Richard Lewontin left a Legacy of Fighting Racism in Science

When Donald Trump asking genetics in a campaign rally in Minnesota in September 2020, commentators quickly connected his speech to Nazi eugenics and science in the early 20th century. “You have good genes, you know that, don’t you?” Trump questioned his almost all white audience. “You have good genes. It’s a lot about genes, isn’t it, you don’t believe? ”What this means is that – to put it differently – his herd is genetically different from, and above all, the Black and brown immigrants that Trump continues to denigrate and target his administration’s policies.

This view, clearly endorsed by some in today’s politics, was once the primary view of science. Today, however, most scientists do not take the idea of ​​biological species seriously – partly thanks to Richard Lewontin, a biological evolutionologist at Harvard University who died in July at the age of 92. Lewontin made his name when 1960s, when he exhibited, used populations of wild fruit flies, that individuals of a species more variety than scientists previously thought.

In 1972, Lewontin took his interest in genetic diversity in a clear political direction when he published a paper showed that only about 6 percent of human generational change existed among commonly defined racial groups; the rest can find in the interior those groups. By surveying how alternative versions of particular blood proteins-coded with subtle variations in the same genes-are distributed throughout the human population, he learned what there is a lot of genetic overlap between different groups.

If, for example, all white people become blood type T and all Black people type B, the idea of ​​different genetic racial groups would be partially proven. But if half of the people in the same groups have type A blood and half have type B, all the change in genius will exist within the groups, not between them. The truth, Lewontin finds, is much farther in the later scenario. Many more recent experiments Surveying a much broader variety of genes confirms Lewontin’s findings.

He ended the 1972 paper with a statement that appears to be politically shocking in science journals today. “The racial affiliation of the human race has no social significance and is positively detrimental to social and human relations,” he wrote. “Since such a racial classification is now seen to no longer be genetically or taxonomically significant, no justification is offered for its continuation.” The paper is seminal – according to Google Scholar, it has been cited more than 3,000 times – and contains a key pillar of support for the aphorism that “different is a social construction.”

“The idea that there is more diversity within a group than in all groups is old. It’s been there for decades,” said Jonathan Marks, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Lewontin is putting numbers on it. And that’s very powerful. ”

Since the 1970s, new technologies have changed the genetic landscape even more: The scale of genomic studies has changed the way scientists understand the relationship between genes and etiquette. “Lewontin is prepared to expect that, with major public investment in genomics, genetics will take first place in terms of testing to explain the disease-as well as, more importantly, behavioral characteristics. , “said Sandra Lee, professor of post -medicine. and ethics at Columbia University. As the power and sophistication of genetic technologies continue to grow, Lewontin’s work remains much more recent.

One of Lewontin’s good bugbears was his Harvard colleague EO Wilson, who had strong and influential opinions about the role of genetics in determining the behavioral patterns of animals and humans. With his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Wilson popularized the idea that behaviors ranging from altruism to aggression to sexual behaviors are best explained by discussing evolutionary pressures. Lewontin believes it is unreasonable for Wilson to think – largely based on animal research – that many human behaviors and attitudes, from creativity to adaptability, must be selected during the evolutionary history of species. Lewontin argues that this idea represents another resurgence of the ceased belief that biology is destiny, which, he says, is already in use. coast of social hierarchies for centuries.

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