The anthropologists really are buzzing

I've been getting lots of email and twitter remarks from the HBD mafia -- they don't seem to realize that I don't have any respect for a gang of pseudonymous incompetents, and that they're in a clique of self-deluded racist twits. You want to see real tribalism in action, there's a group that demonstrates it beautifully, driven by one primitive tribal distinction, race, to constantly affirm to each other that they are right to reinforce their prejudices.

I'd rather read what real anthropologists -- you know, professionals who have wrestled with and studied this specific problem deeply -- have to say. Like Holly Dunsworth. She's not very impressed with the HBD ideologues either.

That's problem number one with HBD: It's obviously first and foremost about tribalism and politics and pushing their beliefs, not about an honest scientific seeking of the truth.

And that's problem number two with HBD: It can't be about scientific truth as it claims to be because... There is no truth when it comes to whether biological race is real. It's real. It's not real. Choose one or both or neither. And your choice is going to depend on your own mind and as well as your social, historical, cultural, and societal context. And, that's the reality of race. 

So that's just one of the reasons why race is considered by many to be primarily a "social construct," rather than nature's biological construct.

Many of us are thinking about these issues all the time because we're anthropologists and human biologists and educators. But many of us are thinking about these issues even more intensely right now because of the slight disturbance in the Force brought on by Nicholas Wade's new book and the HBD fandom that has ensued.

Although I do have reservations about the following statement.

In fact, I can think of no positive outcome of deciding that biological race is real... except for the opportunity for folks who are seeking such an opportunity to talk openly about their personal biases and the differential value they place on one group of humans over another, or to perpetuate stereotypes, or to act on their racism without backlash.

Beyond the chance to have freedom of derogatory expression, can you think of an actual positive outcome if a consensus of scientists decided that biological races are real? 

I'm not talking about anyone making a decision about whether mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, reproductive isolation, natural selection, epigenetics, microbes, viruses, environmental influences,... have influenced human evolution and variation over time and space.** We already know that. Human biology (the way we look, the diseases we get and don't get, etc...) varies geographically and in some patterned ways, depending on the trait. That's fact.

I'm talking about deciding that biological race is real, in other words, that race is real beyond being "just" a human construct. Could anything beneficial come of such a declaration?

I think the problem with determining whether biological race is real isn't whether it's beneficial or not -- it should be whether it is true or not. And I'm satisfied that that has already been answered well. It's not. A "race" is a mish-mash of categories that does not correspond at all well to any kind of clade. The concept emphasizes superficial differences as markers for significant cultural and personal differences, and fails.

But I can think of reasons knowledge about those patterned differences between people could be beneficial, because sociological race is real. These racial distinctions that people make have caused great injustices over time -- in fact, some of the greatest atrocities ever. The American Indian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, centuries of black slavery…you will not make them disappear by pointing out the biological unity of the human species, and I think you would do great harm by trying to pretend that those weren't acts targeting racial groups, and denying people recognition of their history. You need to know the truth to even begin to compensate for injustice, and to be aware so that those injustices are not repeated. If we should not ignore the sociology of race because the truth helps us do better, I couldn't argue against the idea of a hypothetical biological pattern of variation called "race" because revealing a truth would make us worse.

I'd argue against it because it isn't true. That's enough for me.

More like this

Professor Myers, I must protest. You owe your readers an introductory expansion of any new acronym. Sure, by the second or third sentence I twigged that you were discussing latter-day racism, but three more words would have made my reading easier. Yes, I'm old.

If we're talking about the U.S., or the modern world, race is for all practical purposes a social construct, and one whose reality we have long conspired to ignore. Today's Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates on reparations is the talk of the town and a must-read.

That said, your assertion that human population groups aren't clades conflicts with my understanding, which is that the African, Australian and Eurasian populations were pretty much reproductively isolated for, I don't know, ten or twenty thousand years. Eurasians have evidence of Neandertal ancestry and Africans don't. (I don't know about the Australians).

There was certainly some gene flow between Africa and Eurasia, but it seems to have been little more than a trickle for a very long time. Moreover, Native Americans were pretty definitively a clade, even though they're unremarkably Eurasian in most respects.

If it weren't for the ugly history of genocide and slavery I'd favor retaining the concept of race just for the absurdity of distinguishing Europe and Asia. As far as I can tell, my predominantly Irish and Swedish ancestors avoided the mountainous regions of central Asia in their migration out of Africa, so why am I expected to identify myself as Caucasian?

Native Americans were pretty definitively a clade

They descend from at least three separate immigrations.

I don’t know about the Australians

They also have it. Everyone this side of the Sahara has it. (...And the Sahara has always been a porous boundary at most.)

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 23 May 2014 #permalink

I was wondering about that when I wrote it. My understanding is that the Sahara is relatively congenial during ice ages, in which case Africa became remote at the same time as the Americas (except that it's not that difficult to transit the Red Sea, so not totally remote, just really exotic).

Australians, too. Huh. We humans are pretty promiscuous. It's almost as though our ancestors thought Neandertals were people just like them.

Maybe "Neandertal DNA" just means "early Eurasian DNA", the drift and adaptation of a diaspora of hundreds of thousand years. Its absence in Africans suggests there wasn't much travel back to the mother continent, or that what did make it back disappeared into a much larger population.

Thanks for the reply. Whenever I see your name at the beginning of a comment I know I'm going to learn something.

@Bad Jim
But where did PZ ever make *any* claim about 'population groups'? He said that *race* does not correlate with any kind of clade - the concept of race is certainly not a simply division into three or four massive and diverse population groups.

By Pan Outeast (not verified) on 24 May 2014 #permalink

I am of the Sokal and Bricmont persuasion: the antidote to bogus manipulation of science for ideological ends is better science education. I don't care about N. Chagnon's ideology or patriarchy or whatever: his data gathering methods were crap and the resulting interpretations can be dismissed. Pinker does a terrible job of interpreting the archaeological evidence of violence so his Better Angels book should be read as semi-interesting rumination from a very well educated and smart guy shooting the shit about stuff way outside of his expertise. The genetic and physical anthropologists can point out the methodological errors of the Wades, Diamonds, and Pinkers. No symbolic analysis or cultural theory or philosophy needed.

By Erik Weissengruber (not verified) on 24 May 2014 #permalink

My understanding is that the Sahara is relatively congenial during ice ages

It's actually right after ice ages. During ice ages, the Sahara is bigger than now, though shifted somewhat south as a whole.

Maybe “Neandertal DNA” just means “early Eurasian DNA”

The idea is that the Homo sapiens sapiens who got out of Africa interbred with Neandertalers in the Middle East and then carried Neandertal DNA everywhere they went. There has been back-to-Africa migration, but little of it seems to have reached through the Sahara.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 25 May 2014 #permalink