Ham on the extent of genetic differences between the races

Posted by T on September 17, 2009

Ham et al. claim that there is only 0.2% genetic difference between any two races, and that the same percentage of variance of genetic material can be found within any racial grouping; moreover, the amount of genetic difference that accounts for the racial differences (as opposed to the racially-indifferent variance that is already found within each race) is only 0.012% (p. 54). This latter number is derived from the former as follows:

These so-called “racial” characteristics that many think are major differences (skin color, eye shape, etc.) account for only 6 percent of this 0.2 percent variation, which amounts to a mere 0.012 percent difference genetically. (p. 54)

In passing, I raise a question as someone that knows next to nothing about genetics, but something about probability theory. One can only validly multiply the 6% and the 0.2% if the  underlying phenomena described by these variables are uncorrelated. But is it not likely that there is a high degree of correlation between the genetic basis of the races and that which “many think are major differences”? (And who approved the list of “major differences” before it was quantified?)  On the other hand, if they are not correlated, does this not raise the possibility that there is much more difference between the races hidden below the surface than that which “many think are major differences”? It is only a question: perhaps there is a good answer. Maybe Ham can be a little more explicit if he writes another edition. But on to the argument as such.

The problem is a common one encountered in Physics and Engineering: the difference between two large and similar numbers. The important signal might be tiny compared to another signal it is riding on: how to extract the important one? You would like to subtract the big signal — but the slightest error in its estimation causes a huge effect in the resulting (small) difference. Many scientists, mathematicians, and engineers have devoted their careers to this problem as it has surfaced in various applications.

Now, translate this problem into Ham’s terms. “The (big noisy signal plus the tiny signal of interest) only differs from the (big noisy signal by itself) by 0.012%; therefore, it is a matter of indifference which one we use.”

Presumably, a room full of atmospheric air plus “just a little” nitrogen is very, very similar, on a percentage basis, to another room with “just a little” cyanide gas added. But on another way of measuring, these mixtures are quite lethally different from each other.

Try this analogy: When the sun, earth, and Sirius are lined up, the difference between the distance from the earth to Sirius compared to the distance from the sun to Sirius is only 0.00018% (using 8.6 light years vs. 93 million miles.) Therefore, it is a matter of indifference if the earth were located at the center of the sun.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with a coworker years ago. He claimed that chimps and humans share (I can’t remember the exact number but something like) 96% of their genetic material in common. Therefore, he said, evolution is probably true, and we are really not much different from chimps. I answered, “on the contrary, humans and chimps are manifestly very different. Therefore, if everything hangs on genetic composition, that last 4% must be very significant. Indeed, as to everything important, that last 4% is everything.”

You see, it all depends on your starting presupposition. My coworker started with “genetic overlap” as determinative, and concluded we are very much like chimps. I started with the idea that we are very unlike chimps, and concluded that a particular quantity of genetic overlap must therefore not be very significant.

Let’s seize the bull by the horns even more tightly. Suppose scientists announced that our genetic overlap with chimps were 100%. Would you then throw in the towel and say, “there is no difference between chimps and humans”? Of course not. You would either say,

1. Scientists need to keep looking for the cause of the difference

– or –

2. The difference is something that cannot be detected by science, or at least by current science.

In other words, our knowledge of the difference between chimp and human is more foundational and certain than any deliverance of science. Only the crudest reductionist would take that deliverance as overthrowing what everyone can see with his own two eyes.

Everyone with two eyes can see the differences between Negroes and Aryans, and everyone not blinded by the hideous propaganda of our debased age can see very important differences. Skin color is the least of those differences. It goes to the bone. It goes to propensities; it goes to personality; it goes to preferences, and to intelligence.

If all that is explained by 0.012% of genetic material, then that 0.012% is very significant indeed! Or, there is something else going on here, something other than genes, more important than genes, that is passed on from one generation to the next.

Ham et al. show themselves to be crude reductionists.

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7 Comments to Ham on the extent of genetic differences between the races

  • It recalls Mark Twain’s comment that there is a big difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

  • Too bad you have a problem with following the logic of Ken Ham. First sentence in your disertation not only misquotes Ken Ham, but contradicts itself.

    First. The difference between any two people (same or different race, doesn’t matter) is about 0.2%

    Of that 0.2%, approximately 6% of the differences are differences in people groups. (Ken Ham refuses to use the term race)

    That means that between two people of different groups, only 6% of the difference in their genes applies to characteristics you call race.

    OK, Mr. probability expert, that means that you are possibly, or even likely to be more closely related so someone of different color in the room than someone of your “race”.

    At any rate, the difference that determine “race” are minor in comparison to all other differences in the genes.

  • Mr. Martin,

    For someone with such a condemning tone, you don’t offer much substance.

    Accusing T of misquotation is serious. But did you provide us with any examples or corrections? No you did not.

    Also, the “science” you offer to the discussion strike me as ad hoc, arbitrary, and based on irrational presuppositions. Google Lewontin’s fallacy, please.

    I’m no psychologist, but I am a country boy, and country boys sometimes have a keen sense of what’s going on in the minds of others: so, it’s my professional CB opinion that you’ve let your zeal for political-correctness blind you to what’s going on in the world.

  • John Martin,

    The essay does not begin with a quote, let alone a contradictory one, but a paraphrase. I think what you are trying to say is that the paraphrase is not true to Ham’s actual quote. If so, then I want to fix it. But you will have to show how it is not accurate.

    Re the probability of genetic overlap etc. — it seems like you are just aping Ham’s statement, thus not adding new light.

    Let’s go back to the old beakers-full-of-colored balls used to teach probability theory. Say the green balls represent genes of “generic humanity,” white balls represent the distinctive genes of Aryans, and black balls those of Negroes. So there is one beaker with 998 green balls, and 2 white balls. The other beaker has 998 green balls and 2 black balls.
    Now, the probability of picking a green ball from either beaker is 99.8%, i.e. there is a 0.2% chance of NOT doing so.

    Is this what Ham is resting his argument on? If so, it is palpably weak.
    As I confessed in the essay, I know next to nothing about genetics per se, but if you could translate the argument into mathematically precise statements, defining each of your variables, I think I could follow the argument.

    Apart from that, however, there is nothing in Scripture committing us to the current theory of genetics. I suggest you start at the end of the essay, which is the punchline. Do the thought experiment, even though it is merely hypothetical. If Scientific American announced that “they” had discovered that human and chimp genes overlapped the same way that Ham says the racial ones do, would you then say, “ok, I guess I can marry a chimp then?” Or would you say, “either they have made a mistake, or there is something about creaturely reality that is not fully captured in genes”?

    In other words, which “set of facts” are the foundational ones for you?

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