Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A non-rhetorical question for people who believe race has no genetic basis

A certain class of trendy lefty and soft social science academic is fond of asserting loudly that 'race doesn't exist', or 'race is only a social construct', or other such nonsense. Bonus points are awarded when it is also asserted that 'science' has determined that race doesn't actually exist.

If there are any such people reading this diary, I have a proposition for you. I will bet you $1 at 1000-1 odds in your favor that by the end of this article I can ask you a question that you will not be able to give any coherent answer to if race has no genetic basis at all. If I'm right, you can pay me a dollar. If I'm wrong, I'll pay you a grand. Sound fair? We economists believe that those who think they're right should put their money where their mouth is, so here's mine.

One example of the 'race is just a social construct' acolyte is noted nitwit Justice Mordecai Bromberg at the Australian Federal Court. From his judgment in the disgraceful Andrew Bolt case:
"It is now well-accepted among medical scientists, anthropologists and other students of humanity that ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are social, cultural and political constructs, rather than matters of scientific ‘fact’. 
Despite what is now known about the invalidity of biology as a basis for race or ethnicity, legal definitions of Aboriginality, at least until the 1980s, exclusively concentrated on biological descent."
Got that? Mordecai Bromberg's lazy appeal to authority has declared it from the temple mount that everyone knows that race has no biological basis.

For sure, there are aspects of the way that we describe racial groups in casual conversation that vary over time and across countries. There were large changes over time in social acceptability of the Irish and Italians in America, for instance (although it's not clear they were thought of as being 'not white' as much as just 'not desirable'.) Barack Obama's race is viewed differently in America than it would be in Kenya or Brazil.

But this is a very different claim from the one they make, namely that race actually has no genetically identifiable basis at all.

I assert, dear reader, that this claim is laughably, demonstrably stupid, and that it is not hard to show that this is so.

To do this, there are two strands of argument you might consider.

First, you can patiently explain things like Lewontin's Fallacy, and the idea that race is best thought of as capturing the principle components of genetic variation in lots of alleles all at once. Want to bet on how much impact that's going to have?

But a much simpler technique is to pose the following conundrum:

If you go to 23andme, for a hundred bucks they'll send you a tube into which you can put a saliva sample. Send that tube back to them, and they'll analyse it in their lab and tell you the percentage of your ancestry made up by each different racial group.

Now, granted, if you're a diehard sceptic it's hard to prove that there answers are actually correct. But I would wager large amounts of money that if you have a reasonably good knowledge of what your family history is, they will give you answers that line up with that. I will also wager my entire life savings that they will not find that you have a majority of your DNA from an ethnic group that you neither look like nor have any known family history of. If you look white, and your parents look white, and they tell you that their parents came from England, it is vanishingly unlikely that 23andme will tell you that the majority of your ancestors 500 years ago were living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So here's my $1000 question to Mordecai Bromberg:

How do you think they're able to do that?

No joke. No rhetorical flourish. Take as long as you want to think about the answer. I've got my stack of hundreds at the ready.

In your own mind, how is 23andme actually generating these answers?  How are they able to pretty accurately describe the very same 'social constructs' that your parents were talking about using only information contained in your saliva?

Bear in mind that this is a huge puzzle even if the answers they're giving are imperfect and error prone. How are they able to generate any answers whatsoever? Dumb luck? Guessing? IP or postal addresses? Traces of food you've been eating recently contained in your saliva? Private Investigators?

Be careful which of these you answer, because they're all easily refutable. If it's private investigators digging into your family history, that's easy to test - just secretly send in a saliva sample from someone of a different race and don't tell them, and see what comes back.

But this aside, I genuinely have absolutely no idea how the blank slate see-no-race-hear-no-race crowd explains this magic to themselves.

Jim Goad very aptly described this kind of race fantasy. He called it 'liberal creationism'. And he's exactly right. It is an article of faith, not science. Science made up its mind long ago. The hypothesis that race has no genetic basis is not just falsifiable, but falsified.


  1. How about this argument?

    I think you're just pushing the social construct down (up?) a level from phenotype to genotype. The fact that phenotypes are reflective of genotypes is a trivial observation. The fact that genotypes are geographically distributed is a trivial observation.

    The fact that a particular constellation of phenotypic/genetic characteristics get lumped together and called 'race' is a social construct. Granted, the phenotypic variations that we call 'race' are generally pretty glaringly obvious, (as opposed to say, innie vs outie belly-button), but that doesn't make it any less a social construct. Not a particularly useful one, either.

  2. Interesting point. I started writing a long response, but decided to make it a new post which I'll put up in a sec.