You might think given our biology, our common ancestry in Africa and advances in genetics, that the long human obsession with racial differences has now diminished. Wrong. The issue is as hot and contentious as ever it was, but now uses ‘genetic evidence’ to fuel claims and counter-claims depending on your world view.
Beliefs about human genetics have been used to justify atrocities throughout history. The pseudo-science of the eugenic movement early last century claimed evidence for the genetic superiority of particular ethnic groups. However, modern DNA testing has shown how genetically mixed we are through 50,000 years of migration. Even a blue-eyed blonde haired Scandinavian may variously have been ‘African’, ‘Middle-Eastern’ and ‘Eastern European’ throughout his ancestral history. Nevertheless, the idea of genetic superiority, which led ultimately to The Holocaust – a national policy of genocide based on race – still persists.
John Philippe Rushton is a Canadian psychology professor widely known for his highly controversial work on racial group differences. In an Internet Essay in 2001: Is Race A Valid Taxonomic Construct? he argues that racial differences make sense in terms of human evolution. Talking of migration out of Africa he says that the further north people went out of Africa, the harder it was to get food, shelter, make clothes, and raise children. So the groups that evolved into today’s Whites and Orientals needed larger brains, more family stability, and a longer life. The time and energy needed to build a bigger brain was a trade off with slower rates of growth, less aggression and less sexual activity. He claims that this racial pattern is evident all around the world: “…on average, African-descended children are born with smaller brains than European- or East Asian-descended children…”, and concludes that “Black underachievement is not simply due to ‘White prejudice’” because they are born with smaller brains than White or East Asian children. Rushton has provoked controversy for years and is criticised by many scientists and researchers for being poorly researched and promoting scientific racism. Robert Sussman, an evolutionary anthropologist and editor in-chief of American Anthropologist, said of one of Rushton’s books in 1998: “This is an insidious attempt to legitimize Rushton’s racist propaganda and is tantamount to publishing ads for white supremacy…If you have any question about the validity of the ‘science’ of Rushton’s trash you should read any one of his articles and the many rebuttals by ashamed scientists“.
A whole new wave of genetic race debate came in May 2010 with the reporting of the initial results of the Neanderthal Genome Project. These pointed to interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans which has left a genetic legacy of between 1-4% of Neanderthal autosomal DNA in non-African Eurasians. Blogger Lee John Barnes on far right wing website 21st Century British Nationalism seized on this to proclaim, “Yes Race exists” and outline The New Race Theory. He states that the fact that Modern Europeans are part Neanderthal explains racial differences. He translates the Neanderthal Genome Project Team’s ‘1-4% for all Eurasians’ into: “Modern Europeans have a minimum of 4% DNA from Neanderthals = Whites who are the descendants of the Cro-Magnons. East Asians have 2% DNA from Neanderthals = the Oriental racial groups. Black Africans have no DNA from Neanderthals = African blacks. It appears that Australian aborigines do not have any Neanderthal DNA either, so they are also archaic Homo Sapiens from Africa”. This is despite project team member, geneticist David Reich, saying that all non-Africans – be they from France, China or Papua New Guinea – share the same amount of Neanderthal DNA, suggesting that interbreeding occurred before those populations split. Genetic evidence also suggests that Australian Aborigines descend from the same lineage as the first modern humans to migrate from Africa. The US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on a study showing that the DNA of living indigenous Australians in Western Australia and people in New Guinea and around the Indian Ocean could be traced back to the first humans to leave Africa 50,000 – 70,000 years ago. The study also revealed very little gene flow into Australia and New Guinea in the 50,000 or so years since the initial migration and that Australian Aborigines evolved in relative isolation compared to other parts of the Indian Ocean, which were subject to much more genetic mixing. This doesn’t fit Lee John Barnes’ assertion that “the white skin of the Modern European people is inherited from our Neanderthal ancestors and is also shown by the pale skin tone of the East Asians as compared to modern Africans. The more Neanderthal DNA a racial group possesses, the lighter their skin tone.” He also makes a remarkable assertion that “The DNA difference between human beings and chimps is around 4 %. The percentage difference in DNA between Modern Europeans and Modern Africans is around 4 % as well in relation to the percentage of Neanderthal DNA. Therefore racial differences are as distinct between Modern Europeans and Modern Africans as between human beings and chimpanzees”.
Is this true? Richard McCulloch is an American author and also a noted white supremacist who has written several books advocating racial segregation. In an article called The Races of Humanity in 2010 he wrote about the percentages of genetic differences between various human populations and quoted the work of respected biologists Masatoshi Nei and Arun K. Roychoudhury, Evolutionary Relationships of Human Populations on a Global Scale (1993) as “perhaps the best study to date (2010) on this subject”. In presenting their original work Nei and Roychoudhury pointed out that their analysis was “an attempt to obtain a rough picture of the history of the evolution of various human populations”. Nevertheless McCulloch reformatted their data into “an easier to read and understand format”, adding the genetic difference of a chimpanzee “for context and comparison”, to produce the following table:
From his reinterpreted data of genetic distance, he said that one could, with an Englishman as a starting point, spatially visualise the “very significant genetic differences” between various populations by imagining them standing a corresponding number of feet away from each other.
Even if you accept these figures at face value (and what constitutes an average ‘Englishman’ or ‘North American Indian’) I visualise McCulloch’s idea better by imagining myself, as an Englishman, meeting my international friends in Blackburn town centre then sending them off on a genetic journey. Travelling ‘as the crow flies’ roughly south-east, the German in this sample would stop at the outer suburbs of Blackburn, 2 miles away in Guide. The Italian would stop 7 miles away in Haslingden. The northern Indian would stop 20 miles away in Salford, with the Iranian stopping nearby in Manchester. The Japanese would stop at the southern tip of the Peak District 61 miles away and the Chinese would stop at Derby 73 miles away. Both the Polynesian and the San-Bushman of Botswana would stop at Leicester 96-97 miles away. The Australian Aborigine would stop at Northampton 122 miles away and the Nigerian would stop a few miles short of Milton Keynes 133 miles away, still 50 miles short of London. Meanwhile, the chimpanzee would be dodging the bombs in Tripoli, Libya, on the North African coast. The common woolly monkey would be halfway round the world in New Zealand and my pet dog would be back in Blackburn with me, having circumnavigated the planet.
Nevertheless, for McCulloch, and those who share his world view, all of these distances are enough to categorise the human species into objective biological divisions. This is not just the view of white supremacists. Rasta Livewire on africaresource.com is a blog that provides “indepth and varying viewpoints” from Rastafarians in Africa and the African Diaspora. In a July 2010 article, Oguejiofo Annu covers The Neanderthals’ Genome: European, Asians and their other Ancestor. He asserts that, “Those so-called white European researchers, searching for their ancestral links had compared the Neanderthal genome with the genomes of five living people: one San from southern Africa, one Yoruba from West Africa, one Papua New Guinean, one Han Chinese and one French person. To their amazement, those scientists discovered that 1% to 4% of the latter three sample DNA (being the New Guinean, the Han Chinese and the French genome) is shared with Neanderthals — indubitable scientific proof that Neanderthals were part ancestors of Europeans and Chinese. The west African samples were found not to have any neanderthal genes confirming that black west Africans are the original pure human beings. The ape gene lies with the other nations, Africans come from the original human stock.…According to experts the genetic flow between Neanderthals and early modern humans might have been as high as 10% to 20%, but today it is at 3% to 4%. That is still enough to result in different cognitive, and psychological make-up, even to some extent in physical makeup”.
Richard Lewontin, a professor of biology and zoology, counters these views in his 2006 article Confusions About Human Races. He says that with our increasing knowledge of human genetics “race has ceased to be seen as a fundamental reality characterizing the human species”. The human species as a whole has immense genetic variation from individual to individual. About 85% of that variation is among individuals within local national or linguistic populations. Of the remaining 15% of human variation, about 6% to 10% is between the ‘classically defined geographical races’ identified by skin colour, hair, and facial features. He concludes that the imprecise way that the proportion of variation between ‘races’ has been assigned is because there is no objective way to assign the various human populations to clear-cut races. Genetic differences between groups are in the process of breaking down because of the very large amount of migration and intergroup mating that has always occured in the history of the human species, but is now more widespread than ever. Individuals identified by themselves or others as belonging to one ‘race’, based on the visible features used in classical race definitions, are likely to have ancestry that is a mixture of these groups. As genetics has advanced it has became possible to identify genetic differences between each individual and each population of every species, to the extent that every population is a separate ‘geographic race’ and nothing is added by the racial category. Zoologists long ago gave up using ‘race’ to categorise groups of animal populations within a species, because so many of these races turned out to be based on only one or two genes – two animals born in the same litter could belong to different ‘races’. The questioning of the use of racial categories is spreading into anthropology and human biology, but is meeting much resistance from societies and cultures across the world which need to assert ‘the social reality of race’ and to maintain “a biological reality of human racial categories despite the evidence to the contrary”.
This view is supported in an article in the May-June 2011 edition of Harvard Magazine: Race in a Genetic World. In it, Spencer Wells, a former PhD student of Lewontin’s who now heads the joint National Geographic Society-IBM Genographic Project, was asked about the question of race. He said “Racism is not only socially divisive, but also scientifically incorrect. We are all descendants of people who lived in Africa recently. We are all Africans under the skin. The kinds of differences that people notice, such as skin pigmentation, limb length, or other adaptations are basically surface features that have been selected for in the environment. When you peer beneath the surface at the underlying level of genetic variation, we are all much more similar than we appear to be. There are no clear, sharp delineations.”
The Face of Tomorrow project. Individual pictures blended together to create the ‘average’ female face of each country (they look ‘above average’ to me!)
In a 1985 article on the ‘illusion of race’ by Anthony Appiah, associate professor of philosophy, African studies, and Afro-American studies at Yale he said that statistics on genetic variation can be used to make interracial difference seem either large or small. However, the “statistical facts about the distribution of variant characteristics in human populations and sub-populations are the same, whichever way the matter is expressed. Apart from the visible morphological characteristics of skin, hair, and bone, by which we are inclined to assign people to the broadest racial categories – black, white, yellow – there are few genetic characteristics to be found in the population of England that are not found in similar proportions in Zaire or in China; and few too (though more) which are found in Zaire but not in similar proportions in China or in England…the differences between peoples in language, moral affections, aesthetic attitudes, or political ideology – those differences which most deeply affect us in our dealings with each other – are not biologically determined to any significant degree”.
The initial findings of the Neanderthal Genome Project has led to concerns within the Team itself that they may ignite racial divisions which they are keen to play down. David Reich has stated, “One thing that is important to keep in mind is that the Neanderthal ancestry in modern non-Africans occurs at a very low percentage – 1-4% – and hence only explains a tiny proportion of the genetic heritage of non-Africans. There is no evidence at all that the Neanderthal ancestry present in non-Africans confers any disadvantage or susceptibility to disease that marks them out as different from people who have not inherited African ancestry“. Another team member, biomolecular engineer Ed Green said there is no evidence that anything genetically important came over from Neanderthals. “The signal is sparsely distributed across the genome, just a ‘bread crumbs’ clue of what happened in the past,” he said. “If there was something that conferred a fitness advantage, we probably would have found it already by comparing human genomes“.
Lee John Barnes on 21st Century British Nationalism says that he is proud of his Neanderthal heritage. I am proud of mine too. But not because I believe like he does that “our genius as a race comes from our Neanderthal heritage” and that it specifically conferred on White Europeans some sort of genetic advantage to linked to art, culture and technology. I am proud of it because it makes my ancestry more interesting. I rank it alongside my 1,000 year old Viking ancestry, my 40,000 year old Y-Haplogroup I ‘European aborigine’ ancestry, and my original African ancestry, purely as points of geographic and historical fascination – for me, nothing more needs to be inferred.
5 ways a DNA Test can change your world view: