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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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