Wearing a Flak Jacket in Discussing “Race”

I want to thank Kambiz for the kind introduction. For those of you not familiar with my name, I had a previous book that addressed issues of interest to the anthropology community: Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It (Public Affairs, 2000). It was generally received well, with good reviews in The New York Times, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and Scientific American, among others, but it certainly came in for fire from cultural anthropologists. I committed the biggest atrocity known to modern cultural anthropologists and post-modernists: finding genetic legitimacy in the folk concept of “race.”

The research into “race” has evolved significantly in seven years with sophisticated haplotype, such as one by studies by Neil Risch and Esteban Burchard. Humanity is in the early stages of a biotechnological revolution that is transforming our understanding of the nature of human nature––the commonalities that bind us, but also the differences that confer uniqueness in individuals and often distinguish one group from another. We are far from understanding either the genetic makeup or the origins of complex traits, from behavior to intelligence. Because of the blur of culture and the environment, we may never be able to do so completely. But we are getting closer, and this is not just fanciful speculation.

Our collective challenge is what we do with these nuanced notions of race and racial stereotypes. Armand Marie Leroi, the respected evolutionary developmental biologist at Imperial College in London has written:

“Race is merely a shorthand to enable us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences. But it is shorthand that seems to be needed. One of the more painful spectacles of modern science is that of human geneticists piously disavowing the existence of races even as they investigate the genetic relationships between ‘ethnic groups’.”

I’d appreciate some feedback from readers of this site.

8 thoughts on “Wearing a Flak Jacket in Discussing “Race”

  1. I congratulate you on your bravery in attempting to deal rationally with a subject that is so politically charged. I certainly won’t accuse you of racism. And you have every right to raise the issues you have raised. But I do believe that you are wrong — and for several different reasons.

    First, as I’ve tried in vain to convince Armand Leroi, with whom I’ve communicated on this issue in the past, there is a huge difference between the study of human morphology (aka phenotypes), a perfectly legimate scientific topic, and the revival of what Leroi so innocently calls “racial science.” To confuse the two is roughly the same as confusing alchemy with chemistry — or numerology with mathematics. Racial “science” is the alchemy or numerology of genetics. It is an outdated concept that cannot be scientifically maintained, and has been replaced by modern genetic science, which, by the way, includes the study of phenotypes as well as genotypes.

    Race is indeed a social construct — and believe me when I say that I am NOT a fan of either postmodernism or political correctness. As a social construct, race must be taken very seriously, as it plays an important role in the world we live in today. We can neither ignore nor deny it. But it is NOT science.

    Here is why: anyone with a certain degree of dark pigmentation in his or her skin is currently characterized as “black,” i.e., of the negro race. But a great many people in the USA with such pigmentation are, genetically, of primarily European or Asiatic descent, with only a certain admixture of African inheritance. It would be interesting to compare the athletic prowess of “black” people whose genes are 100% African with that of individuals such as, for example, Hines Ward, the great Steeler’s wide receiver, whose mother is Korean — and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that his father was at least partly of European descent. The same sort of testing HAS been done with IQ, by the way, and no difference could be detected between the IQ of “black” people of primarily European descent and “black” people of primarily African descent.

    When I was a kid almost all the athletes were from “white” minority groups, such as Italian, Polish, Jewish, etc. Clearly athletics had a special appeal for the disadvantaged, as it does today.

    When I was a small child, there were many in the world, not just the Nazis, who were sure that Jews like myself could never be farmers or soldiers. Boy did we prove THEM wrong!

  2. Victor,

    With all due respect, to suggest that Leroi, Risch, Jim Crowe at Wisconsin, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, literally every population geneticst and I for that matter do not appreciate the distinction between genotype and phenotype is ludicrous.

    I put “race” in quotes, because it carries centuries of of folk notions along with it. There is a clear correlation — not just an association — between folk categories of race and such things as disease proclivities and body type. That doesn’t mean that I or any population geneticist endorses all or even most “racial” steretoypes. But not all stereotypes are necessarily wrong either.

    I believe if you read my first book, “Taboo,” you will appreciate these finer distinctions. For example, it happened to get a terrific review from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology — it’s at http://www.jonentine.com/reviews/American_Journal_Physical_Anthropology.htm.

    EVERY sweeping population genetic study of the past five years has found distinct if overlapping genotypic differences between major population groups. I don’t care if you’re a “lumper,” claiming five population groups, or a “splitter,” claiming twice as many or even dozens, there are clearly identifiable haplotypes that distinguish populations.

    These distinctions show up in far more than just skin color (which doesn’t always breakdown by folkloric population, as you know). Do you really believe that social conditioning can explain why the 495 of the top 500 all time best 100 meter times are held by a percent of West African ancestry while NONE are from East Africa? It’s clearly not skin color–it’s the genetic difference between two different populations–population subsets in East and West Africa.

    I reviewed this debate completely in an article I wrote entitled “The Straw Man of Race” — it’s at http://www.jonentine.com/reviews/straw_man_of_race.htm.

  3. Jon — I’ll interleave my comments with yours, putting yours in quotes.

    “With all due respect, to suggest that Leroi, Risch, Jim Crowe at Wisconsin, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, literally every population geneticst and I for that matter do not appreciate the distinction between genotype and phenotype is ludicrous.”

    The distinction I made was between morphology and “racial science,” NOT genotype and phenotype. There are a great many things both you and Leroi claim that I agree with. But these are based on morphological differences, NOT race.

    “I put “race” in quotes, because it carries centuries of of folk notions along with it. There is a clear correlation — not just an association — between folk categories of race and such things as disease proclivities and body type. That doesn’t mean that I or any population geneticist endorses all or even most “racial” steretoypes. But not all stereotypes are necessarily wrong either.”

    All stereotypes are based on unscientific assumptions. Some may happen to be correct, yes, but many are simply wrong. It seems to me that you are ambivalent on the issue of race, sometimes putting it in quotes (where it belongs IMO), but other times arguing for its validity as a scientific concept. Sure, there are many instances where the old racial thinking does seem to work — for example, we can usually spot the difference between someone of Asian ancestry and someone of African ancestry. That’s because there are significant visible morphological differences between most Asians and most Africans, due to their very different history over many thousands of years. No one is denying that. It does NOT mean that there is such a thing as an Asiatic (or “Mongolian”) race and an African (or “black”) race. I’m not saying that a classification according to phenotype wouldn’t be possible — or worthwhile. But it would be a tremendous task with a great many variables to consider in addition to the few that contribute to our present notions of “race,” which are most definitely based on stereotypes.

    One of the best examples of the difficulty is your own attempts to explain why so many “blacks” are such great athletes. You single out West Africa, for example, and also Kenya (which is in East Africa, by the way). But the distinction between West Africa and/or Kenya and the rest of Africa is NOT a racial distinction. There may well be significant morphological differences between West Africans and Kenyans and everyone else, and these may be due to either genes or the physical environment or even the social environment. All three may well be factors working together. I don’t think that any scientist would dispute that. But this is morphology, not race. If it were a matter of race, then we would find such abilities distributed equally among all “black” people.

    Similarly, when you refer to Mexican baseball players and their physical limitations (which could indeed be genetic, though also due to poor diet), you are not making a racial distinction. I’ve never heard of a “Mexican” race.

    “I believe if you read my first book, “Taboo,” you will appreciate these finer distinctions. For example, it happened to get a terrific review from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology — it’s at http://www.jonentine.com/reviews/American_Journal_Physical_Anthropology.htm.”

    I read that review, which I found to be fair and balanced. He sees your book as valuable, meaningful and useful as an educational tool for stimulating debate about racial issues. I haven’t read the book, but see no reason to disagree with that assessment. He does NOT say that he agrees with your take on race, only that you make some interesting and meaningful points. And I agree, you do. Just about everything you say about morphology makes sense. It’s only when you confuse morphology with race that you run into serious problems.

    “EVERY sweeping population genetic study of the past five years has found distinct if overlapping genotypic differences between major population groups. I don’t care if you’re a “lumper,” claiming five population groups, or a “splitter,” claiming twice as many or even dozens, there are clearly identifiable haplotypes that distinguish populations.”

    I tend to agree, but it’s more complicated than that. There are very few if any haplotypes or haplogroups that correspond with a single clearly defined population. Populations are usually identified in terms of certain proportions of haplotypes and many populations contain a wide variety of different haplotypes.

    “These distinctions show up in far more than just skin color (which doesn’t always breakdown by folkloric population, as you know). Do you really believe that social conditioning can explain why the 495 of the top 500 all time best 100 meter times are held by a percent of West African ancestry while NONE are from East Africa? It’s clearly not skin color–it’s the genetic difference between two different populations–population subsets in East and West Africa.”

    Here is where you confuse me. If it’s not skin color then you are not talking about race, at least not in terms of any definition of race that I’ve ever heard. It could certainly be the genetic difference between different population subsets — it could also be due to other factors. That would be a matter to be determined by carefully controlled scientific research. In either case, race is not the issue here, but morphology.

    “I reviewed this debate completely in an article I wrote entitled “The Straw Man of Race” — it’s at http://www.jonentine.com/reviews/straw_man_of_race.htm.”

    I just read most of that and keep coming up against the same problem. You are continually confusing race and morphology. I haven’t yet found an argument explaining why you are arguing in favor of a science of race instead of a science of morphology. If it doesn’t matter, then why do you keep insisting on the more dubious and discredited term?

  4. Race is a “charged” term. It has implications which are not all positive and triggers emotional reactions. Perhaps a long time ago we should have transitioned to the concept of varieties within homo sapiens. We view subgroups of flowers as varieties, why not people?

  5. I can’t comment on specifics of either Leroi’s or Entine’s work, as I am not familiar with them. Still, part of what makes this discussion confusing and frustrating is the semantic aspect of the subject and the disciplinary perspective we are approaching it with. Throw in race, nationality, ethnicity, genetic variation, skin color, postmodernism, morphology… and we soon have a big mess. Leroi’s quote above is a great example whereby the term “ethnic group” becomes synonymous with genetically differentiated groups. For many others, it’s associated with culturally differentiated groups, yet Leroi says we take that and politics aside when considering race. So what are we talking about?

    The problem with the word “race” is that while there’s a rich, complicated, changing history of its usage in reference to the human species (and this is an important area of study in and of itself), we often forget it’s taxonomic intention in light of 20th century biology’s modern synthesis. Such a toxonomic unit became useful in attempting to categorize groups within a species (subspecies) seen as geographically isolated and morphologically differentiated. Both terms (race and subspecies) have since changed in light of ongoing developments in the biological sciences, without real consensus and to varying degrees of utility. But to point to the confusion, someone can assert that morphologically differentiated groups exist in modern humans and there would be no argument, but this may very well be synonymous to [morphologically differentiated] races and everyone would get fired up. The same applies to populationist or cladistic [race] approaches.

    What’s more important is being clear of how we use the word, if we use it at all. I think most would agree that a fundamentalist approach, whereby we create arbitrary divisions of groups based on arbitrary parameters and arbitrarily uphold them, is unfounded on many terms and especially in the scientific tradition.

  6. Hugo Reyes-Centeno wrote, “whereby we create arbitrary divisions of groups based on arbitrary parameters and arbitrarily uphold them, is unfounded on many terms”. But our own observation shows us that humans from different parts of the world look different from each other. Conventionally this difference has been called “racial” but it’s really “regional”. Like all species humans have separated into regional varieties. The source of this regional variation is a cause of much argument but we’ll forget about that for now.

    Within any given region individuals may consider they belong to a different race to their neighbours but the difference in that case is usually cultural. They usually look much the same as their neighbours although they may speak a different language for example.

    As well as this problem the boundaries between the regional groups are usually imprecise. The human species forms a series of clines. Over generations gene flow continues although some groups do make a big effort to remain separate from their neighbouring groups.

    Of course all this doesn’t solve the emotions raised when someone talks about race.

  7. TerryT: agreed.

    My last comment about an arbitrary form of race was meant to point precisely to the form of race that raises emotion. It is an essentialist form of race, where we lack a concrete, verifiable, and constant methodology for assessing a certain group based on arbitrary (or politically-charged) parameters. So that’s the essentialist form of race–a dangerous form that can result in hostile relations and bad policy.

    What you describe above is primarily a populationist perspective of race. We can also take a taxonomic or cladistic perspective (as you said “what we observe” [morphologically]). We can even have an integrative approach whereby we consider phenotype and genotype broadly. Differences among human species are there, no doubt; but the point is that we should be clear how we quantify that variation, especially if we use the word “race,” given the lack of consensus and the limitations of its utility.

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