Skip to comments.The Biological Case Against Race
Posted on 06/04/2002 5:24:31 PM PDT by cornelis
. American Outlook
In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin outlined the basic reasoning that still stands today concerning the races of mankind. Darwin pointed out that if we used the techniques that naturalists used to identify race in nonhuman species, we would conclude that there really were no races in anatomically modern humans. Over one hundred and forty years of research have demonstrated that Darwins reasoning was correct. . .
In my recent book, The Emperors New Clothes, I demonstrate that our social construction of race was contingent upon the assumption that significant biological variation between groups of human beings existed that could be used to identify and classify these same races. Scientists now know that this was a false proposition, both at the level of the physical features and of the genes that produce them. Yet most Americans still believe that there is some biological legitimacy to our socially constructed racial categories. However, our modern scientific understanding of human genetic diversity flies in the face of all of our social stereotypes.
Many of our present political and social problems are rooted in racial misconceptions. The tragedy of this is that virtually none of the people directly involved in addressing our political and social disparities fully comprehend how our racial confusion influences how we deal with the consequences of injustice. Racist ideology has always relied on the mistaken assumption that significant biologically based differences exist between various groups of humans. In particular, racist ideology has always assumed that social inequality resulted from the biological inequality of races. Thus they saw racial differences as determining an individuals morality, character, intelligence, athleticism, and sexuality, among other features. They also thought that these features were immutable and passed directly on to offspring. Seen in this way, society would never change, and injustice could never be eliminated from it, because nature itself had created fundamental genetic differences between the races. Most nineteenth-century Americans never doubted that both God and science declared the existence of race, and that there was a hierarchical relation among the races. According to this thinking, the European stood at the pinnacle of perfection, and all other races were to be measured against him. For this reason, they thought it legitimate to declare the African slave as chattel and to deprive the American Indians of their sovereignty.
We have come a long way since then. However, our change in thinking did not happen without tremendous struggle; the ideological battle against racism has now been fought across three centuries. Meanwhile, people continue to suffer and die as a consequence of racist policies. Still today the root cause of racism remains entrenched in the American consciousness. Many of us still believe that there are innate racial differences among people, reflected in their character and habits.
The core ideological principle that maintains racism is the mistaken belief that biological races really exist in the human species and that individual aspects of character and morality can be identified by ones racial ancestry. Ironically, race theory is a consequence of relatively modern historical developments. We do not find clearly articulated theories of racial hierarchy in the writings of the ancients. They recognized that human beings had some physical differences from one another and that they had formed different cultures, but they did not believe that any specific race of people was inherently better than any other. Even Western civilization did not immediately develop substantial ideological support for theories of race classification and racially based variation in character and temperament. Anthropologists in the eighteenth century did not uniformly agree on the superiority of Europeans; Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, considered the founder of anthropology, did not accept the idea that races could be hierarchically classified. Yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, schemes of racial hierarchy would become entrenched. The rise of racial ideology coincided with the rise of Darwinism (specifically, a misunderstanding of how Darwins observations applied to humans) and the development of social institutions that exploited human biological differences for profit. This meant that a persons West African ancestry could be used as the sole reason to reduce him to chattel slavery, and that a groups American Indian ancestry in itself provided sufficient reason for the partial extermination of their population and seizure of their land.
Development of Biology and Race Theory
Pre-Darwinian biology utilized the great chain of being and ranked man higher than all other earthly life forms. This scheme suggested that the supernatural creator was responsible for the hierarchy of life, including the varieties of human beings. Naturalists of this period sought to find objective measurements to validate their beliefs, and turned to activities such as the measuring of skull volumes and other metrics. Not surprisingly, their studies supported the notion of European superiority. Yet to fully understand what modern biologists mean when they talk about race requires reference to evolutionary theory.
Without realizing it, Charles Darwin solved the problem of race when he asked how new species arose in nature. The origin of species was the most important scientific problem of the mid-nineteenth century, equivalent to what the discovery of the structure of DNA or the publication of the human genome was for us in 2001. However, to understand the origin of species, one also had to understand the significance of biological varieties or races, which result from genetic adaptation to local conditions and from chance events in the history of a given species that might radically change its genetic composition. Darwin recognized that the formation of biological varieties or races was essential to the formation of new species. His genius was in appreciating the significance of biological variation within species and the relationship of this variation to how new species were formed. He identified natural selection as the chief mechanism responsible for the adaptation of species to their environments. He thought that natural selection would eventually create varieties sufficiently different in their features so that they would become new species.
After the publication of The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin was forced to address the nature of human races. The anthropological debates of the latter portion of the nineteenth century had still not yet clarified whether there was one species of modern humans, or whether the races should be considered separate species. In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin outlined the basic reasoning that still stands today concerning the races of mankind. Darwin pointed out that if we used the techniques that naturalists used to identify race in nonhuman species, we would conclude that there really were no races in anatomically modern humans. Over one hundred and forty years of research have demonstrated that Darwins reasoning was correct.
Today the concept of geographical race is a cornerstone of evolutionary theory. Geographical races or subspecies have significant amounts of gene frequency differences form other such groups (usually on the order of about 20 percent). These differences result from natural selection for localized conditions, unique population history events (such as random fluctuations in population size), and a secession of gene flow with other populations within the species. Geographical races are thus thought to be intermediate steps along the way to the formation of new species. It is because this concept has been so thoroughly investigated that we can say with so much certainty that no biological races exist in modern humans.
Basic Definitions of Race
If humans had biological races, there should be some non-trivial underlying hereditary features shared by a group of people and not present in other groups, or possibly average differences that could be made sense of in some statistical way. Biology has developed relatively precise tools with which to examine whether the hereditary characteristics of populations can be classified into geographical races. It is here that the Western socially defined concept of race and the biological concept of race diverge. When one attempts to examine any of the physical features that have been used to define human races in our history, the concept breaks down. Skin color, hair type, body stature, blood groups, disease prevalence: none of these unambiguously corresponds to the racial groups that we have socially constructed. Thus, the common person distinguishes what he or she perceives to be racial categories by observable physical traits. These physical traits do vary among geographical populations, although not in the ways most people believe. For example, Sri Lankans of the Indian subcontinent, Nigerians, and Australoids share a dark skin tone, but differ in hair type and genetic predisposition to various diseases. Further difficulty results from the fact that people commonly link directly observable physical variations with less directly observable variation in such attributes as intelligence, motivation, and morality.
Modern biology defines geographical races as equivalent to subspecies. Subspecies are units that are intermediate to legitimate species. The biological species concept relies on whether individuals in such groups cannot mate and form fertile offspring. Horses and donkeys are considered legitimate species; if they are mated, mules result, but these are sterile. Also, gorilla and chimpanzees are separate species; yet within gorillas, mountain and forest gorillas might be considered subspecies, or geographical races of gorillas. No such level of genetic variation exists within anatomically modern humans. There is more genetic variation within one tribe of wild chimpanzees than has been observed within all existing humans! (See P. Gagneux, C. Willis, and U. Gerloff, Mitochondrial Sequences Show Evolutionary Sequences of African Hominids, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 96 : 5077-5082.)
Genes, Human Variation, and Race
Only a fraction of the genetic information contained in the human genome has ever had anything to do with creating geographic variation associated with what has been historically called race. The DNA molecule in organisms like humans is associated with a group of proteins called histones. Together these make up a structure called the chromosome. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, with one set inherited from the mother and the other from the father. Along the DNA chain we can identify specific points, called loci, that are responsible for providing the instructions for a given trait, such as eye color. Some loci, called monomorphic (or one form) loci, control traits that are so crucial for the organism's function that no alteration of the genetic code is allowed. Loci that can allow genetic variation, usually because their functions are not as constrained as monomorphic loci, are called polymorphic (many forms). Polymorphic loci are defined by the presence of at least one rare variant, called an allele, that can be found at a frequency greater than 1 percent. A good example of a polymorphic locus i the A, B, and O blood group antigens. Polymorphisms occur when natural selection against any particular allele is weak, thus allowing all of them to persist in populations at different frequences. We might find that a given allele is better under one set of conditions, yet others are favored if we change the conditions. For example, alleles that produce darker skin are slightly favored in the tropics, as opposed to alleles that produce lighter skin in the temperate zones. The dark skin in the tropics might give better protection against ultraviolet light (UV) damage in the skin, or against skin parasites, while lighter skin in temperate zones might help with the synthesis of vitamin D (a hormone). In such a case, as the intensity of sunlight changes, we would expect to find a continuous change in the frequency of the alleles associated with changes in skin color. That is precisely what we find when we examine alleles for vitamin D binding proteins from the tropics to the northern latitudes. However, the whole story of skin pigmentation isnt as simple as that. Human pigmentation is genetically complex, and we can only say with certainty that variation at only one locus, the melanocrotin-1 receptor (MC1-R), can be definitely associated with physiological variation in hair and skin color. The authors of a recent study sequenced that gene from one hundred twenty-one individuals from different geographical regions. DNA has four nitrogenous chemical bases called nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). These bases are aligned in various orders and constitute the chemical message of the DNA molecule that directs the synthesis of messenger RNA, and eventually the protein. Gene sequencing is the process by which geneticists determine the nucleotide structure of the DNA within a specific region of the molecule. The different nucleotide sequences are the molecular basis for what we call alleles. The authors found that there were five alleles for the MC1-R gene. The original protein sequence was observed in all of the African individuals studied, but it was also found in the other world populations at lower frequences (See B. K. Rana et al., High Polymorphism at the Human Melanocortin 1 Receptor Locus, Genetics 151, no. 4 [April 1999]: 1547-57). We also know that skin color in sub-Saharan African populations is more variable than that found in any other of the worlds populations. This is also true of total genetic diversity and physical variables such as skull types ( see J. H. Relethford, human Skin Color Diversity is Highest in Sub-Saharan African Populations, Human Biology 72, no. 5 [October 2000]: 773-80).
These observations alone shed doubt on whether we can truly divide the human species into discrete racial groups.
Genetic Variation Within and Between Races
There are statistical ways to summarize the similarity between human populations with regard to overall allele frequency. For example at the histocompatibility antigen A(HLA-A) locus, African-, Asian-, and European-Americans are quite similar in their allele frequencies. The HLA loci are responsible for tissue recognition and play an important role in warding off disease. We can further investigate the frequencies of alleles at other loci, and we can also statistically determine what the genetic distances are between socially constructed racial groups. This has been accomplished for modern human beings, and we have learned that there is about 8.5 times more genetic variation within the classically defined racial groups as there is between them. Another way of stating this is that 85 percent of the genetic variation within modern humans occurs at the individual level, 5 percent occurs between populations found on the same continent, and 10 percent occurs between continents. This general rule can be violated in groups that were originally generated from small groups that were themselves genetically uniform, or for cultural reasons maintained marriages amongst themselves. However, this special case does not invalidate the general principle that the majority of genetic variation in human occurs between individuals, without regard to membership in a socially constructed race.
A particularly illustrative example of the fallacy of the race concept occurs when we compare socially defined human races to populations in other species that have been defined by biologists as geographical races or subspecies. The standard figure for identifying the existence of geographic races is usually about 20 percent total genetic distance between populations at polymorphic loci. This has been observed in various drosophila (fruit flies) species, but we dont see anywhere near that much geographical variation in modern humans. The estimates we have of the amount of variation between human populations varies between 3 and 7 percent at the polymorphic loci (see my book , The Emperors New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium [Rutgers University Press, 2001], 204). Again, because polymorphic loci only represent about 33 percent of the human genome, the total amount of genetic distance we observe in humans is between (0.03 x .33 = 0.0099) and (0.07 x 0.33 = 0.023). This value is ten times below the 0.20 (20 percent) figure. It is apparent that different standards of biological reasoning would have to be used to make the argument for the existence of enough genetic distance in modern humans to support the existence of biological races.
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Practical Implications of the Race Fallacy
In my recent book, The Emperors New Clothes, I demonstrate that our social construction of race was contingent upon the assumption that significant biological variation between groups of human beings existed that could be used to identify and classify these same races. Scientists now know that this was a false proposition, both at the level of the physical features and of the genes that produce them. Yet most Americans still believe that there is some biological legitimacy to our socially constructed racial categories. However, our modern scientific understanding of human genetic diversity flies in the face of all of our social stereotypes. Thus, if we cannot apportion humans into the socially constructed groups of American society, how can there be a genetic basis to the physical and behavioral features that have been ascribed to these mythological groups? In reality, the differences between groups we have been describing as resulting form biological race are really the result of cultural evolution. The rules that govern cultural evolution are dictated by the views of the eighteenth-century biologist Jean Baptist Lamarck, not those of Darwin. That is, cultural evolution occurs by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and cultures change far more rapidly than genetic material. Thus, the social construction of race was a feature of our recent cultural evolution. Our reliance on racial thinking can just as easily be deconstructed.
To begin the deconstruction of racism, we must ask ourselves what role racist ideology plays in modern society. First, it provides a moral justification for maintaining a society that routinely deprives various groups of its rights and privileges. Racist beliefs discourage subordinate people from attempting to question their lowly status; to do so is to question the very foundations of the society. In addition, racism focuses social uncertainty on a specific threat, thus justifying existing practices and serving as a rallying point for social movements. Finally, racist myths encourage support for the existing order. Thus it is argued that if there were any major societal change, the subordinate group would suffer even greater poverty and the dominant group would suffer lower living standards. History demonstrates that racial ideology increases when a value system is under attack.
Joseph L. Graves Jr. professor of evolutionary biology at Arizona State University West, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the author of The Emperors New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2001).
Those same twin studies "prove" a genetic link to homosexuality. I question the twin studies that indicate such things, because the famous ones are based on severely flawed models.
Average IQ level of blacks is 15 points lower than whites.
The Stanford-Binet test does presuppose some cultural knowledge. Once you correct for socioeconomic factors, that 15-point gap vanishes to within the MOE.
Average testosterone levels are 10-20% higher in college-age black males than whites.
What was the sample pool for this study? How many blacks versus whites in college are "juicing up" with steroids to compete in sports?
IQ and testosterone levels are key ingredients in behavior among young males.
True enough. However, what factors outside of genetics influence these ingredients?
I wonder how athletic the Masai are rated...their manhood ritual consists of hunting a lion with a spear. Now THAT is sport!
Funny Place!! Where's that sign? "We Hire the Handicapped!"??
Ok - first of all he presents some analysis of statistics that show that the DNA diversity between human races is less than that what biologists use to define races or subspecies. Fine, by that definition, humanity is one race. By that definition, fine -- so what?
From this he determines that the assumption that there is significant biological variation amongst groups of humans is false, and that racial categories are socially constructed. Baloney. One example that comes to mind is the difference between East and West African runners. One strong in the sprints, the other in long distances. Or I look at the big men in the NBA - a higher percentage of blacks than in the general population, even though I am one of thousands of white men who would have given our eye tooth to be there, but I'm too short and suffer from white man's disease: white men can't jump.
He goes on to deduce that it's just recent history and racial myth. And he equates thinking to the contrary with racial supremists, such as those who might think that Europeans stand at the pinnacle of perfection, using such thinking to make it legitimate to declare the African slave as chattel. Well, since no person would admit in this day and age to such racist thinking, the contrary position must be right -- that there are no statistically significant biological differences as a group. Baloney. There are clearly such differences, just not large enough to pass the threshold for a separate subspecies.
One way I like to put the point is thus. Say I task you with forming a winning basketball team, and I say you have a choice of two players, one black and one white. I refuse to tell you anything else about these two. In such a case, your best bet would be to pick the black player. Now it might turn out that the black player was Colin Powell, and the white player was Larry Bird. In which case you made the wrong choice, for lack of sufficient information. But given what information you had, you did the right thing.
From all these false arguments, he goes on to determine that racism can be easily deconstructed -- it's just a social disease. But he has changed the topic here entirely.
Racism is unfairly prejudging someone on basis of their race. Any competent basketball team wouldn't ask who's black and pick them, sight unseen. They would find out how well they had played, and how well they could play now. And Larry Bird would beat Colin Powell for such a position everytime, as easily as Tiger Woods would beat me at golf, or I would beat Tiger at computer programming.
However he is not taking racism as this, but rather taking it as any making of statistically significant differences between the human races, which he is saying is just a social confusion which we can easily deconstruct.
I'm not sure where he is going with these confusions, but they can't possibly serve us well.
I think the 15-point gap is pretty consistent over all the common IQ tests.
Animosity demonstrated here against this simple observation is very irrational.
What's y'all's problem?
I reckon they's not likin' it.
OK. So a rose is a rose by any other name. Darwin, what a genius.
As I have stated before: if you take, A Pygmy and an Eskimo, and add, walk into a bar you got the beginnings of a pretty good joke.
The punch line is Evolution
Yet not raced based.
It is based on proximity to malarial areas. Thus there are Asian populations prone to it and African populations not.
Just because two groups overlap doesn't mean that they don't have statistically significant differences. You present a paper tiger, to what purpose I know not, but not to one I trust.