Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Make that ten

Professor Robert Ehrlich has recently written a book titled "Nine Crazy Ideas in Science." Unfortunately, I think he left one out: the idea that there is no such thing as race.

Last month an American scientist, Alan Templeton, toured Australia. He claimed in public lectures that his studies of human genes proved that race did not exist.

Now, I've heard this claim before. It's never seemed credible to me. There must exist genetic differences between the races, because how else can you explain the very obvious physical differences between, say, Swedes, Kenyans and Chinese?

Fortunately, Alan Templeton was asked to respond to exactly this objection. His reply is noteworthy. He claims that physical characteristics, like dark skin, can appear in two populations where races are supposed to be different. He also challenges his students to distinguish between Fijians and Africans, two races which are supposed to be different.

These are such weak answers that Alan Templeton's credibility is entirely lost. First, it's not even true that you can always find similar physical characteristics across different human populations. I very much doubt, for instance, if any Scandinavians were ever as dark-skinned as the average Masai tribesman of Kenya.

But even if you could find such a Scandinavian, it still wouldn't disprove the fact that some human populations share certain physcial characteristics much more commonly than other human populations.

For instance, Europeans are generally more round-eyed than East Asian populations. Fijians have frizzier hair than either East Asians or Europeans. North Europeans are more likely to have blue eyes than Africans etc.

That's exactly why it actually is possible to tell which region of the world people originate from. Alan Templeton's challenge to his students, to distinguish a Fijian from an African, could easily be met if the students were presented with a photo of ten ethnic Fijians picked at random from the streets of Suva, and ten ethnic Masai tribesmen from Kenya.

Obviously, there do exist genetic differences between different races of humans. That is the only reasonable explanation for why there are readily identifiable physcial differences between different human populations.

So why would a scientist like Alan Templeton be so irrational in his views? It's because the existence of race undermines the liberal political philosophy which so many intellectuals live by.

According to liberalism, we are supposed to be self-created by our own will and reason. Our race, though, is not something we create out of our own will and reason; it's something that we simply inherit. Therefore, for liberals it is illegitimate and must be excluded as something with influence in our lives. What better way for a scientific liberal to "deal with" race, than to declare it does not even exist. That way it is intellectually abolished.

I don't believe that this approach will succeed, though, even in the medium term. If race does exist, then science will eventually reach a degree of development where it will have to be recognised.

To some degree this is already happening. For instance, scientists have recently discovered an effective heart drug which is "on course to become the first medicine approved for use in a specific ethnic group". (It works effectively for Africans, who have lower levels of nitric oxide than other ethnic groups.)

By the way, liberals wanting to abolish the category of race will be in for a little surprise if they ever visit a Japanese supermarket. I remember when I lived in Japan wanting to buy a carton of milk from my local supermarket. There were three different kinds of milk, each marked prominently with a different number.

I remember puzzling over which one I should buy. As I recall, one was marked with something like a 4.5, another with 2.1 and the other with 1.2. I guessed that these were different levels of fat in the milk, and wondered why the Japanese would be so fussy about the fat levels, as they were nearly all thin anyway.

Later on a Japanese friend revealed to me what the numbers really meant. The milk was modified according to its lactose content, not its fat content. This is because 90% of Asians are lactose intolerant and therefore find it hard to digest milk. Europeans, it seems, somewhere in our history, developed a genetic distinction of being readily able to digest milk as adults.

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