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Is There Really More Variation Within Races Than Between Them?

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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1500 words

In 1972 Richard Lewontin, studying the blood groups of different races, came to the conclusion that “Human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance” (pg 397). He also found that “the difference between populations within a race account for an additional 8.3 percent, so that only 6.3 percent is accounted for by racial classification.” This has lead numerous people to, along with Lewontin, conclude that race is ‘of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance’ and conclude that, due to this, race does not exist.

Lewontin’s main reasoning was that since there is more variation within races than between them (85 percent of differences were within populations while 15 percent was within them) then since a lion’s share of human diversity is distributed within races, not between them, then race is of no genetic nor taxonomic use. Lewontin is correct that there is more variation within races than between them, but he is incorrect that this means that racial classification ‘is of no social value’, since knowing and understanding the reality of race (even our perceptions of them, whether they are true or not) influence things such as medical outcomes.

Though, like Lewontin, people have cited this paper as evidence against the existence of human races, for if there is way more genetic variation between races, and that most human genetic variation is within races, then race cannot be of any significance for things such as medical outcomes since most genetic variation is within races not between them.

Rosenberg et al (2002) also confirmed and replicated Lewontin’s analysis, showing that within-population genetic variation accounts for 93-95 percent of human genetic variation, while 3 to 5 percent of human genetic variation lies between groups. Philosopher Michael Hardimon (2017) uses these arguments to buttress his point that ‘racialist races’ (as he calls them) do not exist. His criteria being:

(a) The fraction of human genetic diversity between populations must exceed the fraction of diversity between them.

(b) The fraction of human genetic diversity within populations must be small.

(c) The fraction of diversity between populations must be large.

(d) Most genes must be highly differentiated by race.

(e) The variation in genes that underlie obvious physical differences must be typical of the genome in general.

(f) There must be several important genetic differences between races apart from the genetic differences that underlie obvious physical differences.

Note: (b) says that racialist races are genetically racially homogeneous groups; (c)-(f) say that racialist races are distinguised by major biological differences.

Call (a)-(f) the racialist concept of race’s genetic profile. (Hardimon, 2017: 21)

He clearly strawmans the racialist position, but I’ll get into that another day. Hardimon writes about how both of these studies lend credence to his above argument on racialist races (pg 24):

Rosenberg and colleagues also confirm Lewontin’s findings that most genes are not highly differentiated by race and that the variation in genes that underlie obvious physical differences is not typical of the variation of the genome in general. They also suggest that it is not the case that there are many important genetic differences between races apart from the genetic differences that underlie the obvious physical differences. These considerations further buttress the case against the existence of racialist races.

[…]

The results of Lewontin’s 1972 study and Rosenberg and colleagues’ 2002 study strongly suggest that it is extremely unlikely that there are many important genetic differences between races apart from the genetic differences that underlie the obvious physical differences.

(Hardimon also writes on page 124 that Rosenberg et al’s 2002 study could also be used as evidence for his populationist concept of race, which I will return to in the future.)

Though, my reasoning for writing this article is to show that the findings by Lewontin and Rosenberg et al regarding more variation within races than between them are indeed true, despite claims to the contrary. There is one article, though, that people cite as evidence against the conclusions by Lewontin and Rosenberg et al, though it’s clear that they only read the abstract and not the full paper.

Witherspoon et al (2007) write that “sufficient genetic data can permit accurate classification of individuals into populations“, which is what the individuals who cite this study as evidence for their contention mean, though they conclude (emphasis mine):

The fact that, given enough genetic data, individuals can be correctly assigned to their populations of origin is compatible with the observation that most human genetic variation is found within populations, not between them. It is also compatible with our finding that, even when the most distinct populations are considered and hundreds of loci are used, individuals are frequently more similar to members of other populations than to members of their own population. Thus, caution should be used when using geographic or genetic ancestry to make inferences about individual phenotypes.

Witherspoon et al (2007) analyzed the three classical races (Europeans, Africans and East Asians) over thousands of loci and came to the conclusion when genetic similarity is measured over thousands of loci, the answer to the question “How often is a pair of individuals from one population genetically more dissimilar than two individuals chosen from two different populations?” is “never“.

Hunley, Cabana, and Long (2016: 7) also confirm Lewontin’s analysis, writing “In sum, we concur with Lewontin’s conclusion that Western-based racial classifications have no taxonomic significance, and we hope that this research, which takes into account our current understanding of the structure of human diversity, places his seminal finding on firmer evolutionary footing.” But the claim that “racial classifications have no taxonomic significance” is FALSE.

This is a point that Edwards (2003) rebutted in depth. While he did agree with Lewontin’s (1972) analysis that there was more variation within races than between them (which was confirmed through subsequent analysis), he strongly disagreed with Lewontin’s conclusion that race is of no taxonomic significance. Richard Dawkins, too disagreed with Lewontin, though as Dawkins writes in his book The Ancestors Tale: “Most of the variation among humans can be found within races as well as between them. Only a small admixture of extra variation distinguishes races from each other. That is all correct. What is not correct is the inferene that race is therefore a meaningless concept.” The fact that there is more variation within races than between them is irrelevant to taxonomic classification, and classifying races by phenotypic differences (morphology, and facial features) along with geographic ancestry shows that just by looking at the average phenotype that race exists, though these concepts make no value-based judgements on anything you can’t ‘see’, such as mental and personality differences between populations.

Though while some agree with Edwards’ analysis of Lewontin’s argument about race’s taxonomic significance, they don’t believe that he successfully refuted Lewontin. For instance, Hardimon (2017: 22-23) writes that Lewontin’s argument against—what Hardimon (2017) calls ‘racialist race’ (his strawman quoted above)—the existence of race because the within-race component of genetic variation is greater than the genetic variation between races “is untouched by Edwards’ objections.

Though Sesardic (2010: 152) argues that “Therefore, contra Lewontin, the racial classification that is based on a number of genetic differences between populations may well be extremely reliable and robust, despite the fact that any single of those genetic between-population differences\ remains, in itself, a very poor predictor of racial membership.” He also states that the 7 to 10 percent difference between populations “actually refers to the inter-racial portion of variation that is averaged over the separate contributions of a number of individual genetic indicators that were sampled in different studies” (pg 150).

I personally avoid all of this talk about genes/allele frequencies between populations and jump straight to using Hardimon’s minimalist race concept—a concept that, according to Hardimon is “stripped down to its barest bones” since it captures enough of the racialist concept of race to be considered a race concept.

In sum, variation within races is greater than variation between races, but this does not mean anything for the reality of race since race can still be delineated based on peculiar physical features and peculiar geographic ancestry to that group. Using a few indicators (morphology, facial features such as nose, lips, cheekbones, facial structure, and hair along with geographic ancestry), we can group races based on these criteria and we can show that race does indeed exist in a physical—not social—sense and that these categories are meaningful in a medical context (Hardimon, 2013, 2017). So even though genetic variation is greater within races than between them, this does not mean that there is no taxonomic significance to race, as other authors have argued. Hardimon (2017: 23) agrees, writing (emphasis his) “… Lewontin’s data do not preclude the possibility that racial classification might have taxonomic significance, but they do preclude the possibility that racialist races exist.”

Hardimon’s strawman of the racialist concept notwithstanding (which I will cover in the future), his other three race concepts (minimalist, populationist and socialrace concepts) are logically sound and stand up to a lot of criticism. Either way, race does exist, and it does not matter if the apportionment of human genetic diversity is greatest within races than between them.

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