Human races are real: a rebuttal to Jennifer Raff’s review of Nicholas Wade’s “A troublesome inheritance”

Reading Jennifer Raff’s review of Nicholas Wade’s book on race, I could not help but admire the heights of delusion to which an intelligent human mind will rise in defense of its prejudices.

Dr. Raff writes:

Racial groupings differ from culture to culture. For example, although in the United States Chinese and Japanese peoples are usually viewed as one “race” (Asian), they are seen as members of different racial groups in South Africa.

Does the fact that someone recognizes sedans and hunchbacks while another only “cars” invalidate the distinction between “sedans” and “hatchbacks” on one hand, and “cars” and “trucks” on the other?

She continues:

Wade can’t settle on a definite number of races because he can’t come up with a consistent, rigorous definition of what “race” means. He uses terms like “major race”, “race”, “subrace”, “group”, or “population,” but doesn’t provide any serious, objective ways to distinguish between these terms for arbitrary groupings of people arbitrary groups.

These groups would be arbitrary if they depended on the author’s whims and not on an objective criterion. If, for example, Nicholas Wade arbitrarily divided humans into Afro-Australians (the inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia) and Eurasians, then this would indeed be arbitrary because genetic research has shown that Australian aboriginal peoples are more closely related to East Asians and Europeans than they are to the similarly dark-pigmented Africans. If he divided humans into blue-eyes and dark-eyes, then he would group many Europeans with Sub-Saharans, and this would be wrong because despite the similarity of brown-eyed Europeans with Nigerians in this one trait, this is due to retention of a plesiomorphic condition and is not useful in the taxonomic division of mankind.

The races proposed by Wade in his book are valid and the fact that he does not commit to a particular number simply shows that he applies the division most useful for the topic he discusses. Surely, if he wants to discuss differences between Jews and non-Jewish Europeans, the level of granularity African-Asian-European does not suffice. Astronomers recognize an entire hierarchy of celestial bodies, and sometimes may discuss the difference between stars (who have enough mass to start fusion) and planets, and other times the difference between rocky or gas planets or main sequence stars and red giants. Hopefully there is no equivalent to Dr. Raff in astronomy that would chastise astronomers for classifying heavenly bodies simply because they can’t come up with a number N of their different kinds.

Continuing on this theme, Dr. Raff writes:

But Wade and Murray are both wrong. Structure didn’t simply identify five clusters. It also identified two, three, four, six, and seven clusters. (Rosenberg et al. 2002 actually identified up to 20 divisions, but 1-7 are the primary ones they discussed. They also divided their worldwide sample up into regions, and then ran structure within those regions, to look at more fine-scale population structure.)

Surely, the fact that the five continental races don’t appear when using two, three, or four clusters is no argument against the recognition of five races, because it is logically impossible for five groups to be separated into four bins. It is similarly impossible to fit five groups into six or seven bins if none of the bins are allowed to be empty, as some groups will be by necessity divided across bins.

Suppose that we were dealing with a species that did have biological races (hopefully Dr. Raff accepts the existence of such species, because if she disagrees in the concept of race altogether, then that makes her other arguments superfluous). How would such a species behave differently in a structure analysis than humans do? The individuals of such a species would be divided in some way whether there were two, or three, or twenty clusters.

The simple fact is that with enough clusters, Asians/Europeans/Africans split from each other and are thus separate races. Finer divisions appear as more clusters are allowed and thus there are subraces and sub-subraces in humans. At some level of clustering the ability to distinguish finer racial divisions wil break down, either because they don’t exist or because the data or algorithm lacks power to detect them. It is perfectly reasonable to declare that these clusters are races, recognizing both that they can be further divided at higher levels of resolution or united at lower ones.

Dr. Raff continues:

Finally, the creators of structure themselves caution that it will produce rather arbitrary clusters when sampled populations have been influenced by gene flow that is restricted by geographic distance (i.e. where more mating occurs between members of nearby populations than between populations that are located farther apart, a pattern we geneticists refer to as isolation by distance). As this pattern applies to the majority of human populations, it makes the results of structure problematic and difficult to interpret in many cases.

Surely the possibility of arbitrary clusters does not mean that these particular clusters are indeed arbitrary. No matter what analysis is performed on human data, distinctions between Africans, Europeans, and Asians appear. Such experiments have been repeated so many times, and in so many ways, that it is impossible to overlook the evidence.

I would urge Dr. Raff to cite any reputable analysis of large-scale human data that failed to find the distinction between the major human races (the Caucasoids, Mongoloids, and Negroids). Surely, if these races are arbitrary, they might appear when using one dataset or data type or algorithm but fail to appear when using another. If they are arbitrary, due to some fault in a particular dataset, or a deficiency in a clustering method, then they might not appear when a “good” dataset or algorithm is used.

Dr. Raff makes a rather bizarre comparison:

Wade’s perspective fits with a larger pattern seen throughout history and around the world. Folk notions of what constitutes a race and how many races exist are extremely variable and culturally specific. For example, the Bible claims that all peoples of the world are descended from Noah’s three sons, mirroring the popular concept of three racial divisions (Caucasians, Africans, and Asians). On the other hand, the five-part division of races seems most “logical” to Wade.

Computer programs and evolutionary biology don’t separate humans into the races of the Bible. The fact that biblical notions of human differences don’t correspond to biology is not a good argument against the division of humans into Caucasians, Africans, and Asians. Antique classifications have been rejected in other fields of study (we no longer divide matter into the Four Elements, or group whales with fish). The five-part division of races is perfectly valid because the data shows it, while many folk notions of race (such as the notion that Barack Obama and a Nigerian are both “black” or that a Tamil Indian, a Kenyan, and a Papuan are all part of a “colored” race) do not stand up to scrutiny and don’t appear when analyzing genetic data.

I would add that the oft-used argument that human variation is “clinal” or “continuous” is not a very useful one. Human weight is continuous, but scientific associations have standards of what constitutes an “obese” or “underweight” person. Human voice pitch is continuous but musicians recognize that one person is a “soprano” and another an “alto”. Even if they were arbitrary, divisions of continua are useful. Stellar mass and luminosity or the shape of galaxies or the wind speed of a storm are continuous, and scientists still classify stars, galaxies and storms.

The human races are less arbitrary than many phenomena classified by scientists: no one has clustered the symptoms of psychiatric diseases to show that the recognized syndromes are as distinct as human races, and there are intense arguments about the taxonomy of mental illness. Would Dr. Raff argue that all classification of mental illness is unscientific?

The argument from the continuity of human variation carries little weight against the notion of human races. Moreover, Dr. Raff completely overlooks racial mixture as a cause of clinal variation in humans. There are genetic intermediates between Europe and Asia because of mixture between Caucasoids and Mongoloids, most recently as a result of the Mongol Empire. Race illuminates such mixtures while models of human history where gradients are formed by people marrying their neighbors do not. It is not because of marriage partnerships at a small scale that Central Asians became intermediate but because of racial mixture, just as racial mixture formed the Mestizos of Mexico or virtually all inhabitants of India.

Some scientists ascribe to the “biological race doesn’t exist” idea for convenience, because they don’t want the hassle that even someone as exalted as James Watson might experience as a result of saying the wrong thing about human differences. If the discoverer of DNA, a Nobel winner, at the end of a long and productive career in science can get in trouble for his scientific opinions, what kind of signal is sent to the lesser members of the scientific ecosystem? Only a fool would not get the memo: keep politically controversial opinions to yourself, or else…

Others, like Dr. Raff, seem thoroughly indoctrinated into this way of thinking, and promote it not because of either a political motivation or a fear of the consequences, but because they truly believe it. Scientists are not immune to prejudice; in the past, the dominant prejudice was to think that a White person was superior to a Black person only because of their race. Today, the dominant prejudice is that of Equality: that different human groups are exactly equal and it is inconceivable that one group has a higher genetic worth than another. Asserting this position makes one a part of the new in-group of Progressive and Enlightened people.

The silliness of the new orthodoxy cannot be overstated. The dumbest of statisticians knows that when a process with a random additive component is repeated many times, the end result is more often different than identical. The dumbest of evolutionists knows that when populations of animals are subjected to different selection pressures due to different natural and social environments, they become different from each other, and don’t maintain “spooky entanglement at a distance” in all their aptitudes and adaptations. Human inequality is a contingent fact of history.

So, when Dr. Raff writes:

Human biological variation is real and important. I’ve studied it my entire professional career. We can see this variation most easily in physical traits and allele frequency differences between populations at extreme ends of a geographic continuum. Nobody is denying that. Let me repeat this: no one is denying that humans vary physically and genetically.

and also:

There is a great deal more in this book that also needs to be critiqued, such as Wade’s assertion that the genetic differences between human groups determine behavioral differences, resurrecting the specter of “national character” and “racial temperaments”.

It seems that she is willing to acknowledge genetic differences between human populations but not genetically influenced behavioral differences. How plausible is it to think that our regional evolution kept our neural-behavioral apparatus untouched? That the one thing most crucial to our survival and reproduction (our brain and the behavior it produces) remained immune from the normal processes of evolution?

Nicholas Wade is far from the villain that Dr. Raff and other liberal scientists portray him to be. He is a liberal himself, and wholly committed to the project of Equality as his rebuttal reveals. But at least in this one thing, that human biological races are real and that different races have some genetically influenced behavioral differences, he is entirely right.


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