A renowned scientist has backed off a finding that he, joined by others, long touted as evidence for what they called a proven fact: that racial differences among people are imaginary.Whether people are 99.9 percent alike, 99 percent alike, or 9 percent alike isn't (or shouldn't be) the question. The question is: What are the systematic differences between groups of people, and how do those differences reveal themselves in such things as intelligence, physical skills, and culture?
That idea—entrenched today in academia, and often used to castigate scholars who study race—has drawn much of its scientific backing from a finding that all people are 99.9 percent genetically alike.
But geneticist Craig Venter, head of a research team that reported that figure in 2001, backed off it in an announcement this week. He said human variation now turns out to be over seven times greater than was thought, though he’s not changing his position on race.
Some other scientists have disputed the earlier figure for years as underestimating human variation. Venter, instead, has cited the number as key evidence that race is imaginary. He once declared that “no serious scholar” doubts that, though again, some recent studies have contradicted it.
Suppose that I (a white male of French-English-Scots-Irish-German descent) possess a genome that is, in 99.995 percent of its particulars, the same as that of, say, Frankie Frisch (a Hall of Famer who was, in his prime, about my height and weight). Why couldn't I have become a Hall of Famer like Frisch? I had good upper body strength, could run fast, had good hand-eye coordination, could throw far and accurately, etc. I have loved baseball since I was about six years old, and -- as an adolescent -- played PONY Baseball to the best of my ability.
But my ballplaying ability was (and is) limited by an eye condition that keeps me from focusing well enough to hit a baseball, unless it is thrown rather slowly by the standards of professional baseball. The condition also hinders my ability to track a fly ball. (I am hopeless when it comes to tracking a golf shot of mine that travels more than about 150 yards.) Eyeglasses help, but not enough. Contact lenses are out of the question, given the nature of my condition.
So, perhaps one gene out of the 20,000-25,000 in my genome kept me from becoming a professional ballplayer -- possibly even a Hall of Famer. What's one gene? Well, if I possess 20,000 genes, then I probably have 99.995 percent of the genes required to a good-to-great ballplayer. But what counts, in this case, is that other 0.005 percent.
Related post: Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part IV