OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Claims for genetic 'race' differences on rise again

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Jonathan Kaplan

A recent shift in the ways some scientists think about race is “misguided and deeply troubling,” says Jonathan Kaplan.

“Until relatively recently, the consensus in the biological and anthropological literature was that, biologically speaking, there were no human ‘races.’ Part of what was meant by this was that the racial categories used in ordinary discourse about human populations did not have any biological underpinnings—that human ‘races’ as socially identified populations did not form biologically meaningful categories.”

Since at least the 1970s, most serious researchers were persuaded that all but the most trivial difference between human races were the result of social forces and not genetic in origin.

“Contemporary population genetics research, however, is now being used to argue for the biological reality of ‘race,’ and is taken by some to suggest that a focus on racial disparities in health, academic performance, and other areas, requires that we take seriously the genetic differences between ‘races,’” said Kaplan, a Center Research Fellow and associate professor of philosophy in OSU’s School of History, Philosophy and Religion.

His book-in-progress, The Social and Biological Realities of Race, explores what he characterizes as “the (mis)uses of biological research surrounding race,” and maintains that “the arguments making use of population genetics research are deeply misleading and rely on multiple misunderstandings.”

The book makes three main arguments: genetic differences are not what account for the “folk-racial” categories in use today; while contemporary populations picked out on the basis of “folk-racial” categories may differ genetically, these differences are unlikely to be the causes of current biomedical, behavioral, or other differences between the populations; despite recent research sometimes taken to imply otherwise, “folk-racial” categories remain primarily social categories.

Claims regarding the biological bases of race, and the importance of genetic differences between races, are not limited to the fringe, said Kaplan, but are moving into the mainstream. Scientists are looking for genes related to health disparities, for instance, between West Africans and Europeans. The National Institutes of Health is explicit in recommending that health differences between black and white Americans be addressed in part through genetics research.

“It is becoming increasingly common, once again, to see claims that the genetic differences between populations traditionally identified as ‘races’ in social contexts might be responsible for some of the observed average behavioral and psychological differences, including differences in cognitive ability,” said Kaplan.

A University of Chicago geneticist argues that there are different frequencies of different alleles associated with brain size in different populations, and suggests that this might be part of the explanation for the “diversity” of cognitive ability between “races.”

“His research, which is widely interpreted as arguing that recent evolutionary increases in human cognitive ability were for the most part restricted to populations that had already left Africa, has been published in the two premier general interest science journals, Science and Nature,” said Kaplan. It also has appeared in specialized science journals.

Such claims resurrect what had seemed to be out-dated theories, but it would be perilous to dismiss the resurgence as motivated solely by racist agendas, argues Kaplan.

“In order to focus on potentially successful approaches to addressing the real and serious differences in average life-prospects between members of different racial and ethnic populations, it is vital that the arguments surrounding genetic approaches to studying populations be properly understood and carefully addressed.

“Unless we are clear about just what kinds of claims such research can actually support, and what kinds of claims cannot be supported, it is difficult, if not impossible, to show that the policy implications drawn from genomics research on ‘races’ are in fact misguided.”