The Inconvenient Truth About Race

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending
Basic Books, 2009, 304 pages.

As they tell it, the human race began in Africa roughly 180,000 years ago with a relatively small population of Homo sapiens. It then proceeded through a very long process of growth, division, and reunion. As humans spread around the world from their East African home, they slowly grew more numerous. They also divided again and again into sub populations, sub-sub populations, and so on. For a variety of reasons, these groups became subtly different. Sometimes two or more of them mixed and became more alike. The results of this growth-split-and-merge process can be seen in the many descent groups—some we call “races” and others not—that make up humanity today. These groups are remarkably similar genetically, but they are also different enough to be distinguished phenotypically (by the way their genes express themselves) and genotypically (by the genes themselves). Given that people generally mate with their neighbors, it is not surprising that these descent groups overlap fairly well with folk racial categories (black, white, Asian) and even more so with language groups (Bantu-speaking, German-speaking, Mandarin-speaking).
Whether or not people find this disturbing very much depends on what they perceive to be the implications of these discoveries. The idea that the races are genetically different is not necessarily troubling so long as everyone agrees that the differences in question don’t really matter. We all think that traits like skin color, hair type, and eye shape are not a legitimate basis for discrimination. We see them as incidental to a person’s merit as a human being, and therefore irrelevant to how we treat him. If you were an employer who chose to hire someone with superficial trait X over someone with superficial trait Y, most people would consider you irrational and possibly a racist. Indeed, we usually call someone a “racist” because she discriminates between people on the basis of some cluster of superficial traits.
The idea that the races are genetically different is quite troubling, however, when the specified differences are universally considered important. We all agree that, in most contexts, it is legitimate to discriminate on the basis of traits like intelligence, equanimity, and honesty. We see these traits as virtues, the very stuff of “merit,” and we believe they should affect how we treat people. If you hire someone with virtue X over someone without virtue X, no one is going to raise an eyebrow. You are neither irrational nor a racist; instead, you are smart and fair. The trouble starts when the possibility arises that virtue X might be both genetically determined and unequally distributed among different racial groups. In a fair competition, these “troublesome traits,” as we will call them, would inevitably produce de facto racial segregation. People of race A, having virtue X, would be preferred over people of race B, who do not have virtue X. This would present us with a very unsettling dilemma. On the one hand, such discrimination would be legitimate insofar as it would be the result of consistently applying meritocratic principles. On the other hand, it would be illegitimate insofar as it produces racial inequality. Thus, troublesome traits might present us with a choice between upholding meritocracy and upholding racial equality. We would not be able to uphold both.
The question, then, is whether and to what extent troublesome traits exist at all. The overwhelming majority of researchers claim that they do not, and they muster a number of arguments in support of this claim. The first is that our species is too young for troublesome traits to have evolved. This objection is easy to refute: We know that different populations of the same species can develop significantly different traits over a much shorter period than the 180,000 years humans have existed on earth. Over the past several hundred years, for example, modern livestock have been significantly transformed by means of “artificial selection,” i.e., breeding.
The second argument is that humans are too genetically similar for troublesome traits to exist. This point is also easily refuted. We know that a small number of genetic differences can have a massive effect on different populations of the same species. In many human populations, for example, a few genes can mean the difference between the frequent incidence of severe genetic diseases and their total absence.
The third argument is that standardized test results which have shown differences in ability between racial groups don’t prove anything about genetic differences, because the tests are flawed. This argument is harder to dismiss. Some of the test results seem quite sensitive to cultural factors, which suggests that the tests are measuring nurture rather than nature. And even the tests that show persistent cross-cultural differences can be used to draw inferences about genetic differences only; they do not constitute direct proof of anything.

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