differ among themselves as much as do tigers and cows," noted Jared Diamond, UCLA physiologist in his Pulitzer Prize--winning tome Guns, Germs, and Steel. "Some graze on algae, others catch other fish, and still others variously crush snails, feed on plankton, catch insects, nibble the scales off other fish, or specialize in grabbing fish embryos from brooding mother fish." The kicker: these variations are the result of infinitesimal genetic differences--about 0.4 percent of their DNA studied.
The 99.8 percent figure is based on DNA sequences that do not differ much between people or even between most mammals. As Diamond has noted, if an alien were to arrive on our planet and analyze our DNA, humans would appear to be a third race of chimpanzees. Although it is believed they took a different evolutionary path from humans five million years ago, chimps share fully 98.4 percent of our DNA. From a genetic perspective, human groups and chimpanzees are almost identical because their genes code for similar phenotypes, such as bone structure, which are remarkably similar in many animals.
For that matter, dogs share about 95 percent of our genome and mice 90 percent, which is why these species make good laboratory animals. Looked at another way, while the human genome contains some 32,000 genes, that's not much more than the nematode worm (18,000), which is too small to be visible to the naked human eye. Humans only have 25 percent more genes than the mustard weed (26,000). The real story of the annotation of the human genome announced with such fanfare by Collins and Venter is that human beings do not have much more genomic information than plants and worms do.
2. The genetic variation among European, African, and Asian populations is minuscule compared to differences between individuals within those populations.
This factoid, which is a variation on the first myth, has been elevated to the level of revealed truth. According to Lewontin, "Based on randomly chosen genetic differences, human races and populations are remarkably similar to each other, with the largest part by far of human variation being accounted for by the differences between individuals."
What does that mean? Not much by today's nuanced understanding of genetics, it turns out. As retired University of California molecular biologist Vincent Sarich has noted, there are no measurable genetic differences between a wild wolf, a Labrador, a pit bull, and a cocker spaniel, but there are certainly biologically based functional differences between these within-species breeds. (If you disagree, then by all means, bring home a wolf as your infant's house pet!) Biologically based differences are not found in genes as gross entities but in gene sequences and the proteome, the highly individualized set of all the proteins manufactured by an organism.
There are other, more fundamental problems resulting from misinterpretations of Lewontin's original studies about gene variability. Numerous scientists since have generalized from his conclusions to the entire human genome, yet no such study has been done, by Lewontin or anyone else. Today, it is believed that such an inference is dicey at best. The trouble with genetic markers is that they display "junk" variability that sends a signal that variability within populations exceeds variability between populations. Most mammalian genes, as much as 70 percent, are "junk" that has accumulated over the course of evolution with almost no remaining function; whether they are similar or different is meaningless. The "junk" DNA that has not been weeded out by natural selection accounts for a larger proportion of within-population variability. Genetic markers may therefore be sending an exaggerated and maybe false signal.
The confusion stems from the fact that some scientists, and certainly the general public, have embraced the popular shorthand that there is a "gene for illness X." Lewontin himself expresses scorn for what he calls the "religion" of molecular biology and its "prophets," geneticists, who make grandiose statements about what genes prove or disprove. Genes only specify the sequence of amino acids that are linked together in the manufacture of a molecule called a polypeptide, which must then fold up to make a protein, a process that may be different in different organisms and depends in part on the presence of yet other proteins. "[A] gene is divided up into several stretches of DNA, each of which specifies only part of the complete sequence in a polypeptide," Lewontin wrote in a July article in the Sunday Times (UK). "Each of these partial sequences can then combine with parts specified by other genes, so that, from only a few genes, each made up of a few subsections, a very large number of combinations of different amino acid sequences could be made by mixing and matching." Lewontin's conclusion is that the mere sequencing of the human genome doesn't tell us very much about what distinguishes a human from a weed, let alone a Kenyan from a Korean.
Genetic differences are found at this deeper level, in the harder-to- study regulatory or homeotic genes that dictate our development. They signal that between-group variability is far larger than has been believed. This tiny fraction of the human genome controls the order and makeup of proteins and may be activated by obscure environmental triggers. Examples of the impact of regulatory genes abound. The presence of an abnormal form of hemoglobin (hemoglobin S) can lead to sickle-cell anemia, which disproportionately afflicts families of African descent. But the genetic factors that actually lead to the disease operate at a much finer level. Just one change in the base pair for hemoglobin can trigger the disease. The genetic factors involved are even subtler, in part because of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions. For example, a separate set of genes in the genome--genes that code for fetal hemoglobin--can counteract some of the ill effects of the adult hemoglobin S genes if they continue to produce into adulthood. This range of possibilities, encoded in the genome, is found disproportionately in certain populations but does not show up in the gross calculations of human differences that go into the misleading 99.8 percent figure.
Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod, who shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1965 for their work on the regulator sequences in genes, have identified modules, each consisting of 20--30 genes, which act as an Erector set for the combinatorial mosaics that characterize each of us. Small changes in regulatory genes make large changes in organisms, perhaps by shifting entire blocks of genes on and off, or by changing activation sequences. But whether flea or fly, cocker spaniel or coyote, Brittany Spears or Marion Jones, the genetic sequences are different but the basic materials are the same. In other words, local populations are genetically far more different than the factoid that humans are 99.8 percent the same implies. The critical factor is not which genes are passed along but how they are patterned and what traits they influence.
3. Human differences are superficial because populations have not had enough evolutionary time to differentiate.
Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum has said, "We are all African under the skin." What does that mean? According to Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, writing in Natural History in November 1984, "Homo sapiens is a young species, its division into races even more recent. This historical context has not supplied enough time for the evolution of substantial differences. ... Human equality is a contingent fact of history." In other words, our relatively recent common heritage--modern humans almost certainly originated less than fifty thousand or so years ago, an eye blink of evolutionary time-- renders the possibility of "races" absurd.
This view has made its way into the popular media as fact. Yet, it's difficult to believe that Gould believes his own rhetoric. A quarter- century ago, Gould and American Museum of Natural History curator Niles Eldredge addressed the controversial issue of why the fossil record appears to show that plants and animals undergo little change for long periods and then experience sudden, dramatic mutations. They argued that new species do not evolve slowly so much as erupt, the result of a chain reaction set off by regulatory genes. Their theory, known as punctuated equilibrium, though controversial and still widely debated, helps explain the limited number of bridge, or intermediary, species in the fossil record. Either as a mutation or in response to an environmental shock, these regulators could have triggered a chain reaction with cascading consequences, creating new species in just a few generations.
The evolutionary record is filled with examples of swift genetic change. A breakthrough study by University of Maryland population geneticist Sarah Tishkoff and colleagues has concluded that malaria, which is very population specific, is not an ancient disease but a relatively recent affliction. The changes can be dated to roughly four to eight thousand years ago. The finding further undermines Gould's assertion that substantial differences require untold eons, when a variant gene that promotes its owner's survival is at issue.
This new understanding of the swiftness of change may help explain numerous evolutionary puzzles, including the origins of racial differences. For instance, it has been speculated that Kennewick Man-- the 10,000-year-old skeleton found in Washington State, which is different from modern American Indians--is a relic of an otherwise unknown arrival of early Europeans. However, one of the coauthors of the study, Francisco Ayala of the University of California at Irvine, suggests that American Indians do trace their ancestry to Kennewick Man but evolved somewhat rapidly. "We are morphologically so different in the different continents of the world," he says.
Stanford University geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza has calculated the time it could take for a version of a gene that leads to more offspring to spread from 1 to 99 percent of the population. If a rare variant of a gene produces just 1 percent more surviving offspring, it could become nearly universal in a human group in 11,500 years. If it provides 10 percent more "reproductive fitness," it could come to dominate in just 1,150 years.
Clearly there are significant genetically based population differences, although it is certainly true that dividing humans into discrete categories based on geography and visible characteristics reflecting social classifications, while not wholly arbitrary, is crude. That does not mean, however, that local populations do not show evidence of patterns. The critical factor in genetics is the arrangement of gene allele frequencies--how genes interact with each other and the environment, and what traits they influence. This inalterable but frequently overlooked fact undermines the notion that gene flow and racial mixing on the edges of population sets automatically render all categories of "race" meaningless.
University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending and John Relethford, a biological anthropologist from the State University of New York at Oneonta, conclude, "Human populations are derived from separate ancestral populations that were relatively isolated from each other before fifty thousand years ago." Their findings are all the more convincing because they come from somewhat competing scientific camps: Harpending advocates the out-of-Africa paradigm while Relethford embraces regional continuity.
Moreover, as Frost points out, human characteristics can and do cluster and clump even without reproductive isolation. Many so-called species are still linked by some ongoing gene flow. Population genetics can help us realize patterns in such things as the proclivity to diseases and the ability to sprint fast.
4. Human differences can be accounted for by the genetic diversity within populations, with African populations having the most diversity.
This "law of variability" is a favorite theme of Yale University geneticist Kenneth Kidd. "In almost any single African population or tribe, there is more genetic variation than in all the rest of the world put together," he told me in an interview in 1999. "Africans have the broadest spectrum of variability, with rarer versions at either end [of the bell curve distribution]. If everyone in the world was wiped out except Africans, almost all human genetic variability would be preserved."
Many journalists and even some scientists have taken Kidd's findings to mean that genetic variability equates with phenotypic variability. Since Africans have about 10--15 percent more genetic differences than people from anywhere else in the world, the argument goes, Africans and their diaspora descendants should show more variability across a range of phenotypic characteristics, including body type, behavior, and intelligence. This "fact" is often invoked to explain why athletes of African ancestry dominate elite running: it's a product of variability, not inherent population differences.
This is a spurious interpretation of Kidd's data. Chimpanzees display more genetic diversity than humans do. That's because genetic variability is a marker of evolutionary time, not phenotypic variability. Each time an organism, human or otherwise, propagates, genetic "mistakes" occur as genes are mixed. The slightly increased variability in Africans reflects the accumulation of junk DNA as mutations have occurred over time. Such data "prove" little more than the fact that Africa is the likely home of modern humans--and they may not even signify that. Harpending and Relethford have found that this genetic variation results from the fact that there were more people in Africa than everywhere else combined during most of the period of human evolution. In other words, greater African genetic variability may be the result of nothing more than fast population growth.
When I asked Kidd directly whether his findings of genetic variability meant that Africans were most likely to show the greatest phenotypic variability in humans--the tallest and shortest, the fastest and slowest, the most intelligent and most retarded--he laughed at first. "Wouldn't that be mud in the eye for the bigots," he said, not eager to puncture the politically correct balloon. Finally, he turned more serious. "Genes are the blueprint, and the blueprint is identifiable in local populations," he explained. "No matter what the environmental influences, you can't deviate too far from it."
5. "There are many different, equally valid procedures for defining races, and those different procedures yield very different classifications."
This oft-repeated quote, written by Diamond in a now-famous 1994 Discover article titled "Race Without Color," was technically accurate, to a point. Many phenotypes and most complex behavior that depends on the brain--fully half the human genome--do not fall into neat folkloric categories. In fact, there has been little historical consensus about the number and size of human "races." Charles Darwin cited estimates ranging from two to sixty-three.
The problem with this argument, and the clumsy way it was presented, revolves around the words equally valid. Diamond appeared to embrace the postmodernist creed that all categories are "socially constructed" and therefore equally valid, no matter how trivial. To make his point, he served up a concoction of alternate theoretical categories that crosses traditional racial lines, including a playful suggestion of a racial taxonomy based on fingerprint patterns. A "loops" race would group together most Europeans, black Africans, and East Asians. Among the "whorls," we would find Mongolians and Australian Aborigines. Finally, the "arches" race would be made up of Khoisans and some central Europeans. "Depending on whether we classified ourselves by antimalarial genes, lactase, fingerprints, or skin color," he concluded, "we could place Swedes in the same race as (respectively) either Xhosas, Fulani, the Ainu of Japan, or Italians."
Diamond makes the uncontroversial assertion that the traditional racial paradigm, which divides populations into races by "the twin criteria of geographic location and visible physical characteristics," is fraught with contradictions. The archaeology of the Lemba, an African tribe, which I present in my book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, is particularly instructive. The Lemba are well known in anthropological circles for practicing Jewish traditions, such as keeping kosher and circumcising infant boys. Anthropologists had long speculated that the tribe had no doubt conflated its own folk traditions with those of Jewish colonialists whom it might have come in contact with a century or more ago. As it turns out, recent genetic testing has shown that the Lemba, who might otherwise be categorized as "black" on the basis of the sloppy marker of skin color, genetically resemble Jews from the Middle East based on their Y chromosome. Scientists have traced their DNA to the priestly Cohen clan, one of the original tribes of Israel.
Throughout the piece (and indeed throughout Guns, Germs, and Steel), Diamond appeared to want it both ways by asserting that all population categories, even trivial ones as he puts it, are equally meaningful, yet at the same time suggesting that some are more meaningful than others. In discussing basketball, for instance, he writes that the disproportionate representation of African Americans has do with a lack of socioeconomic opportunities. But part of the reason probably has to do with "the prevalent body shapes of some black African groups," he adds. In other words, racial categories based on body shape may be an inexact indicator of human population differences--as are all categories of human biodiversity--but they are demonstrably more predictive than fingerprint whorls or tongue-rolling abilities.
It's one thing to say that race is in part a folk concept. After all, at the genetic level, genes sometimes tell a different story than skin color does. It's far more problematic to make the claim that local populations have not clustered around some genetically based phenotypes. However uncomfortable it may be to Diamond, some "socially constructed" categories are more valid than others, depending on what phenotypes we are discussing. Moreover, geneticists believe that some of the traditional folkloric categories represent major human migratory waves, which is why so many characteristics group loosely together--for instance, body type, hair texture, and eye and skin color.
6. Documenting the genetics of human differences is "outside the domain of modern scientific inquiry."
Even suggesting that there is a scientific basis for racial differences is baseless speculation, according to some social scientists. University of North Carolina at Charlotte anthropologist Jonathan Marks cavalierly dismisses evidence of patterned differences. "If no scientific experiments are possible, then what are we to conclude?" he wrote to me in 1999. "That discussing innate abilities is the scientific equivalent of discussing properties of angels."
From one perspective, Marks appears to be taking the road of sound, verifiable science: we can only know what we can prove. But he casts the issue in misleading terms, for no one familiar with the workings of genes refers to "innate abilities." Our personal set of genes no more determines who we are than the frame of a house defines a home; much of the important stuff gets added over time. There is no such thing as "innate ability," only "innate potential," which has an indisputable genetic component. No amount of training can turn a dwarf into a NBA center, but training and opportunity are crucial to athletes who possess the anatomical profiles of NBA centers.
Marks' corollary assertion that truth rests only in the laboratory presents the antithesis of rigorous science. If every theory had to be vetted in a laboratory experiment, then everything from the atomic theory of matter to the theory that the earth revolves around the sun could be written off as "speculative." As Sailer writes, "You can't reproduce continental drift in the lab. You can't scoop up a few continents, go back a billion years, and then see if the same drift happens all over again."
Ironically, the extremist position taken by Marks and parroted by many journalists mirrors the hard-right stance of Darwin's most virulent critics. "Evolution is not a scientific 'fact,' since it cannot actually be observed in a laboratory," argued the Creation Legal Research Fund before the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attack on evolution theory. "The scientific problems with evolution are so serious that it could accurately be termed a 'myth'."
In fact, creationists are onto something: while microevolution has been verified, the weakest link of evolutionary theory has always been the relatively meager evidence of transitional fossils to help substantiate macroevolution. Even if those fossil records were more complete, the evolution of humans from a simian ancestor will never be "provable" in a laboratory. Does the lack of scientific experiments substantiating macroevolution render all talk of evolution theory the scientific equivalent of discussing properties of angels?
Some ideologues display a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of scientific reasoning, which rarely lends itself to smoking guns and absolute certainty. It also confuses function with process. We may not yet know how genes and nature interact to shape gender identity, but that does not mean, as Marks would have it, that stating that genetics plays a role is "speculative." We have yet to find the genetic basis for tallness, yet we can be quite certain that it is more likely to be found in the Dutch, now the world's tallest population, than in the Japanese. The search for scientific truth is a process. It may be years before we identify a gene that ensures that humans grow five fingers, but we can be assured that there is one, or a set of them. There are patterned human differences, even though the specific gene sequences and the complex role of environmental triggers are elusive.
THE NATURE-NURTURE QUANDARY
Science does require a theory to be predictive and supported by empirical evidence, even when laboratory tests remain elusive. So how do we test the theory that there are some patterned group differences? Certainly, we cannot automatically infer innate abilities from observed performances. As I noted in Taboo, Jews dominated basketball in the 1930s. One of the era's great sports journalists, New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico, ascribed this to the "alert, scheming mind, flash trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness" of Jews. Whatever reality there may be to such a stereotype, the facts that many Protestants avoided the sport in its infancy and blacks were banned from the white semipro leagues undermine the biological explanation. Today, however, the playing field is a lot flatter, which means that the empirical, on-the-field evidence actually means something.
What distinguishes such assertions from the wrongheaded, and racist, claims that Jews had some "natural" advantage in basketball? An increase in alternatives for Jews and more opportunity in basketball for other ethnic groups have demonstrated the absurdity of Gallico's assertions. As the game became more popular, it attracted a more competitive athlete.
The twenty-year reign of Jews in basketball does underscore the importance of cultural factors and the danger of post hoc reasoning when nature and nurture are being discussed. After all, no Texans (white, black or Latin) are starring in the National Hockey League or playing as great American cricketers. The success of each individual is a product of that person's ambition, creativity, and intelligence, matched with the serendipity of life: the X factors that make sports so compelling. But opportunity alone doesn't guarantee success. The national sport of Mexico is baseball, yet Mexicans are not generally good enough to make much of a mark in the major leagues: their ancestral body type works against them. If the roulette wheel of genetics does not land on an athlete's number, hard work alone will not turn clay into marble. So, though individual success is about fire in the belly and opportunity, the pattern of success in many sports is somewhat circumscribed by population genetics.
"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small ... they are very, very significant," says Robert Malina, Michigan State University anthropologist and editor of the Journal of Human Biology, who has studied anatomical differences of Olympic-level athletes over more than thirty years. "The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."
Some skeptics claim that any genetic differences that may exist between population groups are, in the long run, utterly swamped by environmental influences. That statement reflects the enduring legacy of Cartesian dualism, which sees environment and genes as polar- opposite forces. "As scientists continue to study the complex interactions between genes and the environment, population-based genetic differences will continue to surface," notes Michael Crawford, University of Kansas professor of biological anthropology and genetics, president of the Human Biology Association, and former editor of Human Biology. "We need to dispense with the notion that athleticism is entirely due only to biology or only to culture. Biological variation in complex traits is always a result of their interaction."
Today, with basketball played throughout the world, there is a far more level playing field. Although opportunities remain meager for poverty- riddled Africa, there are more elite basketball players from Nigeria than from Nebraska. In running, the trends are even more startling: athletes of African ancestry hold every major running record, from the hundred meters to the marathon. What is the driving force behind this phenomenon?
Competitive running is nature's laboratory. "A scientist interested in exploring physical and performance differences couldn't invent a better sport than running," wrote Amby Burfoot, executive editor of Runner's World:
"It's a true worldwide sport, practiced and enjoyed in almost every country around the globe. Also, it doesn't require any special equipment, coaching or facilities. [Ethiopia's] Abebe Bikila proved this dramatically in the 1960 Olympic Games when--shoeless, little coached and inexperienced--he won the marathon. Given the universality of running, it's reasonable to expect that the best runners should come from a wide range of countries and racial groups. This isn't, however, what happens. Nearly all the sprints are won by runners of West African descent. Nearly all the distance races are won, remarkably, by runners from just one small corner of one small African country [Kenya]."
Running provides the most persuasive prima facie case suggesting that sports success cannot be explained by cultural and environmental factors alone. Kenya, a Texas-sized nation with a population of approximately sixteen million people, is the world center of distance running. East African runners almost exclusively come from the Nandi Hills, the 6,000--8,000 foot highlands that snakes along the western edge of the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. Home to roughly 1.5 million people, this region has produced more than 60 percent of the best times ever run in distance races. Kenyans, almost all of them Kalenjin, win 40 percent of top international events.
The Kalenjin represent roughly three-quarters of Kenya's world-class runners. Hundreds of years ago, what African historians refer to as a proto-Kalenjin population migrated from the Nilotic core area northwest of Lake Turkana to the Mount Elgon area, where the group fragmented and moved to its present locations in the highlands. This is the home of the Nandi district of 500,000 people. One twelve-thousandth of the earth's population sweeps an unfathomable 20 percent of distance races, marking it as the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports.
According to socially acceptable wisdom, the sure explanation for Kenya's success can be found in Kenyan culture. After all, the country's national sport is the passion of the masses. Little boys dream that one day, they might soak up the cheers of the adoring fans who regularly crowd the stands at the National Stadium in Nairobi. Coaches comb the countryside for the rising generation of stars, who are showered with special training and government perks. It's no exaggeration to call Kenya's national sport a national religion.
There's only one problem: The national sport, the hero worship, the adoring fans, the social channeling--that all speaks to Kenya's enduring love affair with soccer, not running. Despite the enormous success of Kenyan runners in the past fifteen years, running remains a relative afterthought in this soccer-crazed nation. Unfortunately, Kenyans are among the world's worst soccer players. They are just terrible. In fact, there is no such thing as an East African soccer powerhouse. Clearly, cultural channeling, the lure of privilege, and hero worship--bedrock components of the environmentalist argument--have not done much to make East Africa competitive in soccer.
The East African edge, if you will, reflects the impact of evolution on body type and physiology. "Africans are naturally, genetically, more likely to have less body fat, which is a critical edge in elite running," notes Joseph Graves Jr., an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University and author of The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. "Evolution has shaped body types and in part athletic possibilities. Don't expect an Eskimo to show up on an NBA court or a Watusi to win the world weightlifting championship," adds Graves, who is African American. "Differences don't necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather with geography and climate. Endurance runners are more likely to come from East Africa. That's a fact. Genes play a major role in this."
Neither science nor the empirical evidence supports the default myth, widely peddled by the media, that Kenyans dominate because of social factors. "I lived right next door to school," laughs Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer, world 800-meter record holder, dismissing such cookie-cutter explanations. "I walked, nice and slow." Some kids ran to school, some didn't, he says, but that's not why they succeed. And for every Kenyan monster-miler, there are others, like Kipketer, who get along on less than thirty miles per week. "Training regimens are as varied in Kenya as anywhere in the world," notes Colm O'Connell, coach at St. Patrick's Iten, the famous private school and running factory in the Great Rift Valley that turned out Kipketer and other Kenyan greats. O'Connell eschews the megatraining so common among runners in Europe and North America, who have failed so miserably in bottling the Kenyan running miracle.
"Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it is training, the environment, what you eat that play the most important role in sports. But based on the data, the genes are what counts most," states the top scientist in human performance research, Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center. Saltin outlined his widely embraced findings in "Muscles and Genes," the September 2000 cover story in Scientific American. "The extent of the environment can always be discussed, but it's less than 20, 25 percent. It is 'in your genes' whether or not you are talented or whether you will become talented."
BIOCULTURAL ATHLETIC 'HOT SPOTS'
Sports success is a biosocial phenomenon, with cultural factors such as opportunity amplifying small but meaningful differences in performance related to heredity. Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle- fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity, and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors. Scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to those biologically based differences (though the fact that this patterned biology is grounded in genetics is unequivocal).
A glance at a world map of athletic pockets or hothouses highlights places where evolution and accidents of culture play key roles in the patterns of excellence we see in sports. The domination of endurance running by East Africans, sprinting by blacks of primarily West African ancestry, Eurasian white supremacy in weight lifting and power events, and so forth, are explained, in part, by patterned anatomical differences.
East Africans have a near-perfect biomechanical package for endurance: lean, ectomorphic physiques, huge natural lung capacity, and a high proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers. It's also a terrible combination for sprinting, which undoubtedly helps explain East Africa's dismal sprinting history. Kenya has tried desperately over the past decade to replicate its wondrous success in distance running at the sprints, but to no avail. The best Kenyan time ever in the 100 meters--10.28 seconds--ranks somewhere near five thousandth on the all- time list.
The pool of potential great sprinters (and athletes with fast-burst, anaerobic skills) is deepest among athletes of West African descent. Claude Bouchard, geneticist at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, found that such populations have a higher percentage of "energy efficient" fast-twitch muscle fibers to complement their naturally more mesomorphic physiques. "West Africans have 70 percent of the fast-type muscle fibers when they are born," adds Saltin. "And that's needed for a 100-meter race around 9.9 seconds."
Some critics have noted that there have been a few great white sprinters, such as Valery Borzov, the Russian who won Olympic gold in 1972. Borzov's moment of glory, although an Olympic win, was pedestrian in historical terms. It doesn't even rank in the top 500 sprints of all time. Athletes of primarily West African origin, including African Americans, hold the top 200 and 494 of the top 500 times. No white, Asian, or East African has ever cracked ten seconds in the 100. In fact, there are more elite sprinters from any one of the largest West African countries (Senegal, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana) than from all of Asia and the white populations of the world combined.
In fact, the old Eastern bloc countries provided a unique laboratory to evaluate the radical environmentalist's canard that humans are infinitely plastic. The world's most elaborate sports factory combined with state-supervised illegal drug supplements still could not turn even one East German or Soviet sprinter into the world's fastest human. The vaunted Eastern European sporting machines lavished much of their efforts, which included sophisticated use of performance-enhancing drugs, on its female athletes, where the drug cocktails had the most impact.
This is not evidence that blacks are "superior" athletes. Genetics does not confer rank. There are no master races. Populations with naturally less body fat, such as Africans, who are the world's best runners, quickly find that advantage a huge negative when attempting a cross- channel swim or the Iditarod. And for all their achievements in running, athletes of African ancestry are notable underperformers in strength events, from weight lifting to the shot put.
Eurasians are more likely to have the endomorphic physique of the best strength athletes. The world's top weight lifters and wrestlers live in or trace their ancestry from a swath of Eurasia, from Bulgaria through upper Mongolia. The original inhabitants of this mostly northern region likely arrived no more than twenty-five thousand years ago. Evolutionary forces shaped a population that is large and muscular, particularly in the upper body, with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos--for example, Naim Suleymanoglu, the 4-foot, 11-inch Turkish weight lifter, considered the greatest in the history of the sport. Forty-six of the top fifty male hammer throwers of all time and forty-three of the top fifty female shot-putters trace their primary ancestry to this region.
Where flexibility is key, East Asians shine, such as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events. Their body types tend to be small with relatively short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat-- a scaled-down mixture of mesomorphic and endomorphic characteristics. As a result, athletes from this region are somewhat slower and less strong than whites or blacks but more flexible on average. "Chinese splits," a rare maneuver demanding extraordinary flexibility, has roots in this anthropometric reality. It's a key skill set for martial arts, which are rooted in Asian traditions.
Those anthropometric realities circumscribe Asian possibilities in jumping: not one Asian male or female high jumper makes the top fifty all-time. Many scientists believe this distinctive body type evolved through adaptations to harsh climes encountered by bands of Homo sapiens who migrated to Northeast Asia about forty thousand years ago. The excavation of an abundance of precise tools in Asia, including needles for sewing clothes to survive cold winters, has led scientists to speculate that Asians were "programmed" over time to be more dexterous. Studies indicate that East Asians do have the quickest reaction time, which some have speculated may play a role in Asian domination of Ping-Pong.
WHAT IS 'RACE'?
The thorny reality is that if there were no "racial" differences, the entire Human Genome Project would be meaningless. Frequencies of many polymorphic genes vary with population clusters and can have powerful health consequences. The great paradox of human biodiversity research, which is focused on finding the genetic basis to many diseases, is that the only way to understand how similar humans are is to learn how we differ.
Genetic factors help explain the prevalence of Tay-Sachs, a neurological disease among European Jews and their diaspora descendants, and the proclivity to skin cancer, cystic fibrosis, and multiple sclerosis among northern Europeans. The presence of the gene apolipoprotein E allele, E-4 allele, is a potent risk factor of Alzheimer's in Caucasians but not for blacks of West African ancestry. The Pima Indians have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. A condition called primaquine sensitivity is responsible for the intensity of the reaction to certain drugs among African, Mediterranean, and Asian men. Another mutated gene accounts for the sensitivity of the Japanese to alcohol. Other genetic polymorphisms found in specific population groups are associated with sensitivity to certain foods, type one diabetes, QT syndrome (a heart disease), asthma, thrombophilia (bleeding disorder), and an inability to metabolize common drugs like codeine, beta-blockers, and antidepressants. These are all "racial" differences of a kind; potentially thousands more remain to be identified.
Most geneticists dispute the sociological orthodoxy that racial classifications are best represented as an infinite spectrum of overlapping and inseparable populations. Maps of gene frequencies of different characteristics, such as those found in The History and Geography of Human Genes by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues Paolo Menozzi and Albert Piazza, belie such a notion. Human differences sometimes, but not always, correlate with broad social categories defined by pigmentation, hair form, blood component reactions such as clotting, disease susceptibility, and the like. Somewhat distinct "racial" groups are frequently the product of geographic culs-de-sac, where populations remained relatively insular and phenotypic differences emerged.
"The classification of human ethnic or racial groups remains a viable, important feature in understanding the nature and mechanism of human evolution," writes Ranajit Chakraborty, a population geneticist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Chakraborty distinguishes between the popular concept of race (which includes cultural dimensions, such as self-definition) and the term now used by geneticists and evolutionary biologists to mean a common biological inheritance. The precise number and grouping of races will always be somewhat arbitrary, as race is in part a social construct. Typology, the typing of humans into categories, is akin to wrestling an octopus into a shoebox: no matter how hard you fight with it, you still have something dangling out somewhere. Modern typologists cannot even agree whether it is more meaningful to lump races into large, fuzzy groups or to split them into smaller units of dozens or even hundreds of populations.
Rather than identify "races" by facial characteristics or geography, most scientists now isolate groups based on genotypic patterns, which show up in allele frequencies and proteins. Cavalli-Sforza calls them "populations," while University of Michigan anthropologist Loring Brace prefers the term "clusters." Sarich calls them "fuzzy sets." Sailer uses the term "extended families." Their meanings are very similar: waves of migrations and intense evolutionary pressures have shaped identifiable, if fuzzy, groupings. Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues have identified 491 world populations. Although they go out of their way to note that "the concept of race has failed to obtain any consensus," their research breaks down the world populations into forty-two smaller groups and nine clusters: Africans (sub-Saharans), Caucasians (Europeans), Caucasians (extra-Europeans), Northern Mongoloids (excluding Arctic populations), Northeast Asian Arctic populations, Southern Mongoloids (mainland and insular Southeast Asians), New Guineans plus Australians, inhabitants of minor Pacific islands, and Native Americans. Other geneticists have mapped similar racial taxonomies.
"The fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up consistently in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations," agrees Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves Jr. "There are some group differences. We see it in diseases. But that's a long way from reconstructing century-old racial science. It varies by characteristic."
THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM
Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle-cell anemia and colorectal cancer, Jews of European heritage who are one hundred times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the degenerative neurological disease Tay-Sachs, Asians who are genetically more reactive to alcohol, and Northern European whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that the success of East African distance runners, Eurasian white power lifters, and sprinters of West African ancestry can be explained, in part, by genetics?
The elephant in the living room, of course, is the irresolvable controversy over race and intelligence. Although racial labels are occasionally helpful terms (geneticists often study specific ethnic groups to get a handle on the ways commonly shared genes lead to specific diseases), they can leave misconceptions. Some traits are correlated, such as dark skin color and the presence of the sickle-cell gene, but such links are not absolute. Blacks who have evolved in cooler climates are no more likely to contract sickle cell than anyone else, while other Mediterranean populations have high incidences of sicklemia.
Are there "intelligence" differences between populations? The only honest answer is that this issue is complex and depends on how one defines population and intelligence. Certainly there is massive empirical evidence demonstrating statistically significant IQ differences between subpopulations. But IQ is only one (albeit a critically important) dimension of intelligence. Moreover, sizable portions of the intelligence-testing data sweepingly subsume genetically diverse populations under the banner of folkloric notions of race.
Gould, among others, rightly questions "the propensity to convert an abstract concept (like intelligence) into a hard entity (like an amount of quantifiable brain stuff)." After all, the length of the femur, an individual's muscle-fiber type, or the presence of the allele frequency for malaria each involves a minuscule amount of genes. Most expressed behaviors, including and especially the complex notion of intelligence, engage fully half of the thirty thousand genes of the human genome. These genes interact with each and are turned off and on by obscure environmental triggers. We can objectively measure the world's fastest human over one hundred meters; devising a test to measure the world's "smartest" person is an altogether different enterprise.
With those important caveats, it is scientifically naive to state that there is no evidence of brain-function differences between local populations. Humans clearly have developed different physical features; the brain is part of the body and is as susceptible to evolutionary forces as any other part. Although this is a relatively virgin area of research (in part, scientists say, because of the sordid history of race science and racist eugenics), intriguing studies are in the works.
For example, Professor Clive Harper, a neuropathologist at the of the University of Sydney Hospital, claims to have found that among Aborigines, the area of the brain responsible for visual processing is 25 percent larger than average. Harper's studies, the last of which was published in the Journal of Hirnforschung (Brain Research), indicates that Aboriginal children have near photographic memories, an evolutionary gift from their ancestors, who "had to master the vast landscape to survive." IQ tests have shown that Aborigines test lower than some other populations. Are these preliminary findings an indication of a different form of "intelligence"?
As any forensic scientist or anthropology 101 student can confirm, there are disparities in the morphology of the craniums (and brains) of different populations, even after adjusting for social and economic factors. The meaningfulness of such data is in dispute, however. The extreme position, advanced by Gould in his polemic The Mismeasure of Man, challenges the veracity of the studies on "racial" cranial disparities. That position, widely cited in the popular media, is contradicted by unassailable studies, many quite recent. Although gross brain size does correlate with one measure of intelligence, IQ, there are caveats about what that means. Graves points out that modern humans have smaller craniums than did the Neanderthals, whom they supplanted thirty thousand years ago, presumably because of our superior intelligence. Psychologist and intelligence theorist Arthur Jensen of the University of California at Berkeley has noted that women have proportionately smaller brains than men do, even after adjusting for body weight, yet they score the same as men on intelligence tests. However, men and women do appear to express their reasoning skills quite differently, which biologists believe is linked to structural sex-linked differences within the brain (such as the difference in the size and shape of the corpus callosum, the fibers uniting the cerebral hemispheres) caused by hormones.
Any or all of such factors as gross brain size, component structures, and the density of receptors may play roles in how mental capacity is expressed. Clearly, it is fallacious to claim that there is no evidence of any genetically based "intelligence" differences (whether in abstract reasoning, practical, linguistic, musical, or some other form) between some local human populations.
CONSEQUENCES OF DISINGENUOUSNESS
Some race realists seduce themselves into believing that they are being intellectually honest in pointing out the "natural" advantages of certain "races," but they reach beyond limited data to speculative and sweeping conclusions. Antirace ideologues, on the other hand, claim that the public cannot grasp the nuances of population differences, and so deny them altogether. As Sailer has written, Darwin has enemies on the right and the left. Unfortunately, the left-wing demagogues have long gotten a pass in the media and in some corners of academia. The consequences of such disingenuousness are serious and mounting.
Such hypocrisy was on display earlier this year in New York at a conference on race and sports. Gould, renowned for his political correctness as much as for his scientific acumen, declared that there is no "running gene," as if that somehow resolved the debate over the causes of black domination of running. Such bluster is a classic straw man. No scientist claims there is a "running gene." That's a dodge of the real question: Do genes prescribe possibility in some sports, running most specifically, and are there some population-based patterns? The answer is an indisputable yes.
Scientists have already identified specific genes linked to athletic performance. In one of numerous such studies, Steven Rudich, a transplant surgeon then at the University of California at Davis, demonstrated that a single injection of the EPO gene into the leg muscles of monkeys produced significantly elevated red blood cell levels for twenty to thirty weeks. EPO is a key factor in endurance and is found in some populations more than others.
Researchers isolating a gene responsible for muscle weakness caused by the debilitating effects of muscular dystrophy may have stumbled upon a "smoking gun" that bolsters the genetic case for population-linked differences in sprinting capacity. Researchers at the Institute for Neuromuscular Research in Sydney, Australia, found that 20 percent of people of Caucasian and Asian backgrounds have what they called a "wimp gene," a defective gene that blocks the body from producing _-actinin- 3, which provides the explosive power in fast-twitch muscles. Samples drawn from African Bantus, specifically Zulu tribal members, showed that only 3 percent had the wimp gene. Kathryn North, head of the Neurogenetics Research Unit at the New Children's Hospital, Sydney, Australia, speculates that the need for a "speed gene" is dying out because the speed to hunt animals or flee from enemies is no longer necessary for our survival--although it certainly helps in sprinting.
"It is possible that an athlete could be genetically engineered to have a gene so you could increase muscle strength, train with it, and shut it off when you want to," says Helen Blau, professor of molecular pharmacology at Stanford Medical School.
Was Gould unaware of this burgeoning area of genetic research? Or was he massaging the debate to support what he believes are larger societal values? His contention that there is "no running gene" certainly played to the popular myth that everyone is born as a tabula rasa for the environment to inscribe. A Reuters reporter fell for this doublespeak, headlining his article "Athletic Achievement Isn't in the Genes." Yet, even Gould didn't say something that silly. In his speech, he noted that sports success is a complex combination of social, environmental, and biological factors. Unfortunately, such nuances were buried beneath the screaming headline that implied just the opposite.
This is not just a theoretical concern, for it threatens work on disease research tied to the Human Genome Project. In a spring New York Times article, "Skin Deep: Shouldn't a Pill Be Colorblind?" Sheryl Gay Stolberg juxtaposed the long-documented fact that "race" can be a strong predictor of health and drug efficacy against the nostrum, espoused by none other than Craig Venter of Celera Genomics,that "there is no basis in the genetic code for race. It is disturbing to see reputable scientists and physicians even categorizing things in terms of race," he told her. Venter was merely engaging in the parlor game of recognizing differences that frequently break out along traditional racial lines without appearing to acknowledge that race exists. Yet, in the same conversation, Venter offered an example of why "race," redefined as patterned biology, does matter: Caucasians, he said, are much more likely than Africans to have a genetic mutation that provides resistance against the virus that causes AIDS.
Splitting rhetorical hairs to preserve ideological purity (and head off a potential public backlash) already has serious consequences. "Here we have the black community accepting the concept that African Americans need to be studied as a group, and then we have the scientific community claiming that race is dead," says Jay Cohn, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. "It seems to me absolutely ludicrous to suggest that this prominent characteristic that we all recognize when we look at people should not be looked at."
Caricaturing the rhetorical use of folk categories of race is not going to make the patterned biological variation on which some differences are based disappear. "We may believe that most differences between races are superficial, but the differences are there, and they are informative about the origins and migrations of our species," responds Alan Rogers, a population geneticist and professor of anthropology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "To do my work, I have to get genetic data from different parts of the world and look at differences within groups and between groups, so it helps to have labels for groups."
"I believe that we need to look at the causes of differences in diseases between the various races," agrees Claude Bouchard, who is one the world's leading experts in obesity, in the American Journal of Human Biology. "In human biology...it is important to understand if age, gender, and race, and other population characteristics contribute to phenotype variation. Only by confronting these enormous issues head- on, and not by circumventing them in the guise of political correctness, do we stand a chance to evaluate the discriminating agendas and devise appropriate interventions."
A case might be made that the ideologically driven perspectives of Gould, Lewontin, Marks, and others make some sense as a tactical response to the adaptionist, genetic-centered arguments that loom in the background in evolutionary theory. Indeed, the environment and the complex interrelationship of genes, individuals, and groups of populations can explain much in life. But they have staked out the most extreme and least credible position with McCarthyite-like attacks on even those who articulate a nuanced understanding of the inseparability of genes and culture.
As Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh wrote in the liberal weekly Nation in 1997, "What began as a healthy skepticism about misuses of biology [has become] a new form of dogma." They continued, "Like the religious fundamentalists, the new academic Creationists defend their stance as if all of human dignity--and all hope for the future--were at stake. [But] in portraying human beings as pure products of cultural context, the secular Creationist standpoint not only commits biological errors but defies common sense."
This unrelenting assault on the straw man of race has been directed at some of the most respected researchers in the world. Cavalli-Sforza, who helped establish the Human Genome Diversity Project in 1991, has come under relentless attack by Jonathan Marks and others for "encouraging racist thinking," "stealing" the genes of developing countries, "destroying" their culture, and even "contributing to genocide." At a recent symposium on the HGDP, the feckless Marks and Debra Harry, a Northern Paiute Indian, coauthored an attack that combined misleading statements about genetics with a blatant agenda. "The vast majority of human genetic variation is known to be within- group variation," they wrote. "Thus the value of such a project would appear to be quite minimal, especially given the ill will it has managed to generate."
Their analysis is scientifically nonsensical but politically potent. To underscore their point, Marks and Harry cleverly mock the disingenuity of the HGDP scientists, who waffle about the existence of "race" to protect their left flank (and keep the research dollars flowing) while publishing research that clearly shows population differences.
The irony in this soft censorship is immense. It's at this point that views of the far Right and demagogic Left become virtually indistinguishable. The consequence of following their radical prescription is enforced ignorance, which will only fracture even more the fragile support for genetics research. As Diamond has noted, "Even today, few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just for being interested in the subject." Moreover, by encouraging censorship for fear that these data will be misused, righteous social thinkers unwittingly legitimize the taboo that traditional races can be ranked from superior to inferior. ("If we shouldn't talk about racial differences for fear of causing offense, maybe there is some truth to it.")
Folkloric notions of race have come into being because a host of phenotypes are correlated. That does not mean that the folkloric categories (whichever ones are used) are distinct and discrete. They are not, and their explanatory powers are limited. That understood, it's without question that some population groups do resemble ethnic or racial groups. The radical cant that groupings based on relatively isolated phenotypic traits such as fingerprint markings are as "equally valid" as population clusters based on genetic alleles is totally fallacious. Some fuzzy-edged population groups do resemble folkloric groupings; pretending that they do not defies logic and undermines the credibility of those whose motives otherwise appear noble.
It might be nice, of course, if there were no innate differences of any kind among population groups--at least besides the obvious cosmetic ones--but genetics doesn't confer equality. Humans are different, the consequence of thousands of years of evolution in varying terrains. Society, and science in particular, pays a huge price for not discussing this openly, if carefully. We are within a decade of perfecting tools that could make humans run faster, jump higher, throw farther, and, most important, live longer and healthier lives as the result of gene therapy for diseases. Caricaturing population genetics as pseudoscience devalues legitimate concerns about how this information will be put to use.
Science is not an assertion of inalterable facts but a method of interrogating reality. The question is no longer whether these inquiries will continue but in what manner and to what end. If we do not welcome the flowering of this more complex appreciation of human nature with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science, then there is no winner; we all lose.n
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|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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