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I say "race" and you say "population substructure"

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApril 24, 2006 2:50 AM


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John responds to the "race" response from Matt & I. I'm not interested in making a point-by-point response to the response because I don't think the "objective" difference in opinion is that great, rather, it seems to be that we are clashing in the turbulent waters of nominalism. First, I will respond to what I believe is the perception by John that I am conceiving of race as an essential and fundamental taxonomical unit. I don't hold to that. I've rejected the Platonic conception of race before. The problem that "race based public policy" often has is that the legal system is deterministic, and probablistic entities like subpopulations don't fit into neat categories. I don't deny that human populations exhibit spatial and temporal gradients. I stated before that my attitude toward population substructure is instrumentalist. I am happy to treat human beings as fundamentally the same, having equal rights before God & Nature. This the basal starting point, but, we often just stop there. Consider a situation where I, a South Asian American, am in need of a bone marrow transplant. If we simply assume the basal model, that we are all fundamentally the same, the finite tissue matching dollars should be ethnicity insensitive. But the reality is that my chances of a tissue match are far higher within my "ethnicity" than without, so one should target the search appropriately. Similarly, drug testing trials should not be absolutely generalized across ethnicities, and when possible it might be best to optimize the diversity of the subject population. If you are a white American this doesn't matter much since the majority of Americans are white, so not taking ethnicity (genetic substructure) into account is of little importance in terms of your own potential mortality. But, if you are a member of a small minority the "we are all the same" attitude can be problematic and fatal. This doesn't mean that I think race is a metaphysical concept of sacral value. I could care less, I just don't want my risk of personal extinction elevated because of an excessive emphasis population interchangeability. One can change the name from "race" to something else, I don't care, as long as pragmatically oriented people don't disregard the correlations of alleles which map onto geographical races. In any case:

To be races, I would think that you'd need at the least to have long-term cladogenesis of the type found in haplotype groups of geographically isolated populations of other species.

Well, then I guess by that definition I don't believe in races. We can use some other word, I don't particularly care, but we are a diverse species characterized by genetic substructure, and the 85/15 intra vs. intergroup variance number on one locus tends to elide that in the public imagination. The problem for me isn't that people reject the word race, it is that when they reject that word they seem to default to a position which assumes that interpopulational differences are "superficial" and "unimportant." I don't think this is so. A trivial example can be illustrated with food, in Some like it Hot, conservation biologist Gary Nabhan chronicles the confusions that abound in terms of cuisine transported across cultures. Some "diets" really don't work well outside some populations, and giving Native Americans "free milk" is really dumb when you consider this group can't digest milk well. On a less trivial level, the peoples of the northern Andaman Islands were decimated by diseases introduced by immigrants from the Indian mainland (they were moved to an isolated island in the 1960s and their numbers have bounced back from a dozen to perhaps 50 individuals). Today the Indian government has quarantined North Sentinel Island in part because it fears that outside diseases will result in the decimation of this group. The Eurasian pathogenic environment has resulted in the reality that some groups isolated from this evolutionary cauldron simply die when exposed to the disease load that is endemic to most Eurasians! The Contingency Table has an excellent overview of the issues (for that matter, you should bookmark the blog as it is). Jason Malloy also has excellent points to make over at Pharyngula.

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