Are There Human Races? The Evolutionary Biology—Or Not—Of Race

Foreword: I ran a series on “race” and racism that began on October 7, 2011, which was the SA’s third day in cyberspace. I’ll be putting it up again in its several parts, beginning today [revised and expanded, as the publishers say]. If you’ve seen it before, please forgive my publishing “re-runs.” Fighting bigotry should be our full-time job, and bigotry is nowhere as insidious as it is in the concept of “race.” So, it won’t hurt to air these thoughts again, in the hope of reaching a different audience this time around.

The Niña, the Pinta, and the Kalamazoo.
Christopher Columbus claims the island of
Hispaniola for his own Spain.

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. In many cases the oppressed were seen as 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.

Africans captured other Africans and
sold them to European slavers who sold them to
colonial entrepreneurs. So. Who’re the bad guys?
That’s too heavy a question for me to answer
any other way than to say that it wasn’t the
people whose lives were taken from them by
people who had no business doing so.

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 African 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 in the present, even if it has a somewhat uneven record, historically, on the matter of race. As much as anthropologists have made substantial additions to knowledge of the human species, they have also—implicitly and explicitly—added much fuel to the social conflagration that is racism. 

It’s long since time to make amends.

Unfortunately, people calling themselves anthropologists have made major contributions to the construction of a racial worldview, which is the foundation of racism. 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 evolutionary change, anthropologists began thinking of human groups as behaving according to Darwinian evolution. Social Darwinism and the Eugenics Movement weren’t too far behind.  

Morgan
Tyler

Shown above are two very influential Dead White Males early anthropologists, Lewis Henry Morgan and E. B. Tylor. They strove 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 and no darker skinned people 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 through “genes,” racial difference—and thus the notion of racial superiority—had a much stronger ‘scientific’ basis.

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. 

Indigenous races of the earth or, New chapters of ethnological
inquiryincluding monographs on special  departments…
contributed by Alfred Maury…Francis Pulszky… and 
J. Aitken Meigs… Presenting fresh investigations, 
documents, and materials.
By J. C. Nott…and Geo. R. Gliddon, 1857.

At left is an example of radical “scientific racism” and the ideological use to which 19th century “scientists” put such physical traits as facial gnathism. The illustration at left makes the specious argument that because the chap in the middle displays facial prognathism he is closer to, if not in fact the equal of, a chimpanzee. Not just a chimpanzee, but a “Young Chimpanzee,” a lexical choice no doubt meant to further denigrate the middle guy in relation to the orthognathous Classical Greek sculpture.

BUT! Look at the way Nott and Gliddon “stack the deck” in favour of their visual “thesis.” A line drawn along each individual’s occlusal plane reveals that these racist F**ks have severely tilted backward our man in the middle and ever-so-slightly tipped forward Apollo’s visage. This has the effect of reducing the degree of the Greek’s facial prognathism and grossly exaggerating that of the disparaged middle man. You and I have to remember that it’s not Science, but the scientist that perverts the empirical world in favour of one or another worldview.


Fig. 4.—a, Swaheli; b, Persian.

E. B. Tyler himself, whom you would have thought might have steered a little closer toward the role of a careful scientist, couldn’t resist making a similar trumped up comparison in his treatise “The Races of Mankind “in Popular Science Monthly Volume 19 July 1881 (1881). As you can clearly see from the Frankfurt Planes that I’ve added to the illustration, the “Persian” face is tilted forward, which would have the effect of making the face look more orthognathous. But it gets worse! Lemme ask you something. How hard would it have been for Tyler to have found a Persian who WASN’T sporting a beard? If one is to make anything of Tyler’s comparison it’s made difficult to impossible by the facial hair. The guy could have no chin and we wouldn’t be able to tell. We must assume that Tyler’s intention was to confuse and obfuscate, and not to promote a coherent theory of human variation. Grrrrrr.

Okay. So, in those times no one seemed to notice that the so-called white race 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 scrambling for a different parameter to put in their racial equation.

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 [to any self-respecting ethnocentric northern European]. 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.

Fig. 2.—Top View of Skulls. 
a, Negro, index 70, dolichocephalic: 
b, European, index 80, mesocephalic;
c, Samoyed, index 85, brachycephalic.
From “The Races of Mankind”
Popular Science Monthly
Volume 19 July 1881 (1881)  
By Edward Burnett Tylor

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. If you catch my drift.

     
I’ll come back to that in a future post.
     
Alas, physical anthropologists have been indispensable in promulgating and perpetuating 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).
     

Franz Boas

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, but 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, no links. Instead my web wanderings took me to many places that unsettled me, especially the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s “DNA Learning Center.” In the more shadowy eugenics presences, it might well be written, “Here be monsters.”]

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 reconstructed scientific rethinking of the race concept.

     
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-HerzegovinaRwanda, Los Angeles (the Rodney King riots), and the Indonesian anti-Sueharto riots, where ethnic Koreans and Chinese were targets of violence.
     
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 feckless and largely unable to work against the status quo. At best they taught their insights to undergraduates. There appears to be no way to educate the broader public—no visible, public face for anthropology, to counter the much more widespread 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 in 1998 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 physical and mental by-products of racial thinking, and where their ancestors suffered unimaginably brutal treatment at the hands of the Europeans. Whether those indigenous populations were merely vilified, or were in fact the victims of cold-blooded murder, or stolen from their parents to live lives cut off from all that was meaningful to them, or worse, 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.
     
To be continued… 
Next up: How do our genes contribute to the racial worldview?
Thank you for being here.

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