Would Progress in Genetics Research End the Racial Spoils System?

A recent NY Times essay. “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’” by Harvard genetics professor David Reich directly confronted the Mother of All Taboos: racial differences in intelligence. Despite his references to Nazis and condemning as “racists” past researchers who have intimated this race-IQ link, Reich concludes that the onward march of genetic research might uncover the race/intelligence link though he prudently admits that smoking gun proof is not yet in hand.

The overwhelming reaction to Reich’s ever-so-tentative conclusion has, predictably, been condemnation. Nevertheless, qualifiers aside, there is no doubt that, at least in his expert opinion, thanks to multiplying breakthroughs in DNA research, the days of “no racial differences in cognitive ability” as “settled science” may well be numbered.  

Reich is explicit:

I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.” (snip)

Is performance on an intelligence test or the number of years of school a person attends shaped by the way a person is brought up? Of course. But does it measure something having to do with some aspect of behavior or cognition? Almost certainly. And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.

Now for the $64 political questions: what might happen if a group of eminent scientists present a report (we’ll call it “The Report”) demonstrating that after multiple careful studies, the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence confirms that (1) racial categories, understood as Caucasian, blacks, Asian and American Indian, are biological realities not “social constructs” and (2) Caucasians on average are more intelligent than blacks with East Asians (i.e., Chinese, Japanese and Korean) being smarter than whites and American Indians a bit smarter than blacks. To be sure, evidence for this race-related hierarchy of cognitive ability already abounds (see here and  here, among many summaries of findings depicting this link) but what makes The Report significant is that these group differences and now scientifically proven to be substantially biologically based, not largely environmentally determined.

For those anxious that this potential forthcoming explosive scientific truth will upend today’s racial accommodations, let me predict that barely anything would change. All the talk of white racism, racial discrimination and other evils will not recede, while the flow of billions to close racial gaps and all the rest will scarcely be touched. On the other side, however, disappointment will await those who had hoped that biological science will, at long last, bring a color-blind, merit-based America. The Great Taboo will survive.   

Let me suggest why near-zero change if The Report finally arrives, if ever, of course.

First, genetics is exceedingly complicated and abounds with myriad technical terms whose understanding require a decent knowledge of statistics. and leaving aside a provocative headline like “Scientists prove whites smarter than blacks,” The Report would draw scant popular attention. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the like will surely cover it, but beyond that, it’s hard to see ordinary folk paying serious attention. The left-leaning media might acknowledge it but only to condemn it as crackpot pseudo-science. At most, a few “race realist” websites would celebrate the findings, but this audience is tiny and even here, coverage will fade.

This reaction would be totally unlike research about sex, for example, the Kinsey Report and the findings of Masters and Johnson, that became talked about best sellers with millions pouring over turgid analyses to extract “hot” nuggets about homosexuality or female orgasm.

The Report’s author’s will also encourage public indifference by making it a formidable read, a tactic comparable to Victorians writing about sex by favoring Latin and impenetrable prose (try navigating Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis). It is also quite unlikely that fair-minded, more accessible versions will appear in magazines such as The Atlantic so non-specialists can see the evidence themselves. Such liberal-leaning magazines might well risk outraged subscribers canceling.  

Such obtuseness and reluctance to go public has a practical justification. Report authors would know full well the costs of racial heresy -- ad hominem denunciations, classroom disruptions, demands that this “Nazi” research be defunded and, no doubt, death threats. Recall how Harvard’s Edwin O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, was physically attacked at an academic conference, and he was only one of many who suffered this fate. Most likely, more than a few of The Report researchers would request anonymity. How many would defend their work on TV or pen an op-ed column?  Not many, if any.

Immense and very vocal opposition might kill The Report altogether. Guaranteed, there would be an avalanche of open letters, signed declarations and other hostile public outcries. Distinguished geneticists worried over their funding might join this vitriolic chorus and pick apart The Report for its “premature” conclusions. Add the usual collection of left-wing social justice academics who know little about genetics, calling themselves something like “Professors Against Racism.” And woe to anybody on campus who oppose their goodthink views. Given the risks of being associated with challenging Mother of All Taboo beliefs, opponents would out-number Report defenders at least 10 to 1.

Forget about a marketplace of idea where scientific truth wins out by defeating falsehoods; a better parallel is a Tower of Babel, often filled with preposterous lies, that leaves the public confused -- a “he say that, she say” version of scientific “debate.” Within a few weeks the public will tire of the uncivil squabbling and news of The Report will fade. Recall the trajectory of The Bell Curve -- an uproar, endless unscientific name-calling followed by decades of amnesia.

But most of all, The Report will not reverse race-related public policy for the simple reason that race relations in the US exists independently of scientific facts. Everything, top to bottom, is politically driven.  Demands for well-paying set-aside jobs are impervious to IQ statistics, nor do college instructors stop hectoring whites for their unearned “white privilege.” Indeed, The Report might only exacerbated cries of institutional racism as opponents denounce it as typical “white” science that justifies white hegemony.

To be blunt, The Report would not be exactly shockingly new news. Admissions officers at elite colleges have known for decades that blacks score well below whites and Asians on standardized tests, and this holds even for blacks from well-off families, and this enduring gap strongly hints of genetic differences, yet racial preferences continue. Moreover, the diversity defense has zero to do with genetics, so why drop racial preferences?  Ditto for all the corporations, including the US military, that hire diversity specialists to attract more black and Hispanic workers. Has any diversity advocate ever talked about genetics? If one needs an historical parallel, consider those centuries back when many people believed that fact-based science would demolish religions with their alleged superstitions and fantasies.

In sum, opponents of the racial preferences, affirmative action and all the rest are wasting their time by awaiting the Messiah of genetic research. Yes, scientifically verified truth is important, but in this instance, millions simply don’t care, refuse to believe it or will vigorously defend falsehoods. Change is most likely to occur -- sad to say -- when bridges collapse, or airplanes fall from the sky, but until such catastrophes, the racial spoils system marches on.

A recent NY Times essay. “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’” by Harvard genetics professor David Reich directly confronted the Mother of All Taboos: racial differences in intelligence. Despite his references to Nazis and condemning as “racists” past researchers who have intimated this race-IQ link, Reich concludes that the onward march of genetic research might uncover the race/intelligence link though he prudently admits that smoking gun proof is not yet in hand.

The overwhelming reaction to Reich’s ever-so-tentative conclusion has, predictably, been condemnation. Nevertheless, qualifiers aside, there is no doubt that, at least in his expert opinion, thanks to multiplying breakthroughs in DNA research, the days of “no racial differences in cognitive ability” as “settled science” may well be numbered.  

Reich is explicit:

I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.” (snip)

Is performance on an intelligence test or the number of years of school a person attends shaped by the way a person is brought up? Of course. But does it measure something having to do with some aspect of behavior or cognition? Almost certainly. And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.

Now for the $64 political questions: what might happen if a group of eminent scientists present a report (we’ll call it “The Report”) demonstrating that after multiple careful studies, the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence confirms that (1) racial categories, understood as Caucasian, blacks, Asian and American Indian, are biological realities not “social constructs” and (2) Caucasians on average are more intelligent than blacks with East Asians (i.e., Chinese, Japanese and Korean) being smarter than whites and American Indians a bit smarter than blacks. To be sure, evidence for this race-related hierarchy of cognitive ability already abounds (see here and  here, among many summaries of findings depicting this link) but what makes The Report significant is that these group differences and now scientifically proven to be substantially biologically based, not largely environmentally determined.

For those anxious that this potential forthcoming explosive scientific truth will upend today’s racial accommodations, let me predict that barely anything would change. All the talk of white racism, racial discrimination and other evils will not recede, while the flow of billions to close racial gaps and all the rest will scarcely be touched. On the other side, however, disappointment will await those who had hoped that biological science will, at long last, bring a color-blind, merit-based America. The Great Taboo will survive.   

Let me suggest why near-zero change if The Report finally arrives, if ever, of course.

First, genetics is exceedingly complicated and abounds with myriad technical terms whose understanding require a decent knowledge of statistics. and leaving aside a provocative headline like “Scientists prove whites smarter than blacks,” The Report would draw scant popular attention. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the like will surely cover it, but beyond that, it’s hard to see ordinary folk paying serious attention. The left-leaning media might acknowledge it but only to condemn it as crackpot pseudo-science. At most, a few “race realist” websites would celebrate the findings, but this audience is tiny and even here, coverage will fade.

This reaction would be totally unlike research about sex, for example, the Kinsey Report and the findings of Masters and Johnson, that became talked about best sellers with millions pouring over turgid analyses to extract “hot” nuggets about homosexuality or female orgasm.

The Report’s author’s will also encourage public indifference by making it a formidable read, a tactic comparable to Victorians writing about sex by favoring Latin and impenetrable prose (try navigating Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis). It is also quite unlikely that fair-minded, more accessible versions will appear in magazines such as The Atlantic so non-specialists can see the evidence themselves. Such liberal-leaning magazines might well risk outraged subscribers canceling.  

Such obtuseness and reluctance to go public has a practical justification. Report authors would know full well the costs of racial heresy -- ad hominem denunciations, classroom disruptions, demands that this “Nazi” research be defunded and, no doubt, death threats. Recall how Harvard’s Edwin O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, was physically attacked at an academic conference, and he was only one of many who suffered this fate. Most likely, more than a few of The Report researchers would request anonymity. How many would defend their work on TV or pen an op-ed column?  Not many, if any.

Immense and very vocal opposition might kill The Report altogether. Guaranteed, there would be an avalanche of open letters, signed declarations and other hostile public outcries. Distinguished geneticists worried over their funding might join this vitriolic chorus and pick apart The Report for its “premature” conclusions. Add the usual collection of left-wing social justice academics who know little about genetics, calling themselves something like “Professors Against Racism.” And woe to anybody on campus who oppose their goodthink views. Given the risks of being associated with challenging Mother of All Taboo beliefs, opponents would out-number Report defenders at least 10 to 1.

Forget about a marketplace of idea where scientific truth wins out by defeating falsehoods; a better parallel is a Tower of Babel, often filled with preposterous lies, that leaves the public confused -- a “he say that, she say” version of scientific “debate.” Within a few weeks the public will tire of the uncivil squabbling and news of The Report will fade. Recall the trajectory of The Bell Curve -- an uproar, endless unscientific name-calling followed by decades of amnesia.

But most of all, The Report will not reverse race-related public policy for the simple reason that race relations in the US exists independently of scientific facts. Everything, top to bottom, is politically driven.  Demands for well-paying set-aside jobs are impervious to IQ statistics, nor do college instructors stop hectoring whites for their unearned “white privilege.” Indeed, The Report might only exacerbated cries of institutional racism as opponents denounce it as typical “white” science that justifies white hegemony.

To be blunt, The Report would not be exactly shockingly new news. Admissions officers at elite colleges have known for decades that blacks score well below whites and Asians on standardized tests, and this holds even for blacks from well-off families, and this enduring gap strongly hints of genetic differences, yet racial preferences continue. Moreover, the diversity defense has zero to do with genetics, so why drop racial preferences?  Ditto for all the corporations, including the US military, that hire diversity specialists to attract more black and Hispanic workers. Has any diversity advocate ever talked about genetics? If one needs an historical parallel, consider those centuries back when many people believed that fact-based science would demolish religions with their alleged superstitions and fantasies.

In sum, opponents of the racial preferences, affirmative action and all the rest are wasting their time by awaiting the Messiah of genetic research. Yes, scientifically verified truth is important, but in this instance, millions simply don’t care, refuse to believe it or will vigorously defend falsehoods. Change is most likely to occur -- sad to say -- when bridges collapse, or airplanes fall from the sky, but until such catastrophes, the racial spoils system marches on.