WITH JOSEPH GRAVES, JR.
Joseph Graves, Jr. is a profess of evolutionary
biology at Embry-Riddle University, and author of The Emperor's
New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium.
What are the conventional notions of race?
The average person on the street
thinks that race consists of differences in physical appearance,
in particular things like eye color, eye shape, skin tone, hair
type, and aspects of body stature. They also think that from looking
at a person's physical appearance, in the way we just described,
that they can find out or know more subtle thing about them such
as their potential intelligence or their likeliness to be aggressive,
to commit crime, predisposition towards disease
biologist has a similar, though much more rigorous definition
of what they mean by race. Those biologists view race as a subdivision
of the human species, that can be consistently defined either
by a set of physical characteristics or differences in gene frequencies
between those populations, so that the term race in a biologist's
sense usually refers to a subspecies level of division. And subspecies
are actually groups on the way to forming new species.
what I've pointed out, and many others have pointed out for years,
is that race is simply not a level of biological division that
we find in anatomically modern humans. There are no subspecies
in the human beings that live today. So when we use the term race
in the biological sense, there's no scientific support for such
Human populations do differ, but they don't
differ in the ways that most people think, and they certainly
don't differ in the ways that 19th century race scientists thought.
How much genetic diversity exists in humans?
The measured amount
of genetic variation in the human population is extremely small,
and that's something that people need to wrap themselves around,
that genetically we really aren't very different from each other.
Most of that genetic variability can be found within populations.
For example, about 93% of all of the genetic variability that
exits on this planet occurs within Sub-Saharan Africans. So, if
there were a catastrophe which destroyed the rest of the world's
population, 93% of the genetic variability in the world would
still be present in Sub-Saharan Africans.
The reason why we
don't define races in the human species is because the within-group
genetic variability is greater than the between-group genetic
variability. Now, that's an elementary component of any statistical
tests. If the within-group variability is larger than the between-group
variability, then we say that the groups are not different. Now,
the way we measure genetic variability in humans, we can do it
at a number of levels. You can even use physical variability,
and we still wouldn't reconstruct racial groups. If we looked
at even skin color and ask ourselves, "Does skin color map consistently
to racial groups?" the answer is no.
If we measure protein
polymorphisms - that is different forms of a protein produced
by a given genetic locus - then we would find that 85% of the
protein genetic variability that exists in all humans exists at
the individual level. That means that any two people in the world
have an 85% chance of sharing that protein variant in common.
And we would also find that from 6 to 8% of the remaining genetic
variability would be at the level of populations on the same continent,
and only about 4 to 5% would be at the level of variation between
The take-home message here is that the
amount of within-group genetic variability, within any group that
you'd like to choose, such as African Americans, Hispanics, or
Euro-Americans, is much greater than the between-group variation
- that is, the variation between African Americans and Hispanics
or African-Americans and Euro-Americans.
Can one define any criteria for racial classification?
Think about the characteristics
used to define our racial categories. If we were to choose another
genetic characteristic, we would redefine all of the people currently
living in North America into new racial groups. If we chose, for
example, blood type, people could be grouped into O blood type
races, B blood type races, and A blood type races. If we chose
the ability to taste certain chemicals, we would come up with
new races. If we chose whether we have whorls or loops in our
fingerprints, we would come up with new races. If we chose lactose
intolerance we would choose and redefine new races.
And so the
ones that were used to socially define American races were done
because of our social and political history, and are genetically
arbitrary. If we were to do it on different genetic traits, we
would come up with new racial groups.
Is there any correlation between race, genetics and disease?
One of the most pernicious
examples of how the race paradigm has misdirected biological research
is in the example of medical research, in which physicians are
still convinced that there are such things as the black race,
the white race, and the Asian race, and that these groups necessarily
have differences in genes that predispose them to disease.
the reason that this is believed is because when we look at the
records of various diseases in America, there are large differences
in the percentage of mortality from disease in the socially constructed
racial groups. For example, if you look at the 24 categories that
the US Bureau of the Census records data for mortality figures,
African Americans lead in 22 of the 24 categories. The only categories
that African Americans do not lead in is in accidental death and
suicide. So for all of the biological causes, African Americans
have between 1.3 to 2.5 times the death rate in all age categories.
Now, this cannot be explained by genetic differences, because
if this were due to genetics, we would suppose that African Americans
might lead in some, Euro-Americans might lead in some, Asian Americans
might lead in some. The fact that there is such a uniform pattern
of African Americans dying from these disease categories, such
as hypertension and stroke, heart disease and cancer, makes me
believe that this is most likely an environmental effect that
is superimposed on genetic variation - which still brings us back
to the idea of race-specific disease.
If we look at something
like, for example, osteoporosis, recently a pharmaceutical company
marketed a drug on the idea that because Asian women and Euro-American
women have a "higher risk" of osteoporosis, that they should take
this particular drug, which gave them calcium supplements. Well,
the problem with that, of course, is that even though the risk
might be higher in those particular populations, there still is
a risk to everyone else. And so the idea of marketing a drug on
the basis of it helping some groups and not marketing it to everyone,
to me, again, is an example of the fallacy of the race concept.
Furthermore, when genetic explanations are raised for specific
diseases, most of my students will say, "Professor Graves, but
we know that sickle-cell anemia is something that only black people
get," and the argument there also is false. The sickle-cell anemia
allele is distributed throughout malaria transmission zones, which
include central and western Africa but not southern Africa. It
also includes the Mediterranean basin, Arabia and India.
so we can't find any specific disease that is found in any of
those socially constructed racial groups, although different local
populations may have different frequencies of genes that predispose
them for disease, such as cystic fibrosis, which is found predominantly
in Northern Europeans, Tay-Sachs, which is found predominantly
in Jewish populations from Eastern Europe, and so forth.
What's another way to understand genetic differences?
The best way
to understand the genetic differences that we find in human populations
is that populations differ by distance. And so populations that
are closer to each other geographically are more likely to share
common gene variants, whereas populations that are further apart
are going to share fewer genes. Human populations differ in gene
frequencies relative to their geographic location. And it's a
continuous change from one group to another.
And one way we
can look at this is use the example of skin color. People in the
tropics tend to have darker skin. People in Norway tend to have
lighter skin. If we were to only look at people in the tropics
and people in Norway, we'd come to the conclusion that there's
a group of people who have light skin and there's a group of people
who have dark skin.
But if we were to walk from the tropics
to the Norway, what we would see is a continuous change in skin
tone. And at no point along that trip would we be able to say,
"Oh, this is the place in which we go from the dark race to the
What is the relationship between genes and environment?
we talk about the physical characteristics than an animal or a
plant or a person has, those things are the product of genes.
But all genes exist in an environment, and the environment always
influences the expression of a given gene. Now, there are some
genes that we call genes of high penetrance, which will produce
their physical feature without regard to the environment we put
them in. But most genes are not high penetrance genes. Most gene
expression is influenced by the environment, and sometimes we
can get radically different physical appearances with the same
gene by making small alterations of the environment.
What is Social Darwinism?
The phrase "Social Darwinism" is unfortunate,
because it really has very little to do with the ideas of Charles
Darwin. It has more to do with the ideas of Herbert Spencer, and
also Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton.
idea caught on in America in the latter portion of the 19th century,
and it was very popular with the industrial magnates who were
changing American society - i.e., the Rockefellers and the Carnegies.
And they thought that the person who was successful in business
was an example of the end product of a social Darwinist process
in which the way we judged an individual's worth was by how well
he did in the American economy.
So the robber barons were the
endpoint of what the social Darwinist project was supposed to
produce. And poor people or working people were the losers in
the struggle for existence
Herbert Spencer's phrase, "survival
of the fittest," is often mistakenly credited to Charles Darwin.
What Spencer meant by that was that an individual who showed the
required or desired social characteristics was the most fit in
the Spencerian idea of what natural selection was supposed to
be. And that's entirely different from Darwin's idea of differential
reproductive success of favored genotypes in nature; they're not
at all the same. And I often counsel my students that they shouldn't
confuse Spencer's ideas with Darwin's ideas.
What is the origin of eugenics?
Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, was
the person who began to put a genetic component onto Spencer's
idea of survival of the fittest. Galton reasoned that different
types of people had different reproductive proclivities. And what
Galton was worried about was that those individuals who were least
intelligent and least industrious were the ones who were reproducing
the most, whereas the more industrious and more highly intelligent
and more socially desirable individuals were reproducing the least.
Francis Galton argued that society should step in, and in particular
should support the increased reproduction of those individuals
with desirable social traits, and that they should, whenever possible,
retard the reproduction of individuals with the least desirable
traits. The term Galton coined for this was "eugenics."
eugenics idea caught on amongst all of the leading Euro-American
intellectuals and politicians in America. It caught on amongst
right-wing political figures, it also caught on amongst left-wing
political figures. The right-wing political figures thought that
eugenics programs were necessary to preserve, in particular, the
Anglo-Saxon heritage of the United States. The left-wing political
figures thought that eugenics was necessary to breed a new type
of human being capable of bringing about socialist transformation
of the United States.
Now, both groups were wrong since behavior
doesn't directly code into genes, and it's produced by culture,
not by genetic composition. But it was the right-wing political
figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who were in
a position to influence American social policy. A number of states
passed eugenical sterilization laws.
It has been estimated
that from the time that the Model American Eugenical Sterilization
Law came into existence in the 1920s, that close to 68,000 Americans
were sterilized against their will. Probably the best known case
is the case of Carey Buck in Virginia.
The most amazing thing
about the eugenical sterilization movement is that most of the
people who were sterilized were poor Euro-American people who
were described as the white trash of our society. Now, the eugenicists
didn't bother sterilizing African Americans or Latinos because
they felt that these groups were genetically doomed anyway, so
there was no need for the state to step in to stop African American
The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor
was set up early in the century to create a repository for suspected
genetic traits And so they sent out fieldworkers to collect information
on various American families and what the genetic traits exhibited
in them were. Some of these things were things like the ability
to play chess, rowdiness, congenital feeblemindedness, (laughter)
virtually any cultural or behavior trait that you could imagine
ended up in the trait book at Cold Spring Harbor.
Now, the mistake
that they were making was assuming that complex behaviors could
be reduced to simple Mendelian genes, one gene produces one trait.
And so they thought that by gathering this information on American
families they could find out which genetic traits were linked
to things like feeblemindedness and other less desirable traits,
so that they could then come up with a breeding scheme to help
improve the general characteristics of the Euro-American population.
American social and political elite supported the work at Cold
Spring Harbor. They supported it not just in word but in deed.
They gave millions of dollars to Charles Davenport's eugenics
operation. The best way to think about the activity of the Cold
Sspring Harbor eugenics record office is that if we were to compare
them to the type of scientific research funding that we see today,
they would be as well-funded as the Human Genome project is now.
What is the connection between American eugenics and Nazism?
Eugenics Record Office was part of an international movement for
eugenics in the 1930s. Most Americans do not know that the theories
that the Nazi race scientists put into practice were, for the
most part, pioneered by British and American eugenicists. And
during this time period, there were international conventions
of eugenics research in which Americans, Germans, and European
eugenicists, in particular Nazi and Italian fascist eugenicists,
would get together and talk about both the genetic situation in
their countries and the political situation in their countries.
American eugenicists were politically in favor of the fascist
takeover in Europe, and envisioned similar movements in the United
States, such that one American eugenicist actually participated
in a Nazi eugenics court, and had the opportunity to comment on
the activities of the eugenics examiners. Adolph Hitler and the
Nazi propaganda machine pointed out that their eugenic policies
were entirely consistent, and in fact derived from ideas of American
Eugenics died in the wake of the revelations
of the Holocaust, the Nazi atrocities in World War II. It was
interesting to note that at Nuremberg, Nazi race scientists who
were brought up for crimes against humanity in those proceedings
defended themselves on the claim that their activities were only
mirroring the state of eugenics science in the world, and in particular
they cited the activities of American eugenicists in defending
themselves from prosecution.
Is there any link between race, genes and athletics?
I'm going to start with the idea that many
people hold, that there is some special athletic prowess held
by people of African descent in America. Most people sort of believe
that African Americans are genetically predisposed to being faster
runners or better basketball players or for being better cornerbacks
in the National Football League. And there's also now some scientific
studies which are attempting to look at population-based differences
in genes that have to do with various aspects of physiological
performance related to athletic ability.
Now, at some level,
when we look at human physical variation, there are some differences
between human populations that could possibly relate to athletic
performance. For example, if we were to look at people from northern
climates, who were indigenous residents of northern climates,
they tend to be short and stout instead of long or tall and lean.
And there are good physical reasons for that. If you evolved in
northern climates, like the Aleut or the Eskimo populations did,
heat retention is facilitated by being short and stout. If you
evolved in the tropics, where the environment is very hot, then
heat loss is facilitated by being long and lean. So you're going
to see differences in body proportions on that kind of scale.
if you were to ask yourself, "Is it likely that an Alaskan Eskimo
is going to become a center in the NBA?", well, probably not,
because height has something to do with your performance at that
position in the NBA. So, we can see that in the gross scale it's
likely that physical differences may have something to do with
various forms of athletic performance.
But when we talk about
subtle things like, for example, whether a given population is
going to be fastest in sprinting, then it's not so simple. The
fact is that most of the world record holders in the 100-meter
dash are of Western African descent, but they also tend to be
African-Americans who have mixed with Europeans and American Indians.
So it's not easy for us to determine whether it's being African
that might have something to do with them being so fast, or whether
it's the fact that they have European and American Indian ancestry
that might have helped them be so fast.
And all of those genetic
factors have to be tempered in terms of the environment in which
individuals train. For example, if you look at those sprinters
of Western African ancestry, they all got their records because
they trained in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, or even
in the Caribbean. If you look at the Western African countries
where those sprinters' ancestors supposedly came from, none of
those countries have ever produced any world record holders in
the sprint events.
So if it was something uniquely about being
African that makes you a fast sprinter, then you'd expect that
Western African countries would be holding all these records too,
but in fact they don't. It has something to do with genetic predisposition,
it has something to do with environment, it has something to do
with training regimes, and particularly at the level of world-class
One of the factors that shows how the
situation of populations in different geographical regions influences
predisposition for sport is altitude. The Kenyan success in long-distance
running may have something to do with the fact that the Kalenjin
Kenyans come from a high-altitude region in Kenya. But, Kenyans
from low altitudes don't do well in long-distance running, so
it's not something special about being a Kenyan, it's something
special about living at those high altitudes.
Now, in the last
Boston Marathon, which (laughter) someone predicted would be won
by a Kalenjin Kenyan, it was in fact won by a South Korean. Now,
Korea is also a mountainous country, and so it's entirely possible
that this individual at least trained at high altitude. Second
place was won by an Ecuadorian, which also is a mountainous country,
and they also probably trained at a high altitude.
So we have
both short-term physiological adaptation that occurs from training
in high altitude, and also long-term genetic adaptations for living
at high altitude that might come from populations who live in
those regions. And again, none of these things are consistent
with our 19th century notions of race, because within the same
country low-altitude Kenyans don't do well at long-distance running
whereas high-altitude Kenyans do.
So we can't come to any fast,
hard rule about how genetic ancestry is going to influence the
ability of an individual to perform an athletic event. I think
that the simplest thing is to look at the individual's history,
how hard they trained, where they got their training, what kinds
of resources were put into getting them to be able to participate
in world-class athletics, that it's a combination of all these
things and that we'll never have a simple genetic answer that
says, "Because you came from this region of the world, you're
going to dominate in swimming or long-distance running." I don't
think we're ever going to have that.
Do discussions of superior athletic ability always imply inferiority
in other areas, like intellect?
American society has created a mythology about the
African American male in particular. If an African American male
is walking on a major college campus, they are more likely to
be thought of as an athlete or a coach of an athletic team than
as a faculty member. On my own campus, when I walk to classes,
students often come up to me and ask me if I'm the football coach
or the basketball coach. And I tell them, "No, I'm a professor
in the department of life sciences." And when I come in to teach
genetics in the fall, 99% of the Euro-American students in my
class have never seen an African American professor teach a science
class in the time that they've been enrolled in science courses.
we have a social history of believing that African Americans cannot
perform intellectually. When most Americans see African Americans
it's in the context of sports and entertainment. If you look at
television shows and the television coverage of African Americans,
what most Americans see on the news at night, is African Americans
in sports - and unfortunately recently it's been African American
sports figures in trouble with the law - and it's been African
Americans in entertainment or it's been African Americans in comedy.
So we sort of go back to the history of the minstrel show, in
terms of the way that the African American is treated in American
How have the groups that dominate certain sports changed over
One of the funny things about athleticism
and sports is how the expectations of athletic performance change
through the years. For example, in the '60s, everyone thought
that Africans were fast, and so they expected African Americans
to win sprint events, but that the long-distance events were all
going to be won by Europeans or Middle Easterners. Then the Kenyans
came along and began to dominate long-distance track and field.
professional basketball first began, one of the best teams was
made up of mainly Eastern European Jews, and it was said that
the reason why they were so good at basketball was because the
"artful dodger" characteristic of the Jewish culture made them
good at this sport.
There were also, in boxing, at the turn
of the century, a lot of European immigrant groups, particularly
Irish, who were important in boxing [as well as Jews]. And that
has changed. In sprinting, track and field events, it was said
that Africans and African Americans were fast and so they could
run the short distances but the long distances belonged to Europeans.
But then again, the Kenyans came along and blew that theory out
of the water.
And so we even see today sports that have been
traditionally dominated by people of upper middle class backgrounds,
like tennis and golf - the arrival of the Williams sisters in
tennis and Tiger Woods in golf - has made some people think that
there's something general about being African or African American
descent that makes you excellent in athletics.
But I think the
history shows us that as opportunities change in society, different
groups get drawn into sporting arenas and depending upon, again,
opportunity and training, along with individual motivation, that
determines who becomes the champion. I don't think it's so much
genetic predisposition from some particular region of the world,
and certainly it's not race, because as we pointed out in this
program that there are no biological races in the human species.
we have seen, particularly in professional athletics over the
last couple of decades, a change in its composition. In the 1950s,
social discrimination barred African American athletes from pursuing
a career in baseball, in football, in basketball. And now that
discrimination has been removed and people with athletic ability
of all ethnicities have had a chance to enter sports, and in that
time period African Americans now have excelled. Some people argue
that this is necessarily a result of the genetic superiority of
the African American athlete.
I argue that we don't know this,
and, in fact, again, it would be difficult to make that claim
based upon all of the things that are required for someone to
excel in a given sport. Also, football, basketball, and baseball,
are not the only sports in America. If we look at other sports,
such as, for example, soccer or lacrosse or volleyball, we don't
see African Americans dominating those sports. It takes just as
much athletic ability to do well in those sports as in baseball,
basketball, and football.
So there are strong cultural aspects
of what sports individuals choose to play, along with access and
training that have something to do with one's performance. So
I don't think we're ever going to be able to isolate the African
American gene for athletic performance. I don't think such a gene
exists. Given what we know about the overlap of populations and
genetic composition, I think it's highly unlikely that that alone
would be explaining differences in sports prowess.
It has to
do with the interaction of individual genetic background, of opportunity,
and training, and I think we should get used to the idea that
that's what we're going to know, and we shouldn't be worried about
the fact that we can't locate the athletic gene.
What is your personal experience with regard to racial classification?
A few years ago,
during the census, a census worker came to my house and wanted
to take data about the racial composition of the people who lived
there. I opened the door and she asked me, "Well, you know, how
do you describe yourself racially?" And I looked at the form and
said, "Well, based upon the form you have here, the best thing
that I would be described as is African American, or black." And
so she clicked the "black" box, and then asked me, "Well, how
many other people live here?" I said, "My wife and our two children."
she immediately went in to block in "black" for my wife and children.
I said, "No, you didn't ask me what my wife's ethnicity was."
And at that point she took two steps back from the door and asked
me, "Well, what would you describe your wife as," and I said,
"Looking at the categories, you don't really have a category for
my wife here. She's Korean, and based upon what you have here,
Asian is the best guess."
And then she then asked, "Well, how
would you describe your kids?" as she was about to check the black
category. And I told her, "Well, you just asked me what my wife
was and I told you she was Korean, so how do you come to the conclusion
that my kids are black?" At that point she took another step back
from the door. And I said, "Well, based upon the categories you
have, you're going to have to describe my kids as other."
the "other" category sort of describes what we go through on a
daily basis: when the children are with my wife, people think
that they're Asian. Both my sons play piano, and when they're
in piano recitals, people think that they're Asian. However when
they're in sports and with me, playing basketball, they talk about
my son's natural athletic ability, and they think he's black.
So here you have children who have a mixed ancestry who are
racially defined by which parent they're seen with and which activity
they're involved in, which match the stereotypical views of people
about what racial groups are supposed to do.
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