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Sunday, November 11, 2007

A very interesting read in the Sunday New York Times, an article about the ethical concerns over the continuing decoding of the very stuff that makes us who we are.

It's probably been over a decade since I first recall hearing about the possible prejudicial misuse of a person's DNA, in this case, having to do with medical records and insurance. If a person had a genetic scan, and was determined to have a high likelihood of developing brain cancer, diabetes, or some other ailment, then what was to stop insurance companies from denying a person coverage based on the almost certain knowledge that the poor bastard would ask for care some day?

This would be an almost uniquely American problem, I have come to understand, knowing now that all other industrialized countries have removed the middleman/vultures from the equation.

But the focus of the Times article focused on an older, more deep-seated way that the better understood nature of genetics could be misused: To reinforce racial stereotypes.

We are, all of us, very nearly identical genetically. 99% is pretty damned similar, and yet, in the remainder, there are differences worth noting. They are visible under a microscope, and quite obviously, visible to the naked eye. Most of us aren't at all burdened by the superficial, cosmetic variations, but there are already some interesting things being noted.

For example, it has been observed that there is a genetic marker in those of Asian descent that causes those persons to sweat less that those of African or European lineage. It's kind of interesting, and I can only assume that there is a sensible climactic reason for why this should be. Some people of West African descent have been noted to be far more resistant to certain diseases than people whose ancestry lies elsewhere. I'm sure as time goes on and science progresses, we will find out about many more racial idiosyncrasies, some merely odd, and perhaps some that won't be too popular.

At this early stage of the science, there has already been some indicators of differences in the IQs of persons with different ancestry. Again, all of this is speculative, and dealing in averages. Further study may disprove this entirely. But what if it doesn't?

What if it turns out that the average IQ of a person of African descent is (let's say) five points lower than those of Asian and European ancestry? And I'm talking about proven beyond a reasonable doubt. What will we do with this information? Will scientists be pressured to bury the findings because we are taught to believe that we are all created equal, and no one wants proof of an actual tangible difference?

I'm sure your various racist and white supremacist groups would suddenly embrace science en masse just to get the maximum value from a finding like this. Of course, the fact that the Klan and Fred Phelps' church exist at all is a pretty fair argument against white superiority, but I'm sure they'd miss the point.

And if this IQ difference was proven true, in the real world, would it matter? Five points isn't much, really. But what if it was ten points, or twenty-five? I can't imagine that there would be any way to prevent a finding like that from having an enormous impact on society at large. I mean, no one wants to hear proof that they might be inferior.

But again, if the science is good, you can't simply pretend that it isn't. The article quotes a Neonatologist named Perry Clark as saying, “To say that such differences aren’t real is to stick your head in the sand and go blah blah blah blah blah until the band marches by. When was the last time a nonblack sprinter won the Olympic 100 meters?”

So, that last bit talks about a physical difference that may be true, and it may be merely anecdotal. I watch sports, so I've heard various theories about why certain groups seem to excel in certain sports or events. But OK, why in the past 30 years hasn't the fastest man in the world in the 100 meters been anything other than a man of African ancestry, no matter how many generations removed? If there is a genetic difference, and one that becomes more marked at the highest levels of athletics, is that a problem?

I don't sense that it is. I don't think people of European or Asian ancestry begrudge this "advantage" that descendants of Africans hold. I imagine I might find it annoying if everyone assumed I was good at basketball just because I was black, but I'm quite positive I wouldn't appreciate scientific proof that I was, on average, mentally inferior to whites and Asians.

Again, the jury is still a long way from being in where this science is concerned. I don't think you can squelch science just because you don't like the results, unless, of course, you're in the Bush White House. But for those of us that value the scientific method, and for truth to be proven out, where would this kind of knowledge leave our society, one that is already so utterly consumed by race?

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posted at 10:24 PM

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