March 4, 2012 § 14 Comments
Is race a biological reality? Or is it a social construction? It is a debate that shows no sign of being resolved. The more that we know of the genetics of human differences, ironically, the more fractious the debate seems to get, and the more entrenched the various positions seem to be.
The latest issue of the magazine American Scientist contains a review by the biologist Jan Sapp of two books that insist that race has no biological validity. Sapp agrees. ‘The consensus among Western researchers today’, he suggests, ‘is that human races are sociocultural constructs’. Nevertheless ‘the concept of human race as an objective biological reality persists in science and in society. It is high time that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population.’
The distinguished evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, who possesses impeccable liberal and anti-racist credentials, took umbrage at the review. ‘If that’s the consensus’, he snorted, then ‘I am an outlier’. Coyne insists that ‘human races exist in the sense that biologists apply the term to animals’. The equally distinguished biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks responded with what he himself described as a ‘rant’ against Coyne. ‘I have really had it with anti-intellectualism masquerading as biological science’, Marks fumed, claiming that Coyne ’isn’t interested’ in what anthropologists have learnt about human population differences and comparing Coyne’s view on race with that of Creationists on evolution.
Why are we still having these kinds of debates? Why has a deepening understanding of genetics, and of the human genome, not helped to answer the questions, even among those who insist that their views derive solely from the facts? « Read the rest of this entry »
March 15, 2011 Comments Off
A second extract from the talk I gave last week on ‘Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’. I posted the first extract yesterday. The full transcript is on my archive site. For an even fuller version of the argument see my book Strange Fruit.
THE DEBATE ABOUT RACE IS NOT A DEBATE ABOUT WHETHER DIFFERENCES exist between human populations. Jon Entine, a staunch defender of the idea of race, defines race as ‘human biodiversity’. That is meaningless. No one, on either side of the debate, would deny that there are a myriad of differences between different human populations.
The real debate about race is not whether there are any differences between populations, but about the significance of such differences. The fact that a BMW saloon is of a different colour to a Boeing 747 is of little significance to most people. The fact that one has an internal combustion engine and the other a jet engine is of immense consequence if you want to travel from London to New York. But if you are a Yanomamo Indian living in the Amazon forest, even this difference may not be of that great an import, since it is quite possible that you will be unable – or will not need – to use either form of transport. If we want to understand the significance of any set of differences, in other words, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Significant for what? And in what context? One of the problems of the contemporary debate about race is that these two questions get too rarely asked. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
I gave a talk last week on ‘Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’ at a conference hosted by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The complete transcript is on my archive site (it’s too long post here), but here is an extract. For the full argument (not just about the science, but also the history and politics of race) see my book Strange Fruit.
THE PROBLEM FOR SO-CALLED RACE REALISTS TODAY IS THE VERY OPPOSITE OF that for nineteenth century racial scientists. Then racial scientists ‘knew’ the significance of race but could find no way of defining differences. ‘Race in the present state of things is an abstract conception’, wrote Paul Broca, the leading physical anthropologist of the late nineteenth century, ‘a conception of continuity in discontinuity, of unity in diversity. It is the rehabilitation of a real but directly unobtainable thing.’
Even the staunchest advocates of racial science despaired of establishing race as a real, physical entity. Every ‘scientific’ measure of racial type, from headform to blood group, was shown to be changeable and not exclusive to any one group. As racial scientists searched desperately for more and more trivial manifestations of race, the biologist WJ Solas noted, apparently without a hint of irony, that ‘it is on the degree of curliness or twist in the hair that the most fundamental divisions in the human race are based.’
Today, as numerous genetic studies reveal, we can clearly define differences between populations. But the significance of such differences no longer seems clear. Race only appears to have any validity if we are willing to be deliberately vague as to what constitutes a race, and what racial differences mean. « Read the rest of this entry »