DNA doesn’t justify unequal treatment

Although still in the infancy stages, genetic research on race and intelligence could have a huge impact.

Chelsey Perkins

In the wake of the controversial remarks on race and intelligence uttered by Nobel laureate James Watson last month, articles examining the science behind Watson’s claims are cropping up, including in Sunday’s The New York Times.

So what exactly is the science behind asserting that people of African origin are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than their white or Asian counterparts?

Let me preface this by disclosing that I personally know very little about the intricacies of DNA and the human genome. There are so many acronyms and letter-number combinations that it is difficult for someone with little-to-no biological training to understand (which, ultimately, is my point, but we’ll get to that).

According to an article from late October in the Belfast Telegraph, an undertaking known as the HapMap Project is an analysis of the entire genomes of 270 people. Some of these people were white Americans, some were Han Chinese, some were Japanese and some were the Yoruba of West Africa. Although it is largely recognized that humans share 99 percent of genes across the board, this project aims to “tease apart geographical variations in human DNA” existing in the remaining 1 percent.

So far, the project – most definitely in its infancy – has identified genetic material in the West African population that indicates a resistance to Lassa fever and genes in Asian populations that cause variations in hair follicles and sweat glands. Findings such as these can be a benefit to humankind in that the medical community can specifically tailor health-care needs based on genetic tendencies. But what sort of effects could a DNA-based discrepancy in human intelligence based on race or geographical origin have on society?

Pardis Sabeti, a researcher for the project whose work focuses on how the human genome evolved in different parts of the world, has so far found no evidence that supports an inherent inferior intelligence among people of African origins.

A study published two years ago, however, does present this hypothesis. Bruce Lahn concluded – albeit while acknowledging that huge questions about the evolution of the human brain remain – that one important haplotype, or sequence of genes, was more abundant in populations outside of sub-Saharan Africa. His conclusion implicates that evolution might have influenced intellectual capacity among geographically separated people.

Conclusions such as Lahn’s, although I do not have credentials to question the scientific validity, have already been taken out of context and embraced by white nationalist Web sites and xenophobic publications. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that a magazine that blames blacks and Hispanics for “social ills” hailed Lahn’s discovery as “the moment the antiracists and egalitarians have dreaded.”

But is this really the case? Even if down the road science is able to prove a genetic predisposition to intelligence based upon skin color, as scientists have attempted to do through eugenics and the Bell Curve in the past, does this license practicing racism and treating people unequally?

Hell no. I don’t know what findings such as these will ultimately lead to. But people who do not have even a working knowledge of genetics and biology will twist the findings to support their racism, pointing to dropout rates and job performance issues as matters of genetics rather than issues of social justice. By doing so, they would be ignoring the systemic racism and innumerable social factors that affect people of color across the globe.

Chelsey Perkins welcomes comments at [email protected]