April 29, 2004

Goldsby Lectures on The Biology of Race

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Blood, earwax, milk and DNA. Dr. Richard Goldsby used these things to frame his position on the perennially controversial issue of the existence of biological differences between races. Goldsby, a professor at Amherst College, presented his views to a room packed with Cornell students yesterday morning as a guest lecturer for the popular introductory course Bio 110: Biological Principles.

Many have disavowed the possibility of biological differences between races. The American Anthropological Association states that “any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations is both arbitrary and subjective.”

Placing a scientific magnifying glass on the issue, and applying an empirical method, Goldsby asserted that there are indeed discernible biological differences between different human races, but these differences hinged upon a definition of race more precise than that used in everyday conversation.

Goldsby defined race as “a breeding population with a characteristic frequency of inherited traits.” In other words, it is a population that has confined reproduction to mostly its own members for a relatively long period of time, resulting in a common appearance of certain bodily features throughout the group. Under this definition, Goldsby told the audience it was important to remember that there are probably many, many more “races” than our loose social classifications have so far delineated.

“Races are dynamic; they are constantly in the process of creation, the process of dilution and the process of disappearing,” Goldsby said. “If you drew a boundary around Ithaca, and only let those inside breed, the gene frequency would become distinctive — you can form races and dissolve them all the time,” he said To demonstrate biological racial differences, Goldsby proposed a thought experiment in which 100 people from three racial backgrounds — East Asian, Northwestern European and African — each entered separate rooms.

“If we can tell which room contains which group without actually looking into the room, then I believe you’ll have to agree that this notion of race holds some validity,” Goldsby said.

Goldsby’s first approach was, unexpectedly, to analyze earwax. He explained that different groups of people have different consistencies of earwax, dependent on the specific types of fatty acids their bodies produce. Those with ancestry in Northwestern Europe and Africa tend to have sticky earwax, while those from East Asia tend to have dry and crumbly earwax.

From earwax, Goldsby moved to using milk as a racial test. All mammals derive energy from proteins and a special sugar called lactose in milk, but the ability to digest lactose usually disappears with weaning. Since some European cultures have continued the drinking of milk and other dairy products through adulthood, their peoples have retained the biological mechanisms necessary to process lactose. Most other cultures, such as those in Asia and Africa, stop drinking milk after weaning.

“80 percent of the human population is lactose intolerant because they haven’t had the characteristic of dairying and drinking milk,” said Goldsby. “If you can’t digest milk, microorganisms digest it, and if you’ve taken a whole quart of milk on an empty stomach, the bacteria create gasses with small organic molecules bearing sulfur molecules” As it is the characteristic odor of these sulfur molecules that many of us bemoan after drinking milk, Goldsby says that the ancestry of the occupants in each room could be determined by atmospheric analysis.

The final two factors that Goldsby compared were blood and DNA. He said that blood types are inherently different along what we have established as racial lines. The familiar classification of a person’s blood type refers to specific antigens, small protein complexes, contained in the blood. According to Goldsby, Americans of European descent have characteristically high levels of a certain antigen called “Rh”, while those of Asian descent have low levels of “Rh”, and those with African ancestry have an intermediate level. The professor said that these differences can have consequences in medicine, such as how a blood bank might be stocked in an area dominated by certain races. In addition to blood differences, Goldsby explained that separate populations can have unique patterns of DNA which can be used to identify specific groups.

In the final section of his lecture, Goldsby addressed perhaps the most controversial issue regarding biological differences between races — that of intelligence.

“People who argue that the differences are cultural will say that if you could match socioeconomic factors in great depth what you would find is that the I.Q. differences you find between blacks and whites will go away,” Goldsby said regarding potential biological differences in intelligence.

Supporting the idea that racial difference in intelligence is truly negligible, Goldsby then presented a long-term study on children living in the Boston and Philadelphia areas from birth to adolescence that collected data on I.Q., economic, social and other living factors. After compensating for socioeconomic factors, the study demonstrated that the I.Q. difference between African Americans and caucasians is extremely small, and that the difference of average I.Q. between the population of Boston and that of Philadelphia was significantly greater than the difference between races.

Goldsby concluded saying that “the only thing that’s really going to demonstrate equality in races of intellectual capability in races is performance. That’s the kind of thing that changes peoples minds on social questions.”

Archived article by Neil Mukhopaohyay
Sun Staff Writer