In the news: Wall Street Journal op-ed balances a troublesome argument

Leah Eisenstadt, June 13th, 2014
  • David Altshuler (left) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
    Images provided by Len Rubenstein and the Hutchins Center at Harvard

The Wall Street Journal this weekend featured an opinion piece by Broad Institute deputy director David Altshuler and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the director of Harvard's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. In the piece, Altshuler and Gates present a thoughtful perspective on the history of race as a concept, and the misguided tendency to “view race strictly through the lens of genetic inheritance”.

The opinion piece is timely, as a new book by science writer Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, reviews advances in genetics and then speculates about how human evolution and genetics might have shaped human culture and history.

In response to this type of argument, Altshuler and Gates state, “Attempting to draw conclusions about race from DNA evidence is a fool's errand.” They explain that genetics is becoming a “Rorschach test,” employed to support racial arguments or to debunk them, and they shed light on the distinction between genetic markers of ancestry and the social construction of race. They warn about “the tendency of some to extrapolate from outlier examples to the general case, to cherry-pick examples that fit a thesis and ignore the rest, and to speculate on how biological observations might translate in the social and political sphere.”

“We must embrace the conversation being sparked by what genetics teaches us about human variability — and if someday we learn uncomfortable truths, we must deal with them,” the authors state. “But in doing so we should stick to the facts, both historical and scientific, and call out rampant speculation and biased arguments wherever they may be found.”

Read more in the Wall Street Journal or on Gates’s blog, The Root.