Gene Expression has the second in a pair of posts on race that is worth a close look. In Why phenotypic races may not disappear, G.E. speaks of the particulate nature of inheritance in relation to culturally defined racial types (that are in turn based on appearance).

There is the idea in the minds of some that interracial relations in the most intimate sense will banish racism or racial consciousness. To me that seems unlikely, though Latin American nations do not exhibit the sort of racism based on ancestry traditional in the United States, they do retain a marked preference for those who wear a European face, no matter what their ancestry might be. The reality of multiracial origins certainly softens the hard edge of bigotry, but it also seems to encourage a complacency as to blatant phenotypic biases. Selection is a powerful force and it can reshape human variation rather quickly given the appropriate environmental impetus. The race problem will not vanish through the fiat of genetics, rather, the social context can have a controlling effect upon the correlation of characters and their clusters within the population so as to reflect the values which that society holds up.

I agree that softening the hard edge of bigotry can lead to complacency. We see this as well in other areas, such as racialized ideas about intelligence with respect to Asians and Jews, and racialized ideas about success in sports in relation to African Americans. These are ways that insidious racism sneaks past more genteel political filters into day to day thinking.

But the point I really want to make about G.E.’s post is this: Much of this … the discussion of phenotypes of races .. depends on a fairly non scientific basis or at least, a measure of phenotype that would not be useful globally. We tend to speak, for example, of Africans (or African Americans) as though this term has biological meaning. As a colleague’s mother once said “Africa… that’s a very very big country, isn’t it” … It has been said that if we were to revive the old race concept but with better data, we would probably have 12 or fourteen races, but nine of them would be in Africa.

Orthogonally, the same thing applies to the traits themselves. There seem to be many routes to blackness, and possibly more than one route to whiteness. There is very strong evidence that skeletal differences between “races” is smaller than skeletal differences between earlier and later material sampled from particular regions over fairly short periods of time (a few thousand years) and not because of migration, but because of local changes. Moreover, some of these changes seem to be global, so that populations around the world are undergoing the same sorts of changes independently, yet (obviously) with some kind of connection not formed by common genes but rather by common environmental conditions.

In other words, it is important to remember when thinking about “race” that the concept itself has strong biological implications to most people, but that these implications are mainly constructed of what we call these days “urban myth.”

As G.E. says, “the social context can have a controlling effect upon the correlation of characters…” and, I would add, the social interpretation can have a strong effect on the way we perceive and measure the relevant variables.

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    December 22, 2007

    It has been said that if we were to revive the old race concept but with better data, we would probably have 12 or fourteen races, but nine of them would be in Africa.

    depends on the loci. e.g., if you use mtDNA sure (most loci of course). but if you use phenotypic markers which those who promoted old race concepts used, not as much.

    There seem to be many routes to blackness, and possibly more than one route to whiteness.

    if you mean dark skin, i don’t think this is true. populations as ancestrally distinct as melanesians and west africans exhibit “consensus sequences” across a range of loci. this jives with our expectations: gain of function mutations are generally rarer than loss of function mutations. so many populations have various loss of function mutations which result in the same phenotype, very light skin, but the genetic architecture our ancestors evolved to generate dark skin after we lost our fur seems pretty much the best bet across dark skinned populations.

    In other words, it is important to remember when thinking about “race” that the concept itself has strong biological implications to most people, but that these implications are mainly constructed of what we call these days “urban myth.”

    i don’t think the perception of traits is just an urban myth insofar as it isn’t arbitrary. skin is the biggest organ, and it seems that cross-culturally color matters a great deal. the chinese talk about black cambodians, and the olive muslims who invaded india talked about the black natives. color is a salient distinguishing trait which we humans seem to fix upon. i doubt it’s evolved since it varies clinally, but it is probably derived from sensory bias or something, and i think there are adaptive reasons to pay attention to the skin of other people in a more general sense.

  2. #2 razib
    December 22, 2007

    let me clarify something. we can have a discussion about the use of the term “race” in a purely population genetic context. and we can have a discussion in a “social” context. in the former case i’m pretty instrumental in the usage of terms, and i tend to think that there should be different ways of establishing relationships and clusters (e.g., for some questions phylogenetic relationships across the whole genome should be used, but for other questions i think it is useful to privilege functionally salient loci which have been subject to local ecological selection). but when it comes to the “social” context obviously race exists, and will continue to exist for the near future. so in those posts i was exploring how genetic variation relates to the social reality of race. for powerful psychological reasons i think that humans won’t generally conceive of a lactose tolerant race, but will bin groups into skin color categories. even if, as in much of latin america, they know that these categories have an imperfect relationship to ancestry. so you do get cases in places like the dominican republic where siblings may be identified by others and their kin as being of difference races even though everyone knows that genetically they are share about 50% of their alleles identical by descent.

  3. #3 chezjake
    December 22, 2007

    I’m not sure if I should be posting this question here, at Razib’s, or at Grrl’s or Coturnix. Or maybe even at Wilkins’, given his concern with the concept of species.

    We talk about “races” of mankind, with never a mention of different species or subspecies of “man.” How then can scientists be consistent when they attempt to divide giraffes into multiple species on the basis of differences which are perhaps even less marked than between those of the “races” of mankind?

    Shouldn’t there be a single set of consistent rules for defining species with no favoritism for humans? It strikes me that this could be an excellent topic for discussion across many of the ScienceBlogs.

  4. #4 razib
    December 22, 2007

    Shouldn’t there be a single set of consistent rules for defining species with no favoritism for humans?

    “consistent rules” = cladists & phylogenetic species concept (which is why i think wilkins likes it). i’m generally with RPM of evolgen in that i look at species, subspecies, etc. through an instrumental lens in terms of what avenues toward research any given categorization may open up. species is obviously less arbitrary than subspecies or race below it, and genus, class, order, etc. above it, but i don’t think it is really as precise as all that at the end of the day. they’re all just higher level abstractions which encapsulate the biophysical reality of DNA variation (whether it be sequence, copy, karyotype, etc.).

  5. #5 razib
    December 22, 2007

    my views above also are one reason i get so easily bored by creationist rambling about macroevolution.

  6. #6 Science Avenger
    December 23, 2007

    I agree that softening the hard edge of bigotry can lead to complacency. We see this as well in other areas, such as racialized ideas about intelligence with respect to Asians and Jews, and racialized ideas about success in sports in relation to African Americans. These are ways that insidious racism sneaks past more genteel political filters into day to day thinking.

    We should be equally on guard for idealized notions of humanity that would have us deny objectively observable differences in populations, whatever the relative influences of social and biological factors may be. In an era where skepticism of scientists is at a local maximum (at least in my lifetime), the last thing we need is to appear to be promoting the notion that race is an entirely social construct and that any acknowledgement of differences in group mean performance is “insidious racism”.

  7. #7 Anne Gilbert
    December 23, 2007

    [b]The reality of multiracial origins certainly softens the hard edge of bigotry, but it also seems to encourage a complacency as to blatant phenotypic biases. Selection is a powerful force and it can reshape human variation rather quickly given the appropriate environmental impetus. The race problem will not vanish through the fiat of genetics, rather, the social context can have a controlling effect upon the correlation of characters and their clusters within the population so as to reflect the values which that society holds up.[/b]

    My only comment on the above is that is rather strongly suggests that the “race” concept, wherever found, is rooted in [b][i]social[/i][/b] realities of one sort and another. “European style” racism empahsizes that if it is known that you have some ancestry of a “race” other than European, you are not “European”, but whatever that “race” is. Or at least you are not “fully” European. Latin countries, OTOH, recognize “gradations”. Of course, it’s still better to be “more European” than not, and people have been known to “buy” their way into a “superior” racial identity. Is this any better? I don’t know. Neither type of “racial” distinction is anything more than a ssocial construct in any case.
    Anne G

  8. #8 DDeden
    December 24, 2007

    Greg, you are familiar with pygmies. An article about them mentioned they have 16 – 24 year life span. What’s the truth?

    “The other part of the argument is that all observed pygmy populations have a short life expectancy. Indeed, this, according to Dr Migliano’s hypothesis, is the crucial evolutionary pressure. Of the six groups of pygmies for whom data exist, two have a life expectancy of 24 years and the other four about 16 years.” from some recent article…

  9. #9 greg laden
    December 24, 2007

    I wrote a post about that paper. It does not really say they have a 16-24 year life span. This is the “life expectancy” … which is not the same as lifespan, and is a number that usually seems remarkably low, but that is a result of high child mortality.

    The data is totally crappy for demographic data. That paper is flawed, generally, but having insufficient data. Not the author’s fault, its just that foragers are small in number and hard to collect data from.

  10. #10 greg laden
    December 24, 2007

    razib: What about dark-skinned Amazonian people? Are you sure about Autralasians? You are probably right in the main, but I’m not sure this is entirely correct.

    Color as human universal salient trait is partly true, but you can’t have a universal that is partly true. It is mostly a post-hock cherry-picked construct. Yes, you can find dozens and dozens of examples of culture contact where skin color is mentioned, but you can’t demonstrate that skin color always matters, or even matters most of the time, any more than you can demonstrate that every culture has an origin myth that involves a flood, even though one can find many that do. The concept is unproven, probably wishful thinking, and also, does not make sense. As a deep and important evolutionary adaptive it makes no sense because the kinds of contact that involve people noticing, writing about, and acting on skin color would have been very very rare indeed for most of human history and prehistory.

    I agree completely that people will classify, by caste, stratum, dialect, language, and race. What I object to is the foundationless assertion that so often comes along with the basic race concept. I can see your skin color and therefore I can predict the likelihood that you will rape my sister, that you do not feel pain like I do, that you do or do not have a soul, that you are not as smart as I am, and so on. The distinction, compartmentalization, moderate to high degree of correlation, and internal consistency, and the degree of genetic determinism of the traits that are involved in the race concept are as close to the realities of population genetics as the fairy tales of the Magic Kingdom theme park are to day to day realities. Less close.

    chezjake: You are correct. If we are speaking of biological race, we are speaking of biological subspecies. the terms are interchangeable.

    Science Avenger: I’m giving you a special Christmas present. I’m going to ignore you for now. You really don’t need any new orifices I’m sure.

  11. #11 razib
    December 24, 2007

    razib: What about dark-skinned Amazonian people? Are you sure about Autralasians? You are probably right in the main, but I’m not sure this is entirely correct.

    ozzie sequences are hard to come by (for various sociopolitical reasons), but plenty of melanesians exist. and yeah, bougainville islanders cluster close with africans re: skin color genes. the example is illustrative, as these are very distant populations phylogenetically. i don’t consider amazonians very dark skinned, and it seems that the fact that these people didn’t get too dark-skinned shows that the bottleneck reduced genetic variation enough that they couldn’t gain function on some loci. and that suggests how hard or rare it is to gain function once lost. the amerindians i’ve seen don’t show some of the signatures of selection that east asians do for light skin loci, but they’re also not that dark (there’s light and dark alleles across loci). here’s a recent paper on it:
    Signatures of Positive Selection in Genes Associated
    with Human Skin Pigmentation as Revealed from
    Analyses of Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms
    O. Lao1,2, J. M. de Gruijter1,2, K. van Duijn1,2, A. Navarro3 and M. Kayser1?

    note where oceania clusters.

    as for the rest greg, you connected many lines that and engaged in some projection. i didn’t make the arguments you presume i was making, or was inferring. as for my assertion that it’s a salient trait partly, no, i think its pretty obviously always salient like having a nose and two eyes is salient. in many populations it doesn’t indicate any sociological implications, everyone is the same color. there’s no “privilege” or whatever associated with various colors when there’s no various, but if a blue skinned man showed i’d assume that people would be curious about why the skin was blue. similarly, when people of different skin colors see each other regularly that’s one of the salient traits to classify or identify them.

  12. #12 razib
    December 24, 2007

    p.s. i think skin color is going to stand out as one of the most important differences if there is variation unless there’s a major developmental abnormality. if i looked like i do and somehow managed to settle in a northern swedish village in the 19th century i assume that the locals would refer to me as the black man (“black skull”). but if i also had 3 eyes they might refer to me as the 3-eyed-weirdo in preference to the fact that i was “black” because that’s obviously pretty salient.

  13. #13 greg laden
    December 24, 2007

    Razib: My post was not at all intended to be a diatribe regarding anything you were saying. Things can get very confused in comments-land.

    Regarding the dark skinned thing: I think we are both looking at the same data and seeing the same thing but possibly taking something slightly different form it. I see an equator-biased darkening of humans, which from Africa outwards is mainly caused by lightening of skin. However, keep in mind that temperate southern hemisphere Africans are relatively light skinned originaly, and the very dark skinned people living there arrived in the last few centuries, as did the lightest skinned people.

    Then we see the same bias in the New World, but with the effect being reverses … yes, there having been a bottleneck with melanin so the bias is not as strong, but it is there. In a fifth of the time Hawks et all are talking about for their “accelerated evolution” we have the re-invention of dark skin very much under way.

    OK, so you settle in Scandinavia, say 7,000 years ago. Otherwise, only Scandinavians everywhere. You have children, they have children, and so on. You settled there with 1,000 people like you and you don’t intermarry with the Scandinavians.

    According to Howell, Brace and others, your descendants skulls would undergo a transformation over time that the other people living in Scandinavia would also experience. For a while it would be possible to tell your people and those people apart based on basicranial differences, but those evolve over time in both populations and eventually it may be difficult to tell (and it was never more than 70% accurate anyway).

    The overall skull shape change is as yet not explained fully, but it is also a human universal … the Holocene skull emerges in most parts of the world regadless of whatever else is going on.

    So now it is 7K years later and you visit your relatives wherever you came from, and their skulls have probably undergone the same transformation.

    However, it is possible, assuming you come from a place where dark skin is adaptive and assuming that Scandinavia is a place where light skin is adaptive, that your descendants in Scandinavia are now lighter skinned, and indeed, your distant relatives in the original homeland may well be darker skinned (I don’t know enough about your ethnography to make guesses).

    I am not pulling this scenario out of my ass (as Science Avenger might assume). This is pretty much in accord with how most of us think the physical record of bones looks and acts. This is all very interesting and important but it is hard to see how “race/subspecies” as a biological construct fits in here.

    I wish I was going to the Sb conference, we could have a long, long talk about this!

    GTL