race, genetics, and the lure of forbidden knowledge (guest post by ann morning)

Recently geneticist David Reich published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race.’” In it he contends that “differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real”—and what’s more, that “as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’”

The invocation of his status as a natural scientist, the insistence on what is “real,” and the astonishing suggestion that race has been overlooked until now—I’ve seen it all before. Reich is using a rhetorical device that sociologist Reanne Frank has called the “forbidden knowledge” thesis, where academics who identify themselves with “science” (and are usually, though not always, male, white biological scientists) contend that anyone who questions the biological foundations of racial groupings is denying reality, or “sticking their heads in the sand” as Reich puts it. Another recent version of this was New York Times former science reporter Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. The Times also published an op-ed by geneticist Armand LeRoi in 2005 making pretty much the same case, so I’m not sure why they felt it was new in 2018. But the conceit is that there has been a cover-up (or “orthodoxy” in Reich’s words) denying the biological truth about race, so we need brave souls like Reich and Wade and LeRoi to reveal the truth (again!) to the public: race is a biological characteristic of the human species.

The problem in the geneticists’ arguments (science journalist Wade’s are of a whole other magnitude of weakness) is that basically they confuse “population” with “race.” They are absolutely correct when they talk about average differences between populations in terms of the frequency of particular genetic traits. They illustrate this with examples like the Andaman Islanders (in LeRoi 2005) or Northern Europeans or West Africans (in Reich 2018). The trouble is, none of these groups are considered “races” (or have been at least since the 1920’s). “Races” are huge groups spanning entire continents and thus remarkably varied ecological environments. “Races,” as described by Linnaeus in the 1700’s or on the U.S. census of 2010, group Koreans, Mongolians, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis together (as the “Asian” race); they group Moroccans, Norwegians, and Greeks together as another (the “white” race). Groupings like these, billions of people strong and traditionally inhabiting highly variable geographic terrains, just don’t demonstrate homogenous genetic characteristics that distinguish them, even if average differences can be calculated between them. That is why the statistics that Reich or others present are actually not about races; they are about much smaller-scale, local populations (including African Americans, an ethnic group that is hardly representative of the global “black” race). Indeed, Reich himself claims that the people we call “white” today descend from four genetically-distinct populations, thus shooting himself in the foot by suggesting that “races” are in fact not actually the same thing as genetically-identified “populations.” So we are left with the question of why he is adamant that average genetic differences between races not be “ignored,” when he himself doesn’t seem to attend much to them.

It comes as no surprise though that “race” can’t do much work for him; the idea that race can help us characterize or understand human genetic variation in any serious way is laughable. Race is basically a very simple, 4-part color wheel assigning all 7.6 billion of us to a “black,” “white,” “yellow” or “red” category. Can anyone credibly claim that a taxonomy grounded in the humoral theory of Antiquity—remember the red blood, black bile, yellow bile, and white phlegm that the ancients believed determined our health and temperaments?—is a useful tool for analyzing genetic diversity at the start of the 21st century? That with the insights made possible by ever more sophisticated biological and statistical theory, growing DNA databanks, and formidable computing power, Linnaeus’ color scheme is the best we can do? It’s like telling psychologists that phrenology could be a handy tool for understanding personality, or economists that astrology offers a promising avenue for research on income inequality. Who knows, some interesting correlations might turn up, but would these be “impossible to ignore”? And if so, why pour millions into contemporary research on human genetic variation when humoral theory will do just fine?

Reich is right to make a plea for better understanding of the biological variation that characterizes our species. (His piece also suggests that sharpening Americans’ statistical skills would help.) But “race” is a really lame, blunt, and–it has to be said–historically racist tool for such scientific inquiry. As far as I can tell, the only advantage to dredging up the “race” notion is to be provocative and garner attention (especially if, like Reich, you have a new book to flog). Because without the word “race,” there’s nothing new here except the well-known observation that human biological traits vary around the world in tandem with geographical location. The only thing that is surprising is that media outlets like the New York Times seem to have so little institutional memory that the same argument can be presented again and again as if it were a fearlessly iconoclastic novelty. Go figure! Honestly, Reich’s op-ed should’ve been titled, “How Race Is Warping Our Understanding of Genetics.”

Ann Morning is an Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University. Her book, The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, was published by the University of California Press.


Written by jeffguhin

March 29, 2018 at 1:38 am

Posted in uncategorized

23 Responses

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  1. Here’s a quote from Reich’s book “Who We Are and How We Get Here” that shows him talking statistically about race defined on the largest scale:

    “Today, the peoples of West Eurasia—the vast region spanning Europe, the Near East, and much of central Asia—are genetically highly similar. The physical similarity of West Eurasian populations was recognized in the eighteenth century by scholars who classified the people of West Eurasia as “Caucasoids” to differentiate them from East Asian “Mongoloids,” sub-Saharan African “Negroids,” and “Australoids” of Australia and New Guinea…. [P]opulations within West Eurasia are typically around seven times more similar to one another than West Eurasians are to East Asians. When frequencies of mutations are plotted on a map, West Eurasia appears homogeneous, from the Atlantic façade of Europe to the steppes of central Asia. There is a sharp gradient of change in central Asia before another region of homogeneity is reached in East Asia….”

    Perhaps the 18th century scientists more or less got it right?

    Liked by 1 person

    Steve Sailer

    March 29, 2018 at 5:10 am

  2. David Reich (direct quote): “race is a social construct”

    Ann Morning: “so we need brave souls like Reich…to reveal the truth (again!) to the public: race is a biological characteristic of the human species”

    Liked by 1 person

    Aaron Gross

    March 29, 2018 at 7:22 am

  3. I’ve read this piece twice now; it is hard to find the argument among all the huffing and puffing. As far as I can see, two points of substance are being made:

    1. Reich shouldn’t use the *word* race to characterize human populations and the differences between them.

    2. A partition of humanity into four groups is much too simple — you basically need more groups.

    To the first, I would say, meh, to the second: There’s two issues here: One, a question of the level of analysis that’s convenient for your purposes. You can certainly come up with more fine-grained distinctions, all the way down to the individual — just like a sociologist might look at differences between nations, or states within a nation, or counties, etc. Two, it is an empirical question whether samples will cluster as would be expected on the basis of traditional notions about race. So, what is there to get so excited about?

    Liked by 1 person


    March 29, 2018 at 7:42 am

  4. It is deeply unfair to David Reich to state he is only making provocative claims about race because “he has a book to flog”. His field has a firehose of data and is settling fields of dispute that have been argued about for hundreds of years. Also the genetic data field is highly lucrative, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Reich, if self interested, would not have written this book – especially since it will be outdated in six months.

    The world has changed. Arguing about discourses of race is over. Learn some statistics. Make sense of the data. And stop criticizing people for telling the truth.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 29, 2018 at 12:44 pm

  5. If people were serious about identifying population genetic structures, they’d take the full-genome databases being compiled at institutions like Harvard and use them as a corpus in an incremental prize for lossless compression.

    If people were serious about identifying social causality structures, they’d take the wide range of time-series social measures that have been, for 100 years, compiled at institutions like Harvard and use them as a corpus in an incremental prize for lossless compression.

    If people were serious about getting to the bottom of the contributions of population genetic structures to social causality structures, they’d combine the two into a single corpus in an incremental prize for lossless compression.

    But they aren’t serious. They want to yammer.

    One year before passing away, Marvin, Minsky, a founding father of the field of Artificial Intelligence, made an astonishing claim describing what turns out to be exactly my research aim and purpose in a closing statement at a prime venue (see video on the right):

    It seems to me that the most important discovery since Gödel was the discovery by Chaitin, Solomonoff and Kolmogorov of the concept called Algorithmic Probability which is a fundamental new theory of how to make predictions given a collection of experiences and this is a beautiful theory, everybody should learn it, but it’s got one problem, that is, that you cannot actually calculate what this theory predicts because it is too hard, it requires an infinite amount of work. However, it should be possible to make practical approximations to the Chaitin, Kolmogorov, Solomonoff theory that would make better predictions than anything we have today. Everybody should learn all about that and spend the rest of their lives working on it.

    ​Marvin Minsky
    Panel discussion on The Limits of Understanding
    World Science Festival
    NYC, Dec 14, 2014

    Liked by 1 person


    March 29, 2018 at 1:56 pm

  6. I am grateful for the pointer to Reich’s piece, which seems to say the opposite of what this blog posts describes.

    Liked by 1 person

    Peter G. Klein

    March 29, 2018 at 4:41 pm

  7. […] This post originally ran on […]

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] own scientific racism. Reich would be better served to stop straw manning his allies on race, those who believe that racism is a continual problem for the world, and go back and read Ashley Montagu more […]

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Exactly what Reich meant to convey in his March 23 NYT op-ed is not straightforward, and so I’m not surprised that there are conflicting interpretations of it—or that the Times gave him a second crack at it this weekend (see “How to Talk About ‘Race’ and Genetics,” March 30). Although he does indeed describe race as socially-constructed and clearly wants to put plenty of daylight between himself and Nicholas Wade, the original op-ed’s treatment of race led nearly 70 biological and social scientists—including past ASA president Troy Duster, current Social Science Research Council president Alondra Nelson and past SSRC president Craig Calhoun–to sign an opinion piece challenging it (see “How Not To Talk About Race And Genetics” on Buzzfeed, March 30). For anyone interested in the media debate, there’s plenty swirling around right now, from Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine to Ezra Klein on Vox—but for basics like how the extensive genetic variation within Africa is at odds with a monolithic “black” racial category, the current (April) National Geographic issue, focused on race, is a good place to start.

    Liked by 3 people

    Ann Morning

    March 31, 2018 at 10:36 pm

  10. Reich seems really naive and confused in his piece. I definitely look forward to reading his book though.

    The thing I fear was implied in his piece is that since racists will look for statistical differences between “races”, we should accept those categories as well and be one step ahead them, even if they are social constructs. But this is pretty naive and ignorant of the history of scientific racism. Scientific racists consistently use racial categories as causal mechanisms, and not statistical variables. I think there is a point that was missed in his piece, which is that even if there is a statistical difference between those “races”, it would oftentimes be misleading. Let’s look at an example:
    West Africans and Europeans have phenotypically about the same average height. Now let’s say we lump the Pygmies with West Africans, and we get a lower average height, just because of our choice. It is true that there would be a statistical difference between the two groupings, but you get the point. These crude categories will be fairly misleading a lot of the time. This is obviously a point Reich gets, but doesn’t communicate really well. The fixation with specific racial categories in America is really strange and directly harmful to specific minorities. It’s really weird to see that geneticists seem to not be able to move away from this.
    It also makes you reconsider when your piece gets positive vibes in racist media.
    Honestly geneticists need to espouse the responsibility that comes through their authority more, and push back unsubstantiated racist canards as Reich calls them.

    Also the forbidden knowledge strawman is really interesting since nearly all relevant people don’t deny the possibility of statistical differences between “races”, they simply speak out about the complexities of the social and genetic dimensions of race, especially in America. I think he has had way too many conversations with Pinker. Pinker is a really bad influence and infamous for his strawmans.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 1, 2018 at 12:08 am

  11. “The invocation of his status as a natural scientist…Reich is using a rhetorical device that sociologist Reanne Frank has called the “forbidden knowledge” thesis, where academics who identify themselves with “science” (and are usually, though not always, male, white biological scientists”:

    “past ASA president Troy Duster, current Social Science Research Council president Alondra Nelson and past SSRC president Craig Calhoun–to sign an opinion piece challenging it”

    What do sociologists call the rhetorical device of invoking people’s race and gender in arguing against them?
    What do sociologists call the rhetorical device of invoking people’s past or present professional status (like ASA of SSRC president) as evidence of the validity of their arguments?
    As Peter Klein’s comment observes, Reich’s piece makes claims opposite of what Morning argues.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 1, 2018 at 1:15 am

  12. Shorter version of Prof. Morning’s comment: “I can’t really address all the critical comments on my piece, so I’ll falsely insinuate Reich thinks “black” is a monolithic genetic category and otherwise sidestep by appealing to authorities, including noted scientific journal National Geographic.”

    Liked by 1 person


    April 1, 2018 at 12:13 pm

  13. […] Race is spurious predictor of genetic variation […]

    Liked by 1 person

  14. @LemmusLemmus
    “and otherwise sidestep by appealing to authorities, including noted scientific journal National Geographic”

    “What do sociologists call the rhetorical device of invoking people’s past or present professional status (like ASA of SSRC president) as evidence of the validity of their arguments?”

    This is a legitimate thing to do. What is wrong with appealing to legitimate authority? You will have to do a bit more work in convincing your audience (who is your audience exactly?) that people who devote their careers to studying race and science and racial science should not have their opinions taken seriously in a discussion on precisely those issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    Aaron Silverman

    April 1, 2018 at 6:38 pm

  15. @Aaron Silverman
    Who decides who’s a legitimate authority?
    What is “racial science”?



    April 2, 2018 at 5:20 am

  16. Aaron:

    (1) As Mark pointed out, appealing to authorities is a bit rich for someone who just accused Reich for his “invocation of his status as a natural scientist”.

    (2) My point was that Morning’s appeal to authorities was a stand-in for substantial arguments, which she does not appear to have. Furthermore, we can actually read the open letter she is referring to and note that it contains zero arguments of substance — the writers (a) in effect criticize Reich for not commiting Lewontin’s fallacy and (b) insinuate that Reich falsely believes there is no genetic variation within the highest-level clusters. Reich does not believe this, as evidenced by the passage quoted by Steve Sailer in the first comment. It seems the authors are arguing against notions of race popular in the 19th century, which indeed were wrong.



    April 2, 2018 at 6:19 am

  17. @LemmusLemmus
    “My point was that Morning’s appeal to authorities was a stand-in for substantial arguments, which she does not appear to have.”

    This bit right here is the claim that is problematic. It’s totally fine to discuss whether Morning presents and the authors whom Morning cites present substantial arguments. But criticizing Morning for citing other people’s work–people whom Morning has good reason to believe have relevant and thoughtful opinions to offer–is not a valid move in this debate.

    Those are super interesting questions to investigate! Fortunately (for us), many people have studied these topics; therefore–at the risk of demonstrating my point above–I will defer to works that are better at explaining legitimate authority and racial science than I would be.

    For racial science I suggest starting with “The Science and Politics of Racial Research” by William H. Tucker and for discussions on how we decide what constitutes legitimate authority (in science in particular) I recommend the edited volume “Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem” by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry. No doubt there are other sources that cover these topics, perhaps even better and more thoroughly, and I would be grateful to anyone who might suggest some for further reading.


    Aaron Silverman

    April 2, 2018 at 2:00 pm

  18. Aaron:

    Do you understand what “sidestep” and “stand-in” mean? It appears not.



    April 2, 2018 at 2:36 pm

  19. […] already two good responses to the article, one in BuzzFeed, co-signed by some 67 scientists, and another by sociologist Ann Morning, who also co-signed the BuzzFeed article. These do a pretty good job of […]


  20. […] de bonnes réponses à l’article, une sur BuzzFeed, cosignée par quelque 67 scientistes, et une autre par une la sociologue Ann Morning, qui a également cosigné l’article sur BuzzFeed. Ces […]


  21. @Aaron
    Morning invoked some people’s professional status as evidence of the validity of their arguments. Being current or former ASA or SSRC president does not make you a legitimate authority on genetics. To the things you don’t understand listed by LemusLemus, we can add “appeal to authority” fallacy.
    That you refer me to Tucker’s and Pigliucci & Boudry’s books demonstrates that you are part of the problem Reich highlights, an acute anti-intellectualism. The pseudoscience in this context is not Reich’s research, but the “scholarship” by people like Morning.



    April 3, 2018 at 4:21 am

  22. Why, Mark, I’m beginning to think that you may not actually be a good faith participant in this sociology blog community after all. Going straight for the jugular with a hop-skip-jump to strong negative aspersions. Now, you’ve made it quite clear who your audience is. Thanks!


    Aaron Silverman

    April 3, 2018 at 4:47 am

  23. @Aaron
    You are embarrassing yourself. But then again, the kind of “reasoning” that people not sharing yours or Mornings views are racist is par for the course in some parts of the echo chamber that is sociology. Unlike you, who, as everybody reading this sociology blog can see, is anxiously performing virtue signalling tricks for senior sociologists, I am not trying to please a particular audience.



    April 3, 2018 at 5:07 am

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