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Black as Barack, Part 2 - How Science Is Wrong On Race

Computer generated extrapolation of Barack Obama's face into generalized regional ethnicities

COMMENTARY "I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it."  That’s a statement no scientist (or journalist) wants to have to own up to. It almost always means our research has been poisoned by our own preconceptions; that we have allowed the filter of prejudice to distort our results. And nothing, it seems, colors judgment quite like skin color. Science has a responsibility to reveal how the universe really is, whatever the consequences. We snicker now, in hindsight, at those who insisted that "the ether" must fill outer space. Now everyone knows it doesn’t exist. Neither does race.  But the idea is seductive. In part 1 of this commentary, I noted that the rise of cheap computing power makes it possible to understand even large populations as individuals. We also saw — in this striking image of Barack Obama as he might appear had his genetic heritage been slightly different — that each of us is a unique tint in a continuum of color, not a member of a distinct race. Even albino people have varying amounts of skin pigment. Down at the cellular level, every one of us is a person of color: a "hue-man."

Never more than right now have the bio-medical implications of racial heritage mattered so much. The United States is likely to soon embark on a major overhaul of its health care system. We will soon find ourselves discussing whether it’s OK to use taxpayer dollars to pay for screening particular ethnic groups for genetically linked diseases. Or do we screen everyone equally for everything? Should federal, or state, or local governments end up owning a copy of your genome? The biology of race and ethnicity will be at the center of this debate. Keep your ears open because there’s a lengthy and despicable history of attempts to justify racist practices by invoking or misrepresenting science. No one should do this. But when a scientist does — especially one of note — it becomes a parable worth retelling.  So powerful is the badass meme of race that even some scientists who are smart enough to know better have blundered into this tar pit.   William Shockley, for instance, is known for co-inventing the transistor. There may very well be a few billion of them in the device you’re now using to read this. He liked purity in his silicon except for the dash of specific "dopants" that turned his circuits into functioning semiconductors. But Shockley, a Nobel laureate, veered off the cliff of logic when he began advocating that human lines of breeding should be purified and selected for high intelligence, as if IQ was the sole measure of what’s good about people.  Apparently, genetics allows one to be a genius at the physics of molecular field effects and, simultaneously, an idiot at human relations. Another Nobel-prize winner, James Watson, a Caucasian American and the co-discoverer DNA’s structure, was speaking of African people when he claimed: “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours —  whereas all the testing says, not really."  That he didn’t actually have any such test data at his fingertips did not stop Watson from articulating a scientific-sounding hypothesis for this position. “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically,” he said.  No, possibly not. But wishing that it were not so, in the absence of any evidence, in no way falsifies the theory that we all could be more or less equally bright. Certainly, we are so in comparison to every other known species. Watson started his career as a zoologist.  He should have immediately seen that the geographic range of humanity developed significantly after our “intellectual capacities.”  So, Africans got dumber 'cause they stayed in Africa, James? Oh no you di'n't! Catch what I just did?  I spoke with what some call a “blaccent.” I affected a dialect, that is not natively in my culture, in order to win your trust and give my point extra “oomph.”  That’s called “code-switching”. You’ve heard it done (far better than I can) by folks like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Sarah Jones, Bill Cosby, Dana Carvey and, yes, Barack Obama.  People with keen ears and articulate voices. Whether for comedic effect, or to win a political point, or just to sell you something, “code-switching” is intended to influence your calculus as to the tribal affiliation of the speaker. “Humans will always be given to overgeneralization and tribalism,” writes John McWhorter, a linguist and sensitive commentator on racial issues.  But are we really hard-wired to accept those who look like us more readily than those who don’t? It seems logical that this trait would cause individuals to selectively protect family members vs. outsiders. But so far, neurobiologists can’t find the supposed wiring. And parents of adopted children —  or children born of donated gamete —  generally exhibit no trace of this behavior, no matter the ethnic or racial phenotype of the kid. As for whose tribe is smarter: Most statistical work on this seems to show that the distribution of testable intelligence within any particular population is much greater than its variation between populations.  In other words, the range of mental facility among, say, Australian aboriginals appears to be much larger than the statistically insignificant difference between a group of those Australians and a group of, say, Caucasian Europeans.  By the way, Jim Watson’s own genome is in the public domain. See if you can find the multigenic sequence that codes for racism there. I bet you can’t. It doesn’t exist, any more than the sequence for his "race."

Race, it would seem, exists only in the heart of the racist. This whole sordid business — bad science based on racial classification —  seems to have started with a bunch of mid-19th century medical men convincing themselves that mixed race babies had essentially weaker immune systems than their “purer” parents and thus would likely die sooner.      Turns out, they didn’t. In fact, they mostly prospered. That’s no surprise. Botanists and biologists often point to "hybrid vigor," the tendency for offspring of different strains to be (at maturity) hardier and more disease-resistant than their inbred cousins. [The opposite effect, "out-breeding depression," does occur, but tends to be self-limiting due to selective pressures.] So “ethnic cleansing” is not only morally reprehensible; it’s catastrophic for your species’ health. [Which implies that if we wait long enough, skinheads might interbreed out of existence.] We journalists and communicators of science also have a pretty poor track record in these matters.  Too often have we trumpeted the discovery of a causative factor associated with race or ethnicity before it was rigorously proven to truly be one. So why pick on scientists to address this clearly social and cultural issue?  If not for the method of science, anything repeated often enough would eventually be considered truth. That’s just what has happened with the notion of race.  And it’s clearly important to fix it. So don’t believe what you think you see when you see a person who doesn’t look like you. Your first impression is at best a short-term sifting. And at worst an unfair prejudgment. The evolutionary sorting hat of humanity works with vastly more important criteria. Race has too long filtered the view of science — and nearly every other way that we relate to one another. In this time of important change, let’s finally change this.