The below is an excerpt from How To Argue With A Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford.
In 2018, neo-Nazis in America introduced a new way of showing off their supposed racial superiority: they filmed themselves ‘chugging milk’—that is, gulping down cow’s milk with their shirts off in a ridiculous attempt to demonstrate their genetically encoded capacity to process lactose, a sugar in milk that cannot be digested by the majority of humans after weaning, apart from Europeans.
The gene mutations that allow this enzymatic ability—known as lactase persistence—arose in Europe around 8,000 years ago, and the ostentatious showcasing of a random mutation that nature selected to allow some people to drink milk throughout life without minor tummy troubles is somehow associated with their assertion of racial superiority. They are presumably unaware that the same mutations emerged independently and exist at a high frequency in Kazakhs, Ethiopians, Tutsi, Khoisan and many places where dairy farming was a significant part of their agricultural evolution, including not just milk from cows and goats, but camel milk for pastoralists in the Middle East.
Risible though milk chugging is, avowed racists have shown a great interest in modern genetics as a tool in their armoury, with a similar degree of misunderstanding of the complexities of human evolution and history as those who simply yearn to be a bit Viking. More broadly, population genetics is being co-opted to reaffirm old and natural tendencies that we have to seek meaning and identity in our societies. Attempts to justify racism have always been rooted in science—or more specifically in misunderstood, misrepresented or just plain specious science.
It never went away, but now we stand at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, racism is making an overt comeback, revitalized by the new genetics.
This science is hard. It relies on wading through the largest and most complex dataset that we are aware of—the human genome. The tools we apply to extract meaningful information from a code made up of 3 billion letters are immensely complicated too, statistical nightmares that require both expertise and deep thought. The history of race, of colonialization, empire, invasion and slavery is similarly tortuous, and the subject of serious academic scrutiny. But the expression of these disciplines is in everyone’s lives. Humans come packed with prejudices, taught, learnt and acquired through experience, and these can form the foundations of views that are not supported by contemporary science.
We crave simple stories to make sense of our identities. This desire is at odds with the reality of human variation, evolution and history, which are messy and extremely complicated. But they are recorded in our genes. The aim of this book is to anatomize and lay out precisely what our DNA can and can’t tell us about the concept of race.
Human genetics is the study of how we are different and how we are the same as each other: in individuals, in disease, in populations and in history. Most (though not absolutely all) contemporary geneticists disagree with the idea that genetic variations between traditional racial groupings of people are meaningful in terms of behaviour or innate abilities.
Yet academic papers continue to be published in which genetic bases for complex traits appear to be stratified by racial lines. Though papers in reputable journals via the process of peer review is the standard way of disseminating research, this is not a marker of some gold standard of truth. Instead, it is a signifier that the research is of a standard worthy of further academic discussion. Genetics is technical and statistical, and there are many ways to cut a cake, skin a cat or process a genome-wide association study.
Scientists disagree all the time about the significance of results, or the techniques deployed in their analyses. It is perfectly possible for a paper in a reputable journal to be flawed, or even wrong. That is why we publish—so that other experts can test our ideas. As distribution of research is pleasingly easier in the age of the internet, so also is the dissemination of poor arguments or misinterpretation by bad actors. As a result, the nuances of such academic discussions are lost in a mire of angry, scientifically illiterate assertions of tribalism, identity politics and pure racism disguised as science.
Often, these discussions are hampered not just by inexpertise, but by the imprecision of language. Race is a very poorly defined term. Since the seventeenth century, attempts to categorise people into racial types has resulted in the number of races being anywhere between one and 63. We talk casually of black people, or East Asians, or other categorisations of billions of people that primarily refer either to geographical land masses or a handful of physical characteristics—none more so than pigmentation.
Racism has many definitions; a simple version is that racism is a prejudice concerning ancestral descent that can result in discriminatory action. It is the coupling of a prejudice against biological traits that are inalterable with unfair behaviour predicated on those judgements, and can operate at a personal, institutional or structural level. By this definition, racism is something that has always existed, even though race as a concept has changed over time. The term ‘race’ has historically been synonymous with more scientific categories such as subspecies or biological type, but these categories have also been used to describe animals and vegetables, as well as tribes, nationalities, ethnicities and populations.
In modern biology, race has been used with more specificity, as informal categories that people generally understand due to contemporary common usage. But as a result of ever more precise taxonomy in humans, none of the historical or colloquial usages of race tallies with what genetics tells us about human variation. As a result, we are prone to saying glib things such as ‘race doesn’t exist,’ or ‘race is just a social construct.’
While these sentiments may be well-intentioned, they can have the effect of undermining the scientifically more accurate way of expressing the complexities of human variation, and our clumsy attempts to classify ourselves or others.
Race most certainly does exist because it is a social construct. What we must answer is the question of whether there is a basis to race that is meaningful in terms of fundamental biology and behaviour. Are there essential biological (that is, genetic) differences between populations that account for socially important similarities or divisions within or between those populations?
If race is a social construct, there is a biological basis to that too: the crude categorisation of peoples is done by physical traits such as pigmentation or physiognomy, and we have to acknowledge that these are characteristics that are determined in large part by the expression of genes, which vary between people and populations in ways that we can scrutinize with more depth and accuracy now than at any time in history.
Adam Rutherford is a British geneticist, author and broadcaster.
How To Argue With A Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford is published by W&N. It was released on February 6, 2020.