“Race: A Social Construct or a Scientific Reality?”

Discussion on WUMB Commonwealth Journal  based on new exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science exhibit, Race: Are we so different?

Broadcast on Sunday February 13, 2011.  Speakers: Peter Taylor, Nina Nolan, Chair, RACE Education Team, Boston Museum of Science, and WUMB host, Janis Pryor. Click here to listen to  Podcast.

Afterthoughts on the discussion:

1.  The host did well to launch us into the discussion without precirculation of questions.  The broadcast ended up cutting out only about 5 minutes of the recorded discussion.

2. I was cast as the scientist who would supply the definitive answers about the biological (genetic) basis of race, as if the answer to the rhetorical question in the title given to the broadcast was there’s no scientific reality to race (with the implication that those who say there is are part of the longstanding, historically given problem of racism in the USA).

3. I tried to take the role of someone who was informed by the science, but wanted all listeners to be able to think about the complexities of the issues around race.

4. One of these issues is helping people who think it’s plausible that average differences in, say, IQ test scores, among social/racial groups could be explained by genetic differences see the problems in supporting such an idea with evidence.

5. Another of the issues is the fact that, even if races are defined by (shifting unreliable) social definitions, the experience of living with such definitions can have a significant impact on one’s biology and psychology–that is, it becomes a scientific reality in another sense.

6. I tried to do #4 on the radio and they didn’t edit it out, but visual aids would have helped and even then I need more practice if the take-home point is to come across.  #5 isn’t so hard to convey, but I didn’t get into countering the rejoinders that hypothesize that average differences in susceptibility to illness among social/racial groups could be explained by genetic differences.

7. Re: the passage at the end where I try to speak of the cost of a racially divided society even to those that benefit from it, I need to keep working on how to express this to have impact (and not seem to discount the far greater costs to minorities).

Comments welcome.


2 thoughts on ““Race: A Social Construct or a Scientific Reality?”

  1. Chuck


    Subpopulations and GQ.

    It’s nice to know that you consider my comments to be worth referencing. I think you misunderstood my position, though. Along with many others, I consider it probable that differential selection led to between population differences in the frequencies of the genes that code for general intelligence.

    As for not being able to let go of the idea “that we were just part of this enormous variation,” the enormous genetic variation within the human population is what makes the above idea so a priori plausible, given the rapid increase in the rate human evolution over the last 100,000 years. African-Americans and European-Americans (or, for that matter, ancestral West Eurasians and ancestral West Africans) represent two small subsamples of a greater genetically diverse human population. What are the chances that, on average, both share the same frequencies of g encoding genes given that the plurality of our collective genes code for neural function? DTNBP1 ((rs1018381 and rs2619522) is a clear example of an IQ affecting gene that show differential population frequencies. Different frequencies are inevitable given a non-zero within population IQ (g) h^2. They will inevitably result from differential reproduction patters. Are you seriously contending that every ethnoracial population has identical IQ (g) related reproduction patters?

    Now, moving beyond a priori plausibility, I analyzed 19 categories of arguments and evidence for the genetic and 0-genetic hypothesis. If found more support for the former. Generally, I think that I gave a more balanced assessment than anyone else that I have come across. If you disagree with my conclusion, I would be happy to hear your reasons why. Based on the few articles of yours that I read, you rest your whole case on the possibility that heritable differences within populations are non additive. I will not pretend that I am learned in genetic theory, but based on research that I am aware of and my consultation with people in the field, as best I can tell, GE interactions do not count for a significant portions of the (within population) variation in IQ (g): the found magnitude of regression towards the mean, the relation between first degree relatives and MZ twins, a lack of significant endophenotypic-environment correlations, and non-significant correlations between the average phenotypic difference between twins and the average of the phenotypes suggests this. Moreover, the is no –0 — evidence that there has been a secular increase in the general factor, so argumentum ad IQ paradox is an empirical fallacy.

    If you know of some evidence that I am missing, please let me know of it. As it is, I can not see how any unbiased person could conclude with any degree of certainty that the cause of the phenotypic difference in g is wholly environmental (or mostly additive genetic).

    Race and identity.

    This is another issue that you seem to have misunderstood. You seem to think that the race-IQ-gene argument is an attempt to justify the apparent ongoing meanness towards African-Americans. As Inductivist has shown, few people, amazingly, believe in innate differences. So, given the apparent, ubiquitous racism against blacks that occurs in absence of such a belief, why would believing in genetic based race differences matter? Regardless, as I mentioned before, if you want to dispel the specter of Jensenism, encourage your colleagues to do the appropriate research, instead of making fallacious arguments:

    1) whether or not there are human subspecies is irrelevant to this issue; there are average continental population differences.

    2) whether or not race is a social construct is irrelevant to this issue; all that matters is that African-Americans and European-Americans, on average, hail from genetically different populations; the same logic applies in Brazil. Do the socially classified Afro-Brazilians differ on average relative to the socially classified white and “Japanese” Brazilians.

    3) whether or not there is a large degree of overall difference between populations is irrelevant;

    4) whether or not there are large shifts in IQ across generations is a priori irrelevant; the nature of the flynn effect is qualitatively different from that of the B-W gap; moreover, IQ is measured on a relative, not absolute, scale — so the shifts are uninformative in themselves with regards to cross generation differences.

    I would appreciate a resolution to this issue so I can move onto sowellesque cultural “justifications” for my views. As for ethnic identity, it’s interesting to hear that you are a pan-humanist. My ethics are Confucian and neither Mohist nor Marxist. Apparently we are working from different ethical paradigms — that is, nonetheless irrelevant to the empirical issue of race, genes, and intelligence.

  2. Chuck

    Don’t post these comments; they look awkward on your blog; I’m commenting because I am working through this idea (from the other side) and because the specific issue is relevant to a few of your articles; but otherwise, the comments are tangential to the premise of this blog.

    That said, I diagrammed the “2 part argument”; I’d agree that the weakest link is the heritablility estimate. When it comes to IQ (g), the Flynn effect isn’t so much of an issue as is, to my mind, the “Wilson effect” [Boucard, 2009], that is, the developmental increase in h^2. It makes a rGE or GxE explanation more compelling (for IQ g). But when it comes to “the gap,” from the hereditarian position, the point is only to (re-)establish the plausibility (or probability) of a genetic hypothesis and then to push for a (re-)test of it using modern genotyping.


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