Re: [asa] Ethnic groups

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Wed Sep 02 2009 - 14:26:29 EDT

Hi Randy,

With the caveat that my opinion on such things is utterly lacking in any value whatever...

My first thought is that it depends upon what is had in mind when one speaks of ethnic groups.

If one has in mind the major racial groups which vary by features such as skin colour and eye colour/shape, etc, then I would have thought this would have to have had a genetic basis. So if it's possible to categorize people according to race (and apparently it is!) then it should be able to quantify this genetically.

On the other hand, if we're talking about distinctions such as exist between (say) the English vs the Scots, or the Germans vs the French, or Albanians vs Serbs, then I find the result of the study quite unsurprising.

In respects of the study's finding cited in your post, I would have thought diversity within the group would serve to illustrate only that one has to be careful in making claims about what attributes are characteristic of particular groups. The point would be not that there are NO clear genetic distinctions between members of two ethnic groups but, rather, that one would need to base a claim about innate distinctions on the basis of clear genetic evidence specifically relevant to the purported distinctive rather than on the basis of an inference of the sort: Groups A and B are distinguished by characteristics x, y, z, therefore there must be a clear genetic distinction in respect of characteristics a, b, c, d, e...etc.

[Note that x, y, z need not be genetically defined. The logical flaw of racism is to identify non-genetic traits (such as place of origin) and infer from this claims about innate characteristics such as intelligence, temperament, musical ability, moral character, etc. Clearly this sort of attitude is the target of the study]

To illustrate the above point: it might be uncontentious to suggest that one innate (genetic) distinction between Chinese and Africans might relate to skin colour. But if one then wanted to go on to assert something else with respects to other characteristics - that one group has higher innate intelligence than the other (to cite one of the more acrimonious issues) then one would need to do more than infer this from the fact that one has identified a genetic basis for variation in skin colour.

I think that what the study is probably showing is that genetic diversity within ethnic groups is sufficiently great that those innate features which describe ethnic distinctions provide no basis for sweeping generalizations.

That being the case, I would suggest that the correct finding of the study would be simply this: if one wishes to make a claim about innate ethnic distinctives then one would need to make it on the basis of specific genetic markers for the trait in question, not on the basis of inference from other genetic or non-genetic traits.

And that's not even entering into the question of whether genetic determinism is the full story or not - although it's clear that some ethnic distinctions (language, dress, cuisine, etc) are highly unlikely to be a matter of genetic determination.


Randy Isaac wrote:
> I have a question about another article that Jack Haas noted on his
> blog. This article
> looks at genetic characteristics of ethnic groups. They "found that
> overall there are more genetic differences within ethnic groups than
> between them, indicating that separate 'ethnic groups' exist in the mind
> more than the blood."
> Is that really the right criterion to determine whether ethnic groups
> exist on a genetic basis? Why isn't it possible to define an ethnic
> group as those sharing a particular subset of genetic traits, which
> would likely be a miniscule fraction of the whole, while the rest of the
> genetic code would provide a significant diversity?
> The whole question of whether or not there is a biological basis for
> ethnicity is a raging controversy, if I understand it correctly. I read
> somewhere that while evolutionary biologists tend to discount any
> genetic differentiation, pharmaceutical companies are finding it a
> helpful, if not necessary, distinction to develop and market effective
> drugs.
> Randy

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Received on Wed Sep 2 14:27:19 2009

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