Lactose tolerance is actually a product of diversity and migration

By Mark Hay
Updated February 13, 2018
EC: A Scientist Explains Why Alt-Right Milk Chugging Is Idiotic
Credit: Photo by NBC via Getty Images

How did milk become the latest symbol for the alt-right? Last month, internet rapper Paperboy Prince got into a bizarre discussion with 4chan user /pol/blart on “He Will Not Divide Us,” a year-long livestream set up outside the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, by Shia LeBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Luke Turner. Everything about that sentence is odd. But their chat was odder: It concerned the racial politics of drinking milk. Paperboy argued that some people he’d seen chugging milk on the stream earlier were acting on a hateful meme in a show of intolerance. He was referencing a 4chan thread in which someone posted a Nature article from 2013 about the origins of lactose tolerance, a trait found in about 35 percent of humans allowing them to consume large amounts of dairy without getting brutally ill. The article examined the origins of lactose tolerance in Europe, where it is fairly common, sparking comments about how drinking milk was a sign of white genetic fortitude and identity.

/pol/blart claimed he wasn’t familiar with that. But soon he and other half-nude white dudes mobbed the stream, chugging milk and letting it dribble down their bodies and rubbing against each other. It was one of the last straws that led the Museum to shutter the project—and it gained enough public attention that a few days ago Jack Smith IV of Mic published an article claiming milk was the “new, creamy symbol of white racial purity.

Commentators claim these trolls were just trolling. They say the 4chan posts about milk were obvious jokes, and that no one would associate milk with white power. Instead these milky bros were (honestly probably) trying to rib Paperboy’s perceived liberal snowflake frailty. But shitposters, in the service of their own provocative politics-as-personal amusement, often ignore how aping hate as a semi-ironic statement easily bleeds into real hate. So now we’re stuck in a world where blatant bigots like the self-proclaimed white nationalist (i.e. advocate of a white, fascist American ethno-state) and alt-right leader Richard Spencer are using milk emojis and phrases like “I’m very tolerant … lactose tolerant!” as symbols of their actual anti-semitic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist agendas.

They might claim they’re mocking liberal frailty too, but now the racial connotations and origins of the meme, joking or not, are mixed right into the once wholesome beverage. So it seemed like it was time to reach out to one of the authors of the study that tipped all of this off on 4chan, the University College of London evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas. First and foremost, Thomas says, the mutation is not just European. In fact, drinking milk could just as easily be read as a symbol of support for human diversity, or even black history and culture. While his project, LeCHE, sought to trace the tiny mutation that enabled European adults to consume lactose, the mutation is not just European. “It’s evolved [independently] multiple times in different places,” Thomas says. “Once almost certainly in Arabia, at least two or three times in East Africa, and almost certainly somewhere in Europe.”

Research on the East African evolutions, which developed a bit later than the European mutation (that one emerged around 7,500 years ago in Hungary, these developed between 3,000 and 7,000 years ago) seems to indicate the mutation tracks with a long history of cattle domestication. That skill was itself developed independently at least three times, in East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, where there’s also a pocket of lactose tolerance but no proven distinct mutation.

And because lactose tolerance is less than common in southern Europe, Thomas adds that, “if [alt-righters] decide that the entry biology for their new racial order is lactose resistance, they’ll be admitting as many black people as white people, and they’ll be keeping out as many white people as black people… Its distribution doesn’t conform to any traditional racial categories.”

Thomas’s research also indicates that while one lactose resistance mutation developed in Europe, it was probably in a population that came from the Middle East originally. Archaeological and genetic evidence suggest Mesopotamian farmer-herders brought their techniques, and probably their culture as well, to Europe hundreds-to-thousands of years before the European mutations. It’s all part of the ever-churning human migration and cultural fluidity that makes it so hard to pin down the “racial origins” or connotations of any food, even in far more recent history.

“There are many Africans who carry the [genetic] variant that is more common in Europe” thanks to that long, historic migration, Thomas says. “The Fulani, for instance, or the Tuareg.” Thomas does note his research indicates that lactose tolerance gave the Europeans who developed it a massive evolutionary leg up. “It’s the most advantageous single gene trait that’s evolved in Europeans in the last 10,000 years,” he says. But there’s a caveat—one study indicates that the resistance mutations in Africa may have given them an even greater evolutionary boost.

Lactose tolerance is, scientifically speaking, more a product of diversity, independent cultural ingenuity, and the natural and beneficial nature of migration than of any white ethnic identity. (When I told Sarah Tishkoff, one of the geneticists who studied the East African development of lactose tolerance, about the livestream debacle she told me to let the alt-right know “how great it is that they are showing unity with Africans.”) Breaking down the science of the ability to enjoy a glass of milk also helps to deconstruct any scientific basis for white identity and nationalism.

“Racial categories themselves are not really scientifically valid,” Thomas says. “You only have to go back 2,500 or 3,000 years before you can find somebody who’s a common ancestor of everybody alive today. We’re all carrying ancestries from different parts of the world.”

“Fantasizing about ancestral groups and trying to fit them to national identities,” he adds, “... genetics and population history, it doesn’t really conform to any of those fantasy stories.”

None of this is likely to register for most alt-righters. Their aim is often to consternate liberals; they can be self-consciously flippant about sourcing and details. (Thomas says that’s obvious because one of the figures posted on 4chan, which he says looks doctored to him, was clearly produced by an Israeli PhD student of his—part of the “Jewish conspiracy” many far right jokesters or actual believers rail against.) But for the rest of the world, it just goes to show that milk is in reality as symbolically flexible and beneficial as it is as a part of any daily breakfast.