Science has little use for the term “race.” Defining it is too problematic due to genetic variation among individuals and populations. To quote geneticist Kenneth Kidd, “Race is not biologically definable, we are far too similar.” To scientists, race is a social construct, not a biological attribute, and they prefer the term “ancestry” to describe human diversity.

The general public, however, is much taken by race. It is, in fact, currently a topic of great public interest. The media are full of it. Race may not be a valid biological concept but it is certainly a valid social and political concept.

To the layman, that races differ is irrefutable. The average African certainly looks quite different from the average European. Indeed “black and white” is a classic definition of difference. Nonetheless, for obvious reasons, people of good will often insist that the differences are superficial and shouldn’t matter.

They remind us that the differences between populations are small, and the differences between individuals is greater than the differences between populations. They are right on both counts. Based on DNA, any two human beings are 99.9 percent identical. And there is greater variation within populations than the average differences between populations.

This, however, is unsatisfactory to the senses. The genetic difference between two individuals may be minute, but a difference in just one gene can have significant results. And while the average difference between populations may be less than the differences within, it is real and can also have significant observable results.

Consider an obvious example, the National Basketball Association (NBA). While Blacks make up only 12 percent of the American population, they make up 75 percent of the players in the NBA. If we can dismiss the possibility of outrageous discrimination against Whites, we must assume that Black men are superior basketball players to White men.

What applies to sports, to the physical, also applies to the mental, to the arts and sciences. For example, Jews make up less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population, but they have won over 20 percent of the Nobel prizes, the intellectual equivalent of shooting hoops. This extraordinary record suggests Jews just might be smarter than the rest of us.

But before anyone begins to feel uncomfortable about notions of racial superiority, let’s enquire into an interesting fact. These exceptional comparative achievements can result from very small differences in overall ability between groups.

Consider the graph above, a rough representation of how basketball skills might be distributed in populations. The graph represents that most common of distributions, a bell curve: very few people at the lowest skill level (two left feet), very few at the highest skill level (NBA), the great majority somewhere in the middle.

The curves almost overlay which suggest that for most of us the difference in skills is so small as to be trivial. We would scarcely notice it. If you randomly picked ten guys off the street, five White, five Black, and had them play 100 games of basketball, the result might be something like 52-48, an insignificant difference.

But at the very high end, the small difference looms large. A slight edge is the difference between making the NBA or looking for another line of work. Thus the guys who have that edge, the Black guys, dominate the sport. Similarly, the guys who have the edge intellectually, the Jews, dominate the Nobel.

Whenever we single out individuals for exceptional performance, small differences between groups can translate into big results. Though two populations may differ only slightly in their average abilities, the population with the highest average will tend to produce more, perhaps many more, outstanding individuals.

Whether the differences are a result of nature or nurture, genetics or culture, you might ask so what? Does it matter?

If people weren’t racially conscious, it wouldn’t, but they are and so it does. If one group is more successful on the basketball court than another, it hardly matters, but in many areas who gets the honours and the most rewarding positions matters a great deal.

The answer to those concerns isn’t rationing. For example, we don’t want to insist that Blacks only get 12 percent of the positions in professional basketball because that’s their proportion of the population. Or that Jews may no longer win more than 0.2 percent of the Nobels. It may be “fair,” but it’s a recipe for mediocrity. We want the best players playing whether it’s shooting hoops or discovering the secrets of the cosmos.

We must be careful not to assume that if one racial group is dominating the heights that it’s because they are discriminating against others. It could be no more than the effects of small differences. If it is discrimination, then we are obligated to ensure the field is level for all players.

Society’s job is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to do their best. After that, it should let the chips fall where they may.

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