On 5 May 2014 The American Anthropological Association hosted a webinar in which Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association, hosted a debate between Augustín Fuentes and Nicholas Wade. Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, and Wade is a science journalist and author of A Troublesome Inheritance. This post describes what happened there, for people who don’t want to stream the whole thing. Our fearless intern Angela transcribed the webinar, and I double-checked the transcription in key places where the recording was difficult to hear. I’ve occasionally cleaned up speech, but the quotations here are as direct as we could manage — indeed, this post is designed to let people hear the participants speak for themselves.
After a brief introduction by Liebow, Fuentes began the discussion. He claimed that Wade’s argument in A Troublesome Inheritance rested on two fundamental claims, both of which were wrong: first, that “humans are divided into five genetically identified continental races, maybe three or seven depending who [is doing the classifying]” and secondly, that “there are significant differences in the genetically based social behavior between these races.”
Fuentes pointed out that “genes matter” but that “they’re just a small part of a whole evolutionary picture” which results in behavior. He also argued that Wade was imprecise in his terminology. “Wade uses cluster, population, group, race, sub-race, ethnicity in a range of ways with few concrete definitions, and occasionally interchangeably throughout the book” he said.
Fuentes then went on to deal with the topic of human genetic variation. Humans share all of their genes and 99.9 percent of variation, he said, so what was being discussed in the webinar was just “0.1 variation of all the variation in the genome.” He emphasized that “most variation in human genetics is due to gene flow and genetic drift, which basically mean that the further apart two populations are, the more differences there are going to be between them.” Wade relied on a study which showed differences between people in Nigeria, Western Europe, Beijing, and Tokyo which showed differences between these groups but, Fuentes claimed, if you studied people from Liberia, Somalia, and South Africa you would get similar variation. “So for zoologists,” Fuentes concluded, “no human populations are different enough from one another to be called subspecies.”
Fuentes argued that the color-coded clusters of genetic data that Wade used in his book were a product of arbitrary choices made by Wade and scientists, and did not emerge automatically in the data themselves. In one study, the computer program Structure was asked to cluster data into 3, 4, 5, and 6 groups. Fuentes claimed that Wade noticed the arbitrariness of this scheme in his book and decided on a five-race scheme because it was “practical for most purposes” and not because it was naturally there in the data.
Liebow then turned the discussion over to Wade. He began with some history, describing the anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s fight against racism in the 1950s. Montagu (who died in 1999) argued that biological race did not exist so that he could fight racism, colonialism, and imperialism. He was successful, but as a result “scientists are afraid to talk about race. They risk being denounced as racist and having their careers destroyed and they use code words.” His book was meant to “explain what we know about race.” Morality, he argued, should rest on “absolute principle” since if it does not, then “you risk distorting science” to serve your moral cause, which is “exactly what is happening” at present.
Wade defined “human races” as “population groups” and then began a description of human migration out of Africa and the development of five racial groups or continental groups of African, Caucasian, East Asian, Oceanian, and Native American. He then turned to the results of cluster analysis using the computer program Structure to demonstrate how these groups show up in the genetic data. Wade showed a slide in which Structure was asked to divide human genetic diversity into 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 different clusters. Wade described how the clusters of 2, 3, 4, and 5 groups increasingly made sense, but that grouping into 6 clusters “you suddenly get this little yellow group appearing, which is the Kalash population in Pakistan, and that doesn’t make any sense.”
Wade then concluded “So this is an easy way of visualizing how the world’s populations cluster together in groups you can call races because that corresponds very robustly to our notion of race.” He then moved to another slide and argued that “you can take this further down and subdivide each of the groups.. if you want to avoid the word subraces you can use the word ethnicities…. though anthropologists use that in a slightly different sense.”
Wade then argued that different genes are under natural selection in different races. “We’ve got no idea what specific role these genes play,” Wade said, “My belief, which I explore in the book, is that they shape human social behavior and generate societies in a slightly different way.” (this last quote was hard to hear because of noise on the line — I think I’ve got it right).
Finally, Wade clarified that the “genetic structure of races” was not due to having different genes, but rather in the frequency of different alleles of genes. “Racial difference is something quite subtle” Wade pointed out, but could “make a big difference to the physical traits of populations.” To make this point, he used the example of the complex mix of genes that affect height.
Liebow then asked a question posed by an audience member: Don’t the existence of human adaptations like large brains and altricial young indicate selection for social behavior, rather than behavior that is genetically patterned? No, Wade said, “We’re a highly social species and we survive in social groups and natural selection would pay intense selection to the nature of our society and therefore to the social behavior on which a society depends. So we haven’t yet have much success in identifying these genes, but we have a start with genes like oxytocin which promotes sociality and I think you can say sociality is under genetic influence.”
Liebow then asked Fuentes to explains his views of the relationship between genetic variation and behavioral variation. Fuentes again emphasized claims he made earlier: the more clusters you ask Structure to make, the more unwieldly the image becomes, but the more accurately it visualizes the data. Returning to Wade’s claim that certain genes were under selection in certain races, Fuentes pointed out that Wade’s slide showed that there were 23,374 areas that were not selected.
Continuing, Fuentes argued that “genes don’t lead to behavior… We think of evolutionary biology as a complex system in which genes are participants, so to try to get away from all the other components and just talk about the genes doesn’t get us very far, especially if what we are doing is comparing small disparate populations and teeny percentages of patterns of genetic variation.”
Fuentes did agree with Wade on the importance of “staying to the science.” “Maybe there are a lot of political issues here,” Fuentes said, “But I want to focus on actual science.”
Liebow then asked Wade to respond. Wade said “I think Agustín is trying to go for what I could call obfuscation and I’m trying to go for clarity. Human genetics is a complicated subject so you have to start by looking for guideline principles or you’ll never understand it.” The samples used in the studies he discussed were representative of populations that they were from, he insisted. “Race is just a reflection of recent human evolution,” Wade said, “and to deny it puts you in the category of creationism.”
Liebow then relayed two more questions from the audience: Could Wade provide a biological definition of race? Is the level of genetic variation that we see in humans large enough to “warrant significantly different biological groups” if we found them in other species? Wade replied by saying that he thought it was interesting that in a study by Lee et. al. “you could split out the Caucasian group in two others: the Middle Easterners and the people of the Indian subcontinent… So if you wanted you could say there are seven human races instead of five. But there’s no need to get hung up on numbers, race is a very fuzzy (?) concept. It doesn’t matter how many there are, the fact that people may differ on a number of races is a matter of definition and not of the fact that races exist.”
Regarding the genetic homogeneity of humans when compared to, say, chimpanzees, Wade replied that “just a handful of genes will cause a big difference” in the right circumstances and that “because of the intense selective pressure we’ve been under the last 50,000 years, considerable of variation has developed in human species, that’s why the other races look somewhat different.”
Fuentes then responded to the question by pointing out that Lee et. al., the study that Wade cited, concluded that their data could be explained by random drift rather than natural selection, as Wade claimed. “Bottom line here,” Fuentes said: “I’m not arguing variations don’t exist, but Nicholas consistently says that they’re reflective of races as opposed to populations… We’re talking about biological differences, we need a biological definition. So what’s the definition?”
This is the point at which Wade’s connection went on the fritz, so Liebow invited Fuentes to talk about geographic drift. Fuentes returned to his earlier theme, arguing that “if we lined up populations from West Africa all the way over to East Asia, then you’d have consistent sort of patterns and you wouldn’t be able to divide it into five things. You’d see patterns of slight changes over time. That doesn’t give us five or three or seven races. That gives us one human race with some really interesting patterns of genetic variation.”
Wade still wasn’t back on, so Liebow asked Fuentes to talk about how biological evolution is linked with social evolution. Fuentes stresssed that “rather than just the environment shaping organisms and their gene pool, we know there’s interaction between organisms and the environment, which actually changes the way natural selection works. Evolution is ongoing over time and complex, it’s not just the environment targeting genes.”
For Fuentes complexity was clearly important. “The representation of little teeny minor differences in some areas of the DNA and connecting that to large sociopolitical and historical differences as Nicholas Wade did in his book, it’s misleading because it’s not giving true credit to the complexity of evolutionary biology and the complexity of understanding how things evolve.”
Another audience member asked what the difference was between races in humans and breeds of, say, dogs. Fuentes replied that the term ‘race’ meant two different things: the biological concept of subspecies as used by biologists, and “what we call race in humans: black, white Asian, Latino. Those two things are separate. There’s some relationship between characteristics we assign them, but one is socially constructed, the other biological… The biological race question is easy: There’s one. The social race question is complicated because it’s dynamic, but it’s also it’s very, very real and very, very powerful.
Liebow then asked whether Wade was correct in arguing that “the consensus explanation of almost all social science is that human societies differ only in their culture?” “No,” replied Fuentes, “I don’t think humans only differ in culture, I just made the case that humans differ genetically a lot in many ways and interesting ways. But most important is actual science behind variation. We know how that works: Humans differ in lots of ways, but not by biological race.”
Wade then rejoined the conversation and turned to the topic of the definition of a race. He returned to the theme of continuity that Fuentes had discussed. “Biological variation is a continuum,” he wrote, “so where you want to cut this continuum is kind of arbitrary, and population geneticists have developed measures.” By one such measure, FST, humans did have enough variation to have subspecies. Wade said that a claim to the contrary was “a political judgment.”
He continued: “There’s enough variation for you to say these are subspecies or races within the single human species if you wish to, and exactly how many of them there are is really a question of not very much interest. The whole system is continuous, an unbroken spectrum from races to the ethnicities between races, which all depends on how many genetic markers you wish look at.”
Fuentes replied by saying that “human populations on average” are much lower in diversity than the amount needed by the FST standard to be considered separate. He returned to the issue of the definition of race again: “these kinds of patterns matter because understanding what we’re comparing is really important. So, Nicholas… if we say African, what is the definition? We need a definition of this. It matters if it’s three or five or seven if these are actually evolutionary units or biological categories we’re using. If we’re just saying, here’s a bunch of variations, call this this and that’s that. That’s one thing, but that’s not science.”
Liebow then began winding down the session by asking each participant one last question. He began with Wade, asking him why he thought scientists were afraid to talk about race. “They fear to say it because their careers would be destroyed. There’s a truly oppressive atmosphere that I find when talking to geneticists” he said, urging Liebow, as executive director of the AAA, to update the association’s statement on race.
Liebow then asked Fuentes to comment about the pace at which scientific knowledge advances. “Science is moving forward, but we need to talk about it accurately… and actually reflect debate… going on in science, not select just those that select a particular agenda or position. I agree with Nicholas. We need to talk more about race clearly and factually, we need to not be afraid to get these science discussions out there, and have them in ways that are as accessible as possible.” And with that the session ended.