How Richard Lewontin's (1929-2021) Work Weakened The Case For Race Being A Biological Category

How Richard Lewontin's (1929-2021) Work Weakened The Case For Race Being A Biological Category (Public Domain image)
  • One of the seminal contributions of Richard Lewontin (1929-2021) to Western civilization is his work on human genetic diversity.

    It ultimately led to the questioning, if not refutation, of race as a biological category.

In the early 1970s, scientists had developed methods that allowed them to quantify genetic diversity with exceptionally high accuracy. In 1972, Lewontin published a paper 'The Apportionment of Human Diversity.' Using the then available advanced molecular genetic technologies, he studied 17 polymorphic sites in seven 'races' which were: Caucasian, Black African, Mongoloid, South Asian aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians and Australian aborigines.

What Lewontin discovered in his study was that 85 percent of overall genetic diversity was in-group and only 15 percent existed between the 'races'.

The year was 1972. Four years earlier Rev. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. The Civil Rights Movement was challenging the racial prejudices in the social milieu of the United States. Lewontin's above-mentioned paper in 'Evolutionary Biology' had carved a niche for itself in the humanist emancipation movement in the West. The concluding lines of Lewontin in that paper have become a sort of declaration of human emancipation:

It is clear that our perception of relatively large differences between human races and subgroups, as compared to the variation within these groups, is indeed a biased perception and that, based on randomly chosen genetic differences, human races and populations are remarkably similar to each other, with the largest part by far of human variation being accounted for by the differences between individuals. Human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.
R. C. Lewontin, “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Evolutionary Biology 6 (1972), p.397

Lewontin, in his own style, expressed the essence of this truth in personal communication with the fellow evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould:.

If the holocaust comes and a small tribe deep in the New Guinea forests are the only survivors, almost all the genetic variation now expressed among the innumerable groups of our five billion people will be preserved.

Not all in the science community agreed though. Even so, not all who disagreed were racists. While calling this view of Lewontin as the 'near-universal orthodoxy in scientific circles', Richard Dawkins nevertheless agrees with two key points. One: that our perception of relatively large differences between the human race is indeed a biased perception; and two: that human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. But where he disagrees is with the statement of Lewontin that race is of 'virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance.‘ (The Ancestor's Tale A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, 2005, pp.406-7)

In 2003, three decades and a year after Lewontin's paper, Cambridge Professor of Statistics and Population Genetics, A.W.F. Edwards came out with a paper that challenged Lewontin's paper of 1972. In his paper titled 'Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin's Fallacy', Prof. Edwards argued that Lewontin studied the 17 genes as if they were independent but in reality the genes would be inter-connected:

It has (...) been proposed that the division of Homo sapiens into these groups is not justified by the genetic data. This conclusion, due to R.C. Lewontin in 1972, is unwarranted because the argument ignores the fact that most of the information that distinguishes populations is hidden in the correlation structure of the data and not simply in the variation of the individual factors.
A. W. F. Edwards, “Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin's Fallacy,” BioEssays 25, no. 8 (2003)

In 2004, geneticists Lynn Jorde and Stephen Wooding of the School of Medicine of University of Utah reviewed the results of genetic analyses that dealt with larger data than that of Lewontin. They arrived at three important points:

(1) that humans are genetically homogeneous;

(2) that whatever variations exist are 'geographically structured, as expected from the partial isolation of human populations during much of their history' and 'as traditional concepts of race are in turn correlated with geography, it is inaccurate to state that race is 'biologically meaningless'' and;

3) finally 'because they have been only partially isolated, human populations are seldom demarcated by precise genetic boundaries', so the possible 'substantial overlap' that can therefore occur between populations, results in 'invalidating the concept that populations (or races) are discrete types.' (Genetic variation, classification and ‘race’, Vol.36, No.11, Nature Genetics Supplement, Nov, 2004, pp.528-33)

In plain language, there are genetic differences between populations that are relatively geographically isolated and hence to that extent these populations have genetic significance. At the same time, there has always been gene flow between these populations and hence the concept of race as a completely distinct entities is wrong.

It is not that are no biologically significant variations among localized populations. There are. Evolutionary biologist and botanist Massimo Pigliucci and philosopher of science Jonathan Kaplan point out:

... the current distribution of genetic variation within Homo sapiens implies that at no time in the past were any of the (currently extant portions of the) population evolving independently. ... Rather, human evolution seems to have been marked by extensive gene flow. While this implies that there are not now, nor ever were, biologically significant human races that corresponded to populations that had been phylogenetically separate for some significant period of time, it does not imply, as some authors have argued, that there can be no significant biological races in humans.
Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan, On the Concept of Biological Race and Its Applicability to Humans, Philosophy of Science, 70 (December 2003) pp. 1161–1172

But these 'significant biological races', Pigliucci and Kaplan particularly point 'have little or nothing in common with folk races'. They even propose that the word 'race' be dropped and the term 'ecotype' be used.

Now, read again the above passage of Pigliucci and Kaplan and then read this one by Savarkar from his treatise on Hindutva from 1923:

After all there is throughout this world so far as man is concerned but a single race— the human race kept alive by one common blood, the human blood. All other talk is at best provisional, a makeshift and only relatively true. Nature is constantly trying to overthrow the artificial barriers you raise between race and race. To try to prevent the commingling of blood is to build on sand. Sexual attraction has proved more powerful than all the commands of all the prophets put together. Even as it is, not even the aborigines of the Andamans are without some sprinkling of the so-called Aryan blood in their veins and vice versa. Truly speaking all that any one of us can claim, all that history entitles one to claim, is that one has the blood of all mankind in one's veins. The fundamental unity of man from pole to pole is true, all else only relatively so.

What is ultimately important is that the essentialist conceptualization of human races which spread like contagion throughout the world, affecting our societies, interpersonal relations etc., permeating political discourse and creating extreme human suffering, today has lost its basis in genetics.

We do owe our gratitude to Lewontin for that.

Up till now, we have only dealt with Lewontin's genuine scientific feats. However, by political belief, he was a Marxist. In the third and final part of this series, read how a great biologist allowed Marxism to colour his scientific view.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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