Occam’s Butter Knife

In contrast to Angela Saini’s acclaimed but dismal 2019 work of science denialism, Superior: The Return of Race Science, Adam Rutherford’s 2020 book How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality benefits from Rutherford’s lively prose style. The British science writer likes to illustrate his arguments with interesting examples, a stratagem that wouldn’t seem too much to ask of an author, but which is increasingly difficult to find these days as conventional wisdom (which Rutherford labors hard to embody) becomes ever more anti-empirical.

Despite blustering on his Twitter bio, “Back off man, I’m a scientist,” Rutherford appears to have largely transitioned from being a geneticist to being a science pundit in the mode of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. But that’s not a dishonorable career path.

And Rutherford is adept at writing. For example, Rutherford’s book is quite a bit more interesting than a snooze-worthy essay last year, “Race, genetics and pseudoscience: an explainer,” that he coauthored with three academics.

His coauthors were then crushed humiliatingly in Twitter debates by sports fans much more knowledgeable about the pervasive racial patterns in sports than they are. But Rutherford, a rugby enthusiast, at least knows a fair amount about athletics, so he puts up a more cunning fight on this topic in his own book because he’s not being dragged down by his colleagues’ ignorance.

In fact, I find Rutherford’s writing rather like mine in form. Of course, the difference is that I point out facts in order to increase knowledge, while Rutherford is trying to decrease knowledge by denying realities.

Rutherford starts off his chapter on sports, “Black Power,” by forthrightly admitting of Allan Wells’ gold medal in the 1980 Olympic 100-meter dash:

Not only was this the last time a white man won the Olympic 100 meters, it was the last time that white men competed in the final….

Many pages later he delivers his big argument pooh-poohing this extraordinary racial gap in the 100-meter dash:

If people of West African ancestry have a genetic advantage, why are there few West African sprinters…?

But it turns out there are quite a few very fast West African sprinters, although no superstars yet of the magnitude of Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis. Of the 143 men in history who have run 100 meters in under 10.00 seconds flat, 134 have been of at least half sub-Saharan descent. Twelve have been Nigerian-born (three running under the colors of richer countries, including Francis Obikwelu, the 2004 silver medalist for Portugal). That makes Nigeria the No. 3 sprinting country in the world after the U.S. (57) and Jamaica (19). There are also two Ghanaians and two from Ivory Coast who have broken the ten-second barrier.

Besides the sixteen West Africans, there have also been eight southern Africans (although one identifies as a Cape Coloured, a recent racial group that has emerged over the past few centuries from the admixture of whites, blacks, Bushmen, and Malays).

So men born in sub-Saharan Africa make up one-sixth of all those who have run 100 meters in under ten seconds.

But why don’t they make up five-sixths? Because, as Francis Galton noted, nurture matters as well as nature. Apparently, Africans don’t flourish in highly African countries as well as they do in countries under more white influence.

“Lately, there have been interesting discoveries about the deep history of current populations, but few if any shockers about today’s races.”

One of Rutherford’s strategies is to toss out facts, then argue that their seeming randomness undermines those evil racists’ simplistic ideas: Instead, it’s all very complicated. Thus he sums up his section on race in team sports:

None of the numbers makes a great deal of sense if biological race is your guiding principle, and patterns in relation to ethnicity are terribly inconsistent both between sports and within them.

Yet, a careful, informed reader will notice how frequently his own factoids backfire on him. For example:

In top flight American football, the proportion of black players is around 70 percent, but like rugby, that is a game where there are highly specialized positions with different skills and physical attributes….

And the running velocity requirements versus technical expertise demands of positions correlate closely with the race of the players. For example, all the starting cornerbacks in the NFL are black, but none of the placekickers are.

But in the Center position within the linemen, whites outnumber blacks 4:1. Why? We don’t know, but it does not appear to have anything to do with genetics.

Well, actually, it does. Centers, being in the center of the line, need the least foot speed of any linemen. Centers also need good brains because they are in charge of telling their fellow offensive linemen what to do. Journalist Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, wrote a 2004 article in The Atlantic titled:

A Beautiful Mind: As the Philadelphia Eagles’ Hank Fraley demonstrates, the behemoth who snaps the ball must also be one of the most mentally nimble players on the field

According to the late sportswriter Paul D. Zimmerman, in 1984 centers had the second-highest average IQ scores (108) on the Wonderlic test that the NFL makes all draft prospects take. (The lowest scores are for running backs.)

Rutherford goes on:

In Major League Baseball—a sport which requires sprinting and powerful throwing and hitting—African Americans make up less than 10 percent of players.

Yet in baseball, the same pattern of African-Americans being found at positions where foot speed is necessary is found. Black Americans are about ten times as likely to be outfielders as pitchers or catchers, two highly technical positions that don’t demand any running on defense.

Back when baseball was segregated before 1947, the Negro League had to supply its own pitchers and catchers, so the Jackie Robinson Era featured outstandingly skilled black pitchers and catchers such as Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella. But as black youths have lost interest in baseball in favor of football and basketball, blacks have declined faster as pitchers and catchers, two positions where intensive coaching is crucial, than as outfielders, where natural skill is relatively more important.

As my longtime readers know, I can go on like this roughly forever pointing out subtle racial patterns in sports. Therefore I’ll leave off at this point and return to the larger questions raised by Rutherford’s book.

Rutherford’s contradictory goals of standing loyally by his colleagues who subscribe to today’s Race Does Not Exist dogma but simultaneously not letting himself get easily dunked on by randos on Twitter lead him into immediate logical trouble on page one of his new book. He and his friends had asserted last year:

Research in the 20th century found that the crude categorizations used colloquially (black, white, East Asian etc.) were not reflected in actual patterns of genetic variation….

The truth is closer to the opposite: The immense advances in 21st-century genomics have largely validated 20th-century colloquialisms like black, white, East Asian, etc.

Note that we don’t have a lot of new population groupings of living humans discovered only by the latest DNA technology. It’s hard to notice dogs that don’t bark, so let me belabor this point a bit. You don’t see Harvard geneticist David Reich announcing that, say, unbeknownst to all previous observers, it turns out that the closest living relations to Samoans are actually Mohawks and Basques, while Tongans are most closely linked to Inuit, Samaritans, and Khoisan.

Instead, what is found over and over is that the old anthropologists going all the way back to Linnaeus and Blumenbach in the 18th century tended to arrive at fairly reasonable frameworks for how the human races’ ancestral diversity could be conceptually organized. Lately, there have been interesting discoveries about the deep history of current populations, but few if any shockers about today’s races.

Why? Because what we can see is the product of the genes we can’t see. So the arrival of genome sequencing primarily just confirmed what sharp-eyed observers had already noticed about who is related to whom.

Of course, there remain in population genetics, as in all sciences, the inevitable lumper vs. splitter controversies, just as the Environmental Protection Agency’s biologists grapple with the difficult question of whether wolves are a separate species from dogs and coyotes for purposes of the Endangered Species Act. And if wolves in general are a separate species, then are “red wolves” their own distinct species or subspecies worthy of protection or merely hybrids of wolves and coyotes?

But the EPA never has to deal with any surprises in which DNA proves wolves are actually more related to cats than to dogs. Analogously, Reich hasn’t found much about the world’s current races that would have stunned L.L. Cavalli-Sforza in the 1990s or Carleton Coon in the 1960s.

Likewise, the fact that people often disagree on what to name various racial groups no more discredits the concept of race than the fact that Americans can’t agree on whether to call our biggest cat a cougar, a panther, a painter, a mountain lion, or a puma means that the Endangered Species Act shouldn’t apply to it.

Moreover, we can’t expect observers to conclusively agree upon how many races there are, just as humans can’t agree upon how many different extended families they personally belong to.

After all the number crunching of DNA in this century, what woke science writers such as Rutherford deride as “traditional and colloquial folk taxonomies of race,” such as that blacks and East Asians are different racial groups, have wound up being vindicated. In fact, How to Argue With a Racist demonstrates that nobody can write a book that claims to debunk race without using these extraordinarily useful racial terms. Hence, poor Rutherford has to announce on his page one:

I will be using words such as “black” and “East Asian” while simultaneously acknowledging that they are poor scientific designations for the immense diversity within these billions of people. It is an irony that we roughly know what these descriptors mean colloquially while they are potentially incoherent in terms of scientific taxonomy.

It is an irony indeed. In fact, Occam’s Razor would suggest that the reason common terms for major races are so essential to Rutherford in writing his book is because they actually exist.

And buried in a long paragraph on page 55, Rutherford gets around to grudgingly admitting, en passant, that what the most sophisticated race realists believe is true is…well, true:

The genetic differences between us, small though they are, account for much, but not all, of the physical variation we can see or assess. The diaspora from Africa around 70,000 years ago and continual migration and mixing since, means that we can see that there is structure within the genomes that underlies our basic biology. Very broadly, that structure corresponds with land masses, but within those groups there is huge variation, and at the edges and within these groups, there is continuity of variation.

In other words, the great land masses of Earth, usually referred to as continents, tend to be home to physically and genetically distinguishable ancestral groups. And our eyes, our genealogical histories, and our DNA scans can further distinguish smaller racial groups within each continental-scale race. For example, Blackfoot Indians near the Canadian border tend to be quite tall, while Guatemalan Indians tend to be quite short.

Modern DNA tests, much like your lying eyes, can often locate with some degree of precision where within a continent your ancestors long lived.

But, just as a glass is both part full and part empty simultaneously, observers will also inevitably disagree over whether to call the findings of physical anthropology and population genetics precise or fuzzy.

Why? Because both are true.

Moreover, as Rutherford rightly notes, on the land borders of the great expanses, continental-scale races tend to bleed into each other. For example, the indigenous people of Western Eurasia are of the Caucasian race, while the natives of Eastern Eurasia are of the Mongolian race, but in the middle are visibly hybrid populations like the oppressed Uyghurs of Xinjiang. Similarly, while black sub-Saharans and olive-skinned Caucasians native to North Africa are quite distinctive, each oasis across the Sahara tends to have a varying admixture of the two great races depending upon its latitude.

I would add, however, that some geographic barriers to gene flow were extremely formidable until fairly recent times. For instance, although we know that Vikings briefly sojourned in Canada about a thousand years ago, we’ve yet to find definitive genetic evidence that anybody alive today is descended from a man and woman who were born on opposite sides of the Atlantic before the 15th-century Age of Exploration.

It’s not impossible that, say, ancient Phoenician sailors in the Atlantic were blown by storms to the Americas where they found wives and left us living descendants. But nobody has found anything proving that. The closest thing to this is the puzzling recent find that a few tribes in the Amazon have a tiny percentage of their DNA reminiscent of remote Andaman Islanders in the Indian Ocean on the far side of the world.

Due to the 53-mile-wide Bering Strait, the Pacific Ocean was less impermeable than the Atlantic before Columbus, but the number of population exchanges between the Old World and New World was extremely limited.

In contrast, the tropical Indian Ocean was much less daunting to human migration and trade. In prehistoric times, Southeast Asians made it all the way to Madagascar off the coast of Africa.

But even in this vast region, disease and altitude limited how much one group could blend into the next. For example, the Himalayas create a quite sharp racial divide between East Asians and South Asians. East Asians, such as the famous Sherpa mountain climbers, actually live on both sides of Mt. Everest. But Tibetans in Nepal stopped penetrating deeply into South Asia because they dislike altitudes below about a mile of elevation. They are more susceptible to hot-weather diseases than are South Asians, who in turn are not adapted by evolution like the Tibetans are to thriving at high altitudes.

But after making the reluctant admissions quoted above, Rutherford feels compelled to end his paragraph with trumpet blasts of double-dumbed-down fealty to political correctness:

Of all the attempts over the centuries to place humans in distinct races, none succeeds. Genetics refuses to comply with these artificial and superficial categories…. Racial differences are skin deep.

Rutherford’s absolutism is obviously scientifically inappropriate for talking about human relatedness. In reality, when it comes to determining who is more related to whom—after all, the essence of race is who your relatives tend to be—it’s all relative.

In summary, Rutherford’s book shows that no matter how skilled an arguer you might be, it’s hard to win an argument in the long run when you’re wrong.



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