All taxonomy is local?

i-30f3e9ec5fdd0014fc93890961f9bb4a-walterwhite200.jpgToday Ed Yong has a post up, Social status shapes racial identity:

To Penner and Saperstein, the study contradicts the idea that races, and the differences between them, are dominated by biological differences between groups of people. They see race not as a fixed entity that is purely determined from birth, but a flexible one, settled by a tug-of-war between different possible classifications.

Biological traits like skin colour obviously have a strong pull, but they aren't alone - changes in social position can also affect how people see themselves and are seen by others. The researchers draw a comparison with our health. Inherited genes can have a strong influence on a person's risk of eventually dying from cancer or heart disease, but changes in diet or body weight can sway those odds throughout one's life.

Data are data. Interpretation though are a different beast. By coincidence Dan MacArthur posted this figure yesterday:


I added the bold explanatory portion. African Americans are on the order of 20% European in ancestry, but this is not equally distributed across the population. Dienekes notes:

Populations from the three major human biological races (European Americans from Caucasoids, Yoruba from Negroids, Japanese/Chinese from Mongoloids) are clearly separable, with no overlap.

The "black race" to which African Americans are said to belong is seen as an almost perfect linear combination of Caucasoids and Negroids. It is not a biological race, but rather the result of admixture between the two races.

The same can be seen in other admixed groups such as the Uyghur, who are a combination of Caucasoids and Mongoloids. In that case, however, the admixture is more ancient, and the opportunity to further mix with representatives of the unadmixed groups is more limited. Therefore, the blend has been completed, and most individuals have similar admixture proportions from the ancestral groups. African Americans, on the other hand are much more variable in their individual ancestry components, from ~100% Negroid, to more Caucasoid than Negroid.

The variation in ancestry translates roughly to variation in appearance. Because the finite number of genes which control salient features (e.g., skin color, hair form and facial features) the correlation between ancestry and appearance is imperfect. But, a substantial number of African Americans are so by choice; their ancestry and appearance is mostly European, and they could pass. But the flip side of this is that someone who is mostly of African ancestry and appearance can not simply "change" their racial affiliation so easily. The first photo is of Walter White:

Walter Francis White (July 1, 1893, Atlanta, Georgia - March 21, 1955, New York, New York) was a spokesman for blacks in the United States for almost a quarter of a century as executive secretary (1931-1955) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He graduated from Atlanta University in 1916 (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1918 he joined the small national staff of the NAACP in New York at the invitation of James Weldon Johnson. White acted as Johnson's assistant national secretary. In 1931 he succeeded him at the helm of the NAACP.
White appeared white, a point he emphasized in his autobiography A Man Called White (p. 3): "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me." Five of his great-great-great-grandparents were black and the other 27 were white. All of his family was light-skinned, and his mother was also blue-eyed and blonde...Her maternal grandparents were Dilsia, a slave, and William Henry Harrison, the future President. Her mother Marie Harrison was one of Dilsia's daughters and her father Augustus Ware was also white....

i-af9967334cb74e69798efc87773b6f72-brownsciencebloggers.jpgBut I can illustrate the point more clearly by contrasting myself and Mo of Neurophilosophy. Because Mo's family is from Egypt, of Coptic background, some have classified him as one of the ScienceBloggers of color. I've meet Mo, nice guy. But, I have to say that if Mo changed his name, say to "Marcello," he'd magically turn white in the perception of those who perceive him as non-white. On the other hand, if my name was "Marcello," most of those who perceive me as non-white might assume that I was an Indian kid adopted by an Italian family. So the social "flexibility" of racial identity is highly contingent.


More like this

We tend to think of race as a fixed part of our identity, a trait that is set at the moment of conception and stays unchanged for our entire lives. But a new study shows just how fluid our conceptions of race can be. By following a group of people over almost two decades, Andrew Penner and Aliya…
Over at The Root Keith Adkins has a post, Sandra Laing: Born Black with White Parents: I'm no geneticist or biologist, but it looks like Sandra is a product of an black South African and maybe a white Afrikaneer. I'm saying, it looks like somebody in her family was lying. The tests they used…
Dienekes points to a paper by Yann, Estimating Genetic Ancestry Proportions from Faces: Ethnicity can be a means by which people identify themselves and others. This type of identification mediates many kinds of social interactions and may reflect adaptations to a long history of group living in…
One of the peculiarities of American discussion about race is that skin color is assumed to be synonymous with racial distinctions. That is, skin color is not just a trait, but it is the trait which defines between population differences. There's a reason for this, the skin is the largest organ…

Eh, all you humans look alike to me; the two eyes, so, nose in the middle, mouth under. It's always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance -- or the mouth at the top -- that would be some help.

I'm a little surprised that there isn't more variation in the European category, but I guess that all depends on how they selected and identified that group.

More generally I'd be interested in seeing a similar analysis done on the general "white" US population. Even before the miscegenation laws were (rightfully) repealed the there must have be some fraction of mixing in that direction that escaped notice.

Afrikaners would be an even more interesting case study - anecdotally I'd heard claims that the average Afrikaner is 20% African in ancestry. This might be BS (as it was said by an English South African, no great admirer of Afrikanerdom), but if true it would be ironic.

Afrikaners would be an even more interesting case study - anecdotally I'd heard claims that the average Afrikaner is 20% African in ancestry

closer to 5% non-european (malay, indian, etc. too).

As for Afrikaners, Razib is correct. Many Afrikaners have ancestry from Khoisan, Malay and Indian slaves; probably more than from Bantu-speaking Africans (the latter being latecomers to the Cape region). The non-European ancestry tends to be maternal (like Amerindian ancestry in Latin America and Celtic ancestry in Iceland.)
The difference between "white" and "Coloured" during apartheid was often in the amount of non-European ancestry (and effect on phenotype), rather than its presence.

Little bit of trivia: British actor Peter Ustinov was supposedly 1/8 Ethiopian.

20% african is high enough that the features would have segregated out of the population a lot. 5% is low enough that only some individuals have plausible non-european ancestry, and only a very few could "pass" as colored.

p.s. remember that the afrikaners are as german as they are dutch, with a large huguenot contingent.

I noticed, especially out of the three "main" races, despite what the census defines White it as in the US, there doesn't seem to be a popular vernacular term or general concept of a "Caucasoid" (in the anthro sense) that includes "whites AND browns" in the general public's eye.

I mean, if an American white, a Jewish guy, and a Punjabi guy are sitting together at a table in the cafeteria, and say, a Nigerian and a Chinese guy shows up to sit with them, I doubt the three will have the perception "Three of us belong to one race, as opposed to those couple of fellows who just showed up".