On Race, Genetics, and Pseudoscience

How do scientists talk about race? For quite some time a small group of geneticists have been engaged in deep conversations about how best to convey the complexities of, and the relationship between race, DNA, and human variation to the general public. We come from different backgrounds—Ewan is the director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, Adam is a geneticist and science writer, Aylwyn is a human evolutionary geneticist, and I am an anthropological geneticist—and nationalities, but are united in our agreement that patterns of human genetic variation do not support the biological division of people into races.

Over the course of a year, we worked together on a statement that best reflects our consensus view of human genetic variation, race, and even the fraught topic of race and IQ. We wanted to correct the misconceptions that many people have about these topics, and directly confront a number of untrue ideas promoted by a small group of pseudo-scientists who refer to themselves as “race realists” or proponents of “human biological diversity” (HBD).

The result is a (rather lengthy) statement which Ewan has posted in its entirety here. I want to summarize its main points here with excerpts, but I encourage everyone to go read the whole thing. We intend for this statement to contribute to the ongoing conversation between scientists, social scientists, scholars in the humanities, the media, and the public.

(Also please note that I kept the original British spellings in excerpts that I quoted from the statement).

The biological race concept emerges from a particular history

Research in the 20th century found that the crude categorisations used colloquially (black, white, East Asian etc.) were not reflected in actual patterns of genetic variation, meaning that differences and similarities in DNA between people did not perfectly match the traditional racial terms. The conclusion drawn from this observation is that race is therefore a socially constructed system, where we effectively agree on these terms, rather than their existing as essential or objective biological categories.

Describing race as a social construct does not undermine its existence, nor its importance; it merely points out that there is no fundamental biological basis for race.

Human population structure is not race

Some people claim that the exquisitely detailed picture of human variation that we can now obtain by sequencing whole genomes contradicts this. Recent studies, they argue, actually show that the older notions of races as biological categories (some dating back to the 18th century) were basically correct in the first place. As evidence for this they often point to the images produced by analyses in studies that seem to show natural clustering of humans into broadly continental groups based on their DNA. But these claims misinterpret and misrepresent the methods and results of this type of research. Populations do show both genetic and physical differences, but the analyses that are cited as evidence for the concept of race as a biological category actually undermine it.

Geneticists use a variety of tools to visualise the subtle and complex patterns of genetic variation between people, and to mathematically cluster them together based on relatedness. Such methods are helpful for exploring data, but have also been the source of wider confusion. For example, Principal Component Analysis (PCA) plots often show distinct, colourful clusters of dots that appear to separate groups of people from different parts of the world. In some cases, these clusters even seem to correspond to traditional racial groupings (e.g. ‘Africans’, ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’). It is images such as these which are often deployed as genetic evidence for the existence of separate races. But these methods can be misleading in ways which non-experts – and even some specialists – are unaware of. For example, some of the observed genetic clustering is a reflection of the samples that were included in the study and how they were collected, rather than any inherent genetic structure. DNA sample collection typically follows existing cultural, anthropological or political groupings. If samples are collected based on pre-defined groupings, it’s entirely unsurprising that the analyses of these samples will return results that identify such groupings. This does not tell us that such taxonomies are inherent in human biology.

Traits, IQ, and genetic diversity

‘Human biodiversity’ proponents sometimes assert that alleged differences in the mean value of IQ when measured in different populations – such as the claim that IQ in some sub-Saharan African countries is measurably lower than in European countries – are caused by genetic variation, and thus are inherent. The purported genetic differences involved are usually attributed to recent natural selection and adaptation to different environments or conditions. Often there are associated stories about the causes of this selection, for example that early humans outside Africa faced a more challenging struggle for survival, or that via historical persecution and restriction of professional endeavours, Ashkenazi Jews harbour genes selected for intellectual and financial success.

Such tales, and the claims about the genetic basis for population differences, are not scientifically supported. In reality for most traits, including IQ, it is not only unclear that genetic variation explains differences between populations, it is also unlikely. To understand why requires a bit of background.

(Most genome-wide association studies for detecting variants associated with complex traits such as IQ, known as GWAS) have been carried out in populations sampled from across Europe, and have ancestries consistent with this sampling. In many cases though, only certain subsets of people are included in these analyses – for good scientific reasons. For example, samples of “European” populations used in genetic studies often have excluded up to as many as 30% of self-identified Europeans. This is because some individuals introduce hard-to-model complications into the data, forming distinct sub-clusters or complicating the genetic model. For example, Finns and Sardinians are often excluded as they have quite distinct genetic ancestries compared to many other Europeans, as are some people in India, north Africa, Latino/Hispanics, and many individuals with complex ancestries, despite confident self-identification within their ethnic group. Researchers therefore often exclude them from the set of people used in a particular GWAS analyses, on the basis that their unique population histories can invalidate the statistical models used in these techniques.

This, in turn, can confuse people who read the studies and observe distinct and seemingly ‘natural’ population clusters emerge. If they aren’t familiar with the practice of removing these individuals with more complex ancestries (or don’t read the detailed methods, which are often tucked away in elusive supplementary sections of a published paper), they could easily be misled into thinking that the populations in these analyses are much more distinct than they are in reality. The resulting biases are poorly understood, and the terminology involved can be confusing to non-specialists. Furthermore, while it is clear to GWAS researchers that the results of their analyses tend to be specific to the population studied and their predictions cannot be reliably extended to other populations with very different ancestry, this is not widely recognised or understood by non-specialists.

IQ scores are heritable: that is, within populations, genetic variation is related to variation in the trait. But a fundamental truism about heritability is that it tells us nothing about differences between groups. Even analyses that have tried to calculate the proportion of the difference between people in different countries for a much more straightforward trait (height) have faced scientific criticisms. Simply put, nobody has yet developed techniques that can bypass the genetic clustering and removal of people that do not fit the statistical model mentioned above, while simultaneously taking into account all the differences in language, income, nutrition, education, environment, and culture that may themselves be the cause of differences in any trait observed between different groups. This applies to any trait you could care to look at – height, specific behaviours, disease susceptibility, intelligence.

Not only that, the genetic knowledge we gain from studying our mainly-European pools of participants becomes highly unreliable when it is applied to those with different ancestries. Although it is a common trope to argue that we will have the answer to the question of the genetic basis of group differences in traits “in the next five years”, or “in the next decade”, the advances in genomics reveal that the question is far more complex than we could have imagined, even just a few years ago. Consequently, anyone who tells you that there’s good evidence on how much genetics explain group differences (rather than individual differences) is fooling you – or fooling themselves.

However, there are some strong hints towards the answer. The genetic variants that are most strongly associated with IQ in Europeans are no more population-specific than any other trait. To put it bluntly, the same genetic variants associated with purportedly higher IQ in Europeans are also present in Africans, and have not emerged, or been obviously selected for, in recent evolutionary history outside Africa. Moreover, since it is a complex trait, the genetic variation related to IQ is broadly distributed across the genome, rather than being clustered around a few spots, as is the nature of the variation responsible for skin pigmentation. These very different patterns for these two traits mean that the genes responsible for determining skin pigmentation cannot be meaningfully associated with the genes currently known to be linked to IQ. These observations alone rule out some of the cruder racial narratives about the genetics of intelligence: it is virtually inconceivable that the primary determinant of racial categories – that is skin colour – is strongly associated with the genetic architecture that relates to intelligence. 

Finally, multiple lines of evidence indicate that there are complex environmental effects (as might reasonably be expected) on measures of IQ and educational attainment. Many socioeconomic and cultural factors are entangled with ancestry in the countries where these studies are often performed – particularly in the USA, where structural racism has historically and continues to hugely contribute to economic and social disparities. We cannot use populations in these countries to help answer the question of why IQ scores are claimed to be lower in other countries with entirely different social, economic, and cultural histories, nor to answer the role of genetics for alleged differences in IQ measures between groups inside a country with strong societal differences linked to ancestry (for example, the USA). Thus, confident assertions that current GWAS show us that ‘race’ is associated with cognitive function are simply wrong. It is our contention that any apparent population differences in IQ scores are more easily explained by cultural and environmental factors than they are by genetics.

The history of our species is complex and convoluted, and our genomes reflect that. As we delve deeper into the DNA of the people of the world, the science of genetics becomes even more complex too. But we see no scientifically sound evidence that contemporary genetics can be used to recapitulate biological or historical concepts for race. It is our duty and wish that this understanding is spread far and wide.

Ewan Birney

European Molecular Biology Laboratory, European Bioinformatics Institute

Jennifer Raff

Department of Anthropology, University of Kansas.

Adam Rutherford

Genetics, Evolution & Environment, University College London

Aylwyn Scally

Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge

The authors wish to thank Stuart Ritchie for his valuable contributions to our discussion.

**Note: comments for this post are not enabled**

Happy new year!

I hope that everyone has a wonderful holiday. If you’d like to read something about science, I have a new-ish post up at Forbes to close the year out: “Five Amazing Things We Learned About History From Ancient DNA In 2018“.

Every year ancient DNA research deepens our understanding of history a bit more, and 2018 was truly a remarkable year for ancient DNA research. By February the total number of genomes characterized from ancient individuals surpassed 1,300. I want to highlight five of what I think are the most interesting discoveries made this year

Thanks, as always, for reading!

–Jennifer and Colin

Selling Trump’s Wall: How a Huckster is Using GoFundMe to Benefit Himself

A disabled veteran and former fake news huckster has squeezed $17 million out of American conservatives with a promise to “fund the wall.” The press has covered the crowdfunding campaign, and even dug a bit into his shady prior endeavors. But I can’t find a single report really analyzing how the man behind this campaign, Brian Kolfage, is benefiting personally. He’s given an audience of disaffected conservatives, frustrated by Trump’s failures, a way to buy the feeling of a successful movement. It’s an unscrupulous way to monetize irrationality and xenophobia, and it’s going to succeed even as the campaign to fund the wall fails.

(Kolfage has sued people in the past for criticizing him. With that in mind, I’ll point out the obvious: this piece shares previously reported facts about Kolfage and his campaign, as well as my opinions based on those facts. For example, the numbers below come from the linked public sources. My conclusion based on those reported facts, that Kolfage is an unscrupulous huckster, is purely my opinion. I do not have any reason to believe that he has broken any laws.)

Unneeded, unwise, unfunded.
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We Can Make 2019 Less of a Triumph for Conspiracy Theories

This was a big year for conspiracy theories. They’ve staked out more space in the headlines than we used to be comfortable with and stayed long enough that we’re starting to get used to it. The energy feeding them comes from above, as Trump and other mainstream media figures find new ways to harness conspiracy theory culture, and from below, as movements like Q Anon find ways to raise their profile with cynical self-awareness.

October was particularly gruesome. While relatively benign groups were busy ginning up new conspiracy theories for the benefit of the US and Russian governments—a bizarre flipflop of their traditional hostility to mainstream power—two men made headlines in a horribly familiar way. One murdered eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the other mailed more than a dozen bombs to Trump’s critics. They apparently both believed that Jews and liberals were plotting against them, and they decided to fight their imaginary enemies by slaughtering strangers.

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The wall of stickers on the MAGA Bomber’s van were a perfect visual representation of the fog of angry paranoia fueling that movement today.

These are two different expressions of the same basic phenomenon. Not every conspiracy theorist will act on their beliefs, and even fewer will become violent. But those extremists aren’t arising in a vacuum. They radicalize over time, after years of absorbing frantic, paranoid calls to action the culture that grows up around particularly invidious conspiracy theories. We can’t do much to control the bell end of violent extremists directly; only law enforcement is really equipped to do that, and unfortunately only after the damage has already been done. But going into the holidays and 2019, we—and that does include you, the reader—can do something to disarm the culture that radicalizes them.

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Some archaeology reading to kick off this week

My latest for Forbes discusses the new paper by Rascovan and colleagues, “Emergence and Spread of Basal Lineages of Yersinia pestis during the Neolithic Decline.”

Researchers investigated the hypothesis that the so-called “Neolithic Decline”—population decreases throughout Europe—was caused at least in part by pandemics. To do this, they cleverly made use of one feature of paleogenomics that often causes researchers to tear their hair out. When we sequence or genotype ancient DNA extractions, we get back data from all the DNA extracted from the ancient source, including large amounts of microbial DNA. This can be incredibly frustrating if you’re trying to reconstruct a genome of the human whose bone (or tooth, or hair) you’re extracting from; it can be enormously expensive to sequence enough DNA to get a whole human genome. However, in this case, the researchers were able to look at published datasets to see if they could find evidence of pathogens in DNA published from Neolithic individuals buried in a high-density passage grave in the Frälsegården cemetery in Falbygden (western Sweden).

You can read more here.

@ArchaeOhlrau, who works on Trypillia mega-sites (which Rascovan et al. implicated in the origins of plague), did a Twitter thread on this paper critiquing some of their interpretations and providing some much-needed context. For example,

I highly recommend you check out his thread on the subject (h/t @monicaMedHist).

For more Forbes archaeology awesomeness, check out this story by David Anderson about the resilience of Hohokam canal builders in the face of environmental disasters:

Despite the odds, members of the Hohokam culture were able to work together to bring an agricultural lifestyle to a harsh desert environment for one-thousand years. This success required collaborative labor to maintain a system of civil infrastructure in the form of an extensive system of canals. Repeated environmental catastrophes, however, can wear down even the most prepared societies. Something people today should perhaps keep in mind.

And Kristina Killgrove tackled the fascinating question of whether or not a gold artifact was a Roman nipple cover, connecting the difficulties of interpreting the purpose of ancient artifacts without projecting our own ideas upon the past to Tumblr’s new terms of service:

In response to recent terms-of-service changes at Tumblr that ban “adult content,” many users of the microblogging site are firing back, trolling the site’s administrators with non-pornographic images that they worry will be banned by the new policy. This “ancient Roman nipple cover” posted by peashooter85 is one such image, and it has gained tens of thousands of responses in a couple days’ time. There’s one problem, though: archaeologists are unsure about that identification.

You can read the full post here.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section or hit me up on Twitter. (Although if you see me on there too much, feel free to remind me that I should be working on my book or academic papers instead).

 

Edited to add: If you’d rather listen to a podcast than read, a new Archaeological Fantasies episode that I’m on just dropped!

 

Round up of Forbes blogs

I am absolutely terrible at promoting my writing. I’m going to try to remedy that by posting links to my Forbes blogs regularly here.

I didn’t write very much last month (I was extremely busy with academic stuff and drafting the first chapter of my book), but usually I aim for about 5 pieces a month, covering topics in genetics and anthropology.

Here’s my latest, on the origins of milk pastoralism in Northern Mongolia: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferraff/2018/12/07/how-bronze-age-northern-mongolian-peoples-got-milk/#40b24b841588

And here’s a page with links to all my past pieces. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferraff/#350bd02f3eef

Would you rather I post them here as they come out, or do a monthly round-up of links? I don’t want to clog up your inboxes, and I do post them as they come out on my Twitter. Let me know what you prefer in the comments. And as always, thanks for reading!

Exciting news!

For the last year, alongside learning about the joys and challenges of new motherhood and doing my academic work, I’ve also been quietly working on a new project. That new project is finally in a place where I can share it with people: I’m thrilled to announce that last week I signed a book contract with Twelve Books !

My book (which is tentatively titled “Origin”) will be a history of the Americas, from initial peopling to the present day, through the lens of genetics. But I’m also going to use this as an opportunity to continue my blogging mission on a bigger scale: to teach people about the fundamentals of genetics, ancient DNA, and showcase stories from the remarkable work of my colleagues in the field of anthropological genetics.

I’m not just going to be talking about the science either. The news of Elizabeth Warren’s genetic testing results this week has highlighted just how interested the public is in the intersection of questions about ancestry and identity…and just how confused people are about what DNA testing results mean and don’t mean. I want to do my small part to help people understand these issues, particularly when it comes to claims about Native American ancestry, as I did earlier this week in my new piece for Forbes. And oh yes…. I will be talking about race and genetics. I may do it imperfectly, but I’m not going to shy away from that topic when it’s so critical to this present moment.

I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m a non-Native person writing about extraordinarily sensitive issues, and I am grateful for the help that many of my Native American colleagues have generously offered for this project. I’m also grateful to the many scientists (both Native and non-Native) whose research I will be featuring (if you would like to chat with me about your work, email me or hit me up at the AAPAs!).

So, if all goes well, I should have a finished manuscript in about a year from now, and a published book a little while after that. I’ll let everyone know more when we are closer to having a book (!) for you to read. Thank you all so much for your support and good wishes–they really mean the world to me.

We had an adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine.

Last week, our son Ox had an adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine.  I’m glad, and I’m grateful.

First, the downside. Ox came home from daycare with a fever hovering around 100° F/38° C. That’s high enough to worry first-time parents, and it was persistent. By Friday night he’d been feverish for days and couldn’t sleep. When we measured him at 103°/39°, we finally called the pediatric nurse hotline at the local children’s hospital. The nurse was cool, calm, confident, and knowledgeable, just as you expect a nurse to be. She listened to a first-time dad ramble on about his boy’s fever and then let us know that it sounded like a reaction to the MMR vaccine he’d had the week before.

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For his first birthday, Ox got a checkup, the MMR, and a flu shot.

It’s possible that he simply came down with a normal fever and the timing was a coincidence. A lot of reported adverse reactions to vaccines are coincidences. But his experience closely fits the profile of a known vaccine reaction.  Fevers are one of the most common adverse reactions to vaccines, affecting about ten percent of kids after their MMR shots. Our experience was worse than the typical fever; Ox spiked above the usual ceiling of 103° and it lasted a little longer than the standard two days.

Ox is fine today, but I don’t want to minimize the downside. Fevers can be dangerous, of course, leading to dehydration and other serious complications. And while Ox came through just fine, he suffered. He spent a few hot, cranky days unable to sleep or eat comfortably. That hit us, too. As new and first-time parents we don’t have a lot of perspective on what’s serious and what’s not; when the baby’s feverish for that long, it’s scary and upsetting. It also disrupts our lives; we’re very busy but Ox is our priority, so when he’s sick, it’s hard to keep all the other plates spinning efficiently.

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Sick little boys get Star Wars stories.

But it’s good news, over all. Ox spiked a scary fever and spend a miserable few days waiting for it to break, and I’d have him do it again in a heartbeat. Because that fever is an indication that his immune system is responding to his MMR shot, which means he’s developing a powerful, natural immune response to dangerous diseases that could leave him deaf, sterile, or even dead.

Ox suffered an adverse reaction thanks to his pediatrician and the nurses, and I’m sincerely grateful for it. They gave him a shield against pathogens that evolved specifically to attack and ravage him, and that have seriously hurt unvaccinated kids in our community. And they helped make him into a shield in turn, protecting other children through communal immunity.

To Ox’s nurses and doctors and to all the doctors and nurses giving vaccines every day: thank you. You’re standing between our child and a world of suffering, and we’ll always be grateful—even when it causes a fever.

 

 

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Debunking Done Right: Mick West’s Escaping the Rabbit Hole

When I heard that Mick West was publishing a book on how to help talk people out of conspiracy theories, I said a bad word. I’m writing my own book on a similar subject, and it’s frustrating to see someone else get one out first. But I also preordered it immediately. West stands out as one of the most careful and thoughtful public figures debunking conspiracy theories, and I was eager to see what he had to say on the subject. Then I realized that if I asked for a review copy, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. (Negotiation is my specialty, remember?) Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of ordering a hardcopy to lend out–it’s a message that deserves to be spread.

Escaping the Rabbit Hole 840

 

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