Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Family trees, genes, and races

Armand Marie Leroi, an evolutionary developmental biologist at Imperial College in London, writing in the New York Times has argued that races are not social constructs, but are biological realities.

This goes against the prevailing view of modern anthropology since Boaz in the early twentieth century, but the view that Leroi is engaging here is that of Richard Lewontin, the present doyen of evolutionary population biology.

The argument is that we do, indeed, find that biological traits, including, yes, skin colour, travel in groups so to speak. You can look at someone and find out that they are "African or European, but Ibo or Yoruba, perhaps even Celt or Castilian, or all of the above".

Lewontin had claimed in the 1970s that genes do not vary according to the standard racial groupings, but, says Leroi, his mistake was to not realise that they do vary in ensembles of genes, forming regional ethnic groups.

This is a kind of Family Resemblance Predicate analysis - and it is absolutely correct. But it fails to answer the real problems with racial analyses. Simply put, these biological realities are not races. They are regional variants, tribal forms, ethnic groups, whatever you like to call them, but they are not races.

The term "race" original just meant some family or tribe - this is the original sense of the Greek word "genos" from which we get "genus". But around 1800 or a bit before, it was fashion to define a small number of human races, in relation to European (and northern European at that) varieties. Even Kant had indulged in this, around 1775 in a lecture on Human Races. He wrote that we had to classify all living things, and in particular humans, in terms of their genealogical relationships. This is true enough. But given the paucity of data, and the tendency of light skinned people to identify everyone with dark skin as a single "kind" (with resonances derived from the biblical account of creation and the subsequent etiologies of different races), the taxonomy of races that came to be adopted was that of Blumenbach, as described in one of Gould's books. It was this that found its way into official American terminology.

And there lies the rub. "Race", once a perfectly useful term of biology, while at the same time a social term of discrimination and derogation, has political force. To a biologist, "race" means
... a Mendelian population, a reproductive community of individuals sharing a common gene pool. [John Buettner-Janusch, reviewing Carleton Coon in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, in 1966, vol 25:182-188. This is not a new debate, despite what Leroi implies.]
But there is no biological reality that answers to "Negro" or "Negroid" or "Asiatic" or "Amerindian" and so on. Sure, there are African populations. Some are clearly marked, like the Yorubi, Ibo, BaMabuti or San. But there is no "Black" race.

Leroi needs to recognise that when a scientist uses a word that has political cachet, it has political implications. In the symposium that issued forth in the 1968 book Science and the Concept of Race from which I drew the above quote, many scientists, including Dobzhansky, the great evolutionary biologist, and not coincidentally the mentor of Lewontin, attempted to claim that scientists had no social obligation qua scientists to use terms that impacted on the social struggle (remember, this is at the height of the Civil Rights era). But they must. Any use of "race" will issue forth in privileged social groups (some of them coinciding with biological geographical populations) claiming that their group is better than, or under threat from, some other social group (that may or may not coincide with a biological group).

There are no "races" among human beings. There are only biological geographical and ethnic variations, and socially constructed categories that instantiate the status quo.

Mead, M. Dobzhansky, Th., Tobach, E. and Light, R. E., eds, Science and the Concept of Race, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968