Some years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Malindi, Kenya. Early the first morning of my stay, I walked down to the shore to watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean. As I stood on the beach taking in the breathtaking beauty, a steady stream of men, most barefoot, ran by. They ran and ran and ran and kept on running until they disappeared over the horizon. I asked a member of the hotel staff what was going on, and she told me nothing special was going on. The men were running that day for the same reason they ran every day – for the sheer joy of running.
It is no wonder to me that Kenyans are the best distance runners in the world. Kenyan men have won 21 of the last 31 Boston Marathons, 15 of the last 21 Berlin Marathons, and seven of the 24 Olympic medals awarded since 1988.
Is this statistical dominance explained to any degree whatsoever by innate physical advantages possessed by Kenyans? If you answered “yes” or even “maybe” to that question, your views are irredeemably racist according to Angela Saini. In her review of the book Skin Deep: Journeys in the Divisive Science of Race that appeared in the July 2019 issue of Nature, Saini wrote: “Some have speculated that Kenyans might have, on average, longer, thinner legs than other people, or differences in heart and muscle function.” Saini attempts to dispel any notion that such differences matter. She says Skin Deep shows that “Such claims for athletic prowess are lazy biological essentialism, heavily doped with racism.”
Saini apparently believes the fact that men from a country with less than 1% of the world’s population have won 67% of the world’s most prestigious marathons in recent decades is explained totally by environmental factors. And she goes on to assert that even the suggestion that genetic factors might have played a slight role in this achievement is racist thinking that must resisted in order to “guard science against abuse and reinforce the essential unity of the human species.”
In an essay in the current issue of The Claremont Review of Books (Liberty, Equality and Reality; behind a paywall), William Voegeli responds to this tendentious drivel. Voegeli explains that Saini is not interested in data or science at all. Instead, she is engaging in progressive moralizing masquerading as science:
Unfortunately, the ‘essential unity of the human species,’ noble concept though it may be, is a cosmic or moral axiom rather than a scientific principle. Guarding science against abuse begins with making empirical observations accurately and reporting them scrupulously, even when the data cast doubt on our most cherished beliefs and aspirations. No intellectually honest writer would say, ‘Some have speculated that Kenyans might have, on average, longer, thinner legs than other people,’ . . . These are verifiable facts, not tendentious conjecture.
Why is Saini so determined to avoid the plain facts of the matter? What is it about the mere possibility that Kenyan runners might have some innate genetic advantage that gets Saini’s knickers in a knot? The answer, of course, has nothing to do with running and everything to do with thinking. Voegeli explains that Saini’s “overriding purpose is to discredit and denounce all suggestions that heritable cognitive abilities and psychological dispositions are distributed across the human race in any way other than evenly or randomly.” He continues:
. . . Saini is [reluctant] to acknowledge any inherited differences among population groups. If there really are some genetically transmitted differences among ethnic or regional subsets of the human race, then there might be others. Her response is to deny everything rather than concede anything. But when this strategy culminates in ascribing awareness of Kenyans’ running prowess to ‘lazy biological essentialism,’ Saini inadvertently affirms one of [her] targets, blogger Steve Sailer, who says that the definition of racism has expanded to include the ‘high crime of Noticing Things.’
Saini’s progressive sensibilities are so distressed by the mere possibility that there might be innate genetic differences in cognitive ability among racial groups, that she is willing – nay, eager – to say screamingly stupid things in a vain attempt to prove there are not even any important physical differences, much less cognitive differences. If you disagree with her, you are a racist pig. And if the data do not support Saini’s progressive conclusions? Well, so much the worse for the data.
But what do the data show? Do genetic factors account for differences in cognitive traits among races? According to award-winning Harvard geneticist David Reich, it is a definite possibility. In his book Who We Are and How We Got Here, Reich writes that the “indefensibility” of the orthodoxy about a genetically undifferentiated human race is becoming “obvious at almost every turn.” He goes on to condemn the denialism on display in Saini’s Nature review:
If selection on height and infant head circumference can occur within a couple of thousand years, it seems a bad bet to argue that there cannot be similar average differences in cognitive or behavioral traits. Even if we do not yet know what the differences are, we should prepare our science and our society to be able to deal with the reality of differences instead of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that differences cannot be discovered. The approach of staying mum, of implying to the public and to colleagues that substantial differences in traits across populations are unlikely to exist, is a strategy that we scientists can no longer afford, and that in fact is positively harmful. If as scientists we willfully abstain from laying out a rational framework for discussing human differences, we will leave a vacuum that will be filled by pseudoscience, an outcome that is far worse than anything we could achieve by talking openly.
I often say that when one’s metaphysical commitments demand one to say really stupid things, one should reexamine those commitments. Saini should take a long hard look at what caused her to engage in rank denial of obvious facts. I will not hold my breath. Because examining fundamental commitments is very difficult and can cause excruciating psychological pain. Most people would rather go on saying things they must know are untrue. Such is the human condition.
Coming to grips with the possibility that there may well be a difference in average cognitive abilities among races is only the beginning (and the least important part) of the analysis. The far more important question is if it turns out that a difference exits, does it matter? The key word to focus on in answering this question is “average.” Every human distinction – whether physical, moral, legal, or cognitive – is important only at the level of the individual. It follows that average group differences are in every important sense unimportant. This is, of course, anathema to adherents of progressive racial identity politics, who daily betray Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that one day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
David Reich bears repeating: “Even if we do not yet know what the differences are, we should prepare our science and our society to be able to deal with the reality of differences . . .” How should we prepare our science and our society to deal with this reality? Reich’s answer to this question is compelling:
Beyond the imperative to give everyone equal respect, it is also important to keep in mind that there is great diversity of human traits, including not just cognitive and behavioral traits, but also areas of athletic ability, skill with one’s hands, and capacity for social interaction and empathy. For most traits, the degree of variation among individuals is so large that any one person in any population can excel at any trait regardless of his or her population origin, even if particular populations have different average values due to mixture of genetic and cultural influences. For most traits, hard work and the right environment are sufficient to allow someone with a lower genetically predicted performance at some task to excel compared to people with a higher genetically predicted performance. Because of the multidimensionality of human traits, the great variation that exists among individuals, and the extent to which hard work and upbringing can compensate for genetic endowment, the only sensible approach is to celebrate every person and every population as an extraordinary realization of our human genius and to give each person every chance to succeed, regardless of the particular average combination of genetic propensities he or she happens to display.
My closest friend of African descent is much smarter than I am. I am constantly amazed by both the depth and breadth of his erudition. But I do not think of him as a “brilliant man of African descent.” I think of him as a “brilliant man.” I think this way because there is only one morally and intellectually defensible answer to the question in the title of the post “does race matter?” That answer is this: In every important sense of the word “matter,” it does not.