(2015) Daniel J. Fairbanks, Prometheus Books, £13.50 / Can$19.00 / US$18, trdpbk, 191pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88018-4
This is a book about an aspect of biology, but it is primarily a book whose motivation for its creation is decidedly political. As recently as the latter half of the 20th century mixed marriages were illegal in some states of the USA. So in 1958 Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving married. Though residents of Virginia, they went to Washington to get hitched. They then returned to Virginia. Not long after, the police raided their home at night and arrested them on the grounds that they had committed a felony under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They pleaded guilty in 1959. However they fought on and the case reached the US Supreme Court in 1967. The court formally ruled that the Virginia Racial Integrity Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. At that time 16 other states still had legislation prohibiting inter-racial marriage.
This illustrates the reason why geneticist Daniel Fairbanks has penned this popular science text: it has a socio-political goal.
Though this book is firmly rooted in biology, it is written in a very accessible style that should be understandable by anyone with a mid-school level understanding of science. Having said that, it is thoroughly referenced both by chapter and alphabetically by research paper author: so, no problem if you want to follow up some aspects in more detail.
Fairbanks – who is also the author of Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters – starts of looking at the history and definitions of various terms including (obviously) 'race' and 'breed' as well as 'purebred' and 'hybrids'. He then gives a primer on the basics of human evolution and also genetics and how the latter helps explain the human diaspora out of Africa. He follows this up examining the relationship and difference between ancestry and race before moving on to explore the biology of skin colouration.
He then relates human diversity to health issues, starting off with our old friend (for those who did biology as school) sickle-cell anaemia and how it confers protection against malaria (which, of course, was the evolutionary spur making sickle-cell predominant among those of African descent). Daniel Fairbanks seems comfortable writing this chapter. This is not surprising as his work very much relates to the genetics of disease. He goes on to explore how the ability to cope with alcohol is enhanced in Europeans compared to Asians and relates these to genes that affect the alcohol metabolic pathway. However I do think he missed a trick here by not recounting the beer-wine-tea hypothesis. There is a hypothesis that as Europeans used fermentation (making weak beer and wine) to purify drinking water and so over time they evolved to become more tolerant to alcohol compared to the Chinese and Japanese who boiled water (to make tea) for their water purification. True, this is only a hypothesis but it is a compelling one that provides the evolutionary mechanism for why the genetic difference between the two populations arose. And, let's face it, anything that helps explain evolution to a readership divided in their understanding of the topic is surely worthwhile? (After all, don't a surprising number of US Americans eschew the notion of Darwinian evolution for reasons of woo-woo.)
The chapter ends with some germane socio-political caveats with regards to genetic testing.
Daniel Fairbanks does not shy away from the more controversial issues, especially the question of human diversity and intelligence. Here we enter the nature vs. nurture debate. I have to confess that I find this specific debate unsettling due to the myopia that I rightly or wrongly) perceive on both sides of the contention: I do not believe, and I certainly have not seen, any evidence that we can accurately define, let alone precisely measure 'intelligence'. Also, certainly biology is replete with examples of species exhibiting what can almost certainly be called 'intelligence' but manifested in many very different ways. And then there's the overlap of behaviours such as what we call 'intelligence' with that we call 'maturity'. Finally, there is a 'politically correct' view which is the one Daniel Fairbanks promulgates: that there is no hard evidence for a discernable difference in intelligence, or at least intelligence potential, between ethnic groups. I am sure he is at least largely right if not more so. Having said that there is a huge void of understanding and I am sure we have not begun to comprehend the subtleties involved. But then this is at the heart of the problem. Even for those stridently politically correct, there is a tension between the notion that we are all individuals and the view that we are all inherently the same: a tension that exists within races in the gender debate. You can't have it both ways, and science – for very understandable, social reasons – has failed to meaningfully address these for if it did, someone would be upset and the research viewed as controversial whatever results arose. Having said all that, I wholeheartedly agree with the chapter's concluding points that public education needs to be nurtured and that disinvestment in the education sector must be deplored.
Finally, the perceptions of race are covered in a wrap-up chapter that looks at the (geologically) modern history of the European diaspora and the prejudices that consequently arose.
Daniel Fairbanks has provided, at the least, a very interesting read that is accessible to anyone with a basic school-level knowledge of science, and as such it is pitched perfectly as a work of popular science. He has also given us a very socially commendable treatise. As interesting as it was, to my European mind I did get a slightly nagging feel that the political message (worthy as it is) was being presented in a way that, if not stretched the science on occasion, did shy away from some germane questions and lines of investigation. For example, how come the species Brassica oleracea manifests itself in hugely different ways as Brassica oleracea botrytis, Brassica oleracea italica and Brassica oleracea gemmifera: or cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprout? Races and cultivars do exist; they are not myths. Though granted in biology we have a number of problems with systematics (species classification) let alone defining sub-species. (With this last the issue is very important. There are 20,000 white rhinos in the world but now (2015) only four of the northern white rhino subspecies: so should we discriminate and care about different races of rhino?) But then Everyone is African is not an impartial text. This book has an upfront, unashamed social agenda and any examination of the science nuances would likely confuse some readers and undermine the book's thrust. So I find myself relegating my science criticism somewhat to the back seat; after all, my own analysis is more subtle than the broad-brush picture Fairbanks paints. And surely here, such is the divisiveness still found in society that the portrayal needs to be broad-brush especially given the ignorance it is trying to combat! Furthermore, as a Brit I am not in a country where, for example, the police shoot ethnic minorities with the regularity that they seem to (still in the early 21st century) in the good old US of A, land of the free irrespective of race or creed. In short Daniel Fairbanks has given us a worthwhile book that should be read over here (Europe) but certainly needs to be read even more in the US. It will be particularly important for those who live in or near a community divided between ethnic division on one hand and multi-ethnic metropolitism on the other, and who seek guidance especially if exposed to fictional science arguments.
Further if it, and/or other works like this, is read more widely then hopefully in time (sadly I suspect many decades from now) we can look at human diversity impartially, without getting worked up, so as to enjoy our individual biological and cultural differences as well as similarities. Indeed, those of European descent as well as of Asian origin, might in their own ways drink to that.
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