The Genomics of Race and Identity
Reich starts out strong, telling the story of his work on identifying African-origin alleles that drive increased prostate cancer risk in African-Americans – and the dumbshit responses he got from his colleagues. He mentions an anthropologist that questioned his mention of “African” and ” European” DNA segments: he was flirting with racism. What a fool. By the way, there’s something odd and interesting in that early result: why would most of the risk variants all land in one small segment of the genome? But back to the fools: Reich talks about the anthropologists [ Montagu] , geneticists [Lewontin] , and sociologists that have argued that ‘race’ has no biological reality, that there are not really any significant biological differences between races, that research into such differences should be banned ( why is this necessary if differences don’t exist?), etc. All liars, of course. Although I can think of a few people saying similar things that are not liars: they’re just not very bright.
Speaking of such differences, here’s one Reich elucidated a few years back. The white count (white blood cells, neutrophils) is about a standard deviation lower in people of African descent than it is in Europeans? Why? Turns out it is innate, biological and quite simple: there’s a variant of the DARC gene that has a frequency > 99% in West Africans and < 1% in Europeans: that variant causes the lower white count. That African DARC variant is an almost perfect defense against vivax malaria, which is surely why it became so common.
Reich explains how recent genetic analysis shows that people’s genes cluster in ways that correspond pretty well with old-fashioned notions of ‘race’. He prefers to talk about 'ancestry', because (in his view) the word 'race' is too ill-defined and loaded with historical baggage. Whatever.
He goes on to say that people that deny the possibility of substantial differences between populations just can't do it anymore: they're putting themselves in an indefensible position. He is wrong: sure, their position is logically indefensible, the facts are against it, but what does that matter? The significantly crazier idea that there are no differences between the sexes – that sexual dimorphism itself is a myth promulgated by the Gnomes of Zurich or the orbital mind-control lasers – has become very powerful in much of the Western world: barking-mad craziness apparently doesn't need to defend itself.
He says that geneticists have tended to 'obfuscate' on this topic, mentioning Richard Lewontin. I'd put it a bit differently: they lie.
Reich mentions independent genome bloggers, some of them skilled analysts, who are on the whole less inclined to go along with the usual falsehoods. He thinks that means you can’t keep up the charade: again, he’s very likely wrong, not least because those skilled genome bloggers have a tiny audience. More important, Reich himself doesn’t want to keep up the charade. That may matter.
Reich goes on to demolish some fairly common false arguments about how different human races – excuse me, ‘ ancestral populations ‘ – really can’t be very different, at least not in any traits that would upset people. You know, for the same reasons that dog breeds can’t really be very different.
First, an argument that somehow it’s very hard, or takes forever, for natural selection to change traits that are influenced by many genes. I have no idea where this piece of nonsense originated – we’ve been selecting on highly polygenic quantitative traits forever and a day without any special problems. In the standard formulation for estimating the effects of selection, the number of genes influencing the trait drops out of the equation entirely. It just doesn’t matter. Reich understands this, not least because he’s done analysis of selection for height in Europeans.
Some might say that genetic influences in height are one thing, but surely genetic influences on cognition and behavior are mystically unknowable. Reich knows better: he knows that recent studies are finding those influences. Reich weasels a little, suggesting that these variants may influence educational achievement by influencing timing of childbirth – but probably not, since the pro-educational alleles also result in larger brains.
He also knows that the plus alleles, the ones that increase intelligence, are getting rarer at a scary pace, decreasing IQ at something like a point a generation. This illustrates a pattern with Reich: this was roughly understood a long time ago, just from looking at demography and fertility patterns. It was known before genomic analysis existed. Cyril Kornbluth knew about it back in the 1950s – thus his short story “The Marching Morons”. Reich could have known this when he was twelve, but I doubt if he did. Reich often seems to think that if a result wasn’t proved using powerful contemporary genomic methods (what he uses), it wasn’t really known at all. If I don’t know it, it’s not knowledge: that’s a wrong way of thinking.
next fallacy: human populations just haven’t been separated long enough to have changed much due to selection. He knows that’s not correct. He points out that in many cases populations have been separated for 50,000 years, while some African groups appear to have been separated far longer, perhaps 200,000 years. A recent study showed that there has been noticeable evolutionary change in the English over the past 2000 years: selection for increased height, infant head circumference, blondness, etc etc. If it can happen there in 2000 years, it can happen anywhere.
And he expects that more such racial differences will be found – but now he has to weasel again. He says that nobody knows what those differences will be! So we might find that, in terms of fundamental biological potentials, Koreans are dumb while Pygmies are tall. Suuuuuuuuuuuuuure. That could happen.
Next he slams people that suspect that upcoming genetic genetic analysis will, in most cases, confirm traditional stereotypes about race – the way the world actually looks.
The people Reich dumps on are saying perfectly reasonable things. He criticizes Henry Harpending for saying that he’d never seen an African with a hobby. Of course, Henry had actually spent time in Africa, and that’s what he’d seen. The implication is that people in Malthusian farming societies – which Africa was not – were selected to want to work, even where there was no immediate necessity to do so. Thus hobbies, something like a gerbil running in an exercise wheel.
He criticized Nicholas Wade, for saying that different races have different dispositions. Wade’s book wasn’t very good, but of course personality varies by race: Darwin certainly thought so. You can see differences at birth. Cover a baby’s nose with a cloth: Chinese and Navajo babies quietly breathe through their mouth, European and African babies fuss and fight.
Then he attacks Watson, for asking when Reich was going to look at Jewish genetics – the kind that has led to greater-than-average intelligence. Watson was undoubtedly trying to get a rise out of Reich, but it’s a perfectly reasonable question. Ashkenazi Jews are smarter than the average bear and everybody knows it. Selection is the only possible explanation, and the conditions in the Middle ages – white-collar job specialization and a high degree of endogamy, were just what the doctor ordered.
Watson’s a prick, but he’s a great prick, and what he said was correct. Henry was a prince among men, and Nick Wade is a decent guy as well. Reich is totally out of line here: he’s being a dick.
Now Reich may be trying to burnish his anti-racist credentials, which surely need some renewal after having pointing out that race as colloquially used is pretty reasonable, there’s no reason pops can’t be different, people that said otherwise ( like Lewontin, Gould, Montagu, etc. ) were lying, Aryans conquered Europe and India, while we’re tied to the train tracks with scary genetic results coming straight at us. I don’t care: he’s being a weasel, slandering the dead and abusing the obnoxious old genius who laid the foundations of his field. Reich will also get old someday: perhaps he too will someday lose track of all the nonsense he’s supposed to say, or just stop caring. Maybe he already has… I’m pretty sure that Reich does not like lying – which is why he wrote this section of the book (not at all logically necessary for his exposition of the ancient DNA work) but the required complex juggling of lies and truth required to get past the demented gatekeepers of our society may not be his forte. It has been said that if it was discovered that someone in the business was secretly an android, David Reich would be the prime suspect. No Talleyrand he.
He doesn’t just slander, he lies. He says “most stereotypes will be disproved.” Want to bet? Most stereotypes are true – true everywhere. In what country do the Chinese disproportionately fill up the special ed classes? If we we’re talking cognition and personality, the behavioral geneticists keep finding that A. genetics matters, and B. The usual suspects, like family environment, don’t matter much.
There may be a few exceptions to ” what you see is what you get”, and understanding them might be very valuable: if some pop appeared to have a lot on the ball ( genetically) but isn’t doing well, there might be another cheap, simple solution, like iodine supplementation. And there will be differences that are fairly subtle and not much noticed, say in liver enzymes or the immune system, that might be highly relevant to disease prevention and treatment.
Reich’s position is that we don’t know anything until someone (him !) has analyzed it with modern genomic techniques. That’s ridiculous. Reich found that on average, given similar diets, northern Europeans are about a standard deviation taller than southern Europeans. But I already knew that, well before Reich was born. Seneca knew it: Tacitus knew it. There’s a reason the Byzantines hired plenty of Scandihoovians (including 7-footer Harold Hardrada) into the Varangian Guard. Mark Twain knew that Ashkenazi Jews were smart: he didn’t need IQ tests or GWAS for that.
If he thinks that the genetics typically push in a way that is the opposite of the patterns we actually observe, he must believe that environmental influences are very powerful, so much so that there’s not much point in even knowing genetic influence – and therefore not much impact from discovering them . But clearly he does worry. Why?
When he says that we don’t have any idea what we’ll find, he’s lying again.
But don’t think that deliberate deception rules out occasional confusion. Reich talks about the success of West Africans (and their diaspora) in track: all the male finalists in the Olympic 100-meter race since 1980 have had West African ancestry. Every men’s world record at every commonly-run track distance belongs to a runner of African descent.
He says that A. there could have been an upward shift in West African sprinting ability due to natural selection, which could easily lead to vast over-representation at the top level of competition, or B. West Africans might just have greater genetic variation, which would (he thinks) lead to a wider spread of abilities. And maybe that greater variation applies to cognitive traits, where Reich expects a higher proportion of sub-Saharan Africans with extreme genetically predicted abilities.
None of this is correct. First, we known damn well that the West African edge in track is due to systematic racial differences, not greater phenotypic variability. We know that blacks have shorter torsos and longer legs, more fast-twitch muscles, narrower hips, lighter calves. Those same characteristics are disadvantages in some other events, like swimming. The relatively more mesomorphic build of Europeans pays off in swimming, weightlifting, wrestling and field events. This kind of specialization is what you expect from systematic racial differences: you’d see a different pattern from significantly greater variability in one group.
The ‘greater variability” theory’s biggest problem is that none of its obvious implications actually happen. People of African descent just aren’t in general more variable in phenotype. I checked out the population variability in height in a number of African countries: it’s generally about the same as in the US or Europe. I checked out black variability in IQ (in the US) : it’s noticeably smaller than that in whites – about 12 or 13 points, instead of 15 – combined with a significantly lower average (about 85) If this “greater variability” idea were correct, blacks would be greatly over-represented at the very highest scores on cognitive tests – instead, they are greatly under-represented. If African-American success in track were due to greater variability, you’d see them dominate at the highest level of competition, but far less so in a typical high school. But you do see it in low-level competition, to the point where white kids increasingly don’t even bother to compete in black-dominated events.
Or you could look at domesticated animals, which always have less genetic variation their wild ancestors. Is the smallest wolf smaller than a Chihuahua – is the largest wolf larger than a Great Dane? No. Selection dominates. Or look at the results of breeding experiments: the general trend is that increasing heterozygosity leads to lower phenotypic variability.
I am surprised that Reich, who is a smart guy, would fall for this notion.