Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s Interview and Pardis Sabeti in Nature

Right on the coat tails of Jon’s post on discussing race comes an interview with Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforzaa really distinguished and now emeritus population geneticist from Stanford, in Nature News. His work has been very controversial because he has consistently resisted the notion that ‘race’ has any useful biological meaning.

His work has been outlined because of the “inappropriateness of [his use of] predefined racial categories [to sort] genetic diversity.” And his ambitious proposition to start the Human Genome Diversity Project was accused of “cultural insensitivity, neocolonialism, and biopiracy.” There are a lot more criticism of him floating out there, even Bill Poser in Language Log nailed Cavalli-Sforza’s take on linguistics.

He’s been outright labeled as a racist, and in this Nature News interview he defends himself,

How did you feel about being accused of racism?
Well, many mistakes are made and that was a very curious one. I’d argued for decades that the concept of ‘race’ defined by external characteristics — such as skin colour, size variations or facial fat — is nonsense. These visible characteristics evolved under natural selection, mostly to cope with local environments, and have no deeper base.

I didn’t get angry or depressed, I only regretted how much time the objections cost to the project development.”

Similarly, Erika Check Hayden writes in Nature News on how similar we are on a base by base level, but we seem different in so many ways in phenotype. At the very end Erika drops a link to Pardis Sabeti, who is lead author of a new publication using HapMap project extensively to identify specific genes linked to human diversity.

Here’s the information of on the paper, “Genome-wide detection and characterization of positive selection in human populations,”

“With the advent of dense maps of human genetic variation, it is now possible to detect positive natural selection across the human genome. Here we report an analysis of over 3 million polymorphisms from the International HapMap Project Phase 2 (HapMap2). We used ‘long-range haplotype’ methods, which were developed to identify alleles segregating in a population that have undergone recent selection, and we also developed new methods that are based on cross-population comparisons to discover alleles that have swept to near-fixation within a population. The analysis reveals more than 300 strong candidate regions. Focusing on the strongest 22 regions, we develop a heuristic for scrutinizing these regions to identify candidate targets of selection. In a complementary analysis, we identify 26 non-synonymous, coding, single nucleotide polymorphisms showing regional evidence of positive selection. Examination of these candidates highlights three cases in which two genes in a common biological process have apparently undergone positive selection in the same population:LARGE and DMD, both related to infection by the Lassa virus, in West Africa;SLC24A5 and SLC45A2, both involved in skin pigmentation, in Europe; and EDAR and EDA2R, both involved in development of hair follicles, in Asia.”

Seems like a very interesting read. Hat tip to Razib.

20 thoughts on “Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s Interview and Pardis Sabeti in Nature

  1. Your discussion of Cavalli-Sforza’s views seems confused and ill informed. C-S has for years denied the validity of the notion of race. You write “His work has been very controversial because it consistently asserts that ‘race’ has any useful biological meaning.” This is either a typo or an awkwardly expressed error. It should read as follows: “His work has been very controversial because he has consistently resisted the notion that ‘race’ has any useful biological meaning.”

    I am also puzzled by this sentence: “His work has been outlined because of the “inappropriateness of [his use of] predefined racial categories [to sort] genetic diversity.”” First, I don’t know what you mean by “outlined.” The rest of the sentence is exactly 180 degrees off. He has never used predefined racial categories, but has in fact fought for many years against such thinking. Where did you find that quotation? I didn’t see it in the interview.

    C-S has been accused of racism because people with very little understanding of his work are assuming that the study of genetics is equivalent to some sort of “racial science.” It is not. If it pertains to race at all, it serves as a demonstration that such a notion is untenable.

    As for the rest of your post, once again I see a serious confusion between the study of “race” and the study of human morphology or phenotype. It is very important for every anthropologist to understand the profound difference between these two realms of thought.

  2. Victor,

    Thanks for your comment. In regards to the suggestion you mentioned in the first paragraph, I corrected it. I admit it was awkwardly phrased.

    However, in regards to the criticism in the second paragraph, his work was outlined as inappropriate in a 1997 paper published in Evolutionary Anthropology by Shomarka Keita and Rick A. Kittles. I didn’t properly attribute that quote because I did not spend much time tracking down the original in the journal’s online repository. So, if you care to track it down, be my guest.

    I haven’t confused Cavalli-Sforza’s work. His work on studying human genetic variation has strong tangents to the study of ‘race.’ As it stands, many anthropologists are deconstructing the definition of race as a social construct.

    But let us not be ignorant.

    One of the original applications of ‘race’ was to classify human phenotypes. As more and more gene to phenotype associations are made, we will see more merging of human morphological and phenotypic variation to race. So long as there exists genetic variation in humans and biological explanations for these differences, race will still have place.

  3. In other words, variation in the human species will continue to exist and we’ll continue to create models that enable us to understand that. The problem comes up when the larger audience doesn’t understand the methodology and its data or when the word race is actually used to refer to groupings of individuals/populations (based on traits of morphology, genetics or otherwise). This is the reason why Cavalli-Sforza and other serious scholars don’t use the word race, understanding that even when used in other species, there are limitations and that, moreover, it carries undesirable social meaning. Likewise, Cavalli-Sforza’s work is much more comprehensive in understanding human variation (e.g. considering historical linguistics).

    Regarding your last comment, Kambiz (and this hypothetical is open to all readers, though i ask in a very naive way that should get responses I’d be interested in hearing about): can we envision a world where the level of variation among our species is much harder to understand, given a constant rate of migration, admixture, and economic/political/cultural integration? Will we drop the notion of race?

  4. Hugo, that’s not really a naive question but rather sort of a rhetorical one.

    Before I get into your question, I want to preface that I’ve been well educated in the ‘race doesn’t exist’ mentality. It is sort of a mantra in anthropology and for a long time I was a believer in that mantra. Once, I began to read up a lot on human genetic variation and correlations on variations in a population to certain traits, I realized what a horribly ignorant thought many anthropologists are blinding themselves with.

    So going back to your question… of course human genetic variation is a complex entity and throwing in sociocultural context makes it a whole other beast! But some people are advocating to lump it all together. So long as we are scientists, we need to classify and categorize entities to study. If that means we drop the notion of race, because of what people have grown accustomed to thinking about what it means, then of what use is the word race? What else will be used to classify and categorize human variation? Gah, more rhetoric…

    I know what people have in their minds differ from the definitions in literature but to arbitrarily drop the popular notion of race is unfeasible, and just phasing the word out of our language by force won’t solve anything. Even if we use another word to define human variation, it will still carry the same connotation. There’s no escaping it. Obliterating race on any level, won’t get people to begin to accept and tolerate the differences. So until we begin to re-evaluate how we accept and tolerate, will still be debating over trivial things such as what words to use to describe differences.

  5. Kambiz,
    First I would like to clarify my response to the quotation you provided regarding the “inappropriateness of [Cavalli-Sforza’s use of] predefined racial categories [to sort] genetic diversity.” C-S HAS been criticized for using racial terminology from time to time, that is true. There are passages in his writings where he does in fact use terms such as “caucasoid,” “negroid,” “mongoloid,” etc.

    Not only is race a social construct, but it is a very powerful and pervasive social construct that affects many aspects of life, including language itself. Under certain circumstances it is almost impossible to avoid references to such terms when discussing human lineages on a worldwide scale. C-S has used such terms occasionally, as a convenience, but the quotation you found is misleading, because it implies that he uses racial categories as the a priori basis for his genetic research. That is NOT the case. If you study his work you’ll see that he almost always chooses geographical and/or regional or tribal groupings, not racial categories.

    Second, I do agree that there has been an overemphasis, in anthropology and related fields, on the notion of “social construct,” due largely to the dubious influence of so-called “postmodernist” thinking. Many perfectly valid concepts have been allegedly “deconstructed” as “mere” social constructs by academics with an overly zealous, almost puritanical mentality, leading to the inquisition we know as “political correctness.” So, if anthropology is now moving to correct such a rigid and pedantic view, that is definitely a move in the right direction as far as I am concerned.

    Third, there is a danger of going overboard in correcting the “postmodern” view, which is not completely misguided. Just because the pomos went too far is no reason for us to follow their lead by also going too far in the opposite direction.

    Forth, if any concept cries out for deconstruction as a social construct it is, indeed, the notion of race. While it is true that many problems associated with this term are due to “political correctness” concerns, that is by no means the whole story. The real problem with race is that it is essentially a notion whereby literally everyone in the world is classified, i.e., put into a very narrow and confining box, on the basis of a set of observations that seem “obvious to everyone” but are in fact subjective, crude, and in many cases simply inaccurate. This is what makes it a social construct rather than a scientific principle.

    Hugo’s comments make a lot of sense and I basically agree with his take on this. Yes, the term “race” could be revived and given a new meaning, so that it would be equivalent of what modern geneticists now call phylogenetics or morphology. But, as Hugo reminds us, the general population will not understand the subtlety of this new definition and will continue to see race as a system by which everyone must fit into a narrow, simple-minded “racial” category.

    Finally, I would like to ask both you and Jon Entine (if he’s still with us) what “racial” category each of you would place yourselves into. And why.

  6. Kambiz wrote, “but to arbitrarily drop the popular notion of race is unfeasible, and just phasing the word out of our language by force won’t solve anything. Even if we use another word to define human variation, it will still carry the same connotation. ” Agreed. The problem is not the word but the connotation. I read a book on African prehistory years ago by Basil Davidson where he suggested the idea some races are naturally inferior developed in order to justify capturing large numbers for use as slaves. We’re doing it for their own good you understand. Certainly the idea of white supremacy was used to justify European imperialism. We humans are capable of justifying anything if we use a little creative thinking. And that is the problem we face. Not the idea of race.

  7. No, Terry, the problem, or at least one of the problems IS the idea of race. Because racial thinking makes it all too easy to force people into the sort of convenient categories that can make them appear to be what they are not (see below). And Kambiz and Jon, if you really believe racial categories are valid, then please respond to my question and tell us what racial category you would place yourself in.

    As for me, both of my parents identified themselves as Jewish. But neither of them looked particularly Jewish and neither do I. I don’t have the stereotypical “Jewish nose,” I am tall, and most people are surprised when I tell them I’m Jewish. As is the case for a great many Jews now living in the States, I have a sort of generalized “East European” or “Mediterranean” look, with no stereotypically “semitic” characteristics. By the way, I’m reading a very interesting book on New Guinea, called “First Contact” and in one of the photos I see a profile of a man with all the characteristics of the typical “semite,” including the long, hooked nose. Only he’s a New Guinea highlander. But hey, maybe some Jews made it over there before the Aussies.

    So what race AM I? Caucasian? Well, I’m white and European looking. But I sure am Jewish, so neither Caucasian nor European could really be accurate for me. If I’m Jewish, I guess that makes me “Semitic” racially — that’s certainly how Hitler would have classified me. But my rabbi would have also, and he was no Nazi. But like so many others, I don’t look Jewish (as the old joke goes).

    Does my European morphology make me Caucasian, regardless of my Jewish “blood”? That would certanly have upset my parents. The truth is that since I’m “white,” nobody really cares.

    On the other hand, I have second cousins who are the product of a marriage between my first cousin and a “black” woman. Since they have dark skin and some “negroid” features, how THEY are classified racially is everybody’s business, it would seem. No one, least of all any of them would dream of classifying them as Semitic or even Jewish, though they all resemble “white” members of my Jewish family. Their mother is probably at least partly of European descent, which means that they really aren’t African-American at all, but primarily of “Caucasian” descent.
    Whether they like it or not and regardless of what their morphology might be, they are automatically classified as “African American,” although they are half Jewish and mostly NOT of African descent. So what racial category would you place THEM in, Kambiz?

  8. I agree with the “gah” frustration of semantics regarding human variation, especially when seeing the public’s confusion in understanding it, what otherwise unites the human species, and the complexity of social, political, and economic considerations across time and space. Victor’s fourth point is very well taken in this regard: if we look at it from a historical perspective, the postmodernist tradition was born from disillusionment of the modernist tradition in the aftermath of the second world war (where [mis]understandings of human variation had a very real role). In this regard, TerryT’s assertion sums it up very well: that power structures and ideology regarding this variation are the bigger problems we face.

    Victor: Let’s be clear about the empirical observations of human variation and the ideological associations we make. The IDEA(s) of race has to be contextualized in a social, political, economic, and intellectual context across time and space; no doubt these ideas can lead to hostility and bad policy. But observable variations are just that (and may change in scope because science is self-correcting as new methods and tools develop).

    I’m glad you asked the direct question of what racial categories we would place ourselves in. It’s something that most of us have probably thought about when checking off the “race/ethnicity” box for paperwork. Once I had a job application that had “Race” and a fill-in-the-blank space. I was intrigued and overjoyed by the possibilities. I could write a whole essay, I thought, but I needed to be concise. “Should I put Homo sapiens [sapiens] mexicanus?,” I thought. Given that it was a retail position, I knew the employer probably wouldn’t appreciate it. But beyond that, I was also thinking in terms of nationality, and that’s not always informative for understanding human variation, especially in the western hemisphere. Not to mention I had recently been naturalized to also have citizenship in the United States. “Aha! Homo sapiens [sapiens] norteamericanus,” I thought, but “no, that’s more my ethnicity,” given my social, political, and economic experience in North America. During Linnaeus’ time, this probably would be considered to mean Native American anyway. So what’s it going to be?

    For the job application, I put “Mexican-American” as per standard American census boxes (and I was aware that it represented nationality and ethnicity more than race). But really, I’d say my racial category is more like Euro – Amerindian/Native American. Homo sapiens [sapiens] euroamericanus, I suppose. But at a finer scale (and this is key: scale is important in how we “lump” individuals in groups/populations), that would not cut it either. Because I’m Mexican by birth and with generations of Mexican relatives as far as I can trace back, I’m a product of admixture by geographically disparate populations. I say Euro-Amerindian because that’s what I know for certain, but Mexicans can very well be Euro-Afri-Amerindian or virtually any combination given the history and emigration to the country from many parts of the world. That makes things more complicated but more interesting as well.

    I asked the question about dropping the notion of race not to suggest a way to avoid the sociopolitical connotations but because so far in our remarks, we haven’t really considered phenotype more broadly, something that scholars like Cavalli-Sforza do. That is for me personally and intellectually important in discussions of race and human variation more broadly. On the biological side, we don’t have a comprehensive understanding of admixture dynamics. On the other side is our extended phenotype (in Dawkin’s terms). Given the dynamic movement of people in recent history (and indeed, our species is very young) AND the movement of resources, culture (ideas, beliefs, and values), and behaviors and traditions, our extended phenotype is not only harder to quantify but is also mutable across time and space for individuals and populations alike. Arguably the variation in our extended phenotype is much greater than our morphogenetic variation and the problem is we have even less tools and methods to understanding it.

  9. Thank you, Hugo, for a very thoughtful and meaningful post. Some people would claim that everything you’ve said doesn’t matter, because they assume they could tell right away just by looking at you that you are of Mexican, or at least Latino, origin. In other words, they are assuming that you conform to a certain stereotype. Perhaps you do. Perhaps you don’t. I don’t think I do. But I have met people who claim they could tell right away that I was Jewish. Others, on the other hand, thought I could be Italian or middle European.

    But isn’t that what race is all about, stereotypes? As you write, “The IDEA(s) of race has to be contextualized in a social, political, economic, and intellectual context across time and space;” But isn’t that the same as identifying it as a social construct? Don’t get me wrong, we have to take social constructs seriously because they FUNCTION in our society as realities, whether or not they are scientifically meaningful.

    I have another question, by the way: can anyone actually provide us with a definition of the term “race” that is meaningful to THEM?

  10. We’re confusing ideology and science again. The race-as-a-social-construct argument doesn’t really work. We are social primates and producing knowledge is a social effort (peer-review, conferences, etc.), so that argument could apply to a lot of things, including the scientific enterprise. The difference is that science is verifiable/falsifiable. To be fair, the social/political/economic ambience may affect scientific research, but the enterprise is self-correcting because it can be verified or falsified (and this is NOT saying that science itself is correct or that it proves something. It is a way of understanding and modeling reality).

    Race as an IDEA can mean a lot of things. Race as a TAXONOMIC UNIT is a descriptive model based on empirical observations. The former is constantly changing and the latter, as a scientific tool, has given parameters and is modified as per the scientific method.

    To ask for a meaningful definition is asking for the IDEA of race. To ask for a scientific definition is to ask for a tool (that has certain standards) by which to model the observed variation in any given species. I don’t think we should avoid toolkits and models that can be useful, even in the case of describing human variation. However, we must be cautious in understanding the extent to which the model is useful. On the one hand, it can lead to bad policy (or medicine, or otherwise) if the information is poorly understood or distorted, but, on the other hand, it can be useful and have practical applications. Product design is an example of the latter, Nike’s recent “Air Native” shoe probably being the more recent, which was designed for Native Americans (

    Your point, Victor, about the idea of race having a function is what I mean about ideology being part of the extended phenotype. Understanding the variation here is a tremendous challenge. If we use this to make racial categories, then we face an impasse because we don’t yet have a good toolkit for quantifying and understanding ideas, beliefs, and values or behaviors and traditions. Though no doubt gains are being made, I think this area is particularly important in the modern context because it can (and has) have real effects on our social lives (if at various points our scientific understanding of human morphological variation was used in distortion to carry a political agenda, so can our understanding of human ideological/behavioral variation be used to support discrimination and intolerance). Moreover, the extended phenotype can be far more varied within a population than morphogenetic variation.

    Remembering this original post, Cavalli-Sforza has moved from understanding morphological variation to moreover understanding genetic and linguistic variation of indigenous populations. The relationships and correlations are due to natural history and not chance or ideology. But ideology is part of our extended phenotype and another level of variation we can consider. It really boils down to what our question is: what kind of variation we want to study.

    To sum and reiterate: As TerryT has alluded, it is ill-intended ideology and the maintenance of power structures that is the problem with the idea of race. Race as a taxonomic tool models empirical observations.

    To be direct Victor, and with all due respect, I wouldn’t have a problem attempting to designate you to a certain racial category (as a taxonomic unit), but with the understanding of the limitations of my method and the limitations of the information used. Just as I wouldn’t say my racial category is Mexican or Mexican-American, I would not say your racial category is Jewish or Jewish-American. These are nationalities and ethnicities. But our cases are particular, mine as a case of admixture and yours as a case of displacement. We can, in the older paradigm, still attempt to assign ourselves to a certain racial category and this, as I pointed above, can have practical applications. But our cases are increasingly not so particular, given the rapid movement of people and resources.

  11. I think Hugo hits it with his comment, “or virtually any combination given the history and emigration to the country from many parts of the world.” Humans have become much more mobile over the ages, especially in the last 400 years with sailing ships. Most of you people (including me) seem to be descended from relatively recent immigrants. In ancient times humans had formed regional varieties, as do all species, with the geographic margins being the most different, again as in all species.

    Victor, I used to have a friend (dead just now) who had a Hawaiian father and Jewish mother (from London). Spoke with a London accent but looked Polynesian. Not exactly practicing Jew but thought of himself as such. Interesting combination.

    Here in New Zealand people of European ancestry are usually refered to by the Maori expression, “Pakeha”. Worked fine until we had a lot of people from East Asia come in. Can we refer to them as Pakeha? Generally agreed we can’t. As Hugo suggests most people have become so mixed classifying them into a race is irrelevant. However it’s still usually possible to guess the region where the majority of someone’s ancestors came from.

  12. Let me respond to Terry first. Yes, it is possible to guess. But you have to realize that your guess is very likely to be based on factors that have little to do with that person’s actual genetic makeup (or if you prefer, “race”) . Someone may look Polynesian or Latino or Jewish, Asiatic, etc., to you for many different reasons, including hair style, body language, dress, etc. The person’s accent might well affect how you actually SEE him, not only what you hear. If a true “racial science” were ever to emerge, it would have to be based not only on genetics and morphology but also psychology, phenomenology, ethnology, etc. In other words, we would need to study not only the person whose “racial makeup” we would like to determine, but also the processes by which the “racial makeup” of others is assessed in different ways by people from different backgrounds.

    I know that I’ve been perceived in radically different ways by different people. The teenage son of friends of mine, who looked up to me a as a kind of mentor, saw me as resembling Sean Connery. When I told my girlfriend about that, she thought it was ridiculous. She sees me as Garfield. When I’ve let my beard grow and my pot belly develop, I’ve been mistaken for Santa Claus. Comparing photos of myself, there are some I really like (because, hey, I DO resemble Sean Connery in some of those) and some I hate because they make me look like a sad and decrepit old man.

    Also it’s important to understand the high degree of genetic variation in some of our “oldest” populations, not just the more recent, “racially mixed” ones. That’s how we can tell which are oldest, by the way.

  13. Hugo, thanks again for a very thoughtful post, which raises the level of our debate. I agree, for the most part, with what you say about science. As I see it, science is grounded in the values and meaning systems of the “modern” West, yes, but that does NOT make scientific principles social constructs. Many pomos have missed that essential distinction. However, every scientific principle must be precisely defined, so I was disappointed in the way you seem to have skirted around my question.

    “To ask for a scientific definition is to ask for a tool (that has certain standards) by which to model the observed variation in any given species.” Not bad — as a definition of scientific definition. Is that also your definition of race? We already have tools of that sort, but none of them is being called “race” by any of the many scientists actually working on that problem (as opposed to some speculating about it). What does “race” add that isn’t already in the toolbox?

    “But ideology is part of our extended phenotype and another level of variation we can consider. It really boils down to what our question is: what kind of variation we want to study.” See my previous post. I have no problem with “racial science” as long as it includes those ideological (psychological, ethnological, etc.) aspects that make ”race” meaninfgul — as a social construct.

    “Race as a taxonomic tool models empirical observations.” Please give me an example of how “race” is being or can be used as a taxonomic tool. I’ve done a lot of reading in the literature of population and anthropological genetics and have never encountered that term as a serious part of anyone’s research. As I understand it the taxonomy of human variation is now being modeled by the use of phylogentic trees. In almost all cases, these trees map haplotype and haplogroup distributions, which are then interpreted to apply to more or less specifially defined populations. The populations are defined geographically or in terms of tribal or other local groupings, NOT in terms of race. So where is there room for race to come into this picture? Would it make you feel better if we eliminated the term haplogroup and called it “race”? Such a usage wouldn’t resemble any current usage of the term “race,” since only a very few haplogroups are population specific.

    Or are you talking about morphological classifications? That too is being done and again I see the word “race” used only as a convenience, never as a scientific term.

    If the notion of “race” is so important to you that you simply can’t do without it, I have to wonder why that is and maybe you need to ask yourself that question.

  14. Victor: I think we agree more than we disagree and I thank you for continuing the discussion. I think we’re talking about two different things: you about the legitimacy of the existence of biological races in the human species and me about the legitimacy of allowing for discriminant analysis for species taxonomy broadly and the history of the usage of race in humans specifically. In an effort to connect my ideas to your responses, I’ll enumerate in correspondence to your written paragraphs:
    (1) Both ideas and scientific tools/methods undergo a “construction” that involves social interaction. The knowledge itself is not constructed, but extracted from the data acquired with these tools and methods. The difference is that in the case of scientific tools, as you point, there is a control for precision, accuracy, and utility (through the scientific method). It’s not a postmodernist approach because the latter construction cannot exist in multiplicity, and if it does by congruent word use, there are specific parameters defining each.
    (2) The results of the tools/methods we use now are not called race because they point to a kind of variation that overlaps more than differentiates. The level of analysis is finer and more sophisticated to the extent that we can form any number of groupings, as in the phylogenies you cite. The consensus is that biological races (in strict zoological terms of reproductively isolated and differentiated groups) in the human species do not exist, so it is in many ways not a useful term (but race as a biological concept has always lacked precision to begin with). Still, it has allowed us to move on to understanding other ways of approaching human variation, where now the data emphasizes overlaps—gene flow and resulting gradients or “clines,” as with your cited population genetics examples.
    (3) I’m not familiar with the “racial science” movement, but I get the sense that, as in biomedical research, it is used in an effort to use self-identified racial categories as a predictor variable in a discriminant function analysis. I don’t mean this to say that the unit is fixed or always useful, but it does allow for a model of grouping individuals or groups by whatever parameters are used (geography or otherwise). This is an example of when the word and concept can be useful, but certainly with limitations.
    (4) I say that “race as a taxonomic tool models empirical observations” to show the contrast between race as an ideological unit, not to say that many biologists use it as such. As a reminder, I am referring to race in any given species. I say “taxonomic” in a broad sense of the word—a hierarchical classification based on given observations (and this is why I’ve repeatedly pointed to the complexity of the task in humans when we consider different dimensions of phenotype and the otherwise small variation in genotype). Remember I have said (in earlier posts) that the extent of its utility is varied depending on the parameters, and indeed there are many versions of race. As far as its usage for humans in biology, the discussion continues in the biomedical sciences literature, but its utility is still poorly understood and debated, and the consensus that it is irrelevant in the strict zoological sense prevails.
    (5) I’m not advocating the usage of the word race for any and all situation or saying it’s the best taxonomic unit we have, especially for the human species. What I said before sums it up: it boils down to what the question is and its scope. I ask that we not forget and confuse how the terminology of race has been used historically and across disciplines. Furthermore, I don’t want to “let go” (as you say) of its discussion because avoiding it only encourages ignorance, promoting misunderstandings of what is otherwise conflated by ideology. Understanding its different definitions, its utility—or lack thereof, and its limitations translates into the social dimensions of its use.

  15. Yes, Hugo, I do think we are very close in our thinking. And when I was debating this issue with Armand Leroi, who is or was actively seeking to re-establish “racial science” along rigorous and non-racist lines, I felt very close to his position as well. The problem is that if we are not absolutely clear on what we mean by “race” — i.e., expressing ourselves so the average person can’t possibly get confused — then there is a huge danger our arguments will be used to revive very old, unscientific and nasty ideas, such as racism. And believe me there are a great many racists or proto-racists out there ready to pounce on every word the “experts” write on this subject.

    You write: “it boils down to what the question is and its scope.”

    Here I agree completely. And there are, indeed, many contexts in which the term “race” is appropriate.

    You continue: “Furthermore, I don’t want to “let go” (as you say) of its discussion because avoiding it only encourages ignorance, promoting misunderstandings of what is otherwise conflated by ideology. Understanding its different definitions, its utility—or lack thereof, and its limitations translates into the social dimensions of its use.”

    Here I agree as well, though with a word of caution. Too many people in the social sciences, cultural studies, etc. believe that because something has been deconstructed as a “social construct” it has thereby been debunked and dismissed and should be ignored. Deconstruction is NOT the same as demystification, though you’d get that impression from much that’s been written in cultural studies. Race is a social construct for sure, but it is a very powerful social construct and as such has taken its place as part of the reality in which we, as social beings, live. It can function as a destructive stereotype, but can also be meaningful when implementing positive programs such as affirmative action. The standard for determination of “race” in affirmative action can never be precise, because racial identity can never be precisely defined. But the PERCEPTION that one is African-American is — and should be — enough to get you into such a program. Because it is exactly those perceptions that have made programs such as affirmative action necessary.

    So yes we can’t do without the notion of “race” and must certainly continue to use it in certain contexts. At the same time we have an obligation as “experts” to remind the public, whenever we can, that race IS indeed a social construct, NOT a scientific principle.

  16. An excellent (though ultimately unfortunate) example of the themes in our discussions here has recently emerged following James Watson’s remarks that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” I haven’t tracked down a transcript of the lecture where this was quoted, but Watson has otherwise responded by saying that “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.” Still, his prospective speaking engagements have been cancelled and his position at the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory suspended.
    The case is telling of the sensitivity of the discussion but the need to keep it going in the public, in a safe and serious environment. Not doing so otherwise encourages a build-up of tensions among individuals and ideological groups, ultimately being more divisive. No doubt initial reactions will be passionate and emotional from one extreme to the other, and it is already interesting to see the wide range of perspectives springing up on discussion boards.

    A short editorial in this week’s Nature offers the perspective that while “…the damage has been done, lending succour and comfort to racists around the globe,” the cancellation of speaking engagements discourages scientific inquiry: “Scientists with controversial arguments need to be able to withstand the heat, defending or retracting statements as the evidence indicates is required.” Moreover, I would say, they need to take the opportunity to present their perspective in what may otherwise be distorted by the media. A prospectus on the discussion of race and human variation is offered: “There will be important debates in the future as we gain a fuller understanding of the influence of genetics on human attributes and behaviour.” Pointing to the power that Watson may have in society at large, it ends “Crass comments by Nobel laureates undermine our very ability to debate such issues, and thus damage science itself.”

  17. I have mixed feelings about the Watson affair. On the one hand, I see it as an unfortunate sign of the times, when political correctness concerns tend to trump everything else. God forbid we should impose an excess profits and income tax to provide badly needed training and jobs programs in Ghetto areas throughout the US that are currently disintegrating from neglect. But God protect us from indignant “white” folk offended by politically incorrect language supposedly insulting to “African-Americans.” Pure hypocrisy, IMO. I think the reaction to Watson’s controversial views is overkill and that it is always a mistake to blackball people on the basis of their opinions. More important, the unfairness of this reaction will prompt the inevitable counter-reaction on the part of the many true-blue racists out there, who will argue that the “truth” is being suppressed by all those tree hugging “liberals.”

    On the other hand, Watson’s foolish statement tells us a lot about the danger of mixing racial notions with science. While he didn’t use the term “race,” it was implied nevertheless when he characterized all Africans as less intelligent than everyone else. He didn’t mean it that way, of course, but that’s the way it sounded and that’s how it’s been interpreted.

    The underlying problem is the insistence on tying intelligence to notions of racial identity — and the problem underlying that is exactly what we’ve been debating: the status of race as a scientific principle.

  18. NOTE:

    The term of African-American (AA) is NOT a synonym for Black Race!

    The AAs are a unique & largely Mixed-Race^ ETHNIC group composed ONLY of “The DescendantsOf-The-Survivors’ Of the Targets of the Chattel-slavery System that took place on the Continental United States in it’s antebellum era”!!

    [^The Lineage of MOST (+70%) AAs is that of +20-30% European & +25% Amerindian THROUGHOUT the line]

    [*The Non-AA Citizens of the U.S. who are Racially-Black are called Black-American (BA), not AA]

  19. Victor,
    Cavalli Sforza is one of the most popular keywords for the Out of Africa theory which popularizes the most blunt rebuttal to Racism as stereotypically understood by Europeans in the 1920s or by Chinese today. Far from “Racist” he’s helped the cause of analyzing (breaking apart the cultural/genetic package deal, and understanding the superfluousness of the latter) what used to be classified as race groups, and now is classified by phenotype clusters of individuals.

    As of the steps necessary for investigation, I don’t recall any accusation of racism towards Anthropologists and Linguists studying existinguishing languages of those same isolated pure-breed natives that C-S studied.

    Since the last 500 years, the Global Diaspora, a process has begun that’s changing the World.
    I just want to point out the obvious similarity in diminishing languages of that Old World of homogeneous populations, and diminishing genetic variation of the same. In both cases, while there’s a trend towards homogenization, new dialects and new genetic mixes are and will continue arising, but the pace of it means that we are every minute losing valuable information of our past – of the evolution of our species.

    I agree that intermixing and the creation of new phenotypes towards homogenization of the human species is the way to go, which I believe is what you implied by your tone/take . I similarly agree that a World Lingua Franca is the way to go, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to learn as much as we can of the surviving yet extinguishing languages – while we are on time.

    same applies to genetics.

  20. The above reply was meant for Kamiz whom I thank for providing this forum.
    I was reinforcing Victor’s reply, not rebutting it.
    Please excuse my spelling and grammar.

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