These days, many people say that race is largely a social construct; while it may have a place in describing the population genetics of some species, is not particularly applicable to humans. I’m one of those people. The race concept is generally inapplicable or at best misleading when used as it often is with our species. This is why race should be abandoned in favor of other ways of describing human variation.

At the same time, there are political, social, and pedagogical reasons to put aside the race concept. Race is not that useful of a concept to begin with, and beyond that it has numerous political and social drawbacks. Pedagogically, race interferes with the understanding of variation. Race is at best a model that has some utility some of the time … like the hydraulic theory of electricity (where voltage = the amount of water; resistance = the smallness of the pipe the water flows through; and amperage = the speed of the flow). These limited concepts may be good for explaining certain things or organizing some data in certain ways, but once you step a short distance away from those limited areas, the model is more likely to interfere rather than assist in further attempts at understanding.

Here, I’d like to explore the downside of the race concept and briefly examine why so many informed and intelligent people seem to want to hang onto race as a way of classifying their fellow humans.


A definition of the race concept

A working definition of the race concept would be helpful. People can (and will, I’m sure) argue with this definition, but I believe it is reasonable and accurate, if also a bit informal. The elements in this definition are key to the utility of the concept where it is applied, and at the same time problematic with respect to the validity of races as biological entities.

Races are the same as varieties (a term usually used for plants) and subspecies (a term usually used for animals). Individuals of a given subspecies or variety generally breed true, but can breed with other subspecies or varieties.

A species that can be divided into races demonstrates two additional features without which the term ‘race’ is really not applicable. First, there are usually distinct boundaries between the races. These boundaries must apply to the features that are used to define the racial differences (which may themselves vary by race … the different races need not be distinguished by variations in the same exact set of features) and we do not expect the boundaries to be perfect. Indeed, among the members of a given species, some of the boundaries may be outright vague. But if there are no or almost no clear boundaries, there are no races.

The second feature that technically need not be true but almost always applies is that there should be some correlation between traits. In other words, if you take one trait and use it to define races, then there should be another trait that, if races are defined on its basis, you get a very similar set of races. And there should typically be several such traits that all, if analyzed independently, define almost the same exact set of races. An exception to this is where races can be arguably defined on the basis of a single trait. Were this to be the case, then obviously there could be no correlation.

Generally speaking, all of this is set in a geographical context. Genetic boundaries (between races) are also usually geographical boundaries. Indeed, once causes the other.

Without distinctions and boundaries, the race concept cannot apply to a given species. Species with observable geographical differences in one or more traits may be better described as having clinal variation. Without correlation among traits, the race concept has none of its usual utility, whereby we place individuals into categories and then predict invisible traits (like the likelihood of biting for dog breeds, or the likelihood of having a certain level of intelligence for human races).

The failure of the race concept

One of the reasons I believe the race concept should not be applied to humans is that it has essentially failed to do what it is supposed to do.

Most human traits vary in a clinal way; they are not grouped into distinct populations with clear boundaries. Oh, boundaries do exist, but they have three characteristics that make them irrelevant.

First, they are usually one-sided boundaries. If I put up a fence around my house to keep the dog in, it must be a continuous fence. If I put a fence along only one property line, that may be a very impressive fence, it may be a fence that the dog cannot get across, it may be a true barrier. But the openness of the rest of the property means that there is not a fenced-in area restricting the dog. Most, probably all, racial barriers are visible in only one part of the range of a particular population.

Second, they are not really boundaries most of the time. They are temporary contrasts that emerge because of the movement of people — but that immediately, or shortly, begin to meld. Even as we assert the reality of the boundaries, measure the boundaries, use the boundaries for medical, social, economic, and political purposes, people on both sides of the boundaries are busy doing the horizontal tango and making babies that sillify the boundaries by the very existence of these babies.

Third, and closely related, the conditions that cause a particular boundary to form are often rapidly changing, at least when considered at evolutionary time scales.

The success of the race concept

The race concept has been very successful in its many nefarious applications, but this is not what I wish to speak about here. Rather, I want to acknowledge that a concept that divides humans into a particular set of groups in a useful way might be, well, useful and not such a bad thing. The fact that medical researchers use race to divide subjects, and find differences between races, and that these differences are important to know about, is important, even if it does not validate the races. What it means is that an unworkable race concept works sometimes, even if the races themselves don’t exist. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to acknowledge that even though races don’t really exist and many, if not most, applications of the race concept are obnoxious, it may be that its use is not entirely inappropriate all the time.

I will argue, however, that the down side of the use of race requires its abolition among scientists. Since race is usually not a biologically useful concept for humans (or many other species), and is never a truly valid concept, it is difficult to justify its use given the negative political and social consequences it carries.

A moving target among scientists

Race often seems to be a moving target among scientists who, for whatever reason, want to keep the idea in play. People will use race to mean, quite clearly, that humans can be grouped into a small number of fixed entities (the five or six usual races) but when challenged, quickly admit that there may well be hundreds of races. The same individuals will just as quickly fall back to the usual simplistic black-white-red-whatever distinctions that almost all applications of the race concept require. This is usually an exercise in denial of the invalidity of the concept despite abundant evidence.

I think there are three common reasons why some scientists want to keep the race concept alive. One is that a particular scientist happens to think that race is a valid and useful designator for humans. These individuals believe that race works for humans, that all humans can be placed into racial categories, and that these categories (determined by a select number of visible or measurable traits) then allow us to make reasonably accurate (for biology) predictions about traits that are not so easily seen. I have found that the scientists who have this belief are usually not biological scientists or if so, are not versed in the relevant data for humans, although there are some notable exceptions.

The second reason a scientist might struggle to keep the race concept alive is that while they know it is not accurate, they still find it somewhat useful in limited circumstances and do not realize the negative consequences of what they are doing. These are almost always older white males who have never themselves suffered the consequences of race-based thinking even if they have a reasonably good idea of what racism is all about (and do not consider themselves racists). These individuals are often not particularly political in any way. They are often academics who got tenure in the 1960s or 1970s (when they were still giving out tenure to people with Master’s degrees, desperate as they were to fill the growing number of teaching slots in U.S. universities). This means that their salaries are pretty good today, they own a house that has gone through the roof in value having passed through at least two real estate booms, have their retirement all set. In other words, not only do these individuals not ‘get it’ when it comes to race because they are not ever the object of racism, but they don’t ‘get it’ in terms of need or economic insecurity more generally. Such individuals could of course be more sensitive to the world around them than this, but they simply have not ended up in that place. And I think this group of people is relatively rare.

Much more common are scientists who totally understand what race is as a biological concept, totally understand why it is not a widely useful concept for humans, totally understand that there are a limited number of situations in which race can be used as a sort of shorthand, but are sufficiently annoyed by ‘political correctness’ to stick with the race concept mainly for the purpose of sticking it to their postmodern la la chichi colleagues down the hall in the Cultural Anthropology and Humanities departments.

This, I totally get. If Race were a harmless concept, I might jump on that bandwagon just for fun now and then. But it is not a harmless concept. And no, I’m not interested in the argument that the harmfulness or harmlessness of a concept in science is irrelevant to its truth. It has already been pretty well established that race is a lousy concept for use with humans for scientific reasons. Clearly, adherence to the race concept in this third group is purely political, yet this is the group from which we most often hear the obverse accusation: “You’re denying race for political reasons … how dastardly and unscientific of you.”

Race as the innocent default position

Among non-scientists in Western culture, race is often the default position when observing human variation. It is probably not an accident that modern racism is very much shaped by Renaissance and post-Renaissance concepts of human variation and classification. This is the world in which those who were engaged in grand intellectual works such as the collection and classification of all living things were busy discovering new races as a result of global exploration. The clear and dramatic boundaries defining these new races that were so apparent in those days were the product of geographical discontinuity arising from the nature of discovery of new lands by sea travel, accented by dramatic cultural differences among groups. Those were the days in which you could draw a picture of a headless humanoid with a giant eye in its chest on some remote part of a map, and the people you would eventually sell the map to (Frenchmen, Englishmen, etc.) would think “Oh, what a strange people live there….” without skipping a beat.

Well, as Western society developed … including western classism, colonialism, slavery, western science (and classification), and western real politics … race was easily and almost necessarily incorporated in the model of how things work, at every level. This was to become especially true in 19th century and later America, where slavery and Jim Crow became a pretty straight-forward black- and-white matter, and the distinction between blacks and whites needed to be more than skin deep in order to justify unthinkably horrific social injustices in the face of increasingly intense attention to both democratic and humanistic values.

And so now race is part of the normal way of thinking among westerners. I cannot tell you how many times I am challenged to disprove the existence of races. This is, of course, utterly opposite of the nature of reality. If we look across mammals in general, we see races (subspecies) in many cases, but in many other cases, not. Moreover, where races are used to divide mammals (or birds), these are sloppy, poorly behaved categories that are used (often for historical reasons) out of convenience, with everyone knowing they are not particularly valid. In other words, we don’t really expect race or subspecies to be a very useful concept generally … so why is the burden on me (or anyone else) to prove that it does not apply to humans? The reason for this frequent request is that the normal average western person begins with this belief and must be talked out of it, much like a religious person begins with faith-based concepts or the poorly taught student begins with concepts like “cold is a thing” or that cannon balls fly in an asymmetric arc and so on.

Race as the politically motivated default position

It hardly need be noted that the race concept has great utility in maintaining the status quo in power relationships and in managing and often deepening economic disparity. This is the kind of thing that everyone in a modern progressive society is against. Yet, when it happens, some people benefit. For this reason it is not surprising to find that the race concept remains as part of the conversation. All I really want to point out here is that the conversation about race has advanced to a point in our society where it is no longer possible to assume that the status quo is harmless. The failure to actively push back against the concept is the same thing, in this day and age, as advancing it. This is something that those scientists in two out of the three categories I loosely defined above have to understand. And act on. Those in the other category will eventually go away.

Race as a shortcut derails logical thinking

People will still want to use race terms for certain perfectly noble and legitimate reasons. I remember siting at the desk of a bank loan officer, trying to borrow a large amount of money, and he said to me “OK, I’ve got to ask you the following but you can refuse to answer. ‘What is your race?’ Now, the reason I’m asking you this is so that we can keep track of when people like you discriminate against people like me (he was black). But of course, in this case, I’m the banker and you’re not. So that means anything can happen.” … staring at each other for a moment … “OK, I’m putting you down as white.”

Pharmaceutical research is probably better research if ‘race’ (or something like it) is recorded, affirmative action has to have something to work with, and doctors would do well to use ‘racial’ indicators when diagnosing ill patients. But the fact that race, as a short cut, can and probably should be used in these areas does not legitimize the concept of race. The races are still not there.

Compare the white person and the black person in the doctor’s office. These two people are from the same species, but from different parts of that species’ geographical distribution. If you go back in time and find Ollie Svenson’s great great great … great grandparents hometown in Sweden, and from there walk at a normal pace to Kiesha Jackson’s great great great … great grandparents hometown in northern Angola, where exactly will be the boundary between these two races .. the white race and the black race (or the European and African, or whatever) be? There won’t be one. Which set of alleles are present in, say, 80 percent of the other members of Kiesha’s race but virtually absent for all of Ollie’s race? Really, honestly, which are the traits that you can’t see when you walk into that waiting room that you can reliably and regularly predict based on looking at Ollie’s and Kiesha’s skin color?

Yes, sitting there in the waiting room, these two folks look like examples of two distinct races. But they are not. In a society made up of end points … end points of long journeys, of slavery, of colonialism, of mass migration … race seems to work, but this is an illusion. A temporarily useful illusion, perhaps, but also an insidious and terribly destructive illusion. I, for one, am rather tired of hearing about how race is such a useful concept when it is in fact one of the most damaging concepts that we humans have ever conceptualized, and at the same time, scientifically misleading and of only minimal utility.

Moreover, the degree to which Ollie and Kiesha could be served (or not) by placing them in categories that kinda work under the present circumstances is diminishing with every year in this country. Black people are no longer almost exclusively the descendants of West African and west Central African slaves. White people are no longer mainly the descendants of Germans, Irish, and Italians. Asian people are no longer mainly the descendants of Chinese and some Japanese people. The Somalis and Ethiopians, the Russians and Serbians, the Hmong and the Vietnamese have ruined racism for everyone!!!!

Populations and Demes: More of the same or proper replacements?

In recent years, some scientists have started to use other terms to replace “race,” such as “population” or “deme” or some other term. It is more correct to call a group of people a population if they are a population than to call them a race. However, this is often not what is being done. In many cases, these other words are being substituted for race as a mere replacement of lexicon with no replacement of the faulty concept. In fact, I hear these terms being served up with a side dish of snark more often than not. And every time I hear that, I am reminded of the once infamous but now forgotten Vaughn Meter, an impressionist and comedian of the 1960s, doing his routine parodying a speech pathologist who is trying to teach Lyndon Johnson to properly say the word “Negro.”

“Nee-grow” slowly intones the speech pathologist.

“Nig-rah” quickly replies the President of the United States.

“No, no, that is too much like that other word. Let’s try again … Neee (pause) Grow.”

“Nig-rah” quickly replies the President of the United States.

And so on. And so forth.

Until eventually all the people who religiously believe in the race concept have joined Vaughn Meter in the Annals of Obscurity.

Comments

  1. #1 Moody834
    November 30, 2008

    Thank you for this. As a member of a couple “practicing miscegenation”, you can imagine how we might feel. We still have to deal from time to time with people who look askance at us. I have held your position since my teens (I am in my forties now) and have wished for years that people would clue in to the simple fact that ‘race’ is a social construct that has long overstayed its welcome in the world.

    Thank you for taking the concept of ‘race’ to task.

  2. #2 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    November 30, 2008

    Miscegenist, eh, moody834? Why that makes you almost as bad as married queers!

    Thanks for this post. This was starting to occur to me when my brothers each married women from India. One was Persian, (her great-grandparents were Zoroastrian who had been expelled from Iran,) and the other was Tamil (but actually three quarters English. People told me that Indians and Persians are actually closer to us caucasians than they are to Arabs and Asians. What a bloody mess trying to sort it all out.

    Eventually the need for Affirmative Action will be gone, I suppose, but till then race is codified whether the concept is scientifically valid or not.

  3. #3 Ian
    November 30, 2008

    Great post Greg…nice mix of some things I have been trying to explain to people for years, and some things that hadn’t crossed my mind…slotted together in a nice, logical form. Thanks.

  4. #4 Graculus
    November 30, 2008

    Whenever I run into a discussion about race, I always ask: “When did the Irish become white?”

    Race has always been a social construct. Whenever you refuse to use the word “race” you get accused of failing to acknowledge that different populations have some different genes. Cavalli-Sforza I think had the right idea.. identify so many “races” (he uses “clines”, which is at least accurate) that the concept becomes useless for bigotry.

    Ah, screw it. The wogs begin at Calais.

  5. #5 Ethylene
    November 30, 2008

    Hi Greg.

    Would you not say then that Aboriginal Australians are “racially” different from, say, Khoisan?

    They have been separated for tens of thousands of years by the reliable barrier of being on distant continents. There may have been very little gene flow for at least the last 40k years. There will be many differences in the genetics of their populations, such that on analysis individuals could easily be partitioned into two sets.

    This is because Aborigines are much more closely related to each other than they are to any Khoisan, and vice versa. Their genetic differences will be clustered too: the more markers you look for, the less likely you are to mistake a member of one group for the other.

    Forget the fact that there’s probably a cline between them (although probably not much of one). To say that Aborigine and Khoisan are not distinct because there’s a cline between them is like saying red and green are not distinct because they’re on a continuous spectrum.

    On your definition, are these not two, racially distinct peoples?

    BTW, I don’t have any great emotional investment in whether there are “races” or not; it just seems from what I’ve seen on the Gene Expression blog that the science is not necessarily against it.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2008

    Ethylene: return to post rerea! :)

    I will not forget that there is a cline rather than a stark boundary between any two groups, because that is very much the point (see below for the Australian cline/boundary problem).

    No one believes that there are not variations across humans. The two people sitting in the doctor’s office in my example above are different, but classification of these individuals into races is incorrect because of all the stuff I said above.

    The color analogy is a good one, but not for the reasons you suspect. Color is a continuum. There is a continuum of spectral variation from one color to the next. However, our eyes have distinct color detectors with distinct neural circuitry. This, various brain-based perception thingies, and to some (leser) extent cultural elaboration/restriction causes this more or less complex system of classifying colors. A different species with very different kinds of eyes would perceive color totally differently.

    On the boundaries: Was Australia ‘originally’ populated by a single group that then became isolated over 40K years, or was Australia repopulated more than one time, thus making that boundary less distinct? The latter, according to actual evidence. What about New Guinea and New Caledonia, etc? They are across the sea from Australia. Are they distinct too? No, the populations are continuous and inter-connected among these regions for various reasons. What about New Guinea, N.C., and the Melanesian islands? You know, I could easily find photos of Melanesians and Australians such that you could not tell the difference. I can convince you that they are the same race. I could do the same with Melanesians and Micronesians, and either of those and Indonesia, and Indonesia and the Philippines, and the Philippines and mainland east Asia, and so on and so on until I’ve demonstrated a continuum between Joe the Australian Aborigine and Grandma Moses.

    So, no. The thing is, there are two kinds of human genetic scientists: a) the ones who are fully aware of the fact that when scientists use the term “race” they mean something very different, something vague, a shorthand for a complex of variation, etc. etc., than the average person, but don’t care that the average person’s concept of race is very wrong AND very nefarious in it’s ultimate application, and b) the ones who are fully aware of the fact that when scientists use the term “race” they mean something very different, something vague, a shorthand for a complex of variation, etc. etc., than the average person, but DO care that the average person’s concept of race is very wrong AND very nefarious in it’s ultimate application.

    I think that Razib and I might very well disagree about much of this, but I strongly suspect we would disagree about much less than you might guess. But don’t lead that to assume anything about what either of us are thinking. The fact is that this is not a simple issue, but it usually gets oversimplified in the discussion. People do have beliefs that are fundamentally wrong and they want to hold onto those beliefs, and can often find (invalid) justification for those beliefs amid the complexity.

  7. #7 Ethylene
    November 30, 2008

    Greg, humans are not just genetically diverse in a random way. 15% of human genetic variation is between population groups (from memory – it’s something like that).

    It seems to me that, even if there is a cline in population variation, the populations at either end of that cline can be very different, a difference we might well call racial.

    Of course we’re all related, but each of us is more related to some than others.

    Re Melanesians, if you mean Bismarck, Vanuatu, etc. then those people are actually mostly descended from Austronesians, not the same group as Australians.

    BTW maybe you and Razib should have a one-on-one debate?

  8. #8 Jerry
    November 30, 2008

    The other side of the coin here is the nominalist one, it seems to me. The usage of the word “race” has a history that is informative.

    As far as I have been able to tell, it emerges in our present sense during the seventeenth century, when Jesuits used it to describe African peoples the French were beginning to colonize. The context of those early usages indicates they were invoking the concept of “the race of Cain.” (For centuries, the standard word for what we now refer to as race had been “nations,” in the sense of birth-groups.) This ideologically useful concept was then broadened at some later point.

    That Jesuit use of the word race derives from late medieval Italian sources, where “razza” had come to mean lineage, a rational description of descendants that could be used in property disputes. Ironically, that in turn derives from Latin “ratio,” meaning reason, proportion, etc.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2008

    It seems to me that, even if there is a cline in population variation, the populations at either end of that cline can be very different, a difference we might well call racial.

    That is an interesting and novel definition of race (or “racial”).

    Simply put, if you approach humanity by dividing it into groups, then guess what. You are going to get groups.

    By taking individuals who are very distantly related and different by whatever standards you’ve come up with to define similarity and difference, and saying “these are two races” you are going to get these two races, because you’ve said they exist.

    If there is not a boundary between these two individuals, if the difference you observe is a cline, and then you say “I don’t care if there is a cline, these are still two races” then guess what. You have socially constructed race categories because you believed them to exist, you wanted them to exist, you did not want to change your way of thinking, perhaps you benefit from these categories, or whatever.

    The categories did not actually exist, yet you created them, defined them, and will go to your grave insisting that they exist. An absolutely wonderful example of the social construction of race, right before our very eyes.

  10. #10 Christopher Guerra
    November 30, 2008

    Great Post! I’m a great example that race doesn’t exist! Because I am: Hispanic, White, and Native American ^_^ but because of my white skin i dont get the racial bias ^_^ im an undercover hispanic/ native american! HAHAHAHA…. anyways i never believed that race existed. From a young age i always thought we are all talking monkeys

    war = monkey killing monkey

    once again thanks for the post ^_^

  11. #11 Graculus
    November 30, 2008

    Of course we’re all related, but each of us is more related to some than others.

    True, but trivially true. I’m more closely related to my cousins than I am to your cousins. Am I a different “race” than them?

    This is because Aborigines are much more closely related to each other than they are to any Khoisan, and vice versa. Their genetic differences will be clustered too: the more markers you look for, the less likely you are to mistake a member of one group for the other

    This gets back to what I was saying, that if I/you deny the validity of “race”, I/you get accused of denying human variation. You’re doing it now.

    Re Melanesians, if you mean Bismarck, Vanuatu, etc. then those people are actually mostly descended from Austronesians, not the same group as Australians.

    No, dude.. Fijians would be the best example. I have Fijian friends that visually are indistinguishable from Australian natives, and others that are visually indistinguishable from some African clines. And they are all from the same family. :D

    The majority of human genetic variation is in areas that are either not accessable visually, or are really, really subtle visually. “Race”, on the other hand, is based strictly on visual criteria, all Melanesians and all Africans are “black”, all Europeans are “white”. There is no reference to genuine genetic variation in the concept of race, and that is the problem with it.

  12. #12 Christopher Guerra
    November 30, 2008

    *with a straight face*
    Um didn’t god make us in his image? *giggles* so shouldn’t we all look like god?
    *twitches*
    ……
    on another note. why does everyone want to everyone into groups?

  13. #13 Elizabeth
    November 30, 2008

    on another note. why does everyone want to everyone into groups?

    You are exactly the type of person who thinks that.

  14. #14 Ethylene
    November 30, 2008

    I think we agree that there are different human populations, eg. Khoisan and Aborigine, who exhibit genetic diversity at the population level.

    I am happy to think of that as racial difference because they are like two, largely separated, extended families. You won’t call their differences racial because there are populations in-between them.

    Fine, I don’t think that’s an important dispute. It’s more about how we use the word race than about reality.

    I’m not bothered about whether they can be categorised into distinct groups or not. You’re probably right that “race” isn’t the right word for this because that has overtones of distinctness, but I’m not sure what word you would use to compare populations at either extreme of a cline.

  15. #15 christopher Guerra
    November 30, 2008

    I believe in groups? ummm i guess so… we are all the same!

  16. #16 Stephanie Z
    November 30, 2008

    Ethylene, whether one uses the word in a biological context is important all by itself. Doing so lends validity to all the other uses of the word. If you have difficulty understanding why, see scientist group #2 in Greg’s post above.

  17. #17 Ethylene
    November 30, 2008

    Question: if you compared the population genetics of Aborigines and Khoisan, and there were no populations in-between, would you be happy to call that racial difference?

  18. #18 The Science Pundit
    November 30, 2008

    When asked what race I belong to, I like to answer “bald”.

    Seriously though, I’ve noticed lately that when filling out forms or polls, something akin to declined or refused is included among the options for Race. I don’t remember seeing that option even 5-10 years ago. I consider that to be progress. Now if only our society will reach the point where that question isn’t asked anymore …

  19. #19 Christopher Guerra
    November 30, 2008

    I’m waiting for the day for vulcan bubble on the fourm.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2008

    Question: if you compared the population genetics of Aborigines and Khoisan, and there were no populations in-between, would you be happy to call that racial difference?

    I think it is important to keep the test questions like this one related to and calibrated to the argument at hand. Instead of asking about two specific groups, you might ask instead:

    If almost all humans can be placed into a group, such that there are multiple groups, on the basis of a given trait such that the traits varied much more between groups than within groups, and if most other traits that vary among said humans also varied in the same way (i.e., did not produce divergent patterns of grouping) then would we say that *Homo sapiens* could be chracterized as a species divisible into race?

    Then the answer would be yes. But none of that is true, so the answer is no.

  21. #21 Graculus
    November 30, 2008

    Question: if you compared the population genetics of Aborigines and Khoisan, and there were no populations in-between, would you be happy to call that racial difference

    Question: if you compared the population genetics of the Irish and French, and there were no populations in-between, would you be happy to call that racial difference?

  22. #22 Ian
    November 30, 2008

    Is gender real? I’d say yes – despite the existence of ‘inbetweenness’, most people can be easily placed in one gender or the other. Are species real? In most cases, despite the existence of hybrids, you can use statistical tools to place individuals in one species or another, even for sister taxa. But there are species complexes, where it’s hard to determine whether you have one polymorphic species or several similar species. So while ‘species’ are usually real, sometimes the species concept breaks down.

    If race is real, then there needs to be some way of delineating races. You can’t simply pick two distinct points on a continuum and say “yes, these are different, let’s call them races”. That’s fudging the data.

    At the very least, if race is real, then there would have to be “core” areas and transition zones, and the rate of change within the transition zones would have to be greater than the rate of change within core areas. Sure, there are a few areas where you see abrupt changes – across the Sahara, or across the Himalayas. But if race is real, then this would be the norm, not the exception. Start in southern Africa and travel north across east Africa, up the Nile, the Levant, across Turkey, and then across Europe to Ireland. Are you going to see huge changes in skin colour and other physical characteristics? Sure. But are you going to be able to identify a border between the races, one that most observers, regardless of where they grew up, would be able to agree upon? Failing that, would you be able to identify a transition zone in which a number of diagnostic markers of “race” change more quickly then they do in the “core” populations? If it were a real transition zone between real entities, you’d expect to find a place where many of your diagnostic markers changed, all at roughly the same place.

    If races are real entities, then these sharp transitions must exist between each race. Of course, there’s an obvious counterargument – that race exists, but human migration has blurred the boundaries. Maybe race existed in the past, but what evidence is there for this? In addition, the fact that the current distribution of humans reflects the massive expansion of the groups that adopted agriculture at the expense of their non-adopting neighbours seems to suggest that current boundaries between groups should be sharper than they were in the past…the iron-age expansion of west Africans, for example, could just as easily be expected to have created the illusion of a transition zone in north and east Africa as it could be expected to have blurred a “real” boundary between two races.

  23. #23 Skemono
    November 30, 2008

    These days, many people say that race is largely a social construct; while it may have a place in describing the population genetics of some species, is not particularly applicable to humans. I’m one of those people. The race concept is generally inapplicable or at best misleading when used as it often is with our species. This is why race should be abandoned in favor of other ways of describing human variation.

    It may have been in your post and I just missed it, but what then would you replace it with?

    Really, honestly, which are the traits that you can’t see when you walk into that waiting room that you can reliably and regularly predict based on looking at Ollie’s and Kiesha’s skin color?

    Well, for instance, there are studies that isosorbide dinitrate/hydralazine works for ‘blacks’ but not for ‘whites’, aren’t there?

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2008

    Skemono: If you want me to replace the concept of race with another concept of race, then I won’t do that. What I would replace the concept of race with is a realistic and accurate picture of human genetic variation.

    There is nothing incomputable with the statement that ID/H works for “blacks” but not for “whites” and the statement that race as defined above, which is how the concept is almost always used, is a fallacy.

    Also, your statement is one part of the social construction of race we see above. It is simply not true that “isosorbide dinitrate/hydralazine works for ‘blacks’ but not for ‘whites’, aren’t there? ” What is true is that there is a difference between study populatiosn identified as black vs. white. A difference, but not an absolute one. there is a range of variation, which you’ve converted to an absolute statement, which in turn (along with other absolute statements) is often the first step in the social construction project.

    Humans do vary. But humans cannot usefully be subdivided into bounded groups with correlated differences etc. etc. etc.

    The observation you refer to in your comment presumes two races, and the particular test (works/not works) would be a very poorly formulated hypothesis to test the validity of those categories, which would get you nowhere statistically.

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2008

    You’re probably right that “race” isn’t the right word for this because that has overtones of distinctness, but I’m not sure what word you would use to compare populations at either extreme of a cline.

    Normally, two sets of subjects who are at opposite ends of a cline are not two populations. They re one population. That is why it is a cline, that is what cline means.

    Humans are a complex interconnected set of clines going every which way. Embrace your clinosity, human! Love it!

  26. #26 Skemono
    November 30, 2008

    What I would replace the concept of race with is a realistic and accurate picture of human genetic variation.

    Which is?

  27. #27 MH
    November 30, 2008

    Greg, it’s posts like this one which make Scienceblogs such a great place to visit. Many thanks.

  28. #28 Sigmund
    November 30, 2008

    I’m another of those hell-bound miscegenators who happens to work with human molecular genetics (does that make me a miscegeneticist?).
    Greg, Richard Dawkins had a lengthy discussion of this topic in ‘The Ancestors Tale’.
    Would you consider his views as racist?

  29. #29 mark
    November 30, 2008

    It seems to me that, even if there is a cline in population variation, the populations at either end of that cline can be very different, a difference we might well call racial.

    One of the ideas taught in statistics is that if you run a comparison test (such as t-test) on members of a population that have been grouped by some factor (e.g., tallest versus shortest), you can wind up with a misleading but “significant” set of groups.

    Also, a nitpick on the description of the hydraulic theory of electricity: voltage corresponds to hydraulic head or potential, and amperage may be thought of as the amount of water flowing. There are occasions when the classification of water as “ground water” or “surface water” gets murky, often muddied by lawyers.

  30. #30 Graculus
    November 30, 2008

    Well, for instance, there are studies that isosorbide dinitrate/hydralazine works for ‘blacks’ but not for ‘whites’, aren’t there?

    Except that “black” and “white” in that context refer to US-only catagories of “race”. Lots of “blacks” (melanesians, etc) aren’t considered “black” in the US.. in the US it means strictly “West African ancestry”… and Moroccans are “white”.

    Once again, “race” doesn’t actually map to genetic differences at all. It maps to a strictly local social construct.

  31. #31 Graculus
    November 30, 2008

    Would you consider his views as racist?

    OK, this is going to be the third time I’ve said this.

    The fact that there are genetic differences between clines is not what is being argued against. They just aren’t “races”.

  32. #32 Skemono
    November 30, 2008

    Once again, “race” doesn’t actually map to genetic differences at all. It maps to a strictly local social construct.

    I’m well aware that race, as it has been used throughout the centuries, is socially defined (and redefined). I really don’t need anyone else to try and tell me that.

    But as you point out, there are genetic differences between clines. Why is this not “race”? Just because what we culturally define as races don’t match up to those genetic differences? Because the word race has too much baggage? I have often seen people try to say that race as a concept doesn’t have any biological underpinning, and I still don’t understand that.

  33. #33 Stephanie Z
    November 30, 2008

    Skemono, reread the section above on “A definition of the race concept.” Race doesn’t work because there are no discontinuities (no bounded groups) and because it doesn’t represent any set of traits that hang together (no correlated differences). In short, it doesn’t do anything to describe the differences that do exist between humans.

  34. #34 Graculus
    November 30, 2008

    Just because what we culturally define as races don’t match up to those genetic differences?

    I have often seen people try to say that race as a concept doesn’t have any biological underpinning, and I still don’t understand that.

    Didn’t you just answer your own question?

    I have a question for you. Why are you so attached to the word race, instead of more accurate descriptors?

  35. #35 Skemono
    November 30, 2008

    I did read it. However, I’m not clear why these features are necessary to say a group is a ‘race’ or ‘subspecies’ or ‘variety’. Mr. Laden admits that the second isn’t necessary but includes it anyways. Is the first just inherent to the biological definition of subspecies?

  36. #36 Skemono
    November 30, 2008

    Didn’t you just answer your own question?

    No, in fact. I’m divorcing the idea of race from the historical application and concrete instances (such as they are) of race. I readily admit that race as it has been practically applied doesn’t match biological difference. It does not therefore follow that there is no such biological difference that could be called race.

    Why are you so attached to the word race, instead of more accurate descriptors?

    Well, for one, no-one has said what a more accurate descriptor would be. I tried asking and Greg blew me off. Would you care to educate me?

  37. #37 Stephanie Z
    November 30, 2008

    Skemono, the first is necessary in order to define a group, any group. Without clear boundary conditions, you don’t have a grouping in any meaningful sense of the word. You have an arbitrary–socially rather than biologically based–classification.

    The second is necessary to show that the classification is valid; i.e., useful. Without traits correlated to the group definition, the labels applied to the group don’t tell us anything.

    Race fails both tests.

  38. #38 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2008

    But as you point out, there are genetic differences between clines.

    I think I’m seeing a basic problem here with terminology. there are not genetic differences between clines. A cline is a two variable relationship, where one variable changes smoothly along with the other variable, where one of the variables is (usually) space. The cline is the genetic ‘difference’ (variatin). A clinal variation is a smooth shift in allele frequency (from some number down to zero, say) across space.

    Well, for one, no-one has said what a more accurate descriptor would be. I tried asking and Greg blew me off. Would you care to educate me?

    I’m definitely not trying to blow you of. The thing that has been called race … categories less variable within, largely correlated variables, boundaries between groups, etc. etc. does not work, does not exist, isn’t there, does not describe, is not part of the nature of most mammalian populatios, humans included.

    Indeed, don’t separate the historical from the current. The current concept of race as it is generally thought of by most people is the same as the old fashioned concept of race. This really is a case where science has marched on but popular thinking (and the thinking of a lot of non-specialists in science as well) has stuck in the early 20th century.

    There is not a replacement for the word race. Race is a perfectly well defined, real concept that can really happen as people usually think of it. Wildebeests have races. The concept works great with wildebeest. Totally sucks with elephants and buffalo. Elephants might have two subspecies, might not, but it really looks like the three or four features that distinguish forest from savanna putative subspecies are totally clinal. This is certainly true for cape buffalo. I have personally traversed that cline and it is totally obvious. But with wildebeest, they have almost total exclusion between breeding zones across a very large area, and despite the fact that they are always migrating, they are not really long distance wanderers like buffalo are. You can tell a Serengeti wildebeest from a tanengere wildebeest easily.

    The race concepts is alive and well and applies to wildebeest. The race concept does not really work with humans.

    So you don’t need to replace the word, you just need to understand what the actual on the ground situation is.

  39. #39 warpman
    November 30, 2008

    I don’t feel the need to repudiate the existence of “race” just to be more politically correct than thou. It may not be a useful concept in genetics or biology, but it is useful in the social sciences and in understanding political situations around the world. Religion is a social construct too, but you can’t understand the world if you pretend that race or religion do not exist, if only in our minds. By the way, first you equate race with subspecies in animals (or varieties in plants), and then you go on to say that humans have no subspecies – therefore there are no races. Well the general use of the term race is not the same as subspecies, so I don’t see the point. There is no exact equivalent of races in any other species. As you said yourself, it is not a biological construct. The concept of race has been around a lot longer than any ideas of genes or of our evolutionary relationship to other creatures.
    Where do you get the idea that races are only a Western concept? I have traveled on five continents, and race or something that translates as race is a concept where ever there are people that can be visually distinguished from each other, sometimes not so easily to my eyes.

  40. #40 Lou FCD
    November 30, 2008

    Elephants might have two subspecies, might not, but it really looks like the three or four features that distinguish forest from savanna putative subspecies are totally clinal.

    I didn’t know that.

  41. #41 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2008

    Warpman, I have not said that it is only a western concept, but I was writing here specifically of the western context, which is important.

    Lou: Depending, Africa has two species, Loxodonta africana and L. cyclotis, with the latter as the forest elephant.

    This is highly controversial. In my view, the Bush and forest elephants (of Africa) grade but that does not mean they can’t be two species. Most likley, the now extinct northern African elephant, and these two African populations are a “species complex” …

  42. #42 Jason Malloy
    December 1, 2008

    “In recent years, some scientists have started to use other terms to replace “race,” such as “population” or “deme” or some other term. It is more correct to call a group of people a population if they are a population than to call them a race. However, this is often not what is being done. In many cases, these other words are being substituted for race as a mere replacement of lexicon with no replacement of the faulty concept.”

    Your post doesn’t really make it clear what you are talking about. Is all research inaccurate that treats American blacks as a biological population? Or how about American blacks and Caribbeans and West Africans as a biological population? Or how about just those of sub-Saharan ancestry as a biological population? Because lots of diverse kinds of research does all three, including population genetics, behavioral/medical genetics, Pharmacogenetics, and biological anthropology.

    This sufficiently contradicts you by itself. If I have to choose between what you are saying and what scientists clearly do, I have no choice but to believe race is a scientifically useful concept. If it wasn’t useful it wouldn’t be used so incredibly often, and by so many different kinds of scientists.

  43. #43 Jason Malloy
    December 1, 2008

    Compare and contrast these quotes from History and Geography of Human Genes and tell me what doesn’t fit:

    Section 1.6, entitled “The Scientific Failure of the Concept of Human Races”:

    “The classification into races has proved to be a futile exercise for reasons that were already clear to Darwin … at no level can clusters be identified with races.” (pp 19-20)

    OK, gotcha, LLC-S, science has rejected racial classifications. Now to read the rest of the book:

    “A second group found in West Africa shows Negroid skeletal characteristics and is probably ancestral to all Negroid groups, who today live in the tropical forest and in much of Eastern and Southern Africa” (p 160)

    “… two groups are genetically intermediate between Caucasoids, who all appear at the right side of the diagram, and the sub-Saharan Negroid Africans, who occupy the other side.” (p 170)

    “The slightly larger fraction of Negroid genes may have been in situ in early Neolithic times, perhaps having come to Ethiopia from the west, southwest or… “ (p 174)

    “… They are, according to Murdock (1959), either pastoralists, and Caucasoid-like (of Berber origin), or settled farmers of Negroid type.” (p 182)

    “… the northern and central part of the Sahara was probably populated by Caucasoids and the central and southern part by Negroid peoples. (p 193)

    There are literally 100s of uses of such terminology in this book:

    “African Negroid population”, “Negroid hair”, “Negroid admixture”, “Negroid haplotype”, “Negroid populations”, “genetically Mongoloid”, “Mongoloid people”, “Mongoloid type”, “Mongoloid characteristics”, “Mongoloid populations”, “Caucasoid cluster” (cf. “…at no level can clusters be identified with races”), “Caucasoid populations”, “60% African and 40% Caucasoid”, “Caucasoid admixture”, “Caucasoid genes”, “Caucasoid zones”, etc, etc, etc, etc.

    Luigi, darling, I can understand if you say race is a useless and discredited classification. But don’t feed me that horseshit if you are going to fill your own book with hundreds of sentences about “Negroid genes”, Mongoloid hair”, and “Caucasoid admixture”. There is no way to reconcile these claims. Clearly you do find racial concepts and categories extremely helpful for organizing what you do.

    And just like LLC-S, Greg, your talk doesn’t amount to much. If the bible of population genetics is filled with racial categorization, then it seems pretty obvious to me that racial categorization is typical for biological scientists, and must be so because they find it conceptually helpful.

  44. #44 some guy
    December 1, 2008

    So I agree that the clinal viewpoint is somewhat illuminating,
    but even with it you haven’t quite shown the non-existence of any “human race,”or “bounded yard with dog”, especially if you allow both hedges and fences or even moats or cliffs or hundreds of miles between your yard and the neighbour’s. (I can think of analogues.)

    Why is the world “cluster” absent from your piece? Don’t puy out of calling them as you see them, or you lose credibility, and you do a disservice to the true cause of anti-racism.

  45. #45 Graculus
    December 1, 2008

    There is no way to reconcile these claims.

    Sure there is, because he’s talking about clines and populations, not races.

    Why is there such a strange emotional attachment to a word that has no real application?

  46. #46 Greg Laden
    December 1, 2008

    Jason:Is all research inaccurate that treats American blacks as a biological population? Or how about American blacks and Caribbeans and West Africans as a biological population? Or how about just those of sub-Saharan ancestry as a biological population?

    Those are very very good examples of very badly defined biological populations, roughly in descending order of quality. In a pre-1970 America, “American Blacks” (american citizens with black skin and some link to Africa” may have been a fairly reasonable population. Being a population does not make you a race (read post for details) but in making comparisons this American Black group vs. an American White group should show lots of distinguishing characteristics (neither being a valid race as per the definition I gave above, and that virtually everyone uses virtually all the time).

    As we go down your list, we probably have more and more problems. When we get to Africa, we now see your particular version of socially constructing race coming to the surface.

    What to you imagine Africa, or sub Saharan Africa to consist of? It was once said that if we wanted to use the race concept but were allowed to go back and make new races that made the most sense possible, and had, say, a limit of a dozen races or so, we’d end up with about 11 or 12 races nine of which are sub Saharan African.

  47. #47 Dann Siems
    December 1, 2008

    Excellent post Greg.

    It seems painfully obvious to me that those who continue to cling to various concepts of “race” miss the central point of Darwin’s work — populations vary and there are no underlying ideal types. Races, like species, have no essence. Plato was simply flat-out wrong on that score.

    Darwin showed that one species need not “transmute” into another because populations comprised of diverse individuals can evolve over time even to a point of reproductive isolation. Similarly, various human populations isolated by time and distance can diverge without changing some fundamental (and entirely imaginary) racial essence. For human populations, sharing commom ancestry within ~3500 generations and geographically isolated to only a very limited degree, genetic divergence results only in rather subtle changes in allele frequency among populations.

    Whatever limited utility notions of race might have, we must recognize at the outset that all are simply categories of convenience. “Racists” appeat to be latent typologists (perhaps with ideal racial types held in the “mind of God?”)…

  48. #48 Dann Siems
    December 1, 2008

    In response to Jason:

    Jason: “Is all research inaccurate that treats American blacks as a biological population?”

    Yes. Quite simply, American blacks do not constitute an ‘population’ as biologists use the term.

    Jason: “If I have to choose between what you are saying and what scientists clearly do, I have no choice but to believe race is a scientifically useful concept. If it wasn’t useful it wouldn’t be used so incredibly often, and by so many different kinds of scientists.”

    Utility implies some particular end. The notion of race was useful to the maintenance of slavery or as a justification of imperialism. The notion of race in medicine maybe useful for the purpose of experimental design but it is more likely to be misleading than informative with respect to real understanding.

  49. #49 Steve Sailer
    December 1, 2008

    A simple, elegant, highly useful definition that fits quite well how the term “race” is used functionally today, such as by the U.S. Census Bureau, is that a racial group is a partly inbred extended family.

    For an explanation of how this definition solves all the problems brought up in this post, see:

    http://www.vdare.com/Sailer/presentation.htm

  50. #50 the real me
    December 1, 2008

    Greg, having argued with racists of every shade and ‘color’, I am with you on the whole description of race, but I have two questions: 1a) you said “while it may have a place in describing the population genetics of some species, is not particularly applicable to humans.”

    Why, if it is applicable to other species is it not applicable to our own? Are you being specie-ist, or??

    1b)”the model is more likely to interfere rather than assist in further attempts at understanding.” Agreed, but if it applies to other species, why not ours?

    and this is just plain hilarious, and I confess, true;-)
    “but are sufficiently annoyed by ‘political correctness’ to stick with the race concept mainly for the purpose of sticking it to their postmodern la la chichi colleagues down the hall in the Cultural Anthropology and Humanities departments,” but you forgot to mention those neo-racists from the Multi-Cultural programs;-)

    2) Why do the skulls you use in lab from Aboriginies show such a marked, neanderthal characteristic in the brow, whereas an asian womans skull looks like a bocce ball? I never did reconcile that with the data presented in lab. I mean, big huge browbones are pretty neanderthal…this was the only skull that confused me, as the rest, be they african, asian or the one you had hidden in a stream behind your house (Kennewick man…?)look roughly the same in structure. And I admit, I am often too PC in public to ask the hard questions…

  51. #51 Science Avenger
    December 1, 2008

    If you think it’s a political loser trying to explain that evolutionary theory isn’t “just a theory”, you are in for a whole lot of you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet trying to sell “race is socially constructed” to people who can see “race” with their own eyes. To the nonsociologists you wish to persuade, “socially constructed” means “made up”, which will only confirm their anti-intellectual attitudes about that them there perfessors who might know lots about books, but don’t have no common sense.

    The thrust of your scientific argument amounts to saying that race, with its traditional purebred connotations, is inaccurate, and will continue to get more so as the world becomes populated with Tiger Woodses, Halley Berrys, Rae Dawn Chongs and Barack Obamas. Better to sell that, and leave the discussion of social constructs for conferences, lest you be quote-mined by the KKK.

    Sadly, most likely this social issue will ultimately be resolved, as so many are, with the passage of time. The old racists won’t be persuaded by any arguments, but they will die off and be replaced by those of us who consider being half Kenyan and half German to be no more noteworthy than being half German and half French. Or, as Warren Beatty said in Bulworth, “We just have to keep fucking each other until we are all the same color”.

  52. #52 Greg Laden
    December 1, 2008

    1a) you said “while it may have a place in describing the population genetics of some species, is not particularly applicable to humans.”

    Why, if it is applicable to other species is it not applicable to our own? Are you being specie-ist, or??

    I’m not saying that. Race/subspecies/variety works nicely in some species (oversimplified here a bit) and not so well in others. I contend that it does not work particularly well in humans, as a biological reality. Works very nicely as a social construct, of course.

    Why do the skulls you use in lab from Aboriginies show such a marked, neanderthal characteristic in the brow, whereas an asian womans skull looks like a bocce ball?

    isn’t that interesting. Excellent observation.

    When you buy human skulls from the human skull store, the asian is a gracile female, the australian is a pretty robust male, and so on. The skulls are chosen to reify the race concept. I assure you there are very very gracile skulls that could have been chosen from Australia, and so on.

    In my rendition of that lab, I insist that the race designators are not used or hidden. However, the race concept is so embedded in the system that the TA’s push back on that. I don’t remember who your TA was. Do you?

    (I’m guessing S.M… an archaeologist and excellent musician.)

  53. #53 the real Yorick in me
    December 1, 2008

    “re: The skulls are chosen to reify the race concept. I assure you there are very very gracile skulls that could have been chosen from Australia, and so on.”
    Aha! The institutionalized version of that old saw….sad indeed.” and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is…”

    So, the skull store is deliberately perpetuating the uber-gracile asian female as well as the neanderthal male stereotype? Makes me wanna go and dig up my own fresh skulls! They actually do this? How misleading and inapropriate! Gotta do s/th about that…

    By “push back” do you mean that you have the TA’s write letters to the skull store? They oughta…

    TA, I think, was a rather timid but excitable fellow by the name of Jeff or s/th with a J…um, studied, um…social engineering or city planning(?) from an archeological perspective or s/th; had a wife named Elizabeth, who (together) had a daughter named Elizabeth, in a cycle of single children named Elizabeth that has aparently endured for centuries!

    Nice guy, good in lab, not PC per se, and like I said, it is I am often too PC to ask the hard questions–often fearing an inevitable exchange of half informed, or ill informed student-to-TA, PC laden rhetoric in exchange.
    *a coward in my own right…*sigh*

  54. #54 Greg Laden
    December 1, 2008

    Right. without mentioning names. Really great guy, does interesting research in historical archeology. He was just using the labs provided, which in turn are the product of a lot of work. But there is always a tension between faculty and graduate students as to what actually happens in these labs.

  55. #55 the real Yorick in me
    December 1, 2008

    Yup, that’s the guy–no names mentioned…and for the record, he made no comentary whatsoever in regard to this and used a very socratic method–allowing questions and leading students to answers.

    Tensions ovwer PC rhetoric at the U??

    Really?Over these skulls in the lab? What is the nature of these tensions–without mentioning names?

    You mean that the TA’s actually want such representations? Or are you saying that change doesn’t come overnight?

    So, if an enterprising fellow wanted to say, write a story about intstitutional racism and how it plays out, this could be a lead?

  56. #56 windy
    December 2, 2008

    Dann Siems:
    It seems painfully obvious to me that those who continue to cling to various concepts of “race” miss the central point of Darwin’s work — populations vary and there are no underlying ideal types. Races, like species, have no essence.

    So, should we also stop clinging to the various concepts of “species”? Why the double standard?

    Yes. Quite simply, American blacks do not constitute an ‘population’ as biologists use the term.

    Nonsense. They are an admixed population.

    Steve Sailer:
    a racial group is a partly inbred extended family.

    Same can be said for any population. That’s not a very helpful definition.

  57. #57 Epistaxis
    December 2, 2008

    Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I get uncomfortable when people attack the “race concept” even though I don’t necessarily disagree. That’s because I haven’t really been exposed to any well-informed racists, so I can’t make a mental picture of the people you’re attacking. For me, it’s always been a matter of common sense – some people seem to fit neatly into well established categories, but others don’t. It doesn’t generally matter, because I immediately learn more about someone than just her ethnic background as soon as I get to know her, and no one in their right mind would trust crude stereotypes over personal interactions.

    Now that Jim Watson has retired, are there really racist scientists out there anymore? Am I just sheltered, or has your dream already come true?

  58. #58 Greg Laden
    December 2, 2008

    Yorick: What goes on at the U is the same thing that you see going on in this thread. As far as I know, all of the TA’s were not only not racist, but anti racist, as much as a bunch of mostly middle class mostly white all well educated whatever whatevers were. But from a pragmatic point of view I think it was easier to say “Hand me the Asian Female” or “Look at the this-or-that on that Australian male” and so on. This especially becomes true when the materials are being taken out or put away, or the twice a year inventory is going on. Having the things labled as to what they are is just something that you’ve gotta expece the anthropologists to do.

    Windy: Interesting idea that it is a double standard to make the claim that the biological race concept is an ineffective and essentially incorrect way to divide up humans is only acceptable if we also say that species are lousy categories. You are kidding, of course.

    But since you mention species: There are instances where the species concept gets totally dicey. These are probably situations that are somewhat parallel to the race problem in humans: Where dynamic forces cause the nice neat categories surrounded by clear boundaries to become difficult. There may be some parallels there.

  59. #59 the real Yorick
    December 2, 2008

    Greg: yeah, that assertion about your TA is correct. I wasn’t trying to criticize him at all–he did a great job, and again, it was me too cowardly to ask the right question, lest I embarass myself or another in public. In fact the prominent brow never came up as a ‘racial’ feature, only as morphological points of interest.

    Also, there actually wasn’t any labeling on the skulls per se–a nice surprise, and a relief for all of us was learning the origin of each skull!But I wasn’t intending criticism of the TA, or even that lab–just asking a question now that I should have asked then.

    But I appreciate your nod in this direction: “anti racist, *as much as a bunch of mostly middle class mostly white all well educated whatever whatevers were*.”

    Skemono: Seeing race as you do, with a focus on the ‘black’ part and your idealized ‘liberation of blackness from the death grip of whiteness’, you are still stuck somewhere between white guilt–that peculiar shade of racism, but as ‘revercism’ that afflicts so many so-called anti-racists; and your own inability to decipher the code of ‘human as human only’ might be due to the fact that you see color, and extrapolate that onto others.

    Perhaps there is no conscience assauging balm in the ‘merely human, get over it’ equation ( which is never ever fair for most of us humans, and natural selection is at work on your brain weeding out the…guilt or s/th)

    You see, race is something YOU have chosen to rally around–for or against is irrelevant because you have taken a side on ‘race as human descriptor’.This leaves out the zillion other ways you could approach the issue.

    Like when Greg says ” There is not a replacement for the word race”; there is also no replacement word for the word nigger either, yet we see its current evolution as white people vainly nodding that it exist(ed)(s). A really banal PC language experiment actually– and saying “the N-word,” which, to me at least, trivializes its lengthy history of oppression,and ‘human to human oppression’ it layers a sort of faux entitlement on the group who can ‘rightfully’ say it.

    It also effectively precludes discussion of other possibilities for humanity by adopting the race construct in a defeatist sort of gesture,granting the ‘right’ and the ‘privilege’ of employing racial epithets; by limiting the arena of discussion so that it only includes neo-racists and their much adored supplicants, the so-called ‘anti-racists,’both of whom seek, and gain power (cultural capital) in the negotiation and discussion of this privilege .

    So, guilt ridden ‘whitefolks’ contribute in large part to those who are apparently suffering some sort of reaction formation to perceived injustice–like those asswipes on the bus the other day who were going on and on yakking yadda yadda on the cellie, saying “Nigger” this and “Nigger” that at the loudest possible decibel level, offending old and young alike until the bus driver had to threaten to pull over and let them off if they couldn’t keep it down.It wasn’t the word itself, but the fact that only a ‘person in authority’ could tell them to shut the hell up–because em[ploying that word granted them a sort of defined social arena that only they could play in, because only they ‘owned the rules,’ or could gain some purse by using the word.

    The word won’t go away anytime soon,in part because it is a derivative of and was a valid descriptor at one time for people and things that are dark, as in the Spanish usage of “negro” which ill informed whitefolk today take as a racist bash on ‘blackfolk,’ rather than utility of the genuine etymological basis.

    Race as a word and a concept is like that.Never mind that the Bible was written by a tribe of people who felt that they above all others, were the only ones chosen by G-d; or that the Klan felt the same way; or that there is a current movement afoot that declares “Jesus was a blackman Race has a relatively shorter history as a modern word object.that history has some form of origin we can point our finger at, ‘see, right there on the historical timeline, was them there whitefolk oppressin’ them there blackfolk.’

    Chaim Potok and other Hassidim say that the word Hebrew was originally almost derogeratory and it meant ‘mercenaries’ and/or ‘wanderers’ etc–not a good thing to be in Babylon back then, and

    They all point to the same source for their justification of their racism–oppression,discrimination, etc, and ironically, uphold the concept of a ‘race’ of people: a concept that could apply to all of our tribes, if we took a humane approach, rather than a pandering one. Ah, where are those lost tribes…

    So, for now, whitefolk are keeping the ‘N-word’ alive by justifying and tolerating it’s use by ‘those who own the word’( white-guilt ridden shorthand for those who ‘are that word’but shouldn’t be, gosh darn it)and also keeping the concept of race alive by choosing a side that has an identifiable ‘color’, rather than choosing the side that has the harder to see ‘humanity’.

  60. #60 windy
    December 2, 2008

    Windy: Interesting idea that it is a double standard to make the claim that the biological race concept is an ineffective and essentially incorrect way to divide up humans is only acceptable if we also say that species are lousy categories. You are kidding, of course.

    No, I’m criticising Dann’s argument “Darwin showed that there is no ideal essence to X, therefore we shouldn’t cling to concept X”. I’m not saying that all concepts X are effective and useful, just that it’s a bad argument.

  61. #61 steph
    April 8, 2011

    @Greg Landen, and i suppose anyone/everyone else

    After having a “hearty” discussion with my sister, i find myself in need of some assistance. At the time I wasn’t well-endowed with a logical way of making my point come across. I explained to her that in the beginning of human transition there were a few distinguishable subspecies of humans… However, now after tens of thousands of years, every human is intermixed with other humans. She responded in saying, that the addition of other cultural variations into another cultural variation just creates “new races”. How would you respond to that?

  62. #62 daedalus2u
    April 8, 2011

    Get her to say what she means by “race”. What is her definition? If she can’t define the term, it has no place in a scientific discussion. It can’t be like pornography, “I know it when I see it”.

    There has to be an objective, measurable way to classify people into different races. If that can’t be done, then the term “race” doesn’t have a real meaning.

    People once thought that “race” meant genetic differences that caused differences observed in phenotypes, but when the technology was developed to actually look at the genes, the differences that were assumed couldn’t be found, or didn’t correspond to the geographic and ethnic divisions assumed.

  63. #63 Stephanie Z
    April 8, 2011

    steph, it’s also worth noting that “race” as a social concept has some validity, although “ethnicity” is what’s really meant. It’s an in-group, out-group, shared-tradition social distinction.

    That’s very different than the idea of biologically distinct races, which is closer to the subspecies concept you’re talking about. That makes using “ethnicity” for what your sister is talking about even more desirable. There are a number of arguments that evaporate when people use different terms for the two concepts.

  64. #64 Greg Laden
    April 8, 2011

    Great, asked and answered! Which is good since I’ve been away from theinternet for a few days and can not use the middle finger of my left hand to type for a day or so…

  65. #65 CatsAreGods
    May 28, 2011

    First of all, it wasn’t “Vaughn Meter”, it was Vaughn Meader. Secondly, that wasn’t even Meader’s bit, it was Lenny Bruce.

  66. #66 Greg Laden
    May 29, 2011

    It was Vaughn Meader. Spelling is irrelevant.