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Racial Differences

This is a very odd statement for a scientist, a geneticist, to make:

Despite his frantic backtracking, James Watson\’s statement that Africans are less intelligent than Europeans follows a long and dubious tradition of geneticists claiming that supposed racial differences have a genetic basis.

If racial differences do not have a genetic basis then it\’s very difficult to think what they might be based upon. Things like the preponderance of red hair in Scotland, of long distance runners in East Africa, sprinters in West, epicanthic folds in Asia: these are clearly genetic markers of what we call race.

We can argue that race isn\’t an important idea, that our common humanity (and indeed, the fact that variability within groups is almost always larger than that between group averages) means we should disregard it.

We can also argue that while some things are indeed racial differences and have a genetic basis, that the things that people think are (to be crude, dick size, or to be less so, sexual appetite, or in this case, intelligence) are in fact not.

But to claim that none of the observable differences between different groups of humans have a genetic basis is simply absurd.

BTW, on what Watson actually said, that "Africans" or "blacks" have certain genetic traits that make them less intelligent than other groups. Others have pointed out that even the measurement of intelligence, let alone its inheritability, is still somewhat controvesial…..but to me the claim fails for a very different reason.

Let us assume many of his points: that there are groupings of humans that correlate with what we think of as races, That there is some genetic determination, some traits of these groups that are inheritable. If we do assume all of that then we do not get to a situation where we can talk about "Africans". For, at least as I understand it, there is more genetic variation in Africa than there is in the rest of the world.

The Zulu, the Pygmy, the Khoi San, the Ibo, Amhara, Dinka, (add groups to taste) show more variation between them than is found in the rest of humanity put together. Thus to state that "Africans" are genetically this or that is simply nonsense.

6 thoughts on “Racial Differences”

  1. “long distance runners in East Africa, sprinters in West […]: these are clearly genetic markers of what we call race.”

    Misuse of the word “clearly” since I can think of non-genetic explanations for this. I bet if we had a culture of running to school we’d produce better long distance runners.

  2. If red hair were preponderant in Scotland, I’d need stronger sunglasses. (I cetainly don’t need them for the sun here.) There’s more of it than elsewhere, that’s all.

  3. The incidence of sickle-cell anaemia varies according to ethnic origins – and it’s evidently not racist to report that phenomenon which is well-documented in medical texts:

    “Sickle-cell disease is a group of genetic disorders caused by sickle hemoglobin (Hgb S or Hb S). In many forms of the disease, the red blood cells change shape upon deoxygenation because of polymerization of the abnormal sickle hemoglobin . . The disease is chronic and lifelong. Individuals are most often well, but their lives are punctuated by periodic painful attacks. . Sickle-cell disease occurs more commonly in people (or their descendants) from parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is or was common, but it also occurs in people of other ethnicities. As a result, those with sickle cell disease are resistant to malaria since the red blood cells are not conducive to the parasites. The mutated allele is recessive, meaning it must be inherited from each parent for the individual to have the disease.”

  4. A few quick points,

    The genetic variation of the peoples of Africa is large when taken as a whole chiefly because of the South African Bushmen, one of the earliest and most distinct peoples. If we don’t include that outgroup in the analysis then the variation seen in Africa isn’t nearly so much.

    There are certainly genetic differences between groups of people and between races. These are still broadly geographically based, though that has been gradually breaking down over the last couple of thousand years.

    The point Watson was really trying to make, which is as interesting as it is bold, is that we assume all these differences are superficial and cosmetic but what if they are not. Obviously racists of the past made gross and false assumptions about the differences of intelligence between the races but have the more open-minded proven just as quick to assume equality. It’s an interesting idea.

    The problem is that a) it’s such a fiery subject that it can’t even be discussed, b) Watson has made strong claims in the past on other controversial subjects thus tainting him as a potential crank, c) culture correlates with race and this seems to have by far the greater effect on how people succeed.

  5. I thought the intelligent response to Professor Watson’s recent invocation of previous claims about race and intelligence made by Professors Jensen and Eysenck back in the 1970s would have been to: (a) question what significance can be attached to IQ test scores; and (b) revive the old debate about whether intelligence, whatever it is, is primarily determined by Nature or Nurture.

    Obviously, I was grievously mistaken.

    As Professor Watson along with Francis Cricks was awarded a Nobel prize in 1962 for the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, does this fracas mean that we shall also need to repudiate all subsequent research findings on molecular biology as well or only the parts dependent on the molecular structure of DNA?

  6. We are all individuals. Also, owing to some natural disaster ariound 50,000 years ago we are less genetically diverse as a species than chimps or homo neanderthalensis.

    I was chatting to a black professional gent last week, a very pleasant and highly intelligent man. And we have Yardies in London too.

    I think the learned professor should stick to molecular biology.

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