SKEPTICAL SCIENCE SUNDAY: 5 Myths About Race Based on Bad Science

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d look at one of the biggest perpetrators of pseudoscience throughout history: racists. There’s a lot of science out there related to race in society, and not all of it is truly evidence-based. Let’s examine five popular myths about race that have been debunked by actual science.

Kitty Geoghan, Section Editor - The Reporter

Myth #1: Genetics cause inherent differences in intelligence between racial groups

While the concept of intellectually inferior “other” races has persisted in a number of cultures throughout history, the real pseudoscience here starts with a book called The Bell Curve. Published in 1996 by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the book states (among other things) that Black Americans scored lower on measures of intelligence than White Americans, and that these differences were caused by biological differences between racial groups. Race isn’t a primary theme in The Bell Curve, but that statement made the book highly controversial. And part of the reason it continues to be so is because its facts, by all accounts, were right. Black Americans do score lower on a variety of intelligence tests than Whites, and a debate rages on over whether this is an intrinsic genetic difference or a product of discrimination in the environment.

Indeed, strong evidence exists that IQ is a heritable trait with a genetic basis, indicating that a difference like this is attributable to biological differences between races. However, in this case, genetics are not the full story. Genetics only account for a portion of variability in IQ, with environmental factors like socioeconomic status having a good chunk of influence. Basically, while your genes might say “This is a smart kid,” if you grow up malnourished and don’t learn to read until the 3rd grade, your IQ is never going to reach the point that it’s biologically able to reach. (Conversely, if you have genes that say you’re an idiot, no amount of Your Baby Can Read is going to get you up to genius level. Sorry.)

A recent literature review addressed some of the biggest research on the heritability of IQ and its application to the study of race. The vast majority of the evidence did not support genetics as a reason for the racial IQ gap. A more likely explanation is the widespread inequality in the education system that continues to put students of color at a disadvantage. And of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that IQ tests themselves show a bias for certain racial and cultural groups. We’ve already seen this with the SAT, and considering IQ tests are another measure normed entirely on a White, middle-class sample, it’s a very real possibility that the tests just don’t measure the intelligence of Black students as well as Whites. But unfortunately, changing social policy and infrastructure to better accommodate students of all races is a hell of a lot harder than pointing to a few twin studies and saying, “Look! Intelligence is genetic and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Accepting the fact that we can do something is the first step towards actually working for change.

Myth #2: Humans are naturally racist (or at least suspicious of those that are different)

In the 1950s, the Broadway musical South Pacific made huge waves in America for suggesting that racism was something that needed to be taught. Up until that point, many White Americans had justified their discrimination of Black people with the idea that the two groups were so inherently different that they couldn’t possibly coexist, and to go against this fact was unnatural. The suggestion that their prejudices were, in fact, a human invention taught to them by their parents was unthinkable.

Scientifically speaking, it’s very difficult to say whether prejudices are present at birth or are explicitly taught, not least of all because babies start learning from the get go, before they’re even able to serve as proper test subjects. Most tests of implicit bias are administered to older children or adults (and, in fact, do show a widespread tendency towards bias) and don’t necessarily reflect whether those biases are learned or present at birth.

The editors of a book titled Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychologysuggest that humans do have a natural tendency to identify others as being “in group” and “out group.” This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: if you’re a child in one tribe, and members of another tribe with different appearances, clothing, and mannerisms arrives to steal your food, it benefits you to know that they aren’t a part of your “in group.” However, this behavior is clearly not beneficial to us in the modern day, and the same editors acknowledge that it isn’t a strong enough drive to turn a person racist. A slight evolutionary tendency to identify outsiders won’t necessarily make a person tolerant of segregation.

The biggest takeaway from this book is “familiarity breeds liking.” A child who has positive experiences with people of many different races from an early age is much less likely to unconsciously consider those races to be a part of the “out group.” On the converse, a child who only encounters others of the same race and observes his parents reacting negatively to other races is much more likely to develop those prejudices, even before he is old enough to really understand why. The solution is clear: in order to eliminate prejudice, children need to grow up with positive role models and peers from a variety of racial groups. The excuse that racism is natural or biologically-driven is a weak one; and thankfully, in this case, biology couldn’t be easier to overcome.

Myth #3: Race is a Biological Construct

This one is tricky, not least of all because accepting it as true doesn’t automatically validate the notion that any race is superior to others. However, proving it false does invalidate a lot of claims about genetic superiority of certain races (including the IQ argument above). After all, if racial groups aren’t genetically distinct enough to create a biological concept of race, how could one have significantly better genes than the others?

As it turns out, our idea of “race” is largely based on social constructions rather than measurable biological differences. When discussing race biologically, most people think of three main groups: caucasoid, negroid, and mongoloid, categorized based on genetic similarities in skin color, facial structure, hair color and texture, etc. However, our social concept of race includes more ambiguous groups like Pacific Islanders and Hispanics, who don’t fit neatly into one of the three categories. That’s because those categories aren’t really based on science. The idea that the world is a Venn diagram of pale blondes, dark-skinned Africans, and dark-haired Asians is laughable – there are way too many exceptions (including Black albinos, who are scientifically and aesthetically fascinating). Not to mention the fact that the human genome is so complex that there is actually more genetic variability within racial groups than between them. Just because the differences used to identify race are the ones we can see does not mean they are the only ones that exist, or that they’re the most important.

So what does this mean? Should we just abandon the concept of race entirely? Well, not necessarily. Just because something is a social construction doesn’t mean it’s useless. Categorizing people into racial – or, more accurately, ethnic – groups can help others to understand something about their culture, and in some very specific instances, can be biologically significant. (People of African descent, for example, are more likely to carry the same blood type as other Africans, and can be instrumental in treating sickle cell anemia in those populations.) But the idea of categorizing humans, who are all a part of the same biological species, into further categories doesn’t otherwise make much scientific sense. We’re all human, we all have the same number of chromosomes, and biology doesn’t really care about much beyond that.

Myth #4: Some races are superior or “more evolved” than others

Believe it or not, this is an argument I’ve seen from all sides, touted by people of all skin colors. On the one hand, you have White people who look at evidence in support of the Out of Africa hypothesis and deduce that Whites must represent a later stage of evolution than Blacks, making them inherently more advanced and intelligent. (Not true.) However, I’ve also seen the news that Neanderthal interbreeding is an exclusively Eurasian phenomenon used to claim that Black people are more purely “human” than Whites, since their DNA comes exclusively from Homo sapiens. (Also not true.) While this argument is pretty fun to throw at White supremacists, it’s ultimately not scientifically sound. There’s nothing “impure” about Neanderthal DNA, and its minute presence in some Europeans and Asians doesn’t fundamentally affect how human they really are.

What about the other argument, that Whites are more further evolved because their skin tone changed over time? Obviously, the case that more evolution means more intelligence is ridiculous – all humans have evolved superior intelligence at pretty much the same rate. But also, there’s no reason to think that Black Africans somehow stopped evolving once they had the dark skin they needed to survive. (As a sidenote, yes, that is likely what happened – early African hominids most likely had white skin until skin cancer selected against it). The early dark-skinned European settlers continued on a different evolutionary path from their counterparts in Africa, but there’s no reason to suspect this path carried a special demand for higher intelligence. Skin color is a pretty insignificant example of divergent traits in early human evolution. Things like the ability to reason, spoken and written language, and the construction and use of tools were much more important – and those things evolved equally in Homo sapiens on every continent.

Myth #5: Society would be better off segregated, with every race and ethnic group keeping to themselves

Ah, the rallying cry of the modern racist. “I don’t have a problem with other races, I just think they should go back where they came from!” Multiculturalism has dominated our lives for centuries, and its influence is only getting stronger. It’s completely ridiculous to suggest that the ails of society could be cured by racial or ethnic segregation, because such a thing is impossible in modern society. If we’re going to solve the “problems” of multiculturalism, we’d better find a way to do it within a multicultural society. However, ignoring the complete lack of feasibility of sending fifth-generation immigrants back to their “homelands,” let’s look at this from a purely hypothetical standpoint. Sociologically speaking, would society be better off if every nation were racially or ethnically homogeneous?

In reality, multiculturalism has plenty of social and economic benefits, and is hardly the spectre of impending doom that some racists seem to think it is. And it’s fitting that I’m discussing the issue within a science column, because science is and has historically been a huge proponent of diversity in thoughts, experiences, and perspectives. (This doesn’t mean science is immune to racism – far from it, actually. But good science has almost always depended on seeking diverse experiences and viewpoints in order to look at problems in a new way.) Which group do you think would be more likely to find the origin of a mystery disease – five American Christian men who went to Yale Medical School, or a team made up of Caribbean nurse, a Mexican physician, an English surgeon, a Canadian gynecologist, and an international student at UCF College of Medicine? Five individuals with vastly different life experiences, training, and perspectives are far more likely to put their heads together and discover something new than five guys with the same background.

The biggest fear among White supremacists and segregationists seems to be the idea that a multicultural society will squash White culture and cause Americans to lose their identity as Americans. All “White people don’t have culture” jokes aside, the loss of one’s heritage is a valid fear. It’s what often keeps immigrants from assimilating fully into American culture – they don’t want their children to lose their cultural ties. The problem with the argument is that multiculturalism doesn’t have to mean the death of American culture. (And before you say Americans don’t have a culture, try going to a baseball game, a Fourth of July parade, or your local Wal-Mart with the mindset of a visitor. It’s there – you just don’t see it because you’re used to it.)

The Mexican mother who refuses to learn English and the Christian father who doesn’t want his kids making Jewish friends have the same solution to their fear: The understanding that another person’s culture isn’t a threat to theirs. The Mexican mother can learn English in order to integrate with society outside the home, while continuing to speak Spanish with her children and preserve their culture. That Christian dad can let his kids play with children of any religion they want, while taking them to Church every Sunday and hoping that they maintain their faith as they get older. By cultivating an atmosphere of mutual respect, people of all cultures can allow multiculturalism to flourish without fear of losing their own cultural ties in the process.

Multiculturalism isn’t going anywhere, and arguing about how the solution to all of society’s ills is for everyone to go back where they came from is not only ignorant, it’s impractical. Maybe in 500 BC we could have kept the Africans in Africa and the Europeans in Europe, but not today. America in particular is too strongly based on the concept of multiculturalism to even think about segregating by race or any other factor. It’s on all of us, then, to maintain our own heritage while creating an atmosphere of respect for all cultures.