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Is race genetic?

Advances in genealogy and DNA analysis tell surprising and disturbing stories about the heritage we think we know


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Laura Miller
October 13, 2014 2:00AM (UTC)

A bestselling European novelist, while on a recent American book tour, was approached by a woman clutching a manilla folder. "We're related!" she told him, opening the folder to reveal old black and white photos, documents and a family tree. She pointed to a dour-looking 19th-century lady posing stiffly in a black dress and explained that this was her great-great-grandmother, the novelist's great-great-great-aunt.

He was kind and patient, but clearly no more than mildly interested in the materials she treasured. Maybe he had more relatives than he knew what to do with back home. Maybe the whole thing was too reminiscent of the years when his homeland was occupied by a foreign power pathologically obsessed with establishing "pure" lineages. Or maybe he just believes in looking forward rather than back. He had, after all, books to sign, cities to visit and even more books to write once he got back, and perhaps defining himself by a future he can shape seems a lot more appealing than dwelling on the past he can't.

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Many Europeans see genealogy as a peculiarly American preoccupation -- and of course billions of people in places like China view it merely as a human one, the way we make sense of our place in the world. Christine Kenneally, an Australian journalist and the author of "The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures," has talked to adherents of both sides and has a lot of ideas about "what gets passed on," as she puts it. Where Kenneally comes from, the "bad blood" of convicts transported from Britain to the antipodes was once regarded as a cause for shame, something best not talked about by their descendants. No longer: she recalls working on a school project in which her classmates happily dug up convict ancestors to boast about.

A good bit of "The Invisible History of the Human Race" is devoted to defending genealogy and the desire to know one's lineage. Apparently, many historians look down on the amateur penchant for tracing family trees; it is not research but "mesearch," too small-picture, too personal to constitute true scholarship. To the layperson, disproving this canard (which Kenneally does neatly) hardly seems a battle that demands to be fought, but when Kenneally takes up the subject of DNA and race, she enters more hotly contested territory. What does it mean to link the slippery concept of race to the scientific study of genetics and the historical facts that constitute an individual's ancestry?

This question was raised in a far more controversial way earlier this year, with the publication of "A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History," by Nicholas Wade. Wade's book argues that race, a social institution, is rooted in the biological reality of genetic differences between population groups -- at least three major ones (Caucasians, Africans, East Asians), although Wade does refer to subgroups within them. Wade insists that vast swathes of the scholarly community, centered in the discipline of anthropology, deny that any such biological foundations for the notion of race exist. They do this, Wade asserts, because they are entrenched in "leftist" ideology, and they have succeeded in suppressing any scientific study or acknowledgement of just how far those genetic differences extend.

Wade's book was widely panned in publications ranging from the New York Times Book Review to American Scientist and Scientific American. While all of his critics acknowledged that population groups can be distinguished genetically, some pointed out that this fact is hardly samizdat. "When Henry Louis Gates Jr. sends a sample of his DNA off to find out how much is of African versus European origin — and then acts as host of a PBS miniseries in which he broadcasts the results — it seems hard to maintain that educated people deny that DNA sequences differ subtly among continents," wrote H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books. You'd also be hard pressed to come up with a more established, politically progressive academic than Gates.

Wade drew the most intense fire, however, with the latter half of "A Troublesome Inheritance," in which he argued that because population groups can be distinguished genetically, the economic, social and political differences among them most likely have biological causes. Although Wade himself admits that these arguments are "speculative," he manifestly wants them to be true and keeps slipping into asserting them with far more conviction than the evidence warrants.

That's because the evidence, as Wade's numerous critics have pointed out, is pretty much nonexistent. In August, 144 geneticists and biologists -- many of whom performed the research Wade cites in "A Troublesome Inheritance" -- sent an open letter to the New York Times, protesting "Wade's incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences," and stating "there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures." (No doubt they sent it to the Times because until a few years ago Wade was a staff writer for the science section of that newspaper.) In particular, they single out as spurious Wade's attempt to cast their findings as evidence that there are biological causes for "worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development." (Wade, in a statement, countered that the letter's signatories probably had not read his book and claimed that they only reject arguments like his because they fear "damaging their careers.")

Kenneally's book offers a far more judicious view of what gets "passed down" -- the term is useful because it acknowledges that we all receive a package of influences from the people who bring us into the world and raise us, some of which are genetic, some of which are cultural and some of which are environmental. All of these combine with chance and historical forces to form the cocktail of identity; separating the different sources afterwards is as easy as unmixing a Mai Tai into its constituent ingredients.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. himself serves as an excellent example. He's "black," that is, African-American (as well as a professor of African-American Studies), although the aforementioned DNA analysis revealed that 60 percent of his genetic material is of European origin. Does this make him less black? Not on that infamous evening in 2009, when Gates was arrested by a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts while attempting to enter his own house.

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Yet what Gates learned about his genetic ancestry did change how he understood his identity, and he would later announce on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that he and the officer who arrested him share a common ancestor in the Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages. That's the gist of much of the genealogy- and genetics-based programming that Gates has hosted for the Public Broadcasting Service, shows like "African American Lives" and "Finding Your Roots": We are all more connected than we realize.

Kenneally offers several stories of individuals who learned via DNA analysis that they had Native American or Jewish ancestors and who then decided to learn more about or participate in the cultural practices associated with those identities. If they had not learned about their genetic backgrounds, they would likely never have visited a synagogue or an Indian reservation. Therefore, what they may experience as the call of their genes could just as easily be attributed to culture: the culture that makes DNA analysis possible, accessible and meaningful to ordinary citizens.

As Kenneally writes, "the categorical boundaries we draw between people when we talk about race are always in part culturally determined; they never exactly fit onto real populations." No doubt there are some anthropologists who deny that race has any biological meaning at all -- and they have a point, given that, as Keneally writes, "the collection of traits that are supposed to distinguish different races changes in different eras, depending on who has power and who doesn't. Not only is race defined with a good deal of arbitrariness, but who gets to define it changes too." Yet the fact remains that certain physical traits as well as certain DNA markers (markers which may or may not have any input in creating the individual -- there's a lot of "junk DNA" in that double helix) can be roughly associated with certain continental populations.

But if some social scientists go too far in dismissing DNA, many genetic fundamentalists consistently underestimate the power and persistence of culture. A particularly hilarious example of this shortcoming is a 2003 study, "Proper and Dark Heroes as DADS and CADS: Alternative Mating Strategies in British Romantic Literature," which attempted to prove that characters from Walter Scott novels reflected innate "mating" preferences in women. (In short, female college students who read excerpts from the novels said they found the "bad boy" types sexy but would pick the steadier fellows as husbands.)

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Whether or not such preferences reflect what women are genetically "programmed" to desire, the study absurdly used hugely influential cultural artifacts (Scott's novels, though seldom read today, shaped 19th-century popular literature which in turn shaped 20th- and 21st-century popular culture) to prove that culture has a negligible influence on people's fantasies. It's a little like saying that the fact that most Americans endorse the principles expressed in the Bill of Rights indicates that such beliefs must be encoded in the American genome.

One of Wade's most incendiary arguments is that conditions in the tribal societies of sub-Saharan Africa have selected for people who are genetically more aggressive and less trusting than those descended from members of more developed nations. This, Wade, believes, probably explains why democratic institutions have been so difficult to establish in post-colonial Africa. But Keneally describes in some detail another hypothesis regarding the same problem, this one formulated by Harvard economist Nathan Nunn. Nunn noted that those African countries which "lost more people to the slave trade were also the poorest countries today." This despite the fact that those same nations had once "been among the best-developed economies and best-organized states on the continent."

Nunn noted research indicating that "almost 20 percent of slaves had been betrayed [to slave traders] by people to whom they were close": clan leaders, neighbors and even relatives. He teamed up with Leonard Wantchekon, a native of one of the most affected countries, Benin, to study the long-term effects of such an endemic undermining of trust, given that trust is essential to building social and political institutions and complex economies. And indeed, they found that "the groups that were most exposed to the slave trade over one hundred years ago were also the groups with the lowest levels of trust today."

Wade would probably argue that this legacy is genetic, that only those Beninians who were mistrustful remained in the region (the rest being abducted by the Atlantic slave trade), and that these people passed on their "mistrustful" genes to their descendants, thereby blighting the nation's future. (Never mind that most geneticists say they've never been able assign social behavior to specific genes.) Nunn and Wantchekon, on the other hand, believe that the trauma of the slave trade instilled a culture of mistrust that has been handed down from generation to generation. Wantchekon summoned countless examples of this heritage out of his own personal experience, from the warnings of relatives to "watch out for that guy" to proverbs, the lyrics of popular songs and figures of speech used by small children, all expressing an ethos of suspicion and the expectation of treachery.

Like a lot genetic fundamentalists, Wade also seems to believe that undesired cultural influences can be easily extinguished within a generation or two. Therefore, if a problem persists, it must be because the behavior or attitudes causing it are biologically hardwired. But cultural values and beliefs are not so easily subdued, especially when they serve economic, political and social self-interest. How pleasant it would be for Westerners to conclude that Africa's problems are the result of genetics rather than hundreds of years of exploitation at the hands of our forefathers! No wonder we keep coming up with such explanations. Add to this the troubling reality that human beings are exquisitely suggestible and that many of the suggestions we absorb have to do with our "blood." Some of us are undoubtedly born bad, but many of us are just drawn that way by the people around us.

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Kenneally would like to see an interest in our own ancestry separated from unsavory associations with everything from class snobbery to racism and eugenics. As scientists continue to search for genetic markers for diseases, access to genealogical information has increasingly come to be seen as a right, particularly for adoptees. At the same time, geneticists reiterate that human behavior is too complex in both its causes and its expression to be tied to particular genes.

Gates' televised explorations of personal ancestry demonstrate that DNA often puts the lie to the stories our ancestors told themselves. In America, blacks and whites were not only never equal, they were never separate: two years ago, researchers at Ancestry.com, a major genealogical web site, revealed that Barack Obama is descended from John Punch, the first documented slave in the colonies -- on his white mother's side.

Kenneally offers example after example of how the work of amateur genealogists and professional geneticists is rewriting history both in academia and the popular imagination. Wade and his camp (some of whom call themselves "racial realists") want us to believe that biology dictates a future that can't diverge much from the past. But what genetics may end up proving is that the past never was what we thought it was to begin with.

Further reading:

David Dobbs reviews "A Troublesome Inheritance" for the New York Times Book Review

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Greg Laden reviews "A Troublesome Inheritance" for American Scientist

Eric Michael Johnson reviews "A Troublesome Inheritance" for Scientific American

H. Allen Orr reviews "A Troublesome Inheritance" for the New York Review of Books

Letter to the New York Times Book Review from 144 scientists protesting "A Troublesome Inheritance"

Nicholas Wade's response to the letter sent to the NYTBR

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"Proper and dark heroes as DADS and CADS" by Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne Fisher and Ian Jobling

NBC News on Ancestry.com's claim to have established that Barack Obama's mother was descended from the first documented American slave


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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