It operates as a refuge for a civilizing element in short supply in contemporary America: honest criticism
Race: no such thing
by Paul Gross
A review of Race: The Reality Of Human Differences by Vincent Sarich
A review of Race: The Reality of Human Differences, by Vincent Sarich & Frank Miele.
was right!Support The
What response would you get were you to ask almost any college student or member of the current, self-identified American intelligentsia, What is this societys most serious problem? Almost certainly, a large proportion of your eligible interviewees would give this answer without hesitation: Race! But here is an oddity: The same interviewees who answer your question with Race! will assure you, also without hesitation, that there is no such thing. They will maintain that for humans the concept of race is meaningless: that there are no biologically significant human group differences, hence no human races.
This is a public catechism: it is recited regularly, with conviction and feeling, in the media and in the social sciences. The au courant, including well-known scientists and a good many official voices of science, insist that race isspeaking of biology or genetics a recent illusion, fostered by European imperialism and triumphalism. If pushed, most respondents will try to invoke some authority on this, although of course the vast majority has not understood or even heard of the relevant science. The reference is usually to modern biology. Or, if the respondents have actually read some popular writing on the subject (or watched The Power of an Illusion, the much admired 2003 PBS documentary), they will appeal to some such visible scientific name as Gould or Lewontin, or to one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, or to a science journalist at, say, The New York Times.
Why then do governments set so bad an example? Why do they appear to insist that race does existas evidenced by the requirement that we specify, inter alia, our race (choose one of three? of nine? of seventeen?) in responding to the census-taker, or when completing an application for admission, bidding for a contract, being tested for a job? The answer you get, if you get one at all, will take this form: Well, there is no such thing as race. Were all the same, and the little differences in various competences noted among us are due to upbringing, lifestyle, unequal social services, and the like. The differences we see are no more than skin deep; any difference we can measure is socially constructed. But: bad people argue that we are not all the same. Therefore we must assemble and keep data and records on this false categoryraceso as to defeat the racists and to undo the social evils they propagate.
Did you follow that? If not, not to worry. That explanation is incoherent. There has long been the need for a scientifically reliable, accessible trade book on the biology and anthropology of human differences, on what the research actually says about them so far: about group variations in human genetics, morphology, and physiological functionand how those variations, such as they are, must have arisen in the course of our species history. An epitome thereof is what Vincent Sarich, a biochemist and anthropologist, and Frank Miele, a senior editor at Skeptic, set out to produce in their compact volume Race.
About the relevant qualifications of this pair there is no doubt. Miele is an able editor of Skeptic, Michael Shermers literate journal investigating the phenomena of belief and of controversial claims on science, consciousness, and physical and social reality. Sarich, a professor of anthropology at Berkeley, was one of those young turks associated with the distinguished Berkeley biochemist Allan Wilson, who, forty years ago, first applied the then new molecular-level understanding of genetic change over timethe molecular clockto the problems of primate classification and evolutionary history. They attacked the problem of genetic relationships and the timing of speciation among the apes (including us). Sarich contributed to the eventual recognition of the close relationship between gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans, and, more importantly, of the genetic differencethe genetic distanceseparating these species. Such a distance translates directly to a time of evolutionary separation. This work, expanded and refined in succeeding decades by the explosion of new methods in molecular genetics, especially the shift from studies of protein polymorphisms to direct study of the genes, established the chimps as our closest relatives and the age of our own lineage at not more than five million years.
Race is a word used widely and traditionally in biology to identify subpopulations within a species, that is, varieties, extended families, fuzzy subsets of individuals of common descent, sets more or less differentiable one from the other by appearance and/or behavior. It is no surprise that races or recognizable varieties in other species turn out to be distinguishablealthough not necessarily easilyat the level of genetics. To put this another way: obvious external differences among the races of a plant or animal species turn out to result from genetic differences, although those can sometimes be subtle. But of course this must be so! For a race or variety to persist in time, its obvious distinguishing traits must be to some significant extent heritable. And if heritable, the traits must reside ultimately in genes (or more likely) in combinations of genes. Traits are the products of gene sets genomesacting in particular environments over particular life histories.
The books title announces that Sarich and Miele recognize human group differences, and that however fuzzy these sets may be, they are still sufficiently stable as biological subpopulations, varieties, extended families, and races to be identified as such. Which word one uses doesnt matter: the physical reality does. They argue that the recognition of group differences, of races, among humans is very ancient, a cognitive capability (i.e., not an invention of capitalism or colonialism, as is claimed by all politically correct commentators), of a piece with other category-making competences we share. The burden of the books central scientific sections is that those differences have a highly plausible evolutionary (and therefore genetic, biological) basis. Far from minimizing the significance of group differences, the relatively short history of our species implies that they must have been very strongly selected for in the several different environments in which our ancestors first flourished. None of which, as the authors insist (perhaps in vain) is any excuse for racism or racial discrimination.
It is not hard to predict the response to this book, not just the general response, but the scientific, technical one. For here, as in no other domain of contemporary science except, perhaps, in global climate research, political correctness reigns. There will be denunciations of Sarich and Miele; it has already begun. The general-professional weekly magazine Nature, based in London, is one of the two world-class journals of its kind (the other is Science, based in Washington). Nature commissioned a review from the leftish historian Robert N. Proctor, who relates the argument of this book, at gratuitous length, to questions of racial injustice. He connects, and thereby dismisses, its claim for the reality of race to the works of such often abused raciologists as Arthur R. Jensen and J. Philippe Rushton (with whose work in fact this book has very little to do). He describes the case made by Sarich and Miele as an exercise in bombast and overstatement; and, remarkably for this distinguished science magazine, he offers no analysis of the scientific arguments that are the core of the book.
But in Race, those arguments do lead with hard, new, molecular-genetic data to a general conclusion. Here is a recent, independent statement of it:
[W]hen the taxonomic term [race] is used consistently across species, its difficult to see any justification for the common assertion that human races are merely social constructs. The motivation behind the assertion is a positive one, but denying biological realities at the outset is unlikely to lead to productive social dialogue on coping with human differences.
There is no bombast in Race. It is an effort to define for the general reader, in broadest terms, those features of human genetics and anthropology testifying to a surprisingly recent origin of our lineage, but also to a long interval (before the present) of sufficient geographic separation of human subpopulations to have given rise to the currently recognizable races. The message is the opposite of typology: among the races of man, now that we can move freely over the planet and because we are a single species, able to interbreed, differences will become steadily less marked, the sets fuzzier. Eventually, in a distant future, they will disappear. Barring world-wide catastrophe, the prospects for re-segregation and new raciation are nil. But the differences acquired in our evolutionary history havent disappeared yet. I know of no other popular work that makes this scientific case so simply and places it so clearly in social context as Race.
Would that it had been better edited! The publisher seems not to have invested much effort in bringing the separate contributions of the co-authors into tonal consonance. And the courageous decision on the part of the authors to publish such a book would have justified filling out and documenting more fully the core scientific argument. It is perfectly sound so far as it goes, but nevertheless sketchier than it needed to be given the commitment to book-length exposition. Still, the primary literature is available for those who care and know how to examine it. The best summary of its conclusions is like the one quoted above: Human subpopulations are races; they exist. They are familial subdivisions of the one species, Homo sapiens, to which we all belong. General readers who wish to be informed on the biology of race, in preparation for the next official hyperventilation on the subject, will do well to start with this book.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 April 2004, on page 86
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/race-nosuchthing-gross-1557
E-mail to friend
by Paul Gross
On The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism by Michael J. Behe.
by Paul Gross
A review of Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, by Paul H. Rubin.
Poet George Green reads from his award-winning Lord Byron's Foot
Celebration of the Life of Robert H. Bork, 1927–2012
James Panero on price gouging at the Met, with Fred Dicker