Why”lactose intolerance”is a racist slur

“I don’t mind that they work over at the factory, but I don’t want one of those lactose intolerant people moving in next door…” or “Some of my best friends are lactose intolerant. But I sure don’t want my sister marrying one….”Say what?Amused in Vivo, who is VERY COOL, has recently posted some comments on race as an expansion of her comments on race upstream on my blog.In her post, she made this assertion:

Saying that people of African descent are more prone to lactose intolerance than those of Northern European descent is not racist, because, well, it’s true. Right?

Which has, in my view, two answers. One is that yeah, one could argue that it is not racist to the extent that it is true. By my definition of racism it is racist because truth is not part of the equation of the use of racialized concepts. (Let’s skip over any concern that “African” is not a race). And there may be a problem because it singles out Africans as being the intolerant ones (in this case intolerant of milk, digestively) totally ignoring the fact that Asians are also very intolerant (of milk, digestively).To be fair, in the way Muse In Vivo meant it, it is an example of a reasonable assertion that is not offensively racist. It is nonetheless race-based thinking, in my view, and does not escape being race based simply because it is correct. But, that is not the interesting part. The interesting part is the other of two answers to the question.This is to say that the phrase “intolerance” itself is, in this case, terribly racist. Here’s why.Intolerance is a negative way of saying something. It sounds like a problem, or in this case because it is a dietary effect that has negative symptomatic consequences, it sounds like a disease or at least a thing that one does not want, or that is bad.No one ever said “Hey, this guy is great. We love him. He’s so, I dunno, Intolerant and stuff.”But I ask you, how does the following sound?”Austrians are intolerant of strychnine. They get dizzy, they convulse and stuff, then they often die when they eat strychnine.”We’ll, duh! Strychnine is a poison. Of course they die from it. Why single out Austrians???? This seems utterly off-base!?!?Lactose “intolerance” is the same thing as being susceptible to strychnine poisoning. Normal.Adult mammals do not drink milk. Why would they? How would they? Where would they get this milk????? … Think about it.But don’t think about it too much. Just realize that fetal mammals ‘drink’ mother’s blood, and baby mammals drink mother’s milk, and adult mammals do neither.But there are exceptions, and maybe that is a little weird. For instance, vampire bats do continue to drink blood as adults, but interestingly, not their mother’s blood. Indeed, they drink blood of a different species! Ick! How Strange!And humans do continue to drink milk as adults, but interestingly, not their mother’s milk. Indeed, they drink mil of a different species! Ick! How Strange!I told you not to think about this!But how does this relate to the issue of race and racism? Simple. Normal adult humans do not drink milk, and do not have the enzyme to do so because that enzyme is not produced in adult humans, just as it is not produced in adult mammals generally.Then, among humans, there are a few strange populations, including a couple/few from Africa and some Caucasians (and that’s about it) who drink milk as adults.These are the strange people with the odd behavior. They are the ones that should be labeled as different. But since the milk-drinkers are the Europeans who get to name everything and determine what is normal globally, the situation is reversed. As usual. White skin, drinking milk as an adult, blue eyes …. these are all mutations that are strange and weird or just plain bad for you. But in so much of the global discourse, these are the normal traits.I prefer to never use the term “lactose intolerant” and rather, I use the phrase “adult lactose consumers” (alc … ick).(By the way, if consuming milk as adults was a trait only found in dark skinned people of equatorial regions, what else would Europeans say about those people? Don’t think about it!!!)

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67 Responses to Why”lactose intolerance”is a racist slur

  1. Anne Gilbert says:

    About all I can say to this is, claiming things like “Africans are lactose intoleran” is basically unscientific. And it also isn’t a particularly good way of thinking about the inability of most people in the world, to digest milk enzymes. Because most people can’t. This is the “default” condition. Even a lot of people of European descent are “lactose intolerant”. Now it is true that the majority of people of European descent can digest milk enzymes, because there is a huge dairy culture in certain parts of Europe. And it was advantageous for genes that allow people to digest these milk enzymes as adults, to spread in a “dairy culture”. Some other cultures where dairy products are consumed, also have high numbers of people with such genes. Some of them are from Africa, where there are a number of “cattle cultures” anyway. I don’t know about most East Asians other than the vast majority of them can’t digest milk enzymes as adults. But even here, too, some people make what I consider sweeping statements about Asian “lactose intolernce”. There may be people from East Asia who are able to digest these enzymes, for all I know, it most certainly is not the “default” position for most in that region, however. The thing that you’re right about, though, Greg, is that tying “lactose intolerance”, or any other common genetic variation among and between populations, to a particular group of people is, while it may be “true”, it’s not the whole truth. In biological anthropological terms, such statements never are.Anne G

  2. Long ago, Reay Tannahill wrote a marvellous book called Food in Historyhttp://tinyurl.com/64e9voin which she invoked a sort of Milk Line, running from between India and Burma and up skirting China. West of that line (she didn’t mention Africa) everyone drank milk, ate cheese, yoghourt and butter, and east of it, they just didn’t. It happens, also, to be the dividing line between cattle and non-cattle cultures, which is not surprising.Yoghourt making introduces lactase enzyme, which accounts for the phenomenal success of Yakult, a milk-based ‘health tonic’ all over the Far East, where they would otherwise be troubled by milk products.It also may account for the fact that Filipinos love cheese ice cream. (So do I – Roquefort and walnut is one of my favourites – but I don’t get it here).The simple way to stop those of us who might insult the 70% of humans who are lactose intolerant, is to change the name – start calling us ‘mutant milk lovers’.Ick factor – I’ve been called a person who ‘stinks of rotten cow secretions, the colour of death’ by an otherwise charming Siamese lady.

  3. razib says:

    Then, among humans, there are a few strange populations, including a couple/few from Africa and some Caucasians (and that’s about it) who drink milk as adults. i think terming them “a few strange populations” overstates it. here are some rates of “lactose intolerance”:Southeast Asians/98%Asian Americans/90%Alaskan Eskimo/80%African Americans Adults/79%Mexicans from rural communities/73.8%North American Jews/68.8%Creek Cypriots/66%Cretans/56%Mexican American Males/55%Indian Adults/50%African American Children/45%Indian Children/20%Caucasians of N. European and Scandinavian decent/5%many populations outside of europe which are quite numerous, such as punjabis, exhibit lactase persistence. additionally, many populations within europe, such as sicilians, are “wild type.”White skin, drinking milk as an adult, blue eyes …. these are all mutations that are strange and weird or just plain bad for you.as a factual matter light skin isn’t that uncommon (if you note that many east asians have light skin). if by “light skin” you’re talking about physiological limit light skin as exhibited by northern europeans, yeah, but in most of world brunette white/olive is certainly light. additionally, it was also obviously very good for you, since genomics tells us these genes have high selection coefficients.your overall point has validity of course, which is why the genetic literature now talks about “lactase persistence” as opposed to lactose intolerance/tolerance.

  4. Razib: “your overall point has validity of course, which is why the genetic literature now talks about “lactase persistence” as opposed to lactose intolerance/tolerance”.’Lactase persistence’ presumably means an ab origo ability to deal with lactOse. This doesn’t seem to be the case. The mutation happened, and spread within widespread dairy cultures. We didn’t have a lactose-tolerant gene before, and now some of us have.And the light skin, blue eyes, blonde hair genes are probably just as mutant, and restricted to small minorities, as any other.Which suggests that Europeans shouldn’t be looking at everyone else as exceptional but turning the telescope back and wondering why this little group, with so many deleterious gene mutations, ends up dominating the world (for the time being).regardsRichard

  5. Your right, “lactose intolerant” is an insulting phrase. From now on I’ll use “lactarded” to describe those who have a hard time digesting dairy. There, all better.

  6. razib says:

    And the light skin, blue eyes, blonde hair genes are probably just as mutant, and restricted to small minorities, as any other.light skin is very common outside. e.g.,:http://anthro.palomar.edu/adapt/images/map_of_skin_color_distribution.gifthe loci for skin skin show some of the strongest selection signatures of any. blue eyes and blonde hair are probably just byproducts of light skin (pleiotropy).on the one hand, greg makes a good point. but i think this talk about europeans being “mutant” and “deleterious” is just inverting the narrative in a silly manner.

  7. Becca says:

    I’d say thinking of “lactose intolerant” as offensive is a bit much, but I think it is a symptom of a WASP-centric culture which certainly contributes to offensive practices.Anyway, I’m happier to call it “lactase persistence”. It’s obviously abnormal, but the “ick factor” of milk drinking is most compellingly (if shrilly) stated by vegans… and I tend to ignore it. No reason to vilify milk.@ Anne G- Sorry to be pedantic, but “lactose intolerance” doesn’t describe the inability to “digest milk enzymes”… instead, it describes whether one can digest the milk sugar lactose using the enzyme lactase. (Too much biochemistry training for me to not point that out)Anyway, I agree that 1) not digesting lactose as an adult is the state of the majority of people and 2)it is important to remember that some (variable proportion) of individuals from different regions can digest it, but you can’t really assume whether an individual can or cannot.@Richard-I think it is termed “lactose-persistence” not as in “persistent in the population” but as in “persistent in the individual”. Most mammals produce lactase as baby-mammals so they can digest breast milk from their mothers. The trait under discussion is the ability to continue to digest lactose as an adult mammal.

  8. razib says:

    The trait under discussion is the ability to continue to digest lactose as an adult mammal. right. and it is important to note that the binning is artificial; many people of northern european ancestry turn off the metabolic shunt in their 30s or later (these people often don’t understand what’s changed at first and wonder if they’re ill because of their gas and digestive problems which suddenly emerge because they keep on their regular milk regime). since LP is modeled as a dominant trait (there’s an SNP which confers it), it is likely the heterozygotes here manifesting a different phenotype later on….

  9. a says:

    Fetal mammals drink blood!
    Wow who taught your biology class.
    The last time I checked nutrients were passed form the mothers blood to the child’s blood through the placenta’s membranes. The blood does not mix and the mother’s blood is not consumed.

  10. Joel says:

    Since most indicators of race are prone to be subjective and poorly defined, is race the best way to categorize populations?Certainly, there must be a more accurate means of describing the differences in health and well being among populations?

  11. razib says:

    Certainly, there must be a more accurate means of describing the differences in health and well being among populations?yes. subpopulations.

  12. Razib: “your overall point has validity of course, which is why the genetic literature now talks about “lactase persistence” as opposed to lactose intolerance/tolerance”.’Lactase persistence’ presumably means an ab origo ability to deal with lactOse. This doesn’t seem to be the case. The mutation happened, and spread within widespread dairy cultures. We didn’t have a lactose-tolerant gene before, and now some of us have.And the light skin, blue eyes, blonde hair genes are probably just as mutant, and restricted to small minorities, as any other.Which suggests that Europeans shouldn’t be looking at everyone else as exceptional but turning the telescope back and wondering why this little group, with so many deleterious gene mutations, ends up dominating the world (for the time being).regardsRichard

  13. tincture says:

    Next week:Changing the classification of blood types. B Negative is such an insulting term.IMO, finding “lactose intolerant” to be a racist slur is rather lactarded. It seems to me, that for it to be true you’d have to already think there is something superior about being able to drink milk… digest lactose… do that stuff that Becca said.

  14. Ian says:

    Labeling them as blue-eyed is such a racist view. How can you abuse a minority like that by tarring them with a such a negative word – as though they’re depressed and have the blues. I think we need to start referring to them as the Pantone 27-30 people or the 000001-0000FF people.

  15. Greg Laden says:

    Many interesting responses. I hope the casual reader notes the degree to which many are playing fast and loose with some of the concepts. One can make a list of “sub populations” long by listing studies, as opposed to gropus. What is “white” and “light” or “dark” is amoving target with skin color. And all of these things will be addressed in time. But I especailly wanted to point out the most amazing statement of all, astonshingly by Razib, who points to the map showing the widespread occurence of “light” skin and pointing to a map that shows Africa to be a fraction of the size of Eurasia.Razib, thanks very much for the helpful and often correct additions to the discussion, and yes, I love the fact that lactase production often stops following a person’s adult dietary regime settling in! But since Westerners have a (screwy) genetic deterministic model of nature, which cannot allow genes to change what they do later in life, the onset of lactose poisoning syndrome is denied!!!!But really, you would enjoy so much taking a carefully chosen anthropology course to understand better why and how British Colonialism ended…And please, everyone, do you not get it? “Lactose Persistence” is a racist term!!! Uffda….

  16. BAllanJ says:

    Geez…I’ve been insulting my blue eyed blond kids by calling them lactose intolerant for years! And their mother, who has the same problem insults herself regularly. Who knew!I’m not sure I buy the “intolerant is an insult” bit, though. I’m intolerant of some kinds of stupidity, and proud of it. Anybody who is insulted when it’s not intended is looking to be insulted…sometimes I’m glad to oblige. I suppose if I knew they were offended I wouldn’t use the term around them…exactly who is offended by this? Or are you offended for them?If I ask someone who’s coming for dinner if they can eat everything before I plan dinner, am I offending them by suggesting their intestinal tract may not be up to scratch for my diet (which includes milk, soya, wheat, meat, spices, peanuts, strawberries, and even the occasional lingonberry)?Lactose intolerance is abnormal in blonds…so my kids are abnormal. So what. I’m not that normal myself (and proud of it?). I do wish I wasn’t insulin resistant, though. Did I just insult myself?

  17. Greg Laden says:

    B: Well, we certainly don’t need to take this thing to seriously … there are much more important problems than this.But just to be clear, it is not so much the term as being negative (and you make good points that it need not be negative.) It is the fact that LI is technically a genetic disorder. A disease. Yet it is not, it is simply the normal course of things. LT is the genetic oddity, but we will never ever call it a disease.The problem here is this: Whether or not we call something a disorder is not whether or not it is adaptive, but rather, the skin color of Razib’s “sub population” who tends to exhibit it. That is the racist trope here. And actually, that’s pretty serious.Now, people who eat soya …. that’s kinda strange…. Oh, and insulin resistant would be PC. Any kind of resistance is OK.

  18. speedwell says:

    Calling myself “lactose intolerant” is as important as someone else calling themselves “peanut allergic.” Insisting that people who can tolerate milk call themselves “lactase persistent” because of some noddy sensitivity issue is as stupid as expecting peanut-eaters to call themselves “Arachis hypogaea tolerant.”The issue is that people who get sick when they eat something need to protect themselves with an appropriate word or phrase. “No, thanks, don’t put ice cream on mine like you do automatically for everyone else; I’m lactose intolerant” is more widely understood and sounds better than “…I’m not lactase-persistent.”

  19. Alan Kellogg says:

    Son: Dad, why doesn’t Mr. Klinghoffer drink milk?Dad: Well, because Mr. Klinghoffer is lactose intolerant. He can’t drink milk because it’ll make him sick. So we provide other drinks for when he comes visit.Son; The fact he’s Saxon instead of Ibo has nothing to do with it?Dad: Not a thing.

  20. Greg Laden says:

    Speedwell: Right, and I am certainly not doing that here, am I? What I am doing, however, is pointing out an interesting way of thinking of biological processes that leads some people to new areas of learning.Allen: That is an excellent example of why this is a racist trope. Thanks for the parody!

  21. windy says:

    And please, everyone, do you not get it? “Lactose Persistence” is a racist term!!!

    It’s an individual characteristic, as Becca pointed out. If the term itself is racist and not only its application to populations, then “white skin” and “blue eyes” are also racist terms. Racist!

  22. Greg Laden says:

    Oran, My point is that “racialism” almost always leads to “racism.” See Moran’s comments and my responses to them elsewhere. Nice racism is only temporary.

  23. David Marjanovi? says:

    We didn’t have a lactose-tolerant gene before, and now some of us have.

    There’s no new gene involved. Lactose tolerance is a mutation in a gene that controls the expression of the lactase gene. In other words, it’s a switch that controls the production of lactase, and in lactose-tolerant people the switch is broken — they can’t switch their lactase production off.

  24. David Marjanovi?, OM says:

    “racialism” almost always leads to “racism.” See Moran’s comments and my responses to them elsewhere. Nice racism is only temporary.

    I agree. But it’s not the word “intolerant” that’s sick here. (I am an Austrian, and while I haven’t tried, I’m pretty sure I am in fact strychnine-intolerant.) What is sick here is the obsessive-compulsive attempt to pretend that lactose tolerance is somehow coupled to skin color and (!) hair shape, that it’s caused by one and the same gene or something. As the third comment in this thread amply demonstrates, it isn’t. Not even if it is taken into account that the very same person can be categorized as “black” in the USA, “colored” in South Africa, and “white” in Brazil.

  25. David Marjanovi? says:

    Sorry. Here’s my name without Safari distortions of the encoding.

  26. Greg Laden says:

    There are actually a number of lactase related variants. Please note that if there is a “lactase in adulthood” “gene” involving a change in the lacatase production gene, this would be a novel “allele” not a novel gene. It would not be that some people have a gene for adult production of lactase and other not. Everyone has the gene, different people have different alleles.I don’t think typical lactase in adulthood is caused by a gene that regulates lactase. I think variation in lactase production is caused by a variable cis-acting element that controls lactase gene expression, possibly a single nucleotide located upstream from the lactase coding gene in a nearby intron (thus, this is an example of “junk dna” doing something, which is very interesting).It is possible that my info is old on that, though.

  27. Greg Laden says:

    David: Also, the one ethnic group that is 100% able to produce lactase in adulthood is a group of very dark skinned people living in the middle of Africa.

  28. tincture says:

    Oran, My point is that “racialism” almost always leads to “racism.” See Moran’s comments and my responses to them elsewhere. Nice racism is only temporary.

    Do you mean that studying differences between different groups of people leads to/is a form of racism, or that when people use the word racialist it’s just code for racist?

  29. Julie Stahlhut says:

    …many people of northern european ancestry turn off the metabolic shunt in their 30s or later (these people often don’t understand what’s changed at first and wonder if they’re ill because of their gas and digestive problems which suddenly emerge because they keep on their regular milk regime). since LP is modeled as a dominant trait (there’s an SNP which confers it), it is likely the heterozygotes here manifesting a different phenotype later on.Interesting … in many populations, this “turns off” at around age 5, no?Mine was certainly sputtering by the time I was 15 (I’m of southern and eastern European ancestry,) but it may have happened sooner, since I detested the taste and texture of milk even when I was of preschool age, and drank only minimal amounts when I was forced to do so. I also rarely ate ice cream as a kid, since my teeth were so cold-sensitive that eating frozen desserts was agony. So, the “intolerance” could have happened much sooner and slipped under the radar.

  30. Muse142 says:

    Omg! You have no idea how happy it makes me that a Real Live Scienceblogger took the time to reply to one of my silly insignificant blog posts. Squee!Even if it’s to point out how my statements can be construed as racist.I think that the commenters said more than I could ever say in my defense. I would like to humbly point out one thing, though.

    What is sick here is the obsessive-compulsive attempt to pretend that lactose tolerance is somehow coupled to skin color and (!) hair shape, that it’s caused by one and the same gene or something. As the third comment in this thread amply demonstrates, it isn’t.David MarjanoviƄ?

    I personally do not believe, nor have I ever tried to communicate, that this is the case. I used the examples of African vs. Northern European heritage relating to the incidence of lactose tolerance because it’s the most racially charged example I could think of while still being (to my mind) not racist. Of course I knew that the wild-type was lactase non-persistance, and that lactase persistance is a recent mutation. Of course I knew that other populations from many different lineages lacked lactase persistance. I wanted to see some conversation. And my, did it work! =) If you want to know what I really said, then check my blog!/end shameless self promotionCheers!

  31. chris y says:

    I would imagine that most populations which are, or have recently been, pastoralist, would be lactose tolerant. I know for a fact that milk is an important part of the diet of the Maasai, for example. I have no idea about the digestions of the various long settled communities with whom the Maasai live in various kinds of mutuality, but it’s clear that generalisations about “Africans” fall at the first hurdle.Likewise the armies of Genghis Khan spent their spare time drinking Kumis with no ill effects beyond a hangover, and so do their descendents today. If you want to tell Genghis Khan he doesn’t come from Asia, good luck to you. You can’t generalise from that either. People’s food tolerances reflect the diet they have adopted under circumstantial (I hesitate to say selective over such a short time) pressure, and has nothing to do with geography.BTW, what’s this about adult mammals not drinking milk? Have you never kept a cat?

  32. Greg Laden says:

    tincture: The groups don’t exist. So what is the motivation for re-creating this concept of racial groups all the time?Muse: Even if it’s to point out how my statements can be construed as racist. (and so on)Just to clarify: Nobody could read Mue in Vivo and think of you as a racist person.

  33. speedwell says:

    Right, and I am certainly not doing that here, am I?No, you are not. I was trying to make much the same point as Alan Kellogg did with more humor and grace than I did.

  34. Greg Laden says:

    I would imagine that most populations which are, or have recently been, pastoralist, would be lactose tolerant. I know for a fact that milk is an important part of the diet of the Maasai, for example.The Maasai are normal. They do not digest lactose as adults at all, really. Or at least, they have one of the lowest levels of adult lactase production of anyone in the world. Yet they do indeed rely on milk as a major food source. It has been known for some time that the link between milk production (economically) and consumption and lactase production is tenuous. Which is a bummer because it was a great story!!!!Cats don’t tolerate milk very well. It makes them sick and smelly. (who knows, maybe there are adult lactase producers among cats though. Razib, of all people you should know this!)

  35. Onkel Bob says:

    Just a random weird fact to throw in – camels, specifically Camelus dromedarius were domesticated not as draft or transport animals, but for dairy. South Yemen, about 3000 y.o., one of the last animals to be domesticated.Then there’s kumis, that wonderful alcoholic beverage of the Central Asian steppe. Mongolians, et al, needed to drink mare/horse milk as it is their main source of vitamin C.

  36. tincture says:

    tincture: The groups don’t exist. So what is the motivation for re-creating this concept of racial groups all the time?

    We must be talking about different things because clearly they do. How could you say they don’t when this post itself is about that?People are obviously different from each other, both individually and as loose groups.

  37. Greg Laden says:

    ticnture: There is a vast difference between people being different from each other and the alleged reality of “races.” How I can say races don’t exist is that I’m just trying to say what is supported by the evidence and not just making shit up because it is “obvious” or because it is received wisdom or because it is convenient.We humans do like to make groups, and groups can be constructed that have a certain amount of use even if they are not everything everyone wants them to be. But our society has developed this widespread fetish we call “races” and I assure you it is harder to take away this western concept of race than it is to pry the guns from the hands of those people up there in Susquehanna County PA.On the issue of milk producing animal domestication and such: Please do keep in mind that many processing methods break down the lactose to varying degrees.

  38. Drekab says:

    On the issue of milk producing animal domestication and such: Please do keep in mind that many processing methods break down the lactose to varying degrees.Well now I’m completely confused, if there are many processing methods to break down lactose, why are you singling out adult lactase production as the marker between the lactose tolerent and intolerent?

  39. jay says:

    This whole discussion is bizarre. You equate ‘lactose intolerant’ as a surrogate for ‘black people’ (I don’t think I’ve EVER heard it used in that sense) and then suddenly declare it racist speech.We have become far oversensitized to even the mention of race, which I suppose is why people sometimes have started to use surrogate phrases (I was once trying to describe one co-worker to another, and I said he had short curly hair… the other person immediately assumed, incorrectly, that I was describing a black person).Racism is when you mistreat someone because of their race, not when you simply recognize characteristics of their background.

  40. hibob says:

    I don’t think “lactose intolerance” in normal conversation rises to the level of racism unless you seriously debase the word ‘racism’ so that it includes situations much more benign than those covered by racism’s definition.The Merriam Webster definition of Racism:1″: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race2 : racial prejudice or discrimination.”the Wikipedia entry on racism:”While the term racism usually denotes race-based prejudice, violence, discrimination, or oppression, the term can also have varying and hotly contested definitions. Racialism is a related term, sometimes intended to avoid these negative meanings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, racism is a belief or ideology that all members of each racial group possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as being either superior or inferior to another racial group or racial groups. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines racism as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular racial group, and that it is also the prejudice based on such a belief. The Macquarie Dictionary defines racism as: “the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others.”

  41. tincture says:

    ticnture: There is a vast difference between people being different from each other and the alleged reality of “races.” How I can say races don’t exist is that I’m just trying to say what is supported by the evidence and not just making shit up because it is “obvious” or because it is received wisdom or because it is convenient.

    Human races are just as real as breeds of dogs. There’s no solid line between variations but there are differences and if you’re looking at huge groups of people who have certain hereditary things in common, race seems as good a word as any other?So like I said, Do you mean that studying differences between different groups of people leads to/is a form of racism, or that when people use the word racialist it’s just code for racist?

  42. Barn Owl says:

    I think variation in lactase production is caused by a variable cis-acting element that controls lactase gene expression, possibly a single nucleotide located upstream from the lactase coding gene in a nearby intron (thus, this is an example of “junk dna” doing something, which is very interesting). Non-coding regulatory sequences are not classified as “junk DNA”, AFAIK. Lactase persistence (LP) and lactase non-persistence (LNP) appear to be the terms used by geneticists who actually do the research on this topic. A quick PubMed search reveals many papers on LP, including a recent one on two new mutations associated with LP, by Enattah et al. (2008) in the Am. J. of Human Genetics 82, 57-72. From the abstract:Here, we report identification of two new mutations among Saudis, also known for the high prevalence of LP. We confirmed the absence of the European T(-13910) and established two new mutations found as a compound allele: T/G(-13915) within the -13910 enhancer region and a synonymous SNP in the exon 17 of the MCM6 gene T/C(-3712), -3712 bp from the LCT gene. The compound allele is driven to a high prevalence among Middle East population(s)…The European T(-13910) and the earlier identified East African G(-13907) LP allele share the same ancestral background and most likely the same history, probably related to the same cattle domestication event. In contrast, the compound Arab allele shows a different, highly divergent ancestral haplotype, suggesting that these two major global LP alleles have arisen independently, the latter perhaps in response to camel milk consumption.I think I’ll start painting a surrealist scene of dairy cows, goats, sheep, and camels in the desert, with melting strands of DNA, glasses of milk, and cheese sandwiches, and I shall call this artwork….The Persistence of Lactase.

  43. razib says:

    re: the light-skin map, i wasn’t talking area greg, but numbers. the majority of the people in the world are light-skinned if you consider olive-skinned light-skinned (as people in dark-skinned areas of the world like south asia and africa do).

  44. Greg Laden says:

    Drekab: What I mean is, the mammalian digestive system uses lactase, an enzyme, to break down lactose. But lactose is broken down to varying degrees when humans process milk in various ways.Jay: Yes, I understand that I am asserting something that is NOT part of the day to day thinking on this, and I’m doing this very much on purpose. I’m saying that racism is the use of a trait (like skin color) to define a “race” (whether or not that race actually exists as a definable entity …. and usually it does not, despite people’s very strong beliefs that it does) … the using that racial designation to assert other characteristics as true or likely true (or some probability of being true) even though you can’t see those characteristics. I see yoiu, I see red hair, green eyes, light frecked skin. I decide you are Irish. I figure you like bagpipes.Period.I don’t have to be thinking that liking bagpipes is good or bad. This is still a racist act because it is an act whereby I attribute a racial membership then predict a racial characteristics.I reject, totally, the assertion that if it is “nice” it is something else. I reject that for a number of reasons, stated above, including that nice is not always nice, that the judgetment of qualities such as truth or benign or oppressive is a moving target, etc. Also, I beleive that if we Democrats are going to vote for a guy because he’s black, we must recognize (as Larry so much wants us to) that that is a racist act, and that we are allowing ourselves that act now. And we must remind ourselves to limit such acts.hibob: again, I’m not requiring the nasty side of the assertion. But I AM saying that defining a thing that Norther Europeans defining a thing that is not typical for them as a disease is par for the course for them. In a negative way.Tincture: There are solid lines between breeds of dogs except when they interbreed. Most dog breeds arise from breeding. There are difference.But yes, there are no solid lined between so called human races. Acknowledging this does not make the race concept stronger and more reliable, although many people seem to think such an incantation will work. Racial traits do not sort out by races unless you make the races very very small and thus largely useless for our general purposes.Do you have any idea as to how many human races there are said to be? How about breeds of dog? These numbers are interesting, informative, and sobering.Non-coding regulatory sequences are not classified as “junk DNA”This DNA is from an intron, which is junk. The fact that the same exact DNA can be classified as “not junk” and “junk” is in itself an interesting thing. Points out the importance of context!I think I’ll start painting a surrealist scene of dairy cows, goats, sheep, and camels in the desert, with melting strands of DNA, glasses of milk, and cheese sandwiches, and I shall call this artwork….The Persistence of Lactase.That would be cool.

  45. Oran Kelley says:

    Greg:I agree with you on these two points:1) Racialism is often just cover for racism, and2) A “Race” is not an easily defined entity and has a pretty limited usefulness.But what does one do with say Cavalli-Sforza? Describe him as a racist researcher?I don’t think the response to race-obsessed folk like Steven Sailer is to give him evidence for some sort of pattern of denial & repression. Refusing to make distinctions (limited as they might be) between genetic lineages or between bigotry and legitimate inquiry (hard as they may be to distinguish sometimes) doesn’t seem to me to be at all constructive.

  46. Greg Laden says:

    Cavalli-Sforza is a bit difficult. For one thing, he is mainly looking at clines, not races. Yet, he has a (culturally) continental European view of race, which is much less essentialist and simplified as the Northern European and American views. In other words, it is somewhat closer to reality, perhaps. That is work is considered racists is more a matter of Western scholars not understanding his work than it is about his work actually being racist. But one would have to actually read his work to get that, and my understanding is that many of his detractors have not done so.

  47. tincture says:

    I don’t see the difference. Human races arose from breeding also and would be clearly defined if everybody decided they wanted to stay in their group. I dont understand why making race classifications numerous and small would be a bad thing, surely it’s better to be specific rather than vague, but call them clines if you want. Human taxonomy(?) is not my forte but their purpose in my question is same.I enjoy your blog but all I was originally looking for was clarification on what you meant by,

    Oran, My point is that “racialism” almost always leads to “racism.” See Moran’s comments and my responses to them elsewhere. Nice racism is only temporary.

    Instead I find myself in a strange back and forth over whether Human races exist at all. First you say they don’t, then you say, well in hindsight I’m not entirely sure what you meant in your second reply, and now you say that they do exist.Debate is wonderful but I’m not exactly qualified in this subject, hence my question.

  48. DrugMonkey says:

    on the one hand, greg makes a good point. but i think this talk about europeans being “mutant” and “deleterious” is just inverting the narrative in a silly manner.in your pedantic defensiveness you are missing the point that”Whitefolk: mutations that are strange and weird or just plain bad for you”would make one hell of a t-shirt slogan.

  49. Greg Laden says:

    tincture:Thanks for the further questions. I want to be very clear on this: The concept of race in humans (and the equivilant concept in other animals, where words like “race” or “breed” or “subspecies” are used interchangeably) has a fairly widely used set of meanings to most people, both in vernacular/popular sense and in science as well. The concept is, however, largely broken, useless, or misleading. Races require two things to exist: A pretty good correlation between traits within the “race” and a reasonable boundary between the races.If I was a salesman of virtually any product and I had different products (different versionf of a ford, different kinds of lumber, different whatever) and sold you a particular version on paper, took the money, then delivered the product later on, you’d expect to get delivered something like what you ordered. If car models were structured like races, a lot of people who ordered one car would get what they would generally think was a different car. The presence or absence of a sunroof, chrome on the tailpipe, the 4 vs 6 litre engine, etc. would be kinda random. The customer would not be happy.If races exist at all, they are very dynamic and changing and do not behave has generally defined.

  50. tincture says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Greg.And DrugMonkey, If you can make it snappier, you might be able to make some money on cafepress. You could put it in quotes and have it signed by Yakub too, would be worth it for the confused looks on peoples faces.

  51. frog says:

    Here’s an interesting post on race from science blogs: http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2008/05/fear_of_a_white_planet.phpThe white mutation is dominant! An interesting example of how much of race is in our heads, when the “common wisdom” is so far out of whack with reality.

  52. A.J. says:

    …WTF? I’m a Sweden, as so far I’ve never heard anyone use ‘lactose intolerant’ as racial slur. My impression is that people here are far too aware of that there are a significant number of people who have problems with lactose regardless of ethnicity (though we’re fortunately have higher percentages of lactose tolerant people), which is far less odd than allergies. Allergies being something we too cleanly urban people are too used to. Everybody usually knows someone who’s allergic to something, if not several people.I was under the impression that Americans were as aware and tolerant of allergies as us, so this moronic use of ‘lactose intolerant’ really doesn’t make enough sense to me. I really don’t think the label needs to change, because there’s nothing wrong with it, in the context of lactose (though efficient and actually useful alternative names are welcome if they can compete). It’s the people who need to change and educate their moronic minds. ANYTHING can be used as an insult and slur: Context is EVERYTHING. Morons will use any filthy misconception they can get their grubby paws on as an excuse to insult fellow human beings. Sadly.

  53. Elf Eye says:

    My daughter (Quechua, born in Lima, Peru) cannot tolerate lactose. Quick way to convey that vital nugget of information in southwestern Virginia, a place filled with dairy products: lactose intolerant. Cuts right to the vital information. Do. Not. Provide. My. Daughter. With. Unmodified. Milk. She also has two true allergies: to dust mites and to red dye # 40. I’ve never noticed teachers, doctors, or playmates and their parents treating her lactose intolerance as a race-based category that evokes from them a different reaction than that evoked by her true allergies. To them, her lactose intolerance is simply a particular characteristic belonging to a particular child, an annoyance to her because she encounters dairy products so often, but less threatening than her red dye allergy, for which she carries an epipen. In short, it seems to me that the only way the phrase ‘lactose intolerant’ could become a marker for racism would be if people associated lactose intolerance with ethnicity and/or race. I suspect the vast majority of people would be unlikely to make any such association.

  54. Becca says:

    @Greg Laden- I know you don’t like attributing absense/presense of any particular lactase-persistence allele as automatically due to the pastoral nature of a particular culture, and I certainly conceed that we can’t *assume* anything, and that processing of dairy products is an important aspect to keep in mind.All that said, I ask your indulgence for a moment. Let’s pretend we can assume that on the average there is some selective pressure resulting in more lactase persistence in societies with extensive agriculture…The real problem with viewing “lactose tolerance” as the *normal* state of being is not that “lactose intolerance” = black = being defined as “other”. The implicit “black” = “other” is reflective of profound and difficult to eradicate racism in our society. But, as has been pointed out, assuming that “lactose intolerance” = “black” (or even “non-White”) is an overly simplistic view of the actual distribution.I think it is an even more penetrating problem is that, due to the tremendously powerful impact of agriculture on human societies (a la Guns Germs and Steel), more pastoral societies will eventually evolve into imperial societies than non-pastoral socities. Therefore, the ability to digest lactose correlates with groups of people who have a head start in being war-mongering bastards. The tense legacy of confusing cultural standards and discomfort regarding race is really only part of the larger human narrative in which some people screw other people over. I wouldn’t be at all suprised if there is a modest correlation between “lactase persistence” and “societies that ‘conquer’ other socities “.”Lactose intolerance” not just a racist slur, but the Ultimate in Ethnocentrism. Or something like that.

  55. Epistaxis says:

    White skin, drinking milk as an adult, blue eyes

    No, I think dark skin is the adaptation and “white” skin is the ancestral trait. If you pluck all the fur off a chimpanzee, it’s pink underneath. Only in equatorial latitudes does light skin (without fur) affect one’s evolutionary fitness, which is why human populations who’ve lived there have become dark. And why most other human populations, as previous commenters pointed out, have not.I don’t know if you were trying to prove that Europeans are more “advanced” or simply less “natural” by grouping all of their traits together like this, but I think it would have been better for your argument if you hadn’t. Maybe instead of treating derived traits as “strange” “weird” “mutations” in unashamed reverse racism, as if two wrongs made a right, we should accept that different traits are adaptive in different environments. Maybe instead of using biology to support racist, or purportedly anti-racist, agendas, we should just argue about which claims are backed up by evidence and which ones are not, and leave both sides’ politics out of it.P.S. You never said: what more pleasant term do you want us to use instead of “lactose-intolerant” to describe people who can’t drink milk? “Wild-type?” “Anything but Caucasian?” “Less evolved?” “Ape-like?” I think “lactose-intolerant” sounds just fine.

  56. Greg Laden says:

    Epitaxix,With all due respect, you are not reading my post very carefully. My point in grouping these traits was to point out what you are in fact pointing out.The color of the chimpanzee minus fur depends on the chimpanzee.A non-melanin pigmented furry ancestor would probably develop melanin pigmentation as fur is lost. I doubt very much that northern less pigmented people repr3esent and ancestral trait, considering that all the other evidence we have indicates that these people came from tropical regions.The comment in your postscript is baffling.

  57. Epistaxis says:

    The comment in your postscript is baffling.

    Okay, let me try again: You say “lactose intolerance” is a racial slur. Please propose a less offensive synonym.

  58. Dann says:

    I’ve read, I think it was in a book by Richard Fortey, that some Chinese group, or maybe Chinese people in general find the idea of cheese disgusting. He quotes something like “eeew… putrid milk!”

  59. Dann says:

    Greg Laden said:

    David: Also, the one ethnic group that is 100% able to produce lactase in adulthood is a group of very dark skinned people living in the middle of Africa.

    Wouldn’t that be a good argument on why LI is not “racist”?But I see your point, though. A better example was sometime ago in the article about the ASPM (or maybe microcephalin) gene on wikipedia. It phrased the non-sub-saharan version as the “normal variant”, implying that the sub-saharan version was “abnormal”.

  60. Graculus says:

    It is the fact that LI is technically a genetic disorder. A disease.How so?

  61. Greg Laden says:

    Graculus:… it is not, it is simply the normal course of things. LT is the genetic oddity, but we will never ever call it a disease.

  62. shashank says:

    Here is a link to more information about the genetics of Lactose Intolerance/Lactase Persistence that was prepared by our genetic counselor and which has links to some useful resource for those dealing with this condition: http://www.accessdna.com/condition/Lactose_Intolerance/Lactase_Persistence/407. There is also a number listed for anyone who wants to speak to a genetic counselor by phone. I hope it helps. Thanks, AccessDNA

  63. Clint Maddison says:

    Lactose is the main carbohydrate or sugar found in milk, and in varying quantities in dairy products made from milk including yoghurt, ice cream, soft cheeses and butter. Lactose (milk sugar) intolerance results from an inability to digest lactose in the small intestine.Back in the cave-days, the only time a person would ever ingest lactose would be when they were infants getting milk from their mothers. During their adult lives milk was never consumed. Only with the invention of agriculture has milk become readily available to adults. Lactose is unique in that only in milk does it exist as a free form, unattached to other molecules…^.*

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  64. Kelley Wigand says:

    Food industry applications, both of pure lactose and lactose-containing dairy by-products, have markedly increased since the 1960s. For example, its bland flavor has lent to its use as a carrier and stabiliser of aromas and pharmaceutical products. Lactose is not added directly to many foods, because it is not sweet and its solubility is less than other sugars commonly used in food. Infant formula is a notable exception, where the addition of lactose is necessary to match the composition of human milk.*’…

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  65. Isis Ferer says:

    Lactose intolerant individuals have insufficient levels of lactase, an enzyme that catalyzes hydrolysis of lactose into glucose and galactose, in their digestive system. In most cases this causes symptoms which may include abdominal bloating and cramps, flatulence, diarrhea, nausea, borborygmi (rumbling stomach), or vomiting after consuming significant amounts of lactose.*^;;

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