Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Indian government proposal to study “racial purity” draws widespread attack (...)

Indian government proposal to study “racial purity” draws widespread attack from scientists

The anti-scientific character of “race” as a concept

Wednesday 6 July 2022, by siawi3


Indian government proposal to study “racial purity” draws widespread attack from scientists

Philip Guelpa


On May 28, The New Indian Express, a major Indian daily, citing “highly placed government sources,” reported that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s Ministry of Culture has plans to fund a project designed to “trace the purity of races in India.” The study, it said, would be undertaken by the Anthropological Survey of India, some scientists at the Lucknow-based Birbal Sahani Institute of Paleo Sciences (BSIP), and prominent archaeologist, Vasant Shinde.

The Express quoted Professor Shinde, currently adjunct professor at the Bangalore-based National Institute of Advanced Study and director of the Rakhigarhi Research Project, as stating during a phone interview, “We want to see how mutation and mixing of genes in the Indian population has happened in the last 10,000 years. Genetic mutation depends on the intensity of contact among populations and the time that this process takes. We will then have a clear-cut idea of the genetic history. You may even say that this will be an effort to trace the purity of races in India.” The article adds that the project was originally conceived in 2019.

It should be noted that the statement by Professor Shinde, who is an archaeologist, not a geneticist or a biological anthropologist, that “genetic mutation depends on the intensity of contact among populations” is inaccurate. Mutations occur independently, not from contact between populations. Contact results in gene flow, not mutation. Furthermore, it is well established that genetic diversity creates what is termed “hybrid vigor,” which tends to inhibit the expression of genetic diseases, thus improving the health of a population. Inbreeding, on the contrary, tends to expose genetic diseases, rendering a population less healthy.

In response to the article, on May 31 the ministry tweeted that the report is “misleading, mischievous and contrary to facts.” It further stated, “The proposal is not related to establishing genetic history and [to] ‘trace the purity of races in India’ as alluded in article.” It did not, however, specifically disavow the statement by Professor Shinde. Shinde himself has subsequently complained that his statements were twisted and fabricated and criticized the article’s use of the term “racial purity.” He further stated that “It is a known fact that no race on the earth is pure due to people’s movements and mingling.” It is notable that in his statement Shinde still employs the concept of race, implying that such groups had “purity” at some time in the past, which has subsequently been diluted.

To add further confusion, the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), the presumed principal authority in such matters, has reportedly declined to participate in the proposed study. However, the government has responded that a genetic study will be conducted by AnSI but will not be aimed at assessing “racial purity.” Its purported goal is not made clear.

Not satisfied with these ambiguous denials, over a hundred Indian scholars wrote an open letter to the ministry sharply criticizing the project. It stated, “[T]he notion of tracing the ‘purity of races,’ whether in India or elsewhere, is extremely worrisome. A plan to do so would be both absurd and dangerous.” The group urged the ministry to “issue public disavowals of any present or future project related to race, especially one for studying racial purity.”

Among other points made in the letter, the signatories reject the idea of racial purity, since it implies that some groups are less or more pure than others. Furthermore, “Racial stereotyping of humans has been discarded, and there should be no attempt to revive the concept in India.”

The signatories warn that “one guaranteed outcome [of such a project] will be the exacerbation of disharmony among Indians.”

As of this writing, the Indian government has not responded to the scholars’ letter.

Model of a DNA molecule [Photo by Wikimedia Commons]

Human populations have been moving and mingling from time immemorial. Any genetic configuration of a particular population at a given time and place is merely a momentary snapshot of this ever-changing mosaic. Genetic studies in conjunction with archaeological and linguistic data can be used to trace the ebb and flow of populations through time and space. However, no particular genetic configuration of a population has any historical permanence. Furthermore, genetic studies have repeatedly shown that genetic diversity within groups is greater than that between groups, rendering the concept of “racial purity” meaningless.

The very concept of “race” is a social construct which has no scientific validity. Attempts to define racial purity harken back to the concepts of racial superiority and inferiority promoted by the Nazis and to the totally discredited “science” of eugenics.

Any proposed attempt to define rigid racial distinctions among India’s population of over a billion people, even if honestly undertaken, would quickly run counter to well-established scientific research that has demonstrated the immense diversity of India’s current inhabitants with respect to genetics, language, and culture. In reality, any such attempt should be viewed with extreme skepticism, likely having as its true purpose the serving of political rather than scientific goals.

The current Hindu-supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which came to power in India in 2014, has demonstrated time and again that it uses racial, cultural and religious distinctions to divide the working class in order to defend capitalist rule, especially now under conditions of a rapidly deepening world crisis. This includes continual efforts to incite communal tensions and scapegoat, humiliate and terrorize Muslims, as in the recent state violence visited on Muslims who protested against statements by two top party officials denigrating the Prophet Mohammad.

The BJP and their far-right Hindu allies depict Muslims—who compromise almost 15 percent of India’s population and have been living in South Asia for more than 1,300 years—as “outsiders” and “invaders” who must acknowledge that India is a “Hindu nation.” Towards this end, they have mounted multiple campaigns to “purify” India of Muslim influence. This includes everything from purging Hindi of Persian-derived words and renaming cities like Allahabad, to the building of a temple to the mythical Hindu god Lord Ram at the former site of the Babri Masjid—a historic mosque razed by Hindu fanatics in 1992 at the instigation of top BJP leaders.

It also should be noted that a BJP government study into “racial purity” in India would be very much in line with the Hindu right’s long history of promoting religious obscurantism and scientific quackery. Among other outrages, the Modi government has sanctioned the teaching of astrology and palmistry at universities and colleges accredited by the Education Ministry. In 2015, at the 102nd annual conference of the Indian Science Congress, the country’s premier scientific congress, the Modi government organized a session on the supposed achievements of ancient Indian civilization, which included claims, based on purported readings of the Vedas, that ancient India had airplanes and even rocket ships. Similar claims were made at the next four congresses, causing an outcry among genuine scientists and finally forcing the congress authorities to impose procedures to better vet the scientific quality of proposed papers.

The science is clear. The concept of race has no validity. In the current historical context, the proposed study, no matter how it is couched or soft-pedaled, has the most reactionary consequences.

At a time when the unity of the working class is vitally important, all such actions to divide workers based on whatever distinctions must be firmly rejected.



The anti-scientific character of “race” as a concept

Philip Guelpa

3 August 2016

As the capitalist media and political establishment whip themselves into a frenzy to promote a racialist view of police violence and of social inequality more broadly, in order to obscure its class basis and divide workers along supposed racial lines, it is important to emphasize the distinction between race as a social construct and race as a biological category.

An article published earlier this year in the prestigious journal Science, titled “Taking race out of human genetics,” reviews the “century-long debate about the role of race in science” and demonstrates that the concept of race is not only invalid for the purposes of biological and medical research, but that its use has distinctly negative consequences in those fields, let alone in the larger social context.

To illustrate the evolution of the concept in biology, the authors cite the example of Theodosius Dobzansky, considered by many to be the founder of evolutionary genetics, who for years struggled to employ the category of race in his research only to finally conclude that it had no scientific validity.

In recent years, according to the authors, the scientific study of “race” has tended to move away from earlier, overtly racist attempts to define racial distinctions and, in some cases, “prove” the superiority of one group over another (though such efforts have certainly not ended). Rather, it is now largely focused on efforts to identify genetic variation that may have implications for the treatment of diseases, based on the assumption that different racial groups may have varying reactions to medications or differing risk factor for certain diseases. The persistent use of race as an analytical unit, they argue, tends to obscure more than it reveals.

The authors draw a clear distinction between the genetic inheritance of individuals, on the one hand, and a priori “racial” categories, on the other. They describe the latter as “a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about hierarchical organization of humans, which connect an individual to a larger preconceived geographically circumscribed or socially constructed group.” After reviewing the evidence, they conclude that, “the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research…is problematic at best and harmful at worst.”

Contrary to superficial and highly arbitrary distinctions drawn by those with a racialist perspective, they write, “racial assumptions are not the biological guideposts some believe them to be, as commonly defined racial groups are genetically heterogeneous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries.”

Race-based conceptions can have serious medical consequences, as when certain diseases are thought to occur predominantly or exclusively in a certain “race,” such as sickle cell anemia or thalassemia, another blood disorder. When such diseases occur in a person of the “wrong” race, correct diagnosis can be delayed or missed altogether. This is not only a medical issue, but also indicative of the lack of scientific validity of the concept of race more generally.

As the authors point out, this is not a problem that can be solved by the development of better genetic testing technology to more accurately determine a person’s race. The “problem” is not in the lack of specificity of the assays, but in the fundamental “messiness” of human genetics.

Following the success of the human genome project in the early 2000s, the growing popularity of individual DNA tests to determine ancestry has resulted in many “surprise” discoveries of complicated genetic pedigrees that do not fit into neat racial categories. This complex reality may not be recognized by the person or family due to the shallow depth of memory or intentional “forgetting” of previous racial/ethnic affiliations in order to accommodate current realities.

Equally if not more important, research on the human genome has demonstrated that, despite apparent variability in such visible traits as skin color, modern humans have a remarkable overall genetic similarity (99.9 percent), as compared to many other species, pointing to the comparatively recent appearance of Homo sapiens. Indeed, all modern humans derive primarily from a relatively small population that existed, probably in Africa, about 200,000 years ago (a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms), with subsequent minor admixtures from Neanderthals and, perhaps, other early populations (see “The genetic legacy of the Neanderthals”).

One of the critically important results of the DNA sequencing of increasingly large numbers of people is to reinforce the understanding that a person’s genetic makeup is a hodgepodge of differing inheritances rather than a consistent package that retains a basic identity passed down from generation to generation.

Anthropology and archaeology clearly demonstrate that throughout the course of human evolution and, in particular, since the appearance and spread of modern Homo sapiens at sometime around 200,000 years ago, accelerating even more with the development of agriculture, beginning around the end of the last Ice Age, human populations have more or less constantly been on the move, resulting in an ever-changing mosaic of biology, language, and culture. This “churning,” if you will, makes a mockery of any conception of “racial purity” or, for that matter, unchanging cultural identity.

History abounds with examples of migrations and intermixing of peoples formerly living in disparate locations. These include (to name but a few):

· The dispersal of early agriculturalists from the Near East

· The “Back to Africa” migration

· The Bantu expansion in Africa

· The ancient Greek diaspora throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond

· The invasion of Europe by the Huns

· The Norman Conquest of England

· The Mongol invasion of China, then Central Asia and Russia

· The multiple waves of pre-Columbian immigration from Asia, and perhaps even Europe, into the Western Hemisphere

All these predate the emergence of a globalized world over the past two centuries, characterized by unprecedented mobility, mass immigration and intermarriage, a period during which the world’s human population has expanded from 1 billion to more than 7 billion.

Homo sapiens is a single species. All members of the species (i.e., all living humans), regardless of their apparent racial or ethnic backgrounds, are genetically fully compatible and can produce viable offspring with other members of the species, barring disease or deformity (or prejudice). From this perspective, the genetic variation within the species is, relatively speaking, “noise.” It is not entirely random noise, and much can be learned from detailed research. However, attempts to force that variation into monolithic, a priori categories is simply bad science.

Comprehensive reviews of the scientific invalidity and pernicious effects of racialist views have convincingly refuted the idea of racial differences in intelligence—for example, The Mismeasure of Man (Stephen Jay Gould, 1981, 1996). And yet, justifications of such conceptions, in various forms, continue to be put forth, as in, for example, A Troublesome Inheritance—Genes, Race and Human History (Nicholas Wade, 2014).

The explanation of the persistence of race as a category in scientific research is not a problem of science, per se, but the product of larger social forces. It has, in recent years, been influenced by the injection of post-modernist philosophies into the sciences. Such conceptions are promoted by the upper middle class to give a scientific veneer to the continued division and exploitation of the working class. They follow in the tradition of previous racially based prejudice in countries such as England, where the Irish were long considered a separate race by the English ruling class in order to justify keeping Ireland as a colony.

The authors of the Science article seek, as the title states, to take the category of race out of the study of human genetics. They fall short, however, when they identify race as a result of semantics rather than as a social construct. The proposed remedy is for the scientific community to eschew the use of the term “race” and substitute such terms as geographic ancestry or population.

Science exists within an economic, social, and political context.
While the interactions between scientific research and its larger context are complex, the idea that the influence of racism and racialist perspectives can be expunged from scientific research by a mere change in terminology is naive. Within science, as in society as a whole, discrimination of any sort can only be eliminated when its root cause—class division—is itself ended.