The Nature of Race and the Nurture of Racism
The relationship between biology and environments creates the problems in society
In 2020, the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter is resounding around the world, and conversations about systemic racism are happening everywhere. But there’s one topic that is still considered taboo when it comes to race: nature versus nurture.
The cultural distaste for discussing the genetics of racial groups is warranted because these conversations are often intended to promote the superiority of one group over another. Beyond that controversy, racial groups are not even useful as biological categories. But discounting biology from discussions about systemic racism prevents us from addressing the real root of many problems in the U.S., that nature and nurture are inseparable.
Excitement about the Human Genome Project, genetically modified foods, and genetic ancestry testing has misled people into believing that our destinies are prescribed by our DNA. But a genome only represents a fraction of the potential contained within a living organism. The technological advancements that drive modern society cannot be found in the human genome, and, as a result of our progress, humanity wields the power to change our own DNA through genetic engineering.
The feedback loop between nature and nurture is not isolated to scientific lab techniques — our nature is constantly being rewritten by our nurture. This process, known as epigenetics, determines which of our genes get used at what times. Epigenetic changes don’t usually alter the sequence of our DNA, but they do have a profound impact on our day to day biology. Epigenetics represents a way for our bodies to constantly communicate with the environment, for better or worse.
For example, cigarette use causes immediate and permanent epigenetic changes that lead to the familiar problems of cancer and lung disease. On the flip side of the coin, regular exercise causes epigenetic changes that reduce disease risk and prolong lifespan. Through epigenetics, our nurture changes our nature, which allows our biology to respond to our choices and environments.
Epigenetic changes to our biology can get also passed down to our descendants. Cigarette use doesn’t just affect the biology of the smoker, it harms their children and grandchildren too. Similarly, exercise can provide benefits to the mental and physical health of future generations. Epigenetic inheritance means that what we do changes who we are, and who we are influences who our descendants might one day become.
Differences between racial groups get epigenetically manifested as people are sorted into different environments and experiences based on skin color. In many U.S. cities in the 20th century, racial housing covenants cemented race-based segregation into the letter of the law, preventing racial minorities from escaping literally toxic environments. Racial differences do not cause exposure to toxins, but segregation based on race does.
The intergenerational cycles of nature and nurture explain the inequities of the U.S. far better than racial differences. For instance, exposure to the toxic metal lead causes problems like intellectual impairment, increased criminal behavior, and downward socioeconomic mobility. A person’s race is predictive of the amount of toxic lead in their blood and bones, and lead exposure is predictive of decreased IQ, criminality, and poverty. But people with African ancestry or darker skin tone are not genetically predisposed to these issues. Race is not a causal factor in these matters, it’s a skin-deep scapegoat for a deeper cultural decay.
Fortunately, epigenetics can be a potent force for positive outcomes, and simple interventions can have big returns on individual and collective health. Clean environments, availability of healthy food, mindfulness meditation, and interpersonal support networks can transform our biology for the better. These aren’t solutions to the problems of a broken criminal justice system, unaffordable healthcare, or wealth inequality, but they are steps in the right direction that will prevent bigger problems in the future.
Black Lives Matter is a valiant effort to equalize opportunities for all Americans, but the issues plaguing the U.S. stem from the inseparable interaction between nature and nurture, not from racial differences. Individual decisions can override predispositions and biological nature, but environmental factors and genetics can influence how easy or difficult it is to make the right choices.
Race is a convenient way to frame systemic problems; it is simpler and easier to see each other through the lens of superficial qualities. But only when we take the time to appreciate each other as fully realized people — with all the complexity that entails — can we begin to solve the difficult problems we face, together.