For a few days now, I have been trying to understand what that means. It's a sentence from Nathaniel Comfort's collective review in the current issue of Nature of three books on the science of race: Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History (Penguin, 2014), Michael Yudell's Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century (Columbia University Press, 2014), and Robert Sussman's The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea (Harvard University Press, 2014). Comfort is a professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
These books show the debate over whether race is a biological reality or not. Wade says yes. Yudell and Sussman say no. And Comfort says . . . . Well, he's confusing. On the one hand, "race is real, and race is genetic," which suggests that he agrees with Wade. On the other hand, race is not "really" genetic, which suggests that he agrees with Yudell and Sussman. So, which is it?
Comfort says that "race is certainly real" in being genetically based, because racial differences correlate with clusters of genetic variation. But then he says that these clusters of genetic variation are not "really" real, because they depend on "judgment calls" about how to draw the boundaries between races. As he indicates, Wade identifies first three principal races, then five, and then seven. Comfort points out that a recent study in Scientific Reports identifies 19 "ancestral components" of the human species. What this shows, Comfort argues, is that human genetic variation is a series of gradients with no absolute, discrete breaks between one genetic cluster and another, and therefore how one draws the boundaries depends on "one's training, inclination, and acculturation." This proves, Comfort insists, that races are not "really" real.
Comfort does not tell his readers, however, that Wade recognizes and responds to this point. Wade writes: "As with any species that evolves into geographically based races, there is usually continuity between neighboring races because of gene exchange between them. Because there is no clear dividing line, there are no distinct races--that is the nature of variation within a species" (92). If the races were absolutely distinct, they wouldn't be races, because they would actually be separate species (68, 71, 92, 121). Consequently, the division of human genetic variation into three races, five races, seven races, or more is "to some extent arbitrary" (94). But it does not follow from this that races are not "really" real. Racial genetic clustering is genetically real, even though there are no absolutely discontinuous gaps between the races that would define them as species. Comfort is totally silent about this point.
Comfort is also silent about why Wade protested against a letter in The New York Times denouncing his book and signed by many geneticists. Wade complained that while the signers of this letter claimed that his book was full of errors in reporting their genetic research, they refused to answer his plea for a list of these errors.
In looking into this, I noticed that one of the signers of the letter was Neil Risch, a geneticist at the Institute for Human Genetics at the University of California-San Francisco, who studies the genetic factors contributing to disease susceptibility and drug response. I also noticed that Wade had quoted from one of Risch's articles in Genome Biology (on page 97 of the book). So, I assumed that Risch must believe that Wade made some error in reporting the research in this article. But when I read the article, I could not see that Wade had committed any mistake.
Wade quotes this from Risch's article: "Effectively, these population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry--namely, African, Caucasion (Europe and Middle East), Asian, Pacific Islander (for example, Australian, New Guinean, and Melanesian), and Native American" (3).
Reading the article, I saw that Risch emphatically rejects the claim that "race is biologically meaningless." Like Wade, Risch points out that the lack of absolute discontinuity between the races does not deny the reality of race, unless one defines race as a separate species. He writes: "The existence of such intermediate groups should not, however, overshadow the fact that the greatest genetic structure that exists in the human population occurs at the racial level." He goes on to write:
"If biological is defined as genetic, then, as detailed above, a decade or more of population genetic research has documented genetic, and therefore biological, differentiation among the races. . . . If biological is defined by susceptibility to, and natural history of, a chronic disease, then again numerous studies over past decades have documented biological differences among the races. In this context, it is difficult to imagine that such differences are not meaningful. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a definition of 'biological' that does not lead to racial differentiation, except perhaps one as extreme as speciation" (4).Comfort is silent about this point. He is also silent about what Wade and other defenders of the biological reality of race say about human equality. Comfort opens his essay by saying that "what is really at stake in this debate" is "human social equality." He concludes the essay by hoping that the idea of "racial superiority" as biologically scientific will be refuted. He thus conveys the impression that people like Wade and Charles Murray believe that the biological reality of race shows the biological reality of racial inequality. Comfort doesn't tell his readers that, in fact, Wade and Murray have rejected racial superiority and affirmed human equality as a scientific fact. "People being so similar," Wade observes, "no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race" (9). "Human nature is essentially the same world wide," he asserts (244). And there is "no factual basis" for the idea of an "Aryan master race" (19). Similarly, Murray has insisted that genetically based racial differences in average intelligence and social behavior should be "no big deal" in a free society with equality of opportunity in which there's a chance for all to find valued places for themselves in society. Comfort is silent about all of this.
Comfort is also silent about how emphatic Wade is in rejecting racism. Comfort reports that racist and "human biodiversity" (HBD) groups are delighted by Wade's book. But Comfort does not report that Wade argues against the racial tribalism that is fundamental for these groups. As Wade indicates, the move to inclusive liberal institutions must overcome tribalism, which is the instinctive xenophobic propensity to favor one's own group over others. Racism is an expression of such tribalism, in favoring one's race over others. Here one can see clearly why Wade's argument is not racist: at the core of his argument is his claim that the tribalism of racial ethnocentrism belongs to an ancient stage of human evolution that has to be overcome to move into modern states and inclusive institutions (see Wade, 136, 173-82, 196-97).
I have written a lot about these points in posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Comfort has written a blog post on my post here. Notice that instead of responding to my points, he engages in snide ridicule.
Nathaniel Comfort, "Under the Skin," Nature, 513 (18 September 2014): 306-307.
Graham Coop, et al., Letter to the New York Times, August 8, 2014.
Neil Risch, et al., "Categorization of Humans in Biomedical Research: Genes, Race, and Disease," Genome Biology, 3 (2002): 2007.1-2007.12.
Daniel Shriner, et al., "Genome-Wide Genotype and Sequence-Based Reconstruction of the 140,000 Year History of Modern Human Ancestry," Scientific Reports, 4 (13 August 2014): 6055.
Nicholas Wade, Letter to the New York Times, August 22, 2014.