Wednesday, September 05, 2007

It's the Little Things That Count

From World Science:
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.

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.
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?

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