DNA and Prejudice

by Chuck Doswell

Posted: 27 November 2007 Updated: Whenever

This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell@earthlink.net. However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

Recently, the phenomenal rise of technology in genetic research based on DNA has begun to stir the pot of racism yet again.  The famous scientist, Dr. James D. Watson, Nobel Prize-winning partner of the team that deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, was on record as saying that there was some DNA evidence that Africans might be less intelligent than other races.  For that politically-incorrect statement, he found himself at the eye of a storm of controversy and was forced into resigning his position.

White racist groups are now emboldened to claim a scientific basis for their prejudice, and black racist groups are suggesting that scientific pursuit of genetics is inappropriate because it encourages prejudice against blacks.  Both of these positions are ridiculous - hence, this essay.

I’m not a geneticist or a molecular biologist, but I am a person who has some strongly-held opinions about race and prejudice.  My own personal experience has suggested to me over and over again that stereotyping someone because of race, or gender, or belief system is just plain stupid.  I’ve met and worked with people who have demonstrated that these stereotypes simply don’t apply to them, as individuals.  I see such people as individuals, not stereotypes.  In other words, the root of  “prejudice” is pre-judgment and to pre-judge someone is to ignore the evidence that’s right in front of you every day.

Some people seem determined to live down to negative racial stereotypes.  Every person makes his or her own choices for their own reasons, but if you choose to act in such a way that reinforces the stereotypes that others might seek to impose on you, then you shouldn’t complain about their prejudices.  You’re only reinforcing them.  You can’t have it both ways - either you demand to be accepted as a person, or you can accept that your negative behavior encourages a negative response.

People who have a particular genetic mixture may indeed be members of a group that has some particular set of average traits.  It may well be the case, although it has yet to be demonstrated convincingly, that those of African descent may indeed be less intelligent (however that might be defined) than those of European descent.  If that's so, what does that say about individuals?  Not much!  If you look at a person, do you actually think you can determine how intelligent they are from their skin color?  If so, then your intelligence is apparently toward the bottom of the distribution within your ethnic group!  If the average for one group is different from the average for another, that says almost nothing about particular individuals. 

On the average, men certainly are larger and stronger than women.  But I've seen women who are both larger and stronger than I.  I have no problem accepting the fact that I’m far from the largest or strongest man on the planet, so it seems inevitable that larger, stronger women than I can be found.  This is the consequence of statistical variation within any grouping.  I don’t find this situation particularly embarrassing or shameful. Average differences certainly exist between men and women - they simply can't be denied. To say that justifies stereotyping all men or all women as anything is simply ridiculous. Perhaps we should make statistical analysis a part of universal education?

The fact that all the “races” likely will be shown by DNA evidence to have some differences in their average genotypes should not be all that surprising.  In fact, it would be astonishing if such differences did not exist!  Those differences are a simple fact and represent genetic diversity that is a collective good for human beings as a species.  If we were all the same, as some morons apparently would prefer, our species would be more vulnerable to changes in the long run.  But if anyone supposes that a lack of prejudices means denying the existing differences among us, that’s just ignorance or denial of reality.  There are differences and you don’t need molecular biology evidence to know that.  How many white NBA basketball players are there?  If there's anyplace in the world that focuses on performance, not stereotypes, it’s in professional sports.  The NBA is not some sort of “ghetto” for blacks - it’s because they have a genetic predisposition for the skills that make good basketball players.  But there are some white players, which means they have traits that depart from the average for their “race”. And there are Asian pro basketball players. For the NBA, some stupid basketball fans might engage in stereotyping, but the teams want performance, and if that means drafting mostly black players, that's what they do. They certainly don't engage systematically in excluding white players, or Asian players, or whatever. That would be so contrary to their self-interest in putting together a winning franchise, it would never be accepted.  

It’s clear to me that we can discuss the racial composition of various groupings:  athletes, scientists, gangsters, or whatever.  You may find a predominance of one genotype over others within any grouping, and it’s logical to ask why.  There may be some trait associated with that genotype that predisposes them to excel at something.  But this doesn’t necessary mean that the existing dominance is attributable only to genotype.  Not all black men become NBA basketball players. Some genotypes may be culturally disposed to pursue certain disciplines - through hard work, it’s possible to overcome genotypical predispositions.  Some genotypes may historically have been excluded from the education and training needed to excel at certain disciplines.  I mentioned the NBA and professional sports in general as a segment of US society that is very focused on performance, without much regard to genotype.  Are there prejudices remaining in sports?  Yes, indeed.  For years, black men were systematically excluded from most university football teams unless it was at an all-black university (itself a product of excluding blacks from white-dominated universities).  Eventually, that barrier was breached and many black athletes are given the chance now to prove their ability to play collegiate football.  Today, no one in big-time college athletics would even consider for a moment that they should turn away a recruit because of his skin color.  The story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball is, of course, legendary. But there can be no doubt that prejudice, however stupid it is, continues in sports.  And in some disciplines, prejudice continues without much change.  The genotypical makeup in any grouping can be attributed, in part, to differences among genotypes, but that is generally only a small part of a larger story that has to do with prejudice, and a history of exclusion (or preference).  Those who seem to be focused on the “race card” are generally missing the bigger picture, though.  It’s only one among many reasons for the existing situation regarding the distribution of genotypes within any group.  To focus on race as the main issue is divisive and ignorant.

Only an idiot would infer from genotype variations some sort of “racial pride” because s/he is a member of a grouping that has this or that average trait.  Different groupings have different average traits - that simply cannot be denied, as I’ve already noted. Is an accident of birth something in which you need to take pride? Pathetic.

Some traits are seen as positive, others are seen as negative, but the existence of those differences does not mean that particular individuals can’t have traits very different from the average within their grouping.  Why not let someone’s capabilities (and handicaps) stand on their own?  Why force them to fit a mold they might not fit?  Why believe you know something about a stranger before they ever have a chance to show what they can (or can’t) accomplish?  Why not give them every opportunity to live their dream?  If anyone is willing to work hard to achieve something, they should be afforded the opportunity. If they try and fail, that’s very different from excluding them outright.  I believe this is what equality under the law is intended for - equal opportunity.  It’s not a statement that everybody is exactly the same in every way.  That’s absurd, on the face of it.

As it currently stands, there’s considerable evidence that although racial “prototypes” might be found - “pure” European stock, “pure” African stock, “pure” Asian stock, and so forth - most real people have a mixture of these “prototypes” in their genetic heritage.  I easily could have some genes from an ancestor who was a black man or woman - perhaps several.  Many black people in America have some genes from white ancestors, owing to the realities of history.  It’s impossible to put real people into neat little genetic boxes because of the simple fact that human beings of all “races” can interbreed, and so they have interbred in the past, and will continue to do so. This is not justification for pseudoscientifc crap about the evils of mingling of the races. The scientific facts about such interbreeding of diverse groups is that it produces "hybrid vigor" - mixing of the races is generally a good thing, not a bad one.   The reason "racial differences" evolved was the relative isolation of people from one another. Modern mobility makes that isolation much less relevant. DNA evidence is now able to show the presence of ancestoral interbreeding in everyone.  As noted, I personally think this is a good thing.  Almost no one is “pure” anything and it’s high time we recognized that basic truth.  Race is almost totally an illusion created by the obviously different physical traits (such as skin color) within real populations.  Any effort to classify human beings in racial terms with discrete boundaries is absurd – we all belong somewhere along a genetic continuum, not in arbitrarily-defined racial boxes.

Each of us, regardless of genotype, is a unique individual.  The more we learn about genetics, it seems even identical twins have some subtle genotype differences.  Furthermore, we each grow up with different experiences and the “nurture” component is just as important, if not more so, than the “nature” component (i.e., our DNA inheritance).  Racial stereotypes should be discarded as relics of a bygone era in which we were unaware of the substantive basis for genetic diversity. 

This is not to espouse some pathetic, idealized version of egalitarianism that proposes all people are the same.  That’s so counterfactual as to suggest a monumental blindness to all the evidence that’s in front of us every day.  Individuals all have unique capabilities and handicaps.  People are nowhere near all the same - in fact, each one of us is different from everyone else in the world.  In the face of all that variation, “race” seems ludicrously irrelevant and trivial.  We may have been accustomed in the past to regard those who have obvious physical differences from “us” as being inferior - but the modern reality is that we’re surrounded today by a glorious diversity of genotypes and cultures.  America has slowly struggled to live up to its ideals, but we’ve made enough progress that our communities are more diverse than ever.  We should revel in this diversity and seek to expand our horizons by honoring it and learning from those of us who are “different”. 

And by the way, I get very tired of "political correctness" when it comes to race. Numerous public figures have been pilloried in recent times for obviously racial remarks. How is it OK for blacks to call each other "nigger" and yet be monumentally offended if a white person uses the very same word? Words are just words. You can only be offended by words if you choose to be. If someone uses such words in a mean-spirited way, perhaps because they believe in racial stereotypes, it says a lot more about them than it does about the person labeled with such a word. When I was in the Army, I had a good friend who was a black man. He called me "honkey" and I called him "nigger" and neither one of us was offended because we had mutual respect for each other. The words clearly were not meant to convey scorn or prejudice - we got along because we found we enjoyed each other's company. That's the way I believe we should respond to such things.

And whatever happened to a sense of humor? Eddie Murphy, George Carilin, and Carlos Mencia have made a living being comedians using language regarding race that many people would find offensive: nigger, beaner, wop, kike, spick, gook, chink. Even Firesign Theater made fun of these. Personally, I enjoy their humor because they see the ultimate silliness of many of the things we do - their humor has a biting edge to it because some of it hits close to home. Good stuff. And if you want to dish it out, you should be prepared to take it. I'm not easily offended by such things, even when it evidently is aimed at me. It's good to see things as others see them, even if it's not always favorable. I think everyone should ease up a little when it comes to this race thing. I can't make the obvious physical differences go away, but I can accept that every person deserves the chance to show by their actions (not their words) who they really are. And we all need to have a good laugh over some of our silliness once in a while.