Is race genetic?

tags: DNA, Race, Genes

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

This question was raised in a far more controversial way earlier this year, with the publication of “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” by Nicholas Wade. Wade’s book argues that race, a social institution, is rooted in the biological reality of genetic differences between population groups — at least three major ones (Caucasians, Africans, East Asians), although Wade does refer to subgroups within them. Wade insists that vast swathes of the scholarly community, centered in the discipline of anthropology, deny that any such biological foundations for the notion of race exist. They do this, Wade asserts, because they are entrenched in “leftist” ideology, and they have succeeded in suppressing any scientific study or acknowledgement of just how far those genetic differences extend.

Wade’s book was widely panned in publications ranging from the New York Times Book Review to American Scientist and Scientific American. While all of his critics acknowledged that population groups can be distinguished genetically, some pointed out that this fact is hardly samizdat. “When Henry Louis Gates Jr. sends a sample of his DNA off to find out how much is of African versus European origin — and then acts as host of a PBS miniseries in which he broadcasts the results — it seems hard to maintain that educated people deny that DNA sequences differ subtly among continents,” wrote H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books. You’d also be hard pressed to come up with a more established, politically progressive academic than Gates.

Wade drew the most intense fire, however, with the latter half of “A Troublesome Inheritance,” in which he argued that because population groups can be distinguished genetically, the economic, social and political differences among them most likely have biological causes. Although Wade himself admits that these arguments are “speculative,” he manifestly wants them to be true and keeps slipping into asserting them with far more conviction than the evidence warrants.

That’s because the evidence, as Wade’s numerous critics have pointed out, is pretty much nonexistent. In August, 144 geneticists and biologists — many of whom performed the research Wade cites in “A Troublesome Inheritance” — sent an open letter to the New York Times, protesting “Wade’s incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences,” and stating “there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.” (No doubt they sent it to the Times because until a few years ago Wade was a staff writer for the science section of that newspaper.) In particular, they single out as spurious Wade’s attempt to cast their findings as evidence that there are biological causes for “worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development.” (Wade, in a statement, countered that the letter’s signatories probably had not read his book and claimed that they only reject arguments like his because they fear “damaging their careers.”)

Kenneally’s book offers a far more judicious view of what gets “passed down” — the term is useful because it acknowledges that we all receive a package of influences from the people who bring us into the world and raise us, some of which are genetic, some of which are cultural and some of which are environmental. All of these combine with chance and historical forces to form the cocktail of identity; separating the different sources afterwards is as easy as unmixing a Mai Tai into its constituent ingredients...

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