Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Race and politics

Bo Winegard and Noah Carl have an interesting piece in Quillette, a review of the book Superior: The Return of Race Science written by Angela Saini. Pared down to its essentials, the review suggests that Saini has not divorced political correctness from a discussion of group differences in the human genetic inheritance.

Angela Saini’s new book, Superior, is a cautionary tale about the historical legacy, and putative return, of what she calls “race science.” As far as we can determine, there are four main theses running through the book:
  • ‘Race’ is not a meaningful biological category
  • Genes can only contribute to population differences on certain “superficial” traits
  • Studying whether genes might contribute to population differences on non-superficial traits is tantamount to “scientific racism”
  • Almost everyone interested in whether genes might contribute to population differences on these other traits is a “scientific racist”
To be blunt, we disagree with all four of Saini’s main theses, as we shall explain in this article. (Note that since the book is quite poorly structured, and in some places contradictory, it is not always easy to discern what Saini is or is not asserting. Nonetheless, we believe that the four propositions above comprise a fair summary of her main arguments.)

Winegard and Carl give their own summary of the situation, a summary which also encapsulates the problems we have with political correctness in this field.

A more plausible conception of race, one that is consistent with how careful philosophers and geneticists use the term, recognises that:

  • When humans began leaving Africa around 75,000 years ago, they dispersed across a much greater range of environments than they had previously inhabited.
  • The humans that settled in different geographic regions subsequently came under different selection pressures (e.g. temperature, seasonality, altitude).
  • Natural barriers such as oceans (e.g. the Atlantic), deserts (e.g. the Sahara) and mountain ranges (e.g. the Himalayas) impeded gene flow between different populations for substantial periods of time.
  • When there is limited gene flow between populations that have come under different selection pressures, we would expect them to gradually diverge from one another over via the processes of genetic drift and natural selection.

The piece is quite long but well worth reading. 

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