March 10, 2001 By R&H

Genetic Differences in Races

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According to an editorial in the British paper The Independent, a fear of offending members of historically stigmatized racial groups has prevented us from confronting the evidence that tiny genetic variations do actually account for real physical and behavioral differences. "We have gone from one kind of ignorance and prejudice to another without walking the road of good sense," wrote the anonymous commentator. "There are important biological differences that distinguish groups and individuals within groups. Vastly more African American men have prostate cancer than do white men. British Asians have significantly higher rates of heart disease...If gene research is only allowed among white groups, important breakthroughs will only be available to them, too."

Not to explore genetic differences and genes responsible for certain diseases that afflict different ethnic grips, is, as London Times journalist Anjana Ahuja writes, "to leave ethnic groups in the grip of disease for the sake of political correctness."

Entine, author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, makes a similar point. "Although we share a common humanity, we are different in critical ways such as our genetic susceptibility to diseases," he says. "For instance, blacks are genetically predisposed to contracting colo-rectal cancer; Eurasian whites are genetically prone to multiple sclerosis -- and Asians are by and large victims of neither. The problem with Clinton's pandering to political correctness is that it threatens confidence in the life-saving aspects of the genetic revolution."

While genetic research may reveal more variation within the human family than many may wish to acknowledge, it can also demonstrate specific genetic advantages that certain populations may have, possibly yielding discoveries that could benefit humankind as a whole. Yet, scholars argue, many people seem more comfortable with the notion of genetically-determined diseases than they are with the idea that particular groups may also possess specific genetic gifts.

"Why do we readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle cell, Jews of European heritage who are one hundred times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the degenerative mental disease Tay-Sachs, and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world's best sprinters and jumpers and East Asians the best divers?" Entine asks rhetorically.

Along similar lines, Professor Clive Harper of the University of Sydney, Australia claims to have found that among Aborigines, the area of the brain responsible for visual processing is 25 percent larger than average. Harper's as yet unpublished studies indicate that Aboriginal children have photographic memories, an evolutionary gift from their ancestors, who "had to master the vast landscape to survive."

While examining genetic advantages in key populations can teach lessons about evolution, scientists argue that studying genetic illnesses and their development can also lead us to potential treatments.

"I believe that we need to look at the causes of differences in diseases between the various races," writes Claude Bouchard, a geneticist at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University who studies obesity and athletic performance, in the American Journal of Human Biology. "In human is important to understand if age, gender, and race, and other population characteristics contribute to phenotype variation. Only by confronting these enormous issues head-on, and not by circumventing them in the guise of political correctness, do we stand a chance to evaluate the discriminating agendas and devise appropriate interventions."

The Human Genome Project thus far has revealed that roughly 99.9 percent of the DNA of every person on the planet is identical. Human variation, in height, skin color, and so forth, is actually determined by a tiny fraction of the genome. And genetic variations within ethnic groups are wider than those between different groups. Wells, who has studied 200 different genetic markers on the Y chromosome in samples from different areas of the world, argues that most people have multiple markers reflecting extensive migration and intermarriage, though ultimately, we all carry in our genes the traces of African ancestry. As Professor Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum says, "We are all African under the skin."

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