Race, Science, and Policy Implications

Race, Science, and Policy Implications

Over at RealClearScience, I have a review of A Troublesome Inheritance, a book from longtime New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. The book explains recent findings in genetics and argues that there are significant genetic differences between racial groups.

Most of my review is, naturally, focused on the science, but I thought I'd share a few paragraphs here that deal with the ramifications for society and policy:

There's really no telling what the future of racial tensions will look like or how science will factor in, even if we limit our discussion to the Western audience most likely to read A Troublesome Inheritance. The Cliven Bundys and Donald Sterlings of the world aside, we have seen dramatic improvements in racial attitudes in the last 50 years -- but there's no guarantee that our progress will be maintained or advanced in future generations as Western nations become increasingly diverse; as the horrors of slavery, colonialism, fascism, Soviet communism, and forced sterilization recede from national memories; and as attempts to root out lingering racism reach heights that many find ridiculous (see, for example, recent complaints about tiny slights called "microaggressions").

Certainly, it is illogical to draw conclusions about an individual from the racial group he belongs to, even if every last one of Wade's theories is true. Remember, evolution worked on human populations mainly by subtly shifting gene frequencies -- every race has individuals with all sorts of attributes, even if the averages turn out to be a little different. But not everyone has a solid grasp on these kinds of statistical concepts. For many, there is no difference between "genes that increase X are slightly more common in this racial group" and "members of this racial group are inherently high in X." When X is, for example, intelligence or propensity to violence, this perception can lead to serious societal problems.

Perhaps the solution is to do a better job of teaching this distinction to the public, but thus far the media and academy have been no help whatsoever. As Wade points out, instead of explaining that race is real but racism is wrong, they are presenting the assertion that race is imaginary as a reason that racism is wrong, and branding as a racist anyone who suggests that evolution might happen to humans too. Since human evolution has indeed been "recent, copious and regional," we are seeing that what we've been taught is "racist" is actually just true.

There are ramifications for public policy here, too. As Wade writes, some have already used the idea that racial differences in IQ scores might be partly genetic (those supporting this theory usually give an estimate around 50 percent genetic and 50 percent environmental) to argue against education programs that seek to narrow racial gaps. These folks are wrong -- if a gap is 50 percent environmental, there's still good we can do, even if we haven't figured out how yet -- but genetic differences could indeed force some of us to rethink gaps in general. Liberals have long assumed that all racial gaps result from discrimination, while conservatives have protested that there are important cultural factors at work too. Proof of a genetic contribution would demolish the Left's core assumptions and complicate the issue of when policies like affirmative action and "disparate impact" (a federal rule that makes it difficult for employers to use tests on which different racial groups have different pass rates) are defensible.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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