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On Race and Genetics



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Over at Salon, Alex Pareene asks whether the Right is “really breaking up with its racists.” Unfortunately, a nontrivial portion of the piece is dedicated to my writings — though I suppose I should be grateful that, unlike with “Heather MacDonald,” at least he got the spacing in my last name right.

Pareene claims that in June of 2008 I “defended” James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, after he made racist comments about blacks. Pareene quotes this sentence of mine (though he fails to preserve my italics on “might”):

Watson isn’t a “racist” but a “racialist”; in other words, he believes that genetic differences between the races might explain differences in ability and behavior, and that’s a travesty.

He later refers back to the “racist”/“racialist” distinction, acting as though I came up with it myself, and as though I presented it as some kind of defense of Watson. But in fact, the sentence is my summary of an argument made by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who presumably is not a “racist” with whom “the Right” needs to “break up”). The distinction, the placement of Watson on the “racialist” side of it, and the opinion that Watsons’s beliefs are a “travesty” are all things I was attributing to Gates.

Gates’s piece came out of an interview that he conducted with Watson — the piece (and my post about it) was primarily about Watson’s considered beliefs, not the off-the-cuff comment he made in a different interview that sparked outrage. Gates found Watson to believe that many racial gaps in behavior “could, possibly, be traced to genetic differences among human beings,” and concluded that Watson was on the wrong side of “the last great battle over racism.”

As I see it, the problem with Gates’s reaction is that Watson’s considered beliefs are correct: Controversial racial gaps, such as the IQ gap, could, possibly, be partly genetic.

#more#As Pareene is kind enough to note, I consider myself an agnostic on many questions relating to race and genetics. I do strongly believe, like numerous scientists including at least one New York Times contributor, that race is not just a “social construct.” It’s much like color: The categories we impose on it are based on our own perceptions, but there is an underlying reality there that we are perceiving. We have already identified many significant genetic differences between racial groups — for example, skin color, skeletal structure, and some genetic diseases. Gates himself is famous for using genetics to trace people’s ancestry. And if there were no meaningful genetic differences between human populations, the HapMap Project would be a giant waste of time and money.

However, genetic research is still in its early stages, and we do not yet have a clear picture of how genes contribute to intelligence; thus, we’re not even close to being able to determine whether genes contribute to racial differences in intelligence. (Though twin and adoption studies do prove that there is some genetic contribution to differences between individuals.) Until we have that information, we’re stuck with far inferior methods for investigating the origin of racial IQ gaps — using advanced statistical techniques to “control” for non-genetic explanations, etc. — and I think it’s premature to come to any sort of conclusion. I’ve even said that The Bell Curve “jumped the gun by at least a quarter-century” in the claims it made.

Pareene says that these beliefs don’t make me a “racist,” though apparently they warrant 300-plus words in an article about the “racists” of “the Right.” I, for one, think it’s important that we come up with a definition of racism that focuses on ill will rather than sincere beliefs about facts. There is no reason to force people to choose between being called “racist” — or at least being lumped in with racists — and being wrong.



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