December 29, 2012

The real problem with race: it doesn't exist

The Census Bureau is attempting to redefine - and help Americans redefine - their race. As NPR reports, it "is considering numerous changes to the 2020 survey in an effort to improve the responses of minorities and more accurately classify Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and multiracial populations."

The truth of the matter is that the Census Bureau and NPR, along with everyone else,  should stop using the term race - which implies a scientific standard that simply doesn't exist - and use ethnicity, based on culture and self-definition. This doesn't mean that people stop calling themselves black or white but that we finally face up to the fact that the most important fact about race is that it doesn't exist. As I wrote about race in The Great American Political Repair Manual: 
It doesn't really exist. At least not the way many Americans think it does. There is simply no undisputed scientific definition of race. What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1785, a German philosopher noted that "complexions run into each other." Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that "it would be highly desirable if we could banish the question-begging term 'race' from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal phrase 'ethnic group.' That would be a first step toward rational consideration of the problem at hand." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1942 called race our "most dangerous myth."
Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.

Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views. Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power.

DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that's not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written:

"The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two 'races' have the same skin color. ~ There is no clearly distinguishable 'white race.' What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight."


Capt. America said...

More recent chasing of a marker in the Y-chromosome has shown that both Europeans and Mongoloids are descended from a group, presumably herders, that migrated from Africa to central Asia. Europeans are not descendants of Mongoloids, nor are Mongoloids descendants of Europeans. The Caucasoids are not "hybrids", instead they are a common ancestor. Australians were first out of Africa which is why they are least related to Africans. Except for the last 150 miles they could walk it, because the sea level was much lower, Of course there's no purity anywhere. There's been far too much history for that.

Researchers go to absurd lengths to avoid the conclusion that the European DNA in American Indians came across the Atlantic, maybe in ancient fishing or whaling boats, maybe kayaking and walking along the edge of an ice sheet. In historical times, Africans have drifted from the Congo to Brazil in two weeks in an open boat. I would venture to predict that a genetic marker in Brazil will be found which will show that a few Brazilians were out of Africa first of all.

I remember a map of the US in the Smithsonian decades ago that clearly showed more European blood types in Eastern American Indians than Western. It showed what they didn't want to be true, so they removed it. Believe me, that's typical.

greg gerritt said...

Homo sapiens sapiens is everyone on the planet. Scientifically there would have to be Homo sapiens neandertalensis on the planet alive today for there to be two races of human. So i am with Sam, ethnicity, or any other useful word more accurately describes human variability on the planet today than sub species nomenclature.

Capt. America said...

I apologize for using the term "Mongoloid". I would better have used "Han Chinese".

The most cogent argument against the existence of race is the fact that almost all of the distinctive typical physical characteristics of Europeans, Han Chinese, or any other group you care to name is the result of DNA which we don't have. We all have an African heritage in our genes, and almost nothing else. That, rather than Cavalli-Sfroza's or other more recent comparative studies is truly the nail in the coffin of race.

Anonymous said...

Well, boys and girls, dogs all belong to one 'race' but that doesn't mean there isn't a significant difference between a Great Dane and a Yorkshire terrier. The fact that people argue about what 'race' means, doesn't mean we're all the same.

M said...

***should stop using the term race - which implies a scientific standard that simply doesn't exist - and use ethnicity, based on culture and self-definition.***

Would you also propose doing away with the term race or sub-species in other species? In fact, what about the term species itself? Even then you have unclear or fuzzy boundaries.

As Jerry Coyne notes, in evolutionary biology, races of animals (also called “subspecies” or “ecotypes”) are morphologically distinguishable populations that live in allopatry (i.e. are geographically separated). And, as we all know, there are morphologically different groups of people who live in different areas, though those differences are blurring due to recent innovations in transportation that have led to more admixture between human groups.

Also, self idenfitied ethnicity matches genetic clusters almost perfectly.

Anonymous said...

@ M

Pfft please humans are not like other animals. The human Gene pool is not separated and never has been. Any gene found in any group being more common or less does not mean race because its not fixed and never ever has been.

Any gene no matter where it first appears is transferable naturally(and already has been) between any human "races" the exact same way it is/was transferred within them.

Two blacks can in fact give birth to a white and two whites can give birth to a black. Go check it has all happened.

You can even get twins who are of different "races" which there are plenty documentations of.

Case closed.

Anonymous said...

@ M that study is absolutely retarded and simple minded. Its a joke like all the other "race" sciences.

Also you can't even begin to compare humans to friggin dog breeds. Dog breeds are man made, they are unnatural. Pure dog breeds are literally man made constructs.

As for that study:
Self identified means that it is a social construct. What those people in that study have done is self identified certain NON-exclusive traits as being a race and then showing where its most common and then say Ooooh look thats a race. How? NOT a single one of those traits/genes is exclusive, as they are found in or are compatible with all other groups. Thats why there is no race. You can't be from another race if EVERY SINGLE gene you have is found in all other groups and/or can be passed on and spread exactly the same way as within your own group.

Lets make this more simple:
Those traits, as in slanty eyes and light skin can be found in all other races. All of them. Just because at this specific time there are more people in China with those features than in the Congo does not mean the two are different races. That frequency of those traits is not fixed. They cannot be lost by having sex and making off spring with other groups. They can only be passed on. Thus those "genetic clusters" ARE not fixed, are not fundamental and do NOT have any exclusive genes or markers. Thus not a different race.

Even more simple, lets take blacks and whites. Are there any traits that one can have that another cannot? Blue eyes? Blonde hair? Even both at the same time? NO THERE ARE NONE! A white person can have black hair and black eyes while a "black" person can have blue eyes and blond hair, and that is so with ALL TRAITS. Not one is exclusive, not a single one. ZERO.

When people "mix race" the offspring isn't all ways OBAMA, NO genes are lost, OBAMA can carry the blond hair gene if his mother or
father carried it or not at all.He can carry all the genes that any other human of any race can carry.

That is why you can literally get a "white" person out of two "blacks" and vise versa. IT HAS happened already. Happens often with "mixed" people too. You cannot be from different races if another race can give birth to somebody from your race. Just google it if you don't believe me.

All these foolish racists, going around "finding average non fixed, temporary differences and thinking its race lol. Please.

There is absolutely no chance in heck you are from a different race. Just accept this cold hard fact. Then you can stop trying to take credit for things you haven't done. Trying to make up for being an utter failure in life by claiming things you are not and don't have is only going to make it worse.

This case should have been closed years ago. All those race categories should be banned. Not even ethnicity is fixed.

This is just plain ridiculous now actually, this race crap. If there was anything that should be buried forever it's the concept of "race" in humans.