Saturday, May 10, 2008

Not Black and White - Rethinking Race and Genes

Late last year, I was compelled to keep my foot planted deep in William Saletan's ignorant, overreaching backside. Saletan was down to the same insidious and habitual stupid human tricks that certain of our visitors seem to be perennially stuck on. Shame. As it turns out, Saletan has finally come around to the errors and omissions plaguing his thinking. While it's at least five months and some years too late to warrant respect (I mean really, only a true simpleton could go down this path in the first place) - at the very least - his epiphany is worth noting;
policy prescriptions based on race are social malpractice. Not because you can't find patterns on tests, but because any biological theory that starts with observed racial patterns has to end with genetic differences that cross racial lines. Race is the stone age of genetics. If you're a researcher looking for effects of heredity on medical or educational outcomes, race is the closest thing you presently have to genetic information about most people. And as a proxy measure, it sucks.

By itself, this problem isn't decisive. After all, racial analysis did lead to the genetic findings about beta blockers. But as the conversation shifts from medicine to social science, and particularly to patterns laden with stereotypes, the moral cost of framing such patterns in racial terms becomes unsupportable. We can't just be "race realists," as believers in biological distinctions among races like to call themselves. We have to be realists about racism. No fact in human history is more pervasive than our tendency to prejudge, fear, despise, persecute, and fight each other based on even the shallowest observable differences. It's simply reckless to feed that fire.
Of course Saletan equivocates waaaaay too much, understandable given that it's humiliating to be found out as intellectually underendowed. That said, at least he's taken the first step toward scientific and intellectual sobriety. He's no longer in complete denial of what's trivially obvious to those of us with the eyes to see. Let's hope everyone is capable of bootstrapping themselve up and out of the psychological stone age.