I suppose it was inevitable. The latest issue of New Scientist has the obligatory article denying that intelligence can be defined and denying that humans can be separated into races. This is required political correctness in light of Jim Watson's comments from two weeks ago.
The politically correct author in this case is Robert J. Sternberg, a psychologist at Tufts University [Race and intelligence: Not a case of black and white]. He writes ...
A further hugely complicating factor is what we mean by the word "race". Populations in different parts of the world have clearly adapted to their environments in different ways. A trait that is beneficial in one environment may work against people in another. Obesity is a problem today because it once was beneficial to eat as much as one could while one could. Stratification - classifying people into categories of higher and lower status in a society - already occurs on the basis of weight just as it has on the basis of intelligence test scores.We all know what people mean when they talk about blacks and whites. Those are synonyms for Africans and Europeans. Unless Sternberg is being extremely pedantic, he's arguing that there are no such thing as distinct populations of Europeans and Africans that differ genetically. Races—or demes if you wish—don't exist according to him.
But there is nothing special about skin colour that serves as a basis for differentiating humans into so-called races. Skin colour correlates only weakly with genetic differentiations. Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Maryland, and Kidd have found that the genetic differences among black Africans are often greater than those between blacks and whites. The significance of those labels stems only from the fact that society has found it convenient to label races on the basis of skin colour.
Curiously, we do not apply the concept of "race" to colours of dogs or cats - or moths, for that matter. For some of these, colour can be important: being a black moth confers camouflage advantages in polluted environments and disadvantages in clean environments - and vice versa for white moths. Similarly, our ancestors in Africa were almost certainly dark-skinned because it provided better protection against the particular challenges of the environment, such as ultraviolet light. We could of course refer to moths as being of different "races". We do not, presumably because we are less interested in creating social classes for moths than for people.
The problems with our understanding of intelligence and race show that the criticism being levelled at Watson is based on science rather than political correctness. Intelligence is clearly a far more complicated issue than standard testing allows. And race is a socially constructed concept, not a biological one. It derives from people's desire to classify. Whether people with a genetic predisposition toward fatness will be classified as a separate race remains to be seen.
That's nonsense, of course, but it seems to be widespread nonsense. I'm beginning to wonder whether the discipline of psychology deserves to be called a science.
There's an interesting press release out today from Cold Spring Harbor Press [Scientists discover genetic variant associated with prostate cancer in African Americans]. It reports on a study of higher incidence of prostate cancer among African Americans compared to European Americans. The scientists identified a particular locus on chromosome 8 (8q24) that may contain a genetic variant that differs between the two groups.
Other studies show that the incidence of cystic fibrosis is higher among Europeans (whites) than among Africans (blacks).
How could there be a genetic difference between Africans and Europeans if there's no such thing as race? If these are just social constructs there shouldn't be any genetic differences that correlate with other features used to distinguish the two groups, right?