Tag Archives: genetics

Scientific racism

Posted by Matt

First of all, Nick and I would both like to solemnly swear that this blog is not dead. it’s just been on graduation-related hiatus. In two weeks, we’ll be done and you’ll be bombarded with so much science you’ll be reciting the periodic table in your sleep. As we speak, I’m planning to write about my thesis work and about an initiative I’m involved in to convince Congress that disposable bags are bad.

But for now, some thoughts on a story Nick showed me. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that a third year Harvard Law student would believe that white people are smarter than black people. Racism, in all its forms and gradations, is still rampant in America. But what really hurts me on a molecular level is that she thinks there might be a genetic basis for her belief.

There is not. We tend to think there is a greater genetic difference between the social constructs we call races than there actually is, because differences in skin color and facial features appear dramatic. In reality, the genetic difference between light and dark skin is miniscule to the point of being inconsequential compared to the rest of the genome. The genes for skin color are also some of the most easily influenced by the environment. If you took a population of Swedes and put them in the middle of Africa, in 5-10,000 years they would be black.

We are one of the least genetically diverse animals on the planet, because we originated from such a small population in Africa. At some point, a small subset of that population broke off and populated the rest of the world. Because of that, Africans are actually more genetically diverse than the rest of the world combined. There is liable to be more substantial, consequential genetic difference between different regions of Africa than between Europe and Asia.

This is why it’s ludicrous to compare “white” and “black” people genetically. The Harvard student thinks that if you raised 100 white babies and 100 black babies together under utopian conditions, it would prove once and for all the differences between the races. Unfortunately, if you really wanted representative samples, the black population would be so much more diverse than the white population that the study would actually be pretty meaningless.

The state of scientific education all over the world is miserable. Maybe I’m being hopelessly optimistic, but I believe that if people really understood the science of genetics and evolution, there would be so much less controversy over these things.

I’d also like to take this time to point out this excellent blog on human intelligence by David Shenk, who just published a book called The Genius in All of Us. I intend to dig into a lot of this fascinating stuff in the near future, so watch this space.

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Making Carbon Dioxide usable?

Posted by Nick

This is a little bit late, but engineers at UCLA recently reported that they were able to successfully modify some bacteria to produce isobutanol from photosynthesis instead of sugars.  Pretty damn cool, because isobutanol is a useful alternative fuel that burns relatively clean.  Also cool because the process consumes carbon dioxide, as all photosynthetic processes do.


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Welcome to Empirical International

Posted by Matt

The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA.  Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.  ~Lewis Thomas

Think about that for a second. Any “progress” that this experiment we call life has made over the past four and a half billion years has been largely the result of error and happy accident. Imagine the sheer amount of random aggregation of atoms, self-replicating molecules, miscopied genes, haphazard genome augmentation and reduction that has gone into the creation of a brain with the capacity to even read this sentence, let alone develop the computer on which you’re reading it.

With that in mind I’m launching this blog, encouraged by the hope that even an accumulation of my misremembered facts and erroneous conclusions may one day blossom into something so awe-inspiring. Really, I’m just using it to practice writing about science. As an undergraduate who’s just begun work on his senior thesis, I have way too much access to cool information and an astounding capacity to procrastinate. My main interest is ecology, so I guess I’ll be writing mostly about that. Check back in the near future for posts on good science, bad science, science in the news, the philosophy of science, and even things that may not be related to science at all.

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