Oscillator

Missing the Point

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It’s not every day that you read about measuring skulls in the contemporary scientific literature. It’s kind of a quaintly old-timey, quaintly racist kind of thing to do. But here we are, with a brand new paper about skull measuring in PLoS Biology. Already quite a few blog-words have been written in support of this new paper, which disproves Stephen Jay Gould‘s assertion in The Mismeasure of Man that George Morton’s 1839 skull measurements were fudged intentionally or unintentionally by his racist bias.

I haven’t read a lot of Gould, and I’m pretty convinced by the numbers in the paper that show that Morton measured correctly, so I don’t necessarily want to defend Gould or get into any specifics on how to best measure skulls, but I do want to point out how completely the authors seem to miss the point about race, “objectivity,” and the social studies of science. The authors do appear to be familiar with the modern social science literature on the social construction of race, which does not mean that there are no differences at all between different people from different parts of the world, but that the way we understand and label these differences change over time and depend on the social and cultural context. The results section of the paper begins with a paragraph where they address these issues directly:

In reevaluating Morton and Gould, we do not dispute that racist views were unfortunately common in 19th-century science [6] or that bias has inappropriately influenced research in some cases [16]. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that modern human variation is generally continuous, rather than discrete or “racial,” and that most variation in modern humans is within, rather than between, populations [11],[17]. In particular, cranial capacity variation in human populations appears to be largely a function of climate, so, for example, the full range of average capacities is seen in Native American groups, as they historically occupied the full range of latitudes [18]. It is thus with substantial reluctance that we use various racial labels, but it is impossible to discuss Morton and Gould’s work without using the terms they employed.

The authors are reluctant to use the racial labels because they understand that those labels are not objective categories, that the way people were defined in Morton’s time is different than it is today, and that there is more variation between individuals of a given “race” than there is between different populations. So here is the point: how can anyone make objective measurements on categories that are inherently not objective? How does stating the average cranial volume of an African skull vs. a European skull show, as the authors state, “the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts,” when we know, through scientific studies on the variation between and within groups, that these categories are subjective and subject to change depending on the cultural context?

Comments

  1. #1 Logan Wyatt Cole
    June 9, 2011

    Stephen Jay Gould spent a disproportionally large amount of his career trying to demonstrate that race is a social construct (he even references this in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory – which had almost nothing to do with race or sociology). Regardless of how one feels about this, it is very, very difficult to demonstrate that race is a social construct.

    The argument that within-ethnicity genetic variation is much less than between-ethnicity genetic variation is the primary (and most compelling) contemporary argument that “race” doesn’t mean a whole lot.

  2. #2 CK
    June 10, 2011

    ***The argument that within-ethnicity genetic variation is much less than between-ethnicity genetic variation is the primary (and most compelling) contemporary argument that “race” doesn’t mean a whole lot.***

    That’s like saying there is much less between group variation between men and women than within group variation. Of course you can still say that on average men are taller than women.

    There is a good discussion of the ‘Lewontin Fallacy’ here:

    Further technical comment: you may have read the misleading statistic, spread by the intellectually dishonest Lewontin, that 85% percent of all human genetic variation occurs within groups and only 15% between groups. The statistic is true, but what is often falsely claimed is that this breakup of variances (larger within group than between group) prevents any meaningful genetic classification of populations. This false conclusion neglects the correlations in the genetic data that are revealed in a cluster analysis. See here for a simple example which shows that there can be dramatic group differences in phenotypes even if every version of every gene is found in two groups — as long as the frequency or probability distributions are distinct. Sadly, understanding this point requires just enough mathematical ability that it has eluded all but a small number of experts.)

    On the other hand, for most phenotypes (examples: height or IQ, which are both fairly heritable, except in cases of extreme environmental deprivation), there is significant overlap between different population distributions. That is, Swedes might be taller than Vietnamese on average, but the range of heights within each group is larger than the difference in the averages. Nevertheless, at the tails of the distribution one would find very large discrepancies: for example the percentage of the Swedish population that is over 2 meters tall (6″7) might be 5 or 10 times as large as the percentage of the Vietnamese population. If two groups differed by, say, 10 points in average IQ (2/3 of a standard deviation), the respective distributions would overlap quite a bit (more in-group than between-group variation), but the fraction of people with IQ above some threshold (e.g., >140) would be radically different.

    http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2008/01/no-scientific-basis-for-race.html

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    June 10, 2011

    Logan, CK, which races are accurately delineated by the scientific evidence rather than by socially constructed mappings? Exactly which set of the racial classifications that have been used throughout history have their basis in science? What science is used to set the boundaries between races, to say “they” are not “we”?

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    June 10, 2011

    The argument that within-ethnicity genetic variation is much less than between-ethnicity genetic variation is the primary (and most compelling) contemporary argument that “race” doesn’t mean a whole lot.

    That is not a very good argument. In fact, it has nothing whatsoever to do with racial boundaries. In fact, it is so far off the mark that one can only make it if one wishes to purposefully fool people who are not paying close attention into assuming that there is scientific support for the reality of a human species that can be cut up into races.

    Here’s the thing. Did you know that geographical points (x,y coordinates on a map) in Connecticut are less variable as a group than the sum of geographical coordinates randomly chosen from Connecticut combined with a similar and just as carefully measured set of coordinates from California?

    Typically, race models are based on the assumption of boundaries which then prove themselves (falsely) because they are used to divide up data, as well as on the observation of discontinuous sets (i.e., African Americans compared to Thai Soldier compared to Western Euro-American conscripts, ala the pseudo-scientist Rushton).

  5. #5 Corbett
    June 10, 2011

    Also worth reading is “Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy,” by A.W. Edwards. See too “Variability in Frontotemporal Brain Structure: The Importance of Recruitment of African Americans in Neuroscience Research.”

    It’s no coincidence Lewontin and Gould were both Marxists.

  6. #6 Yan Shen
    June 10, 2011

    I’m confused. If people believe that race is a meaningless way of categorizing people, then why do liberals obsess over affirmative action and whether or not enough people of a certain skin color are at certain schools or in certain jobs?

    Maybe someone can clear up my confusion here. It seems like people on the left want to have it both ways. They want to deny the concept of race when politically expedient, but then they also invoke it constantly, although implicitly, when it furthers their political goals. If race is so meaningless and unimportant, why does it matter then the proportion of people with black skin at elite universities?

    By the way, does arguing against the reality of race really decrease the amount of racism in the world?

  7. #7 CK
    June 10, 2011

    ***Logan, CK, which races are accurately delineated by the scientific evidence rather than by socially constructed mappings? ***

    Well, as with races or varieties in other species you could look at the main major patterns of variation. That is what continental clusters or the major clades represent:

    “Historically, the greatest force influencing genetic differentiation among humans has been geography. Great physical distances and geographic barriers (e.g., high mountains, large deserts, and large bodies of water) have imposed impediments to human communication and interaction and have led to geographically determined endogamous (i.e., within-group) mating patterns resulting in a genetic substructure that largely follows geographic lines. The past two decades of research in population genetics has also shown that the greatest genetic differentiation in the human population occurs between continentally separated groups.”

    http://bioethics.stanford.edu/events/documents/pdfs/burchard.pdf

  8. #8 Logan Wyatt Cole
    June 10, 2011

    I’m sorry that I was unclear. I meant to say what I said the other way around (in what I said about between-groups and within-groups variation).

    I also didn’t say that I agreed with the usage of that as any kind of evidence for anything regarding race. I just meant that it was the argument being used and it was compelling to those that it was compelling to.

    Once again, I’m sorry that I was unclear and that I misspoke.

  9. #9 Logan Wyatt Cole
    June 10, 2011

    I want to say that I don’t agree with CK or Stephen Jay Gould. I don’t agree with the argument that I stated; I was just saying that it exists.

  10. #10 CK
    June 10, 2011

    ***I want to say that I don’t agree with CK***

    What don’t you agree about?

  11. #11 Roberto
    June 11, 2011

    perhaps it is time to consider using “strains”, “stocks” or “breeds’ to point out different human phenotypes: Hi! Im a green spanish speaking strain! Cool. Hi! Im of the red urdu taller stock! Hi! I am of the black finish speaking endangered breed! Very precise.

  12. #12 Christina Agapakis
    June 11, 2011

    I want to make one last comment in response to Yan Shen (#6) because they bring up a common misconception. Race isn’t a biologically meaningful category, but race and how we categorize people based on how they look and where they come from has profound social and cultural implications for people, including the kinds of systemic discrimination that can be addressed by affirmative action.

  13. #13 Corbett
    June 11, 2011

    “Race isn’t a biologically meaningful category”

    True only in the sense that “biologically meaningful” can be defined any way you want.

  14. #14 CK
    June 11, 2011

    ***Race isn’t a biologically meaningful category,***

    Do you think that races, varieties, subspecies in any species are meaningful? It’s not really clear whether you object to its usage in humans or across the board.

  15. #15 CK
    June 11, 2011

    ***race and how we categorize people based on how they look and where they come from has profound social and cultural implications for people,including the kinds of systemic discrimination that can be addressed by affirmative action. ***

    It’s skill gaps not discrimination that are the issue.

    http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/2000skillsgaps.pdf

  16. #16 Roberto
    June 12, 2011

    Skillgaps will be the result of racist practices,for example?(slavery,denial of rights,so forth)

  17. #17 CK
    June 12, 2011

    ***Skillgaps will be the result of racist practices,for example?(***

    In the case of Asians against europeans? Personally, I think culture and human genetic diversity are the major causes.

  18. #18 tommy
    June 12, 2011

    The authors do appear to be familiar with the modern social science literature on the social construction of race, which does not mean that there are no differences at all between different people from different parts of the world, but that the way we understand and label these differences change over time and depend on the social and cultural context.

    I hate this kind of language because it results in people talking past each other. Do you care to provide some actual examples so that we may compare?

    The average person whose ancestors all came from Sweden 400 years ago is distinguishable at a glance from the average person whose ancestors came from Korea 400 years ago. In turn, both can be quickly distinguished from the average one who came from Nigeria 400 years ago. The fact that intermediate types exist doesn’t change this fact.

    The line between one Arab dialect and its neighboring Arab dialect is rather fuzzy. However, if you attempt to converse in Moroccan Spoken Arabic with a Saudi you would be unintelligible without resorting to Standard Arabic. Distinction between one dialect and another may be hard to define, and the boundaries drawn by linguists may be a bit arbitrary, but the differences these distinctions represent are certainly not. They are real and worth noting.

    Likewise, most of us have no trouble differentiating a gently sloping plain from a hill or a hill from a mountain. The fact that ‘plain’, ‘hill’, and ‘mountain’ may overlap to a degree doesn’t mean the difference we perceive between a Nebraskan cornfield and Mt. Everest is an irrelevant social construct or that we wouldn’t be damn foolish in failing to draw the distinction in a number of cases.

    Scientists make distinctions that are arbitrary and fuzzy all the time because simplified models of reality applicable to a large number of circumstances are better than having no models at all. Only when those distinctions are regarded as politically incorrect do we encounter this hairsplitting nonsense about differences being the product of “social constructs” (itself an ill-defined concept).

  19. #19 tommy
    June 12, 2011

    Race isn’t a biologically meaningful category, but race and how we categorize people based on how they look and where they come from has profound social and cultural implications for people, including the kinds of systemic discrimination that can be addressed by affirmative action.

    Given the biological invalidity of race, how do you then go about clustering such traits into seeming racial categories like African-American without admitting the existence of something that we must admit to be essentially race? What else do you call such clusters of visible (and perhaps less visible) differences in populations that are invariant under geography and the product of heredity?

  20. #20 Roberto
    June 13, 2011

    CK 17 : asians in the USA have tiger moms and hot water.

  21. #21 Gordon Wells
    June 16, 2011

    In South Africa this is particularly contentious. Ridiculously arbitrary tests were used (e.g. the “pencil test”) during apartheid. And what you’re classified now can profoundly affect employment opportunities. It’s still very messy.

    During a talk by Himla Soodyall (who works with human genographic project) I recall her saying that they allowed participants to self identify with any race/ethnic group they pleased, and then look at whatever correlates happen to fall out of that. I think this is might be the best approach.

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