Race

3 minute read

Some comments today by U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder got my attention:

Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation's history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.

I have now and then been posting commentaries on the history of the race concept in biological anthropology. The science of anthropology, and human evolution in particular, have had many sinister episodes with reference to race. But descriptions of the history of the race concept have often failed to give any impression of the scientific consensus that existed at various times. Some histories focus extensively on fringe figures who, despite some public acclaim, never really conducted or shaped empirical research. So, I’ve been reviewing some of the more prominent scientists’ views on race in their own words.

One thing that emerges from this process is that many of the “revolutionary” ideas about race from the 1960’s and 1970’s were well known to the anthropologists of the 1920’s. The observation that most human variation occurs within groups helped make Richard Lewontin famous, but in fact was written by Frans Boas 60 years earlier. The idea that human populations must share ancestry from one recent population originated with W. W. Howells. The importance of clines was emphasized by Boas, Ernest Hooton and others.

One innovation of the 1960’s was truly revolutionary: the idea that race is invalid. Many anthropologists stopped using the word race entirely. Others recognized race as a purely social phenomenon, with no biological reality. This revolution was motivated by political intent: the ideas that “race” impeded progress, that discussion of race categories can exclude people from the discourse, and that the history of the field had contaminated the race concept beyond repair.

But was this good science? The leaders of early 20th century anthropology, including Boas and Hooton, understood races to be variable, possibly grading continuously into each other, and carrying no necessary implications for social or cultural behaviors. The field did not use the race concept of Linnaeus or Blumenbach; it used a concept consistent with the modern synthetic view of evolution. By the 1940’s, blood types and other genetic markers began to add to traditional anthropometrics and other phenotype data. All these data agreed: human races were not isolated, they did not have exclusive ancestry in ancient pure races, and “boundaries” of races in single geographic regions like the United States were generated by social influences rather than biological ones.

Somehow, despite knowing all these facts, pre-1960’s-era anthropologists still managed to believe that human races existed. One explanation is massive cognitive dissonance – just couldn’t manage to dump the term used by their advisors. But there’s a better explanation: their definition of the race concept fit these data. They did not presuppose isolation, separate origins, or xenophobia as necessary conditions of human races. They took the races as socially recognized, and attempted to explain their variation and history in evolutionary terms.

Modern-day anthropologists are still at this project. Those who refuse to use the term “race” nevertheless use a variety of terms defined in the same way as the race concept recognized by Boas. Studies refer to “population clusters,” “continental populations,” “ancestry-informative markers” and

So we are left with a different question. Was it good politics to dump the race concept?

Holder’s comments above do not refer specifically to science. But many scientists refuse to engage with the social concerns linked to race.

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