Rethinking race and genes.

Science, technology, and life.
May 5 2008 8:00 AM

Not Black and White

Rethinking race and genes.

Five months ago, I wrote a series on race, genes, and intelligence. Everything about it hurt: the research, the writing, the reactions, the regrets. Not a day has gone by that I haven't thought about it. I've been struggling to reconcile two feelings that won't go away: that what I wrote was socially harmful and that I can't honestly renounce the evidence I presented. That evidence, which involved the proposed role of heredity in trait differences by race, is by no means complete or conclusive. But it's not dismissible, either. My colleague Stephen Metcalf summarized  the debate better than I did: "It's a conflict between science and science."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

When you find yourself in a dilemma this difficult, sometimes the best thing to do is let it sit in your head until you find a way to make sense of it within your value system. I think I'm beginning to find the answer that works for me: I was asking the wrong question.


In last fall's series, I asked myself why I was writing about such an ugly topic. "Because the truth isn't as bad as our ignorant, half-formed fears and suspicions about it," I concluded. "And because you can't solve a problem till you understand it." I wrote my commitment on a piece of paper and leaned it against my computer monitor: The truth doesn't care what you want.

Sometimes, with time and perspective, it's the small, overlooked things that turn out to be big. In retrospect, I was consumed by the wrong word. The flaw in my approach wasn't truth. It was the. Even if hereditary inequality among racial averages is a truth, it's less true, more unjust, and more pernicious than framing the same difference in nonracial terms. "The truth," as I accepted and framed it, was itself half-formed. It was, in that sense, a half-truth. And it flunked the practical test I had assigned it: To the extent that a social problem is genetic, you can't ultimately solve it by understanding it in racial terms.

A study published two weeks ago in Nature Medicine illustrates the point. Gina Kolata of the New York Times explains what happened:

Doctors who treat patients with heart failure have long been puzzled by a peculiar observation. Many black patients seem to do just as well if they take a mainstay of therapy, a class of drugs called beta blockers, as if they do not. [Now researchers] have discovered why: these nonresponsive patients have a slightly altered version of a gene that muscles use to control responses to nerve signals. … As many as 40 percent of blacks and 2 percent of whites have the gene variant, the researchers report. The findings, heart failure specialists say, mean that people with the altered gene might be spared taking what may be, for them, a useless therapy.

In other words, racial observation turned out to be a temporary step toward a deeper genetic explanation. Most blacks don't have the altered gene, and some whites do. Given these findings, prescribing or not prescribing beta blockers based on race rather than genes would be malpractice.

In a similar way, policy prescriptions based on race are social malpractice. Not because you can't find patterns on tests, but because any biological theory that starts with observed racial patterns has to end with genetic differences that cross racial lines. Race is the stone age of genetics. If you're a researcher looking for effects of heredity on medical or educational outcomes, race is the closest thing you presently have to genetic information about most people. And as a proxy measure, it sucks.

By itself, this problem isn't decisive. After all, racial analysis did lead to the genetic findings about beta blockers. But as the conversation shifts from medicine to social science, and particularly to patterns laden with stereotypes, the moral cost of framing such patterns in racial terms becomes unsupportable. We can't just be "race realists," as believers in biological distinctions among races like to call themselves. We have to be realists about racism. No fact in human history is more pervasive than our tendency to prejudge, fear, despise, persecute, and fight each other based on even the shallowest observable differences. It's simply reckless to feed that fire.

The question I set out to explore last fall was how to be an egalitarian in an age of genetic differences. That's still an important project. We're going to find many more genetic and trait differences among populations. You can't meaningfully denounce every such finding or theory as racist. Racism has to mean something else. I think it should mean looking and settling for racial analysis when some other combination of categories—economics, culture, genetics—more accurately fits the data. It's easy to group people by race and compare averages. But it's pernicious.

In the age of genetics, egalitarianism doesn't mean you have to deny differences in racial averages. It means you have to beware the injustice this kind of grouping and averaging does to individuals. That warning goes for the left as well as the right. Last week, Rev. Jeremiah Wright told the NAACP that "European and European-American children have a left-brained, cognitive, object-oriented learning style" whereas "African and African-American children … are right-brained, subject-oriented in their learning style." Before making such generalizations, ask yourself whether you want even four little children to live in a nation where their brains will be judged by the color of their skin.

Drawing a line against racial analysis doesn't solve all the problems I raised about inequality. In fact, it creates new problems. On the right, it leaves the question of whether genetic generalization and determinism are wrong. On the left, it raises the question of whether any policy, including affirmative action, should be based on race. I don't know where those questions will lead. But I'm pretty sure drawing this line is the right first step.