Can a black-white performance gap be hereditary but not racial?

Science, technology, and life.
July 13 2010 8:56 AM

Lose the Race

Can a black-white performance gap be hereditary but not racial?

(Continued from Page 1)

Bejan, Jones, and Charles are careful to point out that cultural factors influence athletic outcomes and that individual performance can't be predicted from group averages. "When I grew up in South Carolina, we were discouraged from swimming," says Jones, who is black. "There wasn't nearly as much encouragement for us as young people to swim as there was for playing football or basketball. With the right encouragement, this doesn't always have to be the case—just look at the Williams sisters in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf."

Despite these caveats, the authors fear the consequences of acknowledging that heredity can produce differences in group averages. (I've wrestled with the same problem here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) To avoid fueling bigotry, they've come up with a creative maneuver: removing the word race from theories of black/white group biology. At the outset of their paper, they write:

Our approach is to study phenotypic (somatotypic) differences … which we consider to have been historically misclassified as racial characteristics. These differences represent consequences of still not well-understood variable environmental stimuli for survival fitness in different parts of the globe during thousands of years of habitation. Our study does not advance the notion of race, now recognized as a social construct, as opposed to a biological construct. We acknowledge the wide phenotypic and genotypic diversity among the so-called racial types.

Duke's press release about the study draws the same distinction: The black/white performance gap stems from "athletes' centers of gravity," which "tends to be located higher on the body of blacks than whites. The researchers believe that these differences are not racial, but rather biological."

This is a fascinating bit of finesse. There's nothing unusual about dismissing race as social construct. Racism watchdogs do it all the time. But they do it precisely to deny hereditary differences between blacks and whites. Bejan, Jones, and Charles are affirming hereditary differences. That's what they mean by "survival fitness in different parts of the globe during thousands of years." Evolution in Europe and evolution in Africa produced different results.

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Taking "race" out of the equation makes a substantive difference: It focuses the conversation about heredity on populations, a more precise and scientifically accepted way of categorizing people. In the press release, for example, Jones explains, "There is a whole body of evidence showing that there are distinct differences in body types among blacks and whites. These are real patterns being described here—whether the fastest sprinters are Jamaican, African or Canadian—most of them can be traced back generally to Western Africa." Western African ancestry differs genetically from Eastern African ancestry. Population, unlike race, captures that difference.

The authors also help the conversation by pointing out that "environmental stimuli" caused differential evolution in different parts of the world. There's nothing inherently good or bad about being West African or Eastern European. All of us are evolving all the time. As environmental conditions change in each part of the world, they change the course of natural selection. Ten thousand years from now, the average center of body mass might be higher in Europe than in Africa.

But the authors' most intriguing contribution isn't in biology or physics. It's in linguistics. By removing the word race, they're trying to make the world safe for clearheaded consideration of theories about inherited group differences. What they've done is more than a series of engineering calculations. It's a political experiment. Let's hope it works.

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