Thursday, February 12, 2004

Black or White?

Happy Sindane

The strange case of Happy Sindane (or Abbey Mzayiya as he is now known) illustrates the pointlessness of trying to set hard and fast boundaries about racial identity. It probably is true that he is the result of a liaison between a "white" man and a "black" woman, but for the life of me, I cannot see how one could tell him apart from any other "white" person walking down the street. Happy Sindane is a living example of the genetic notion that what we call "racial" features are merely statistical tendencies; were we able to pick out the genes responsible for, say, nose shape, it is likely that a good many "white" people who pride themselves on their racial "purity" would learn that they carried at least one of the genes for "black" noses. To say that we can use the relatively small amount of geographic structure inherent in our genes to statistically tease out where (most of) one's ancestors came from is not to say that there are any exclusively "black", "white" or "Asian" genes.

UPDATE: Anyone who doubts the veracity of that last statement is free to look around on the Kidd Lab's ALFRED database. There are a few genes which show starkly differing variation structured along "racial" (as opposed to just ethnic) lines, but these tend to be genes under very strong selective pressure, like the FYO allele that confers P. Vivax resistance in Africans, or the CCH5-d32 allele that is believed to have been selected for by the plague endemic to medieval Northern Europe - as these two examples imply, such genes tend to code for resistance to infectious diseases, and can by no stretch of the imagination be considered typical in their distribution. Even in these cases, the differences aren't always as stark as might be imagined - only 10-15% of Europeans carry CCR5-d32, while the Duffy FYO allele is nearly universal only amongst West Africans - and present in even isolated European and Asian populations, if at a very low frequency. The point ought to be clear - there is no such thing as a "black", "white" or "Asian" gene, and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or attempting to mislead.