Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It

Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It, by Andrew Sullivan.

Last weekend, a rather seismic op-ed appeared in the New York Times, and it was for a while one of the most popular pieces in the newspaper. It’s by David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard, who carefully advanced the case that there are genetic variations between subpopulations of humans, that these are caused, as in every other species, by natural selection, and that some of these variations are not entirely superficial and do indeed overlap with our idea of race. This argument should not be so controversial — every species is subject to these variations — and yet it is.

For many on the academic and journalistic left, genetics are deemed largely irrelevant when it comes to humans. Our large brains and the societies we have constructed with them, many argue, swamp almost all genetic influences.

Humans, in this view, are the only species on Earth largely unaffected by recent (or ancient) evolution, the only species where, for example, the natural division of labor between male and female has no salience at all, the only species, in fact, where natural variations are almost entirely social constructions, subject to reinvention. We are, in this worldview, alone on the planet, born as blank slates, to be written on solely by culture. All differences between men and women are a function of this social effect; as are all differences between the races. If, in the aggregate, any differences in outcome between groups emerge, it is entirely because of oppression, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. And it is a matter of great urgency that we use whatever power we have to combat these inequalities.

Reich simply points out that this utopian fiction is in danger of collapse because it is not true and because genetic research is increasingly proving it untrue.

On the male-female divide, for example, Reich cites profound differences, “reflecting more than 100 million years of evolution and adaptation.” On race, he is both agnostic about what we will eventually find out with respect to the scale of genetic differences, and also insistent that genetic differences do exist: “You will sometimes hear that any biological differences among populations are likely to be small, because humans have diverged too recently from common ancestors for substantial differences to have arisen under the pressure of natural selection. This is not true. The ancestors of East Asians, Europeans, West Africans and Australians were, until recently, almost completely isolated from one another for 40,000 years or longer, which is more than sufficient time for the forces of evolution to work.” Which means to say that the differences could be (and actually are) substantial.

This will lead to subtle variations in human brains, and thereby differences in intelligence tests, which will affect social and economic outcomes in the aggregate in a multiracial, capitalist, post-industrial society. The danger in actively suppressing and stigmatizing this inconvenient truth, he maintains, is that a responsible treatment of these genetic influences will be siloed in the academic field of genetics, will be rendered too toxic for public debate, and will thereby only leak out to people in the outside world via the worst kind of racists and bigots who will distort these truths to their own ends.

If you don’t establish a reasonable forum for debate on this, Reich argues, if you don’t establish the principle that we do not have to be afraid of any of this, it will be monopolized by truly unreasonable and indeed dangerous racists. And those racists will have the added prestige for their followers of revealing forbidden knowledge. And so there are two arguments against the suppression of this truth and the stigmatization of its defenders: that it’s intellectually dishonest and politically counterproductive.


If we assume genetics play no role, and base our policy prescriptions on something untrue, we are likely to overshoot and over-promise in social policy, and see our rhetoric on race become ever more extreme and divisive. We may even embrace racial discrimination, as in affirmative action, that fuels deeper divides. All of which, it seems to me, is happening — and actively hampering racial progress, as the left defines the most multiracial and multicultural society in human history as simply “white supremacy” unchanged since slavery; and as the right viscerally responds by embracing increasingly racist white identity politics. …

In some ways, this is just a replay of the broader liberal-conservative argument. Leftists tend to believe that all inequality is created; liberals tend to believe we can constantly improve the world in every generation, forever perfecting our societies. Rightists believe that human nature is utterly unchanging; conservatives tend to see the world as less plastic than liberals, and attempts to remake it wholesale dangerous and often counterproductive.