Productive Dialogue or Dangerous Advocacy?Rachel Dvoskin
A group of anthropologists are outraged that the Leakey Foundation, which is the number one funder in the US of human origins research, invited New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade to speak as part of the foundation’s annual lecture series. One of them, Jonathan Marks of UNC at Charlotte, wrote a letter to the foundation decrying Wade’s use of what Marks described as weak and controversial evidence to support genetic determinist arguments and to promote the biologization of culture. ...
“Somebody needs to get fired over it,” says Marks, who is an outspoken opponent of viewpoints he regards as anti-science or anti-intellectual. “Somehow [the process by which Wade was selected] needs to be made more transparent because it has given the field of anthropology a black eye.”
The members of the Anthropology Advisory Committee of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), who wrote a similar letter last year to the New York Times in response to an article by Wade, are equally incensed. While granting that Wade—who has also been a reporter at Nature and Science, but is not himself a scientist—has a right to his opinions, these academics contend that by allowing him to speak at a Leakey-sponsored event, the foundation is legitimizing his views as normative in anthropology.
... In January 2007, when Marks emailed a letter to the foundation questioning their choice of Wade as a speaker, Wade was already scheduled to give two talks. Leakey President Wirthlin did not discuss the letter with anyone at that time; his understanding, he says, is that the staff determines how any potential policy issues should be handled.
... Marks and his colleagues at NYAS remain baffled by the Leakey Foundation’s decision to have Wade speak. “There’s a widespread discomfort with the way he expresses the insights that molecular biologists might have about human behavior,” explains U of Hawai’i geneticist Rebecca Cann.
Wade’s critics object to his assertions that certain population-specific characteristics—the supposed violent nature of hunter-gathers such as the Yanomami and superior intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, for example—may have been shaped over a relatively short period of time (in evolutionary terms) by natural selection and that, in effect, people of different nationalities or “races” may be born with different human natures.
His critics allege that among other errors and assumptions, Wade conflates race, ancestry and genetic variation, and that he mistakenly extrapolates from individual traits to group characteristics.
“Almost no geneticists use the term race,” concedes Wade. “In large part, that’s for good reason.… As a journalist, however, I feel that I should use words that people are familiar with. So if geneticists are in fact talking about what general readers think of as race, than that’s the phrase that we should use.”
Many argue that Wade reports on problematic hypotheses—such as the suggestion by anthropologist Henry C Harpending (U Utah) that Ashkenazi Jews were selected for superior intelligence because of the cognitive demands of their positions as moneylenders—without conveying to his audience the controversial nature of the arguments or giving sufficient weight to opposing points of view. Wade contests that in his book he explains quite clearly the assumptions that went into that particular hypothesis. “I can’t think of any caution I omitted from the discussion.”
A few researchers praise Wade for refusing to shy away from touchy issues in the name of what they believe to be merely political correctness. E O Wilson, whose praise appears on the cover of Wade’s new book, commented in an email on Wade’s well-informed and objective journalism. “I’m not surprised that there are still ideologues who find information on human genetics ‘dangerous’ to their ideas,” Wilson says, “but Mr Wade is not a justifiable target for their anxieties.”
So, Edward O. Wilson is for Wade and Jonathan Marks is agin him. Not a bad tradeoff from Wade's perspective.
However, many cultural and biological anthropologists warn that, when considered uncritically, Wade’s gene-centric explanations and sweeping generalizations, filtered through what some view as his Western-oriented value judgments, could be used to support eugenics and social Darwinist agendas.
“Nobody denies the fact that biology is the basis upon which the potential for human behavior takes place,” acknowledges NYU anthropologist Maria-Luisa Achino-Loeb, who co-wrote a letter in response to Wade’s New York Times reporting with fellow NYAS Anthropology Chair William P Mitchell. Yet Wade’s genetic explanations for population-wide differences in human behavior are anathema to Boasian anthropology.
This book is excellent introduction to the thorny topic of human biodiversity. The book's real strength lies in the fact that Marks brings in historical material which illuminates the ideological underpinnings of work on human diversity. Dr. Marks, at the time this book was written was a visiting professor at UC/Berkeley. He had studied anthropology at the University of Arizona and genetics at UC/Davis. According to a note on the copyright page he is known for his work in molecular anthropology.
The book's 14 chapters take an extremely broad view of human diversity, both cultural and biological, and of the attempts to understand and explain that diversity. The book covers the history of anthropology's attempts to understand human biodiversity, the evolution of primates, the eugenics movement, a critique of the biological race concept, patterns of human variation - both phenotypic and genotypic, the nature and function of human variation, the role of human variation in health and disease and a critique of hereditarian theory. An appendix discusses DNA structure and function. The chapters are generally well written and referenced. The book is written for an academic audience or at least a reader with a strong foundation in biology.
I found the critique of the biological race concept to be the most lucid and well thought out one that I have ever read. Marks points out that a division of humans into three or four primordial races seems to ignore the long history of human intermingling. Either there has always been intermingling among humans - in which case the very concept of biologically separated races is wrong from the start - or intermingling is a more recent phenomenon in which case race may have been relevant in the past but no longer is. Marks points out that the three major races identified in the US - White, Black and Asian - correspond to the three major immigrant groups in US history - from Europe, Western Africa and Eastern Asia. [I note that he did not discuss Native Americans.] There is an excellent discussion of the history of race thinking as it was applied to the ABO blood groups. This makes palpable the argument that within-race diversity is much greater than between-race diversity. Marks devotes a fair amount of time to discussing how cultural values impact on scientific work. This is illustrated by numerous examples, many drawn from a critique of the eugenics movement.
Now, the key point about debating "Does Race Exist" is that it's essentially a semantic dispute. If you can find the dumbest definition anybody ever came up with—something like "racial groups are virtually separate species that almost never interbreed"—then, under that strawman definition, "race" would definitely not exist.
Conversely, of course, if you rigorously define "race" to mean something that actually does exist on Earth, then, by definition, race exists.
It's not hard to find ridiculous definitions of race to prove wrong, since lots of dumb stuff has been said about race over the years, even by scientists.
Although in the last few decades there has been some good thinking about what race is not, there have been very few attempts to come up with a new understanding of what race is … because it has become dangerous to scientists' and intellectuals' careers.
I got interested in coming up with a rigorous definition of race a few years ago when I saw that all we had to choose from were
- the obsolete definitions that largely failed to incorporate sophisticated sociobiological perspectives or
Early 19th Century credulity and late 20th Century postmodernism aren't adequate. We need a working definition for the 21st Century.
- the hip nihilism of the Race Does Not Exist crowd.
Obviously, there's something that our lying eyes see. But what exactly is it?
Up until the 1960's, physical anthropologists tended to conceive of racial classifications as fitting neatly into a taxonomy of the kind invented by the great 18th Century naturalist Carolus Linnaeaus. The top-down Linnaean system describes how the God of Genesis might have gone about efficiently organizing the Creation. It subdivides living things into genuses and then into species, subspecies, races, and presumably into sub-races and so on.
Linnaean taxonomy is still hugely useful. It even works fairly well for humans: see the July 30, 2002 New York Times article, "Race Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease" for how Stanford geneticist Neil Risch's crude model of dividing the world up into five continental-scale races for medical purposes can help save lives.
But naturalists now understood, however, that the Linnaean mindset always imposed a little too much order on the messiness of evolution. All of these Linnaean terms, like genus and subspecies, are not absolute but relative designations. Thus, they tend to be unavoidably arbitrary. Paleontologists are always bickering over whether some new hominid skull dug up in Africa is different enough to deserve its own genus or whether it is just a lousy new subspecies.
Even "species" is less written-in-stone than it sounds. Witness the constant debate over whether dogs, wolves, and coyotes are three species or one.
Enforcement of the Endangered Species Act is constantly being bogged down in disputes over whether a particular brand of bug or weed is a separate species. Billions of dollars of Southern California property development has been hung up for years over whether the rare California gnatcatcher bird is a different species than the abundant Baja gnatcatcher. The only difference is that the California gnatcatcher tends to a somewhat different color than the Baja gnatcatcher.
(This is also true of humans, of course, but that doesn't make them different species!)
None of this is to say that the concept of species should be discarded; just that, like races, species tend to be fuzzy sets, too.
Race is all relative, in two senses.
First, it's all about who your relatives are.
A modern Darwinian approach to race would start from the bottom up, with the father, mother, and baby. All mammals belong to biological extended families, with a family tree that features all the same kinds of biological relatives as you or I have—grandfathers, nieces, or third cousins and so forth. And everybody belongs to multiple extended families—your mom's, your dad's, etc.
Which leads to my modern definition of race:
A racial group is an extended family that is inbred to some degree.
That's it—just an "extended family that is somewhat inbred." There's no need to say how big the extended family has to be, or just how inbred.
We know that humans have not been mating completely randomly with other humans from all over the globe. Most people, over the last few tens of thousands of years, just couldn't afford the airfare.
If you go back to 1000 AD, you would theoretically have a trillion ancestors alive at that time—that's how many slots you have in your family tree 40 generations ago. Obviously, your family tree has to be a little bit inbred. That far back, you'd probably find an individual or two from most parts of the world among your ancestors.
But, in anybody's family tree, certain statistical patterns will stand out. Just ask somebody, "What are you?" and they'll tell you about some of the larger clusters in their family tree, such as, "Oh, I'm Irish, Italian, and Cherokee."
So, my definition is close to a tautology. But then so is "survival of the fittest."
And that proved to have a bit of predictive power.
This is a scaleable solution. Do you want to know a lot about a few people?
Then, the more inbred, the more distinct the racial group. Or, do you want to know a little about a lot of people? The less inbred, the larger the group.
For example, Icelanders are a lot more inbred and thus a lot more distinct than, say, Europeans, who are, though, much more numerous. Which one is the "true race?"
It's a useless question. They are both racial groups. For some questions, "Icelander" is the more useful group to focus upon. For others "European" is the more effective.
Of course, the bottom-up model accounts for everything seen in top-down approaches. Average hereditary differences are—as one might expect—inherited. The bottom-up approach simply eliminates any compulsion to draw arbitrary lines regarding whether a difference is big enough to be racial.
With enough inbreeding, hereditary differences will emerge that will first be recognizable to the geneticist, then to the physical anthropologist, and finally to the average person.
Similarly, two separate racial groups can slowly merge into one if barriers to intermarriage come down.
I'm more interested in the reality that there are partly inbred extended families than in what it's called. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a better word than "race."
Various euphemisms have been tried without much success. For example, the geneticists, such as the distinguished Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford, who study what the normal person would call "race," don't call themselves "racial geneticists." Instead, they blandly label themselves "population geneticists."
That allows them at least sometimes to sneak their research projects by under the radar of the politically correct. But it's important to realize that they are not using "population" in the non-racial sense of phrases like "California's population" or "UCLA's student population," but in the specific sense of "hereditary populations" such as the Japanese or the Icelanders or the Navajo.
Among all the different kinds of "populations," the only ones population geneticists study are the ones whose members tend to share genes because they tend to share genealogies.
That's what I'd call a "racial group." But, if you don't like the word "race," well, maybe we should just hire one of those firms that invent snazzy new names like "Exxon" for unfashionable old corporations like Standard Oil, and then hire an ad agency to publicize this new name for "race."
Unfortunately, I'm a little tapped out until the end of the month. But if you have a spare fifty million dollars, that might cover it.
The second sense in which Race is all relative: it's pointless to make absolute statements about the significance or insignificance of race. You always have to ask, "Compared to what?"
For instance, I am constantly informed that genetic differences between racial groups are absolutely insignificant because 99.9% of human genes are shared among all people. Yet we share over 98% of our genes with chimpanzees (and, supposedly, 70% with yeast). Does that mean genetic differences between humans and chimps (or yeast) are insignificant?
You have to look at it relatively. If you were planning to climb Mt. Everest and somebody were to say, "The difference between Mt. Everest and sea level is insignificant, it's just a 0.15% difference in the distance from the center of the Earth," you'd roll your eyes. But, when somebody says the same thing about genetics, it's treated as a profundity.
Similarly, we are constantly told, "there are more genetic differences within races than between races." This is, in general, true. But it hardly means that the differences between races therefore don't exist.