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May 20, 2005


I'm on semi-vacation, but I want to give a quick blurb to Armand Leroi's Mutants. This is a really entertaining book, though if you aren't into developmental biology and epigenetics, you'll have to get used to weird uses of words like "abolished" (or "silenced," for some reason specific technical uses of these terms in molecular/developmental genetics always sounds pompous to me, I always imagine methyl groups going ssshhhh!!! in a school-marmish fashion). The pictures are pretty bizarro, and I've had multiple queries from strangers asking what the hell I'm reading. Also, there is stuff on midgets in here, so it's already a keeper in my book (though some of the midget stuff is Mengele related, so that was kind of a downer).

Jason Malloy adds: This might also be a good time to share a website I stumbled onto many weeks ago and never got around to posting:

'Race and Genomics'. It features new articles from a number of familiar people in the anti-race crowd specifically commenting on Leroi's March pro-race essay, A Family Tree in Every Gene in the New York Times. Probably of most interest is the response by Richard Lewontin. It's hard to know what arguments Leroi actually made that Lewontin could be fighting against when he writes things like this:

"For purposes of medical testing we do not want to know whether a person is “Hispanic” but rather whether that person’s family came from a Caribbean country such as Cuba, that had a large influx of West African slaves, or one in which there was a great deal of intermixture with native American tribes as in Chile and Mexico, or one in which there was only a negligible population of non-Europeans. Racial identification simply does not do the work needed. What we ought to ask on medical questionnaires is not racial identification, but ancestry. “Do you know of any ancestors who were (Ashkenazi Jews, or from West Africa, from certain regions of the Mediterranean, from Japan)?” Once again, racial categorization is a bad predictor of biology."

Heh. So note the following "ancestry" categories (just don't call em' "racial" categories!) Lewontin advocates as informative about human genetic difference:

1) Japanese (national group)

2) Ashkenazi Jews (ethno-religious group)

3) West African (broad geographical region)

4) Non-European (i.e. Amerindian - continental group)

If this is true, Lewontin has nothing else important to argue about - he admits that genetic diversity tracks patterns of historical social and geographic endogamy, and that these patterns can carry genetic and trait relevant information. "West African" is not just a social construct, because West Africans are not an ethnic group. West Africans in Haiti, Cuba, Ohio, Canada, and Senegal do not share a social identity, they do share genes and ancestry.

If Lewontin wants to argue that Japanese, West-African, and Amerindian "ancestry" is informative about genetic differences (with varying levels of resolution) then there isn't much of substance to argue about, though we can quibble about whether we want a trendy euphemism to describe this differentiation that exists below the species level. But let's not pretend that biology doesn't already have a word for this, or that it has rejected this word - because it does and it hasn't.

And it hardly needs saying that quantitative genetic traits like intelligence, personality, and all manners of behavior, can certainly differ distributionally by these genetically informative groupings as well, and almost certainly do to some extent. No argument that Lewontin could produce would make these facts go away (though he makes plenty of arguments that effectively muddy them), and I know that tears him up inside, but he doesn't need to take it out on messengers like Armand Leroi or Theodosius Dobzhansky.

Related: Human biodiversity hits The New York Times, THE NATURE OF NORMAL HUMAN VARIETY, Race Does Exist -- New York Times, Debunking Leroi, Responses to

Posted by razib at 01:04 PM