Danny Katch interviewed, geneticist and author Joseph Graves, who helped organize 67 fellow scientists to write a response to a piece in the New York Times arguing that race is a valid biological category. I was way out of my depth here but I was able to fake it enough to ask some questions.
Last month, the New York Times published “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race'” by David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard. In the article, Reich argues for the need to challenge the “orthodoxy” that denies that race is a valid biological concept and warns that if scientists continue to “stick their heads in the sand” in the face of emerging evidence, they will discredit themselves and provide ammunition to those with a racist agenda.
A week later, Buzzfeed published a response from 67 scientists and researchers who argued that “Reich’s understanding of ‘race’…is seriously flawed.” Joseph Graves Jr. , a genetics professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and member of Science for the People, was one of the initiators of that response. Graves is the author of The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America. He spoke with about the enduring myths about race and the need for scientists to be politically engaged.
WHAT LED you to help organize the response to David Reich?
THE REASON I got involved in the effort is that he made statements in the New York Times op-ed that were just scientifically irresponsible and inaccurate. In particular, he thoroughly misrepresented the views of professional population geneticists and evolutionary scientists like myself who don’t think that human beings conform to the genetic definition of biological races.
He acted as if people who don’t agree that there are biological races within the human species, or that health disparities are primarily driven by biological differences between socially defined races, are somehow people who have their “heads in the sand.” That’s just inaccurate and wrong.
ONE SLIPPERY aspect of Reich’s argument is that he uses the concept of “race” as both a cultural category and a biological one. Why do you think that’s a dangerous conflation?
I’VE ACTUALLY written two books about this, in which I go through the arguments for why the conflation of socially defined race with biological race is wrong and dangerous.
One of the things that has always driven institutional racism is the notion that underlying these socially defined categories are real fundamental biological and genetically determined differences, which make certain groups of people superior and therefore more likely–and more justified–to be those in charge of society. And others who are genetically incapable of leading society and are therefore subordinated to those with genetic superiority.
This argument goes back to the Greeks in different forms. It appeared in ancient Chinese writing in different forms. It’s always been a chief ideological tool in the arsenal of those who are wedded to the notion of a social hierarchy which feeds the wealthy and powerful and opposes and oppresses those who work for a living.
IN HIS piece, Reich complains about a supposed anti-racist “orthodoxy,” which others might call “science.” Can you give some context for the work that many scientists have done to rebut and debunk theories of biological race to the point that their work is now considered an “orthodoxy”?
THIS IS an example of David Reich’s white privilege showing. To make this claim that there’s an orthodoxy that’s preventing legitimate scientists like him from studying human biological variation is absolutely false. It’s the result of a group of people not really being able to bring their science to the table to make their argument. So they call another position an orthodoxy.
That’s sort of like calling a position that the earth revolves around the sun an orthodoxy. I mean, science does produce fact. It’s a struggle, it takes time, but at the end of the day, we do come to agree that certain things are true.
For example, at one point, people didn’t understand that evolution was a means by which variation accrued in species, and it was the force responsible for the foundation of new species. Now all of that’s orthodoxy. No serious scientists would say evolution isn’t real.
So when he claims that those of us who don’t believe that biological race exists within the human species have established an orthodoxy, he’s correct insofar as that’s what the evidence shows. If he’s going to come forward with some new evidence that disputes the work of some of the greatest evolutionary and population geneticists of the 20th and 21st century, then I’d love to see him do that.
His book doesn’t do that. His book is a story about ancient DNA, but it’s not really a story about the nature of current human population variation and whether it should be construed as having biological races.
There’s actually a very long discussion on the nature of the race concept in evolutionary biology, which goes back to before Darwin. Reich, in his comments in the New York Times, did not show any cognizance that he actually is aware of that long discussion and the rationale for why people like myself don’t think that human beings have biological races.
YOU’VE SAID in previous interviews that if we wanted to define “races” based on physical characteristics, we could use fingerprint patterns or lactose intolerance or any other number of things, but the use of specific physical characteristics “used to socially define American races were done because of our social and political history, and are genetically arbitrary.”
Because there is so much junk science out there and most people’s common sense is that race is a real physical thing, can you elaborate on what it means to say that the way we define race is more about social and political history than anything genetic or biological?
TALKING ABOUT how we might actively go about objectively looking at biological variation to determine whether we could use either physical traits or genetic traits to determine races, we find that the use of physical traits simply fails. Most of the traits that the average person would use to think about whether biological variation is racial don’t actually define races.
The first trait to talk about is skin color. Skin color follows a gradient that’s associated with solar intensity. There’s more solar intensity in the tropics, and there’s less solar intensity towards the poles.
The entire human species began in the tropics, and as we began to migrate around the world, adaptation to local conditions began to occur, and as people began to move into more temperate zones, they began to lose pigmentation.
But one thing people need to remember is that our species is a young species, not more than probably 200,000 years old. Of that, probably 130,000 years were spent in tropical Africa. The last 70,000 years is when people began to move around the world and began to accumulate genetic adaptations to their new environments.
But to give you an example of how gradual this was, there was a recent study published in Nature showing that Neolithic remains of human beings in Spain still had the ancestral gene indicating dark skin. This would have been around on the order of 10,000 years ago.
Looking at people as they emerge out of this world, for example, are Melanesians who have blonde hair. The mutation that causes their blonde hair is different from the mutation that causes blonde hair in Europeans. But if you use blonde hair as a racial characterization trait, you would fail, because you’d then have to include Melanesians in the same race as Europeans.
This underscores the fallacy of thinking you can find any physical trait that allows you to unambiguously assign people to racial groups. They simply don’t exist.
And when we look at genetic variations, genetic studies tell us that human population differentiation is continuous. There really aren’t any places that you can unambiguously say that one race starts genetically and another race ends genetically.
You can use modern population techniques like the algorithm STRUCTURE and, depending on the number of genetic markers you use and the size of the population you use, you can make estimates for how clustered the human population is.
But this is a computer algorithm designed to cluster. It doesn’t mean that those clusters are, in fact, biological races. All it says is those clusters share more genetic variation in common than with these other clusters. Again, depending on the number of markers you use and the number of people you use, those clusters vary.
So again, there is no argument that we in fact have biological races, either genetically or by physical traits.
REICH IMPLIES that objective scientific research is being hindered by a well-meaning but misguided political agenda that’s concerned with racism. Your response argues that, on the contrary, geneticists need to be integrated into political and cultural disciplines and debates, particularly when it comes to questions of so-called race. Can you explain?
WHEN ONE talks about a scientific concept, one really needs to know the history of the science behind it. There is a method that all scientists adhere to called the scientific method. In theory, if the scientific method is applied objectively, then we have an opportunity to get the most unbiased understanding of the way nature works.
The problem is that the method is applied by human beings, and human beings always exist in social, political and cultural contexts. If we were talking about something like bi-parental inheritance, which is a standard concept in genetics, that’s not driven so much by social political agendas. But no other topic in genetics has been as absolutely polluted by social and political context as the concept of race.
The science that Reich believes he understands–and I would challenge his level of understanding about it–happened so much in the social and political context of racial supremacy of people of European descent, which has tainted the understanding of many people who’ve engaged in trying to understand the nature of human population variation.
In this sense, I’d really look forward to the day when we can have this dispassionate, completely objective analysis of human variation, but we don’t live in that society.
In the society we live in, where racial antagonism, social oppression and class oppression play such a dominant role in who gets the opportunity to be a scientist–or who gets to be the scientist that people listen to: witness the fact that the New York Times would not publish our rebuttal to David Reich–then we have to be cognizant of how social, political and cultural factors play in how we understand concepts such as race.
HOW DO you account for the persistence of biological race arguments, regardless of how many times they’ve been debunked? And have you noticed a correlation between an increase in these theories and the current political climate where there is an increase in nationalism and xenophobia?
I DON’T think there’s been any increase because I think these views have always been in high frequency.
To some degree, the present political climate allows people like Reich to be more comfortable in stating their beliefs. But these beliefs have never gone away, and they won’t go away so long as we have institutional racism and a racially stratified society.
Because those who are at the top don’t want to admit that society is racist. They don’t want to admit that capitalism generates racism and racial bigotry. And because they don’t want to admit that, they’ve got to come up with a natural biological explanation for why the society is structured the way it is structured.
So long as we live in an institutionally racist society, these arguments will always be recycled. The only way we’re going to get rid of them is if we get rid of institutional racism–which in my mind also means getting rid of capitalism because capitalism is the thing that is maintaining institutional racism in the United States.
YOU’RE A part of the recent revival of Science for the People, which has an important history in making these arguments going back to the 1960s and ’70s. What contributions can progressive and radical scientists make to this political moment?
SCIENCE FOR the People started out as Scientists against the Vietnam War. That was when I was a kid, so I wasn’t a scientist yet. But when I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, I ran into the Ann Arbor Science for the People collective, which had just written the book Biology As A Social Weapon.
That’s when I became aware of how my field had been used to prop up social injustice.
The sad fact of the matter is that the vast majority of practicing scientists simply don’t know this. Most of them are interested in solving their particular scientific question. In fact, they can be interested in doing this because most of these folks come from social groups that are benefitting from the way that society works. So for them, they go to work, they go back to their comfortable white suburban community and everything is fine.
The difference for me was that I was the first African American to ever earn a PhD in my field, so I dealt with racism in the programs I was involved in. I dealt with racism in the professional societies that I belonged to. I dealt with racism in the universities that I was employed by.
So there was no way for me out of the social struggle because of the color of my skin. It simply was impossible. Believe me, I would have liked to be able to just do genetics and not be called on to argue about racist genetic theories, but I couldn’t do that.
One of the things Science for the People has always done is been a pole of activist scientists who think more deeply about society and the role that science plays in maintaining patterns of social injustice. And the renewal of Science for the People I think is really crucial at this time.
Because, and I’ve argued this in public speeches and academic articles I’ve written, we are at a crucial tipping point for the future of society. Rosa Luxemburg once said it was “socialism or barbarism,” and I believe we’re at that point where if we do not change, this social economic system it will morph into totalitarianism.
We’re at the point where if we don’t do something, we’ll be remembered–if we can be remembered–as the generation that failed humanity by sitting still and doing nothing as totalitarianism solidified itself worldwide.
MANY PEOPLE are thinking about this being a tipping point moment–and that seems to be fueling the emergence of the March for Science last year and this year. But most often, they’re thinking specifically about climate change. That isn’t wrong, but what we’re talking about isn’t just climate change.
It also seems to me that you and Science for the People are making an argument against what I think is the common view: that people should stand up for “science” as opposed to what is seen in the Trump administration as “anti-science.” Instead, you’re saying that science is not just a neutral category, but that we need a politically engaged science, which doesn’t mean it’s not objective or true to the research.
How do you see the role of radical scientists in relation to a broader scientific community that is beginning to get political, but, as you’ve said, doesn’t know most of the history that we’re talking about?
I’M GOING to use David Reich’s analogy: much of the scientific community in this country has had their head in the sand.
I was one of the chief organizers of the Greensboro March for Science, but quite frankly, the people who started the March for Science were in reality concerned about their research dollars being taken away by the bad Trump administration, which didn’t believe in climate science. That was really the level of their political understanding of what was going on in society.
My views were different and deeper. Because I don’t think that Trump is anti-science. His administration is only anti-science to science that challenges their political hegemony.
They don’t want oil companies to be unable to sell oil. So that’s why their anti-climate change science. They’re entirely fine with the science that allows them to explore and find oil. They’re entirely fine with the science that allows the NSA to listen to all our phone conversations or to build cruise missiles.
They’re entirely fine with science. They’re just deploying science in the interests of the ruling class.
And most of the scientists in this country have been fine serving the ruling class. So long as they were given their money to pursue what they thought should be the scientific agenda, they were fine. But when Trump comes along and threatens their research dollars, all of the sudden they want to become politically active.
I’ve always known that science is part and parcel of maintaining social injustice. My whole career has always been about challenging social injustice and challenging other scientists to understand how they’re playing a role in maintaining social injustice.
That’s what Science for the People can do: Help get their heads out of the sand–and I’m using a nice term for where I think they’re heads are–and realize that if they really are committed to a world that is just and equitable and sustainable, then they really have to start thinking more deeply about what is causing the problems that they’ve now decided they want to march against.