I’ve recently touched on the delicate topic of human nature. Now it's the turn of the even more inflammatory subject of race. The occasion is provided by a short commentary in Science (1), reporting on a meeting of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). The reason that meeting was contentious is because of increasingly common research on differences in the genetic susceptibility to diseases among human populations, where “population” is often a thinly veiled synonym for race.

Apparently, participants to the meeting were trying to come up with new language that was based on “non-fraught” terminology, such as “geographic ancestry,” even though researchers acknowledged that they cannot control how the media and the public will interpret what they do anyway. For instance, Carlos Bustamante of Cornell complained that a paper he published was understood by the media to imply that blacks are fitter (presumably, in evolutionary terms) than whites. What Bustamante had actually said was that African-Americans have fewer deleterious genes in their genomes than European-Americans. Not exactly (or even approximately) the same thing!

Apparently, an interesting exchange occurred between Celeste Condit (a professor of speech communication) and Bruce Lahn, who in 2005 had co-authored a paper on natural selection in two genes regulating brain development, genes that are more frequent in Eurasians than in Africans. Condit complained that this sort of study may easily be read as having a “political message” embedded in it, suggesting for instance that Eurasians’ intelligence evolved faster than Africans’, an implication that Lahn firmly denied.

I often discuss the issue of race with my good friend Guido Barbujani, of the University of Ferrara (who occasionally comments on this blog). He is a population geneticist, and doesn’t believe the concept of human race has any biological foundation. I disagree, although with my other friend Jonathan Kaplan (a philosopher, and also occasional commentator on Rationally Speaking) we published a paper in which we made it clear that we don’t think “folk races” exist. (See: Kaplan, J. and M. Pigliucci (2004), On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans. Philosophy of Science 70: 1161-1172.) That is, we think that what most people call “races” are actually independently evolved sub-populations, but that human races exist in the same sense as ecotypes exist among other animals and plants.

An ecotype is a locally adapted population (say, characterized by an “alpine” phenotype for a plant, or a “high light intensity” phenotype for a human), which is not genetically much different from other populations of the same species, except for genes specifically influencing whatever traits are adaptive in that environment (say, short and branched stalks in alpine plants, to protect against strong wind; or dark skin in humans living near the Equator, to protect from high light intensity).

Be that as it may, the question of what a race is, and whether it is a useful biological construct, is an empirical one, though with interesting implications for philosophy of science. It is not, however, something that should be dictated out of political correctness, as in the above mentioned rather silly (and intellectually offensive) statement by Condit. As another participant to the NHGRI meeting, philosopher Allen Buchanan (Duke) put it: “A visible, concerted effort to change vocabulary for moral reasons is likely to trigger a backlash.”

Not to mention that it would look really stupid.


(1) PERSONAL GENOMICS: The Touchy Subject of 'Race', Constance Holden, Science 7 November 2008 322: 839 [DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5903.839a] (in News of the Week)