The Evolutionary Biology of Race: Are There Human Races?

Without prejudice.
From the Age of Exploration–beginning at the end of the Middle Ages—Europeans and their descendants legitimated their imperialist expansion ideologically by seeing non-European people through the lens of a racial worldview. Wherever Europeans colonized, and for differing lengths of time, you saw the usurpation of power and territory at the expense of indigenous people who were inevitably deemed to be a different race, and in many cases not just non-European, but non-human. Today, wherever Europeans are still in power, indigenous people suffer existence at the margins of society, bereft of any real power, and often bereft of any connection with their past other than through the memories of degradation they experienced during and after the European invasion.

     Where indigenous people have retaken control of former colonies, they live with the heritage of divisive and authoritarian colonialism: inefficient and inadequate infrastructure, and the legacy of old hatreds generated by colonial governments that pitted one group against another. In some cases those same Europeans enslaved the indigenous people, and the descendants of those slaves exist as a permanent underclass in the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere. And let’s not forget that this might never have taken place without the complicity, and greed, of powerful indigenous groups
     Race matters, today, because we all live with its twin—racism (itself the bastard offspring of a more broad-ranging bigotry). Anthropology (and through it, archaeology) has much to contribute to the race debate, even if it has a somewhat uneven record on the matter of race. For, as much as anthropologists have made substantial additions to knowledge of the human species, they have also added much fuel to the social conflagration that is racism.
     

More after the fold…


In fact you might say that anthropologists have made major contributions to the construction of a racial worldview. As Carol Mukhopadhyay and Yolanda Moses pointed out a number of years ago in American Anthropologist, nineteenth century anthropology was geared toward classification and comparison of human groups, in keeping with the natural-history tradition out of which anthropology developed. This was welded to the already deeply entrenched racism of western cultures. With Darwin’s evocation of the principle of natural selection, which underpins most evolutionary change, anthropologists began thinking of human groups as behaving according to similar evolutionary principles. Early anthropologists like Lewis Henry Morgan and E. B. Tylor worked to rank nineteenth-century and earlier historic and archaeological human groups along a continuum of ‘progress’ from what they called savagery, through barbarism to what they called civilization (a category to which, of course, they belonged). In today’s vernacular these terms have been sanitized, but live on, in the use of such epithets as underdevelopeddeveloping, and developed.

     Because Morgan and Tyler and their contemporaries thought of their culture as the pinnacle of evolutionary progress, their thinking automatically relegated less materially complex, less scientifically oriented cultures to an evolutionary backwater. Such thinking only added impetus and the aura of scientific validity to Colonial oppression of indigenous people. To the likes of Morgan and Tylor, mental capacity and its presumed correlative, moral capacity, were linked to a notion of evolutionary progress. Once Gregor Mendel supplied the notion of heredity, racial difference was deemed hereditary, and thus the notion of racial superiority had a much stronger ‘scientific’ basis in biology.
     Thereafter, researchers went about looking for physical correlates of evolutionary rank, beginning with the seat of the intellect, the brain and its related bony structures. Anthropologists measured everything from how much the lower face projected (facial prognathism) to the length of the skull relative to its height (employing the so-called cephalic index). Facial projection was seen as a good place to look for racially based heritable differences in intellect, because, of course, non-human apes have projecting jaws. 
     At the time no one seemed to notice that the so-called white races contained a large degree of variation, or that in fact, east Asian people have the least prognathic faces, something which, had it occurred to them, would have sent the measurers running for a different measure.

Craniometry is the systematic collection of head measurements, once used 
as a means of characterizing human  ‘races’ (Gould, S. J. The Mismeasure of Man)


Anthropometry, the systematic documentation of the human form, was used as means of identifying so-called primitive and advanced traits. Long-headedness, to take another example, was a characteristic of the Scandinavians, who were of course highly intelligent and morally upstanding. Long-headedness therefore represented, for a time, a benchmark of evolutionary progress. That is, until someone discovered that some Africans were as long-headed as the Scandinavians.
     The well-known IQ test became the ultimate measurement tool in this effort, with various groups being branded intellectually inferior to the well-educated, well-nourished and fair-skinned, Christian Europeans (who, by the way, developed the tests from their own cultural perspective, oblivious to its inappropriateness for members of other cultures). And, unbelievable as it may seem, IQ is still being used to promulgate the notion that, at bottom, genes associated with certain races lead to certain races being less capable than certain other races.
     I’ll come back to that.
     Alas, physical anthropologists were indispensable in the promulgation and persistence of a racial worldview. Physical anthropology (or biological anthropology as it more commonly called today) is that branch of anthropology that seeks to understand the nature and sources of human genetic variation. In the past, they have sought to understand the relationship between race and human variation (and some still do, to the detriment of the discipline).
     However, in the early 20th century some anthropologists were beginning to question the perception that physical form goes hand in hand with evolutionary rank. Franz Boas, for example, challenged the view that cranial form could tell us anything useful about one’s mental abilities, or in any way indicated evolutionary rank. By employing the same techniques of craniometry employed by other physical anthropologists, he demonstrated systematic changes in head shape between parents and offspring of recent European immigrants to America, thus refuting the notion that such anatomical characteristics need have very much to do with one’s racial background or intellectual abilities. Boas attributed the changes in head shape to environmental changes resulting from changed circumstances, such as nutrition, housing and clothing.
     By the 1930s and 40s, medical science and genetics, too, were providing empirical evidence that the notion of a biological basis for racial classifications was on increasingly shaky ground. They were finding that the distribution of genetic traits appeared to straddle previously defined racial groups, leading to suspicion that racial categories were problematic. This didn’t stop those interested in mandating and maintaining genetic purity, the eugenicists, from co-opting the methodologies of population genetics, and searching for ways of identifying and manipulating so-called defective genes, for example, for masturbation (remember that there was a time when you couldn’t say that in public, much less do it in private, without people suspecting you of insanity). [I wanted to link to a fair, well-documented treatment of eugenics—even Wikipedia’s article comes across almost as an apologia for a great idea that ended up in the hands of the wrong people—so I didn’t. If anyone knows of a decent such treatment, please leave me something in the comments. Thanks.]
     Slowly, anthropologists were coming to an awareness that their categories were breaking down under the weight of empirical observation. Because of the depredations visited on Americans of African descent in North America and elsewhere, before and after the Civil War, and because of Adolf Hitler’s systematic efforts to extinguish Jews (and non-Aryan gentiles, Roma, homophiles and others deemed unfit) in Europe prior to and during the Second World War, the 1930s and 40s saw anthropologists more and more questioning the notion of human races. The Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. was in part enabled by scientific rethinking of the concept of race.
     In addition, Social theorists were entertaining new ways of understanding human interaction. Some were inspired by Marx’s critique of Capitalism and his insights into the ideologies that permit some groups to have disproportionate access to wealth. At the same time, anthropologists came to agree that race was not so much a biological reality as it was an arbitrary social category, politically motivated, and having political, economic, and social consequences.
     Since the tide of thinking about race began to change a half-century ago, perceived racial differences between human groups have continued to have catastrophic consequences for people in places as disparate, for example, as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Los Angeles (the Rodney King riots), and the Indonesian anti-Sueharto riots, where ethnic Koreans and Chinese were targets of violence.
     During the last half century, anthropologists have waged an on-again-off-again campaign to dismantle the race concept. For some time, in fact, race as a biological phenomenon has received little anthropological attention, except in the case of forensic anthropology, where certain skeletal traits thought to be characteristic of certain ‘races’ have aided scientists in identifying skeletonized human remains, by enabling them, more often than not, to assign a race tag to a deceased’s bones.
     I’ll come back to that later.
     Happy in the knowledge that they had settled the question of race, anthropologists went about other work, while the rest of the population went about theirs, mostly ignorant of anthropological insights. Where, once upon a time anthropologists had fed the thirst for evidence of racially based differences the discipline was altogether unable to work against the status quo. At best they taught their insights to undergraduates. There was little effort to educate the broader public—no visible, public face for anthropology, to counter the larger racial worldview.
     Anthropologists have known for some decades about the racism inherent in racial categories. In spite of that, and in spite of clear evidence that the racial worldview was continuing to contribute to racism, it was only in1998 that the American Anthropological Association (AAA), representing upwards of 10,000 sociocultural anthropologists, archaeologists, biological anthropologists and linguists, saw fit to make a submission to the United States government to rethink its standards, and to develop a more realistic way of categorizing Americans in its census and other official statistics.
     The AAA was concerned to have the government adopt an informed position on race when collecting information for its census and for its programs to foster equality. Race, the AAA told Uncle Sam, is a ‘biological sounding term’ that adds nothing to the precision, rigor or actual basis of information being collected to characterize the identities of the American population. And more recently, the AAA has published its “Statement on Race”, which reflects the majority opinion of the discipline.
     I think it’s well past time for some straight talk about race. I’ve now lived on two continents, in three nations run by descendants of European colonisers, where the descendants of the country’s original inhabitants daily endure the fruits of racial thinking, and where their ancestors suffered unimaginably brutal treatment at the hands of the Europeans. Whether they were merely vilified, or were the victims of cold-blooded murder, were stolen from their parents to live lives cut off from all that was meaningful to them, or were institutionalized for the crime of being angry at the treatment they received, in Canada, the US and Australia, people whose only crime was being different endured the depredations of racial classifications and of racism, and do so to this day. And every day, you can hear prominent (usually Corporatist) politicians employ racial categories and catch-phrases to communicate through inuendo to their constituents as they play their hateful power games.
     So.
     I want to talk to you about race from the standpoint of a biological anthropologist, someone whose business it is to understand the nature and sources of human genetic variation. In addition, I come to you as a generalist anthropologist, someone who accepts that human languages, human beliefs, human customs, human cuisines, human cosmologies, human ideologies, and a whole lot more, are specific to the human group in which individuals are brought up, specific to the culture in which they live. [If I thought it was difficult to find a fair and balanced treatment of eugenics, try Culture. Someone’s always got a theoretical axe to grind, it seems. Mine, as it happens, is clear from this essay!]
     An anthropological perspective recognizes, across the globe, hundreds of unique cultures, each with a history of development and change, and perhaps thousands more that have existed in the past, the knowledge of which archaeology teaches us. Furthermore, as an anthropologist I understand that individuals in a culture tend to think in certain ways and to think that their way is the best, even when the judgement about what is good and bad is firmly rooted in that culture, and varies from culture to culture. This tendency to denigrate the values and practices of another culture is what an anthropologist calls ethnocentrism.
     Someone from my culture would think it abhorrent that people somewhere else eat dogs, because my culture has chosen to make pets of them. There’s nothing inherently good or bad in either treatment, and if you don’t believe me, consider a couple of examples: the sacred cow in Hindu culture, which isn’t eaten by adherents of the Hindu religion; the once nearly extinct Mexican hairless, which, in antiquity, was in all likelihood selectively bred in that way for culinary reasons. I’m sure there are millions of Southeast-Asian people in the present who would think it laughable if I starved while my pet dog was allowed to live.
     So, in spite of how sensible the meanings in your culture may seem, there is no absolute, no best way to construct reality from the raw material of experience. Because cultures are meaningfully constituted. That is to say, they constitute a ‘fabric’ of meaning that the members of a culture share—including literal and figurative language, the symbolic meaning attached to certain objects (such as food and automobiles, digital watches and diamonds), the way in which individuals negotiate power and other aspects of social relationships, how they view themselves in relation to the world, and so on. The dog example is relevant here, too.
     This view of culture, as meaningfully constituted, produces in me an abhorrence of ethnocentrism and all forms of bigotry. I tell you this because you need to know that although I will be presenting empirical evidence that’s more or less objective, I have a stance, and I hold very dear the dream that one day the world will be free of racism. I hope to persuade you that, contrary to intuition, and to centuries of dogma, there are no biological races. In short, in this series of posts, I hope to convince you that the anthropological view of race is sensible, empirically grounded, and that, in the end, races are arbitrary social categories, with political aims in their production, and political consequences of their use.
     To be continued…

One thought on “The Evolutionary Biology of Race: Are There Human Races?

  1. Best wake up read I've had in a while. Looking forward to the follow ups and the endless discussion it will stimulate in our office.

    Like

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