All of this is textbook genetics—as Reich clearly knows, seeing as he did some of the research that demonstrated these claims. But his op-ed starts losing clarity when, thanks to some unfortunate language, the distinct concepts of “races” and “populations” seem to become admixed themselves. As an example, in discussing his lab’s use of self-reported race in tracking down genetic risk factors for prostate cancer, Reich places socially constructed terms (like “African-American”) right alongside the results of statistical inferences about genome history (such as “probably West African in origin”). He’s apparently trying to defend the use of both, but in the process somewhat blurs his earlier distinctions between race and ancestry.
Then there’s that passage I mentioned above in which he uses the word “races” in quotes:
I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”
The quotes around “races” are ironic. They’re there to subvert the apparent precision of the word, acknowledging—or at least trying to acknowledge—that many non-scientists nevertheless have some intuition that their perception of race can, loosely speaking, line up with guesses about ancestry. The root of Reich’s concern seems to be that if geneticists simply dismiss that intuition, we’ll lose credibility, as larger-scale genetic studies reveal increasingly subtle correlations between ancestry and human-trait variation. (Notably, in his new book, Who We Are and How We Got Here, from which much of the op-ed is drawn, the analogous sentence doesn’t use the word “races” at all: Reich instead uses “populations.”)
Readers can easily miss all this, especially if Reich’s words are excerpted or twisted to another author’s own ends. The science writer Nicholas Wade, whose writing on race has been widely panned by geneticists, brushed away the flimsy shield of ironic punctuation in a response to Reich in the Times: “At last! A Harvard geneticist, David Reich, admits that there are genetic differences between human races, even though he puts the word race in quotation marks.” In New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan talked quite un-ironically of “differences between the races.”
Reich’s op-ed includes not just vague words, but vague rhetorical logic. It seems to be creating a false balance between, on the one hand, some specifically named people who have expressed what Reich refers to as “insidious” views on race (such as Wade and James Watson, a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA ) and, on the other hand, “well-meaning people” who, according to Reich, are perpetuating some kind of “orthodoxy” that resists research on genetic variation. This argument, fleshed out with examples in Reich’s book, is that truculent and overly PC anthropologists, unobstructed by timid geneticists, are suppressing discussion of genetic variation. As Reich characterizes the position in his op-ed: “Average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.”