Racist genetics

What is the “scientific” racist hypothesis?

I can’t get my head round genetic racism. I don’t mean why people believe comforting rubbish, that’s easy to understand. I mean: what exactly is the proposition? “Blacks are naturally dumber than whites” doesn’t hack it. “Dumber” is usually defined as “scoring lower on IQ tests”. There’s a whole argument about the relevance of IQ, and its malleability as shown by the Flynn effect, but it is a reproducible test with a fair correlation with other sorts of mental skills, so the meaning is clear and I’ll let it ride for the sake of the argument. But just who are “blacks” and “whites”, in multi-ethnic populations like that of the USA with a long history of miscegenation? My genetic knowledge is pretty thin, but it may be interesting to see how far you can get on the genuine science with Wikipedia articles, until someone with real expertise shows up.

There is no black race. Africa is the origin of humanity and its inhabitants are genetically diverse; more so than those of the continents colonised later by subgroups of African migrants and their descendants, including those transported by force like black Americans and white Australians. Further, dark skin is the human baseline. We acquired it at latest when hominids emerged from tropical forests about 1.2m BP and became biped hunter-gatherers on open savannah. Our ancestors lost their body hair, and acquired the genes for copious skin melanin that protected them from UV radiation and melanoma. Our great ape cousins the chimpanzees have pale skin under their body hair. (Curiously, the equally forest-dwelling and furry bonobos and gorillas have dark skin, for no obvious reason.)

The selective pressure on the now exposed hominids was very strong and the genetic change quite dramatic and universal, a “selective sweep” in trade lingo. There is no doubt that early homo and mulier sapiens were as black as their hominid ancestors going back a million years. That includes our oldest common ancestor  (“y-chromosome Adam”) and ancestress (“mitochondrial Eve”), though there is no reason to think they were contemporaries, let alone mates.

The paler skin of Europeans, many Asiatics, and Native Americans results from mutations in the opposite direction that became advantageous as they moved to higher latitudes. These supplied less UV radiation, but increased the risk of vitamin D deficiency, rickets. Pale skin is better for vitamin D synthesis. The distribution of skin tones reflects a roughly graded balance between melanoma and rickets. These migrations started only 100,000 years ago and have continued into historical times (the Polynesian radiation) and the contemporary era (immigration into the Americas), so the adaptation has not had time to run its full course. Aboriginal Australians have darker skin than typical Indonesians and Polynesians, who live closer to the Equator but stem from a later migration wave from the Asian mainland. There is little variation in skin tone between Native Americans across their vast range in latitudes, since they only arrived 15,000 years ago (cue for academic bunfight, the migration timeline is very controversial).

There is often only one way to do a complex procedure right, and several to mess it up. The normal melanin system that produces dark skin involves several genes. Several different mutations arose that screwed up melanin production, and they are not the same in pale-skinned Europeans and Asiatics. In Europeans the known alleles involved  are:

  • KITLG gene – rs642742 allele, “estimated to account for 15–20% of the melanin difference between African and European populations”
  • ASIP gene – rs2424984 allele
  • SLC24A5 gene – rs1426654 allele, “the variant represents as much as 25–40% of the average skin tone difference between Europeans and West Africans”
  • SLC45A2 gene – rs16891982 allele
  • TYR gene – rs1042602 allele, also linked to paler skin in South Asia
Haruka Abe, paleface Japanese actress

Pale skin in East Asia (the extreme case is the porcelain white skin in the geisha ideal of beauty) evolved separately, and calls on a different set of mutations, less studied so more uncertain:

  • OCA2 gene – rs1800414 allele, “shown to account for about 8% of the skin tone difference between African and East Asian populations in studies of an East Asian population living in Toronto and a Chinese Han population”

Candidate genes:

  • DCT or TYRP2 – rs2031526 allele
  • MC1R – rs885479 allele
  • ATRN – allele not identified

Racist genetics has to be a theory not of the inferiority of blacks but of the superiority of whites. The mutations that produced white skin must have miraculously produced higher IQ, through greater brain size or different brain development. Never mind that skin tone genes have no effect at all on eye or hair colour, so their reach into an entirely different system is implausible. Assume that the effect is possible. The scientific racist has to identify the gene or genes, and a plausible mechanism of action.

Could it be all of the mutations? IQ racists must accept that East Asians are not dumber than Europeans, according to the metric they have chosen. But their pale skin results from different genetic pathways. Two different sets of mutations must both have had the same magic effect. This is incredible.

Could it be one mutation only in each population? The mutations are common and overlap but are not universal, so there must be a large number of white Europeans and East Asians without the magic IQ gene. This should show up in a greater variance of the bell curves, once you correct for environmental variance.

The proposition looks testable. You could look at environmentally matched pairs of siblings, some with both having the hypothesised magic allele, some with one of the pair without. The magic effect should show up in a higher variance in IQ scores in the second group, and a higher mean score in the sibling with the magic allele.

The problem is getting the money for the study. It is hard to get funding for testing of highly implausible and divisive hypotheses advanced in bad faith by racist crackpots. Would it be worthwhile, as a measure of public policy, paying for the experiment in hopes of shutting the racists up? I doubt it. They would just shift their ground, as they have done before. The doctrine of white supremacy is impervious to evidence.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

22 thoughts on “Racist genetics”

  1. Not to feed the trolls, but…

    My understanding is that the Vitamin D hypothesis for white skin is a bit shaky. Meanwhile, the major genetic event that keeps getting pushed further back in time is the beginning of human-dog co-evolution. The inherent conservatism of academia is all that is stopping this from being a revolutionary change in the way we understand ourselves.

    Homo sapiens are an order of magnitude more social than any other primate. Our social behavior is more like wolves than chimps. Meanwhile, Neanderthals had bigger brains. Why did we conquer the world, killing off the megafauna as we went, including competing humans? Dog-human hunting teams.

    The evolution of white skin could be related to the anecdotal evidence of “racist” dogs: white skin evolved because higher levels of contrast on our faces proved easier for dogs to read.

    The hole in my speculation: the use of dogs by native Africans? I think the absence of studies is not evidence of absence.

    1. The first Australians were dark-skinned and crossed the Timor Straits with their dogs 40,000 years ago. Some of the dogs promptly went feral again. But I don't think this was because they couldn't read their masters' faces.

      "More like wolves than chimps". Citation? In Berkeley, more like bonobos.

      1. Jane Goodall in an interview. I’ll try to find a link. Also, the bonobos species of “peace and love” idea is waning I believe.

        1. I can’t find the quote (feel like I heard it on Guardian science podcast. May have been E.O. Wilson quoting Jane Goodall). But if you look at this paper on chimpanzee hunting, where only one group demonstrates clear collaboration http://www.eva.mpg.de/documents/Springer/Boesch_C

          And compare anything you’ve seen on wolves of Yellowstone, etc… It’s easy for me to imagine Neanderthals hunting like chimps and dog-humans hunting like wolves, with a clear result matching what we know from paleo-anthropology.

  2. Racism is only one expression of bullying. It is what we call bullying when the target appears to have been chosen on racial criteria. But all targets are fungible and all target selection criteria are false.

    All targets are targets of convenience. Blacks (…Jews, etc.) are convenient targets because they look different. Then there has to be (or there used to have to be, hold that thought) some pseudo-philosophy to justify persecuting that particular target. That is where genetics comes into play, pseudoscience to cover the "we're not just being irrational" base.

    What we see happening today is the eclipse of pseudo-philosophy, because it is all tl;dr . No one can any longer be troubled to learn, and learn to repeat, a body of propaganda. If you wanna break heads, break heads, as the song does not go.

  3. Whoa Nelly. I’ve never heard any of that Adam/Eve timing stuff. I am too tired now to learn about it – I just took a quick peek – but that stuff looks *very* fun. Thanks!

    Race – It’s “real" because we think it’s real. It’s all mostly about perceived cultural differences anyway – so proving all this science won’t solve the problem. Still, this is interesting stuff.

    On a totally unrelated subject – clearly I have *no one else* to talk to, so you-all here get my occasional rando thoughts – such as this one: supposing one wanted to help “ordinary Gazans,” (that is, the regular Jane and Joe ones … not the Hamas leaders, whose thinking often annoys me) – how would one go about this? The UN annoys me too – it seems unhelpful. Like, can’t someone just send them some effing water????? They can’t make water into weapons, after all. (At least I don’t see how.) Also some food? Could NATO do it? I get that it’s all very complicated, yadda yadda yadda … but meanwhile, I do rather think that we ought not to be letting what may (?) basically be hostages(?), suffer. What’s the deal? Why isn’t anyone doing anything?

    1. IIRC the EU regularly spends money on infrastructure in Gaza that the IDF blows up in the next flareup. Still, the radical idea that it would be good for young Palestinians to have a chance of productive jobs is still on the table, though it doesn't suit Hamas or Bibi to allow it to happen much.

  4. I know that racist genetics has progressed (ahem) since Rushton, but wasn't part of his argument that the correlation extended to the size of male reproductive organs (with the conclusion — based on I have no idea what data — that east asians were "superior" to europeans, but he was apparently OK with that because contrarianism and faux willingness to follow the evidence)? That would be in line, albeit in a semi-Lamarckian way, with the 19th-century argument against educating women (because it would shrivel their uteruses).

    But there must be some other alleles that control those characteristics, and you could do additional studies there. (Once again, if you could find rich wingnuts with enough attention span for funding.)

    Meanwhile, I'm not sure that your allele study would work, since you'd have to control for differential treatment, even within families, of children with different skin color. Oh, wait.

    1. Cultural whiteness is binary. Only mad Nazi eugenicists go round assessing people's skin colour with Pantone cards. In practice, parents surely don't discriminate between their children on the basis of minor variations in skin tone. Things may be different in mixed-"race" families where the variations can be much more marked through the Mendelian lottery; who knows?

      By the benchmark of the lovely Snow White Ms. Abe, Marine le Pen, David Duke and I are all suspiciously tan. It would actually be progress if that standard were adopted by racists, since very few people meet it, even in Sweden.

        1. This article only looks at African-Americans, a diverse group of mixed ancestry and therefore a wider variance of ship tone in siblings compared a more homogenous population of Africans or Europeans. Further, AA parents face colour-based discrimination and know their children will too, so differential treatment has a rationale. I'm waiting for evidence that "white" Europeans discriminate between children on the basis of fractional differences in culturally acceptable skin tone. It's possible: for a long time the "English rose" complexion of very pate skin (cf. Ms Abe again) was highly prized and doubtless gave its possessors an advantage in the aristocratic marriage market.

  5. If I'm reading you correctly, I think this post goes off-track in the end.

    Could it be all of the mutations? IQ racists must accept that East Asians are not dumber than Europeans, according to the metric they have chosen. But their pale skin results from different genetic pathways. Two different sets of mutations must both have had the same magic effect. This is incredible.

    Could it be one mutation only in each population? The mutations are common and overlap but are not universal, so there must be a large number of white Europeans and East Asians without the magic IQ gene. This should show up in a greater variance of the bell curves, once you correct for environmental variance.

    First, please understand that I am approaching this purely as an academic exercise. We all know that the racist view is unsupported by science.

    But I think you're failing to grasp the racists' argument here. They are asserting correlation, not causation: Lighter skin correlates to greater intelligence, but the two are caused by different genes and different selective pressures.

    Lighter skin (or sickle-cell anemia or malaria resistance or lactose tolerance or whatever) are primarily employed as analogies. Since these attributes are genetic and correlate to racial categories, it makes sense that other things, such as intelligence, work the same way.

    I mean, it's a frivolous argument, but it is what it is.

    1. You may be right that they think this way. That is, they have no idea how genes work, nor selection. You are left with no explanatory claim at all for the alleged correlation.

      Cavalli-Sforza (a real population geneticist) suggests that the genes for European pale skin spread in the Neolithic along with agriculture, which allowed a population boom as farmers displaced hunters. If agriculture creates a selection pressure, it's surely for dumbness and tolerance for monotonous, repetitive labour. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is much more demanding cognitively. Jared Diamond has a nice passage comparing some New Guinea lowland hunter-gatherers he knows with typical Americans: the former are much sharper-witted. They need to be.

      1. Well, they certainly have no good explanatory claim for the correlation, but they can still make up stories. One story is that the harsh winter climate requires greater intelligence for survival, and that climate also correlates with lighter skin.

        I was delighted by Diamond's claim about the New Guinea hunter-gatherers, but not because I think it has any plausibility. What I like about it is that if we're going to make up stories about selection pressures related to intelligence, there's absolutely no reason not to put the New Guineans at the top of the heap — or farmers at the bottom, as you not-seriously propose. Charles Murray, Andrew Sullivan et al absolutely refuse to consider the possibility of African American racial superiority — a possibility that their own interpretation of the data absolutely demands.

        Diamond is kind of a dope on the subject of racial intelligence, but Murray is a racist. (I think Diamond is kind of a crank in general in that he is a sucker for deterministic explanations — but that's what makes Guns, Germs and Steel so brilliant. I think he's right that the history of global wealth was much more pre-determined than historians, for example, are inclined to believe.)

      2. I too am glad if you are not serious about insulting farmers … ‘cause I gotta say, I do not think it is as easy as it apparently looks … to some of you. (Whereas, I can accept that it may sometimes be routine. And I have no doubt, also often grueling. So is working in a restaurant, for those of you who’ve never tried it.) I think civilization is upside down – farmers ought to be looked up to instead of investors (gamblers). Food is, like, *important.* ; )

        1. I doubt if a mere 8,000 years is enough to change genes significantly by selection pressure apart from disease resistance, though on paper Cavalli-Sforza's theory about the initial population boom changing frequencies in the overall population by chance is possible. Entirely agree that we should resist the cultural temptation to despise manual labour like say brain surgery.

  6. Recently finished "Is Science Racist" (Jonathan Marks) who makes a very strong argument for race as a social construct. Start with a pre-defined population based on say, skin color and geography, then look for genetic differences. Within groups variability is greater than between groups variability and total variability in H. sapiens is less than total variability in Pan sp. or Gorilla gorilla. As for IQ, I'm still not convinced that correlations between IQ and success aren't also correlated with privilege combined with a little bit of dumb luck, which, of course should never be mentioned in the presence of self-made men.

  7. There are large studies of correlations between genotype and IQ. There are some correlations but they are weak. For instance see

    I believe that the underlying studies are normalized by ancestry. If they were not, then the alleles that contribute to "blackness" (as understood in the US, i.e. darker skin and kinked hair) would probably show stronger correlations. That might be enough evidence for many racists.

  8. I think the Neanderthal genes will surprise us. There is more and more evidence they were really smart, traveled by boat, buried their dead way before "we" did, knew music and art. Maybe the first african emigrants in some way traded physical superiority for one or two more IQ points by mating with them? Research and time will hopefully tell.

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