April 10, 2004

IN DENIAL:

Race: no such thing: a review of Race: The Reality of Human Differences, by Vincent Sarich & Frank Miele (Paul R. Gross, April 2004, New Criterion)

What response would you get were you to ask almost any college student or member of the current, self-identified American intelligentsia, “What is this society’s most serious problem?” Almost certainly, a large proportion of your eligible interviewees would give this answer without hesitation: “Race!” But here is an oddity: The same interviewees who answer your question with “Race!” will assure you, also without hesitation, that there is no such thing. They will maintain that for humans the concept of “race” is meaningless: that there are no biologically significant human group differences, hence no human races.
This is a public catechism: it is recited regularly, with conviction and feeling, in the media and in the social sciences. The au courant, including well-known scientists and a good many official voices of science, insist that race is—speaking of biology or genetics —a recent illusion, fostered by European imperialism and triumphalism. If pushed, most respondents will try to invoke some authority on this, although of course the vast majority has not understood or even heard of the relevant science. The reference is usually to “modern biology.” Or, if the respondents have actually read some popular writing on the subject (or watched The Power of an Illusion, the much admired 2003 PBS documentary), they will appeal to some such visible scientific name as “Gould” or “Lewontin,” or to one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, or to a science journalist at, say, The New York Times.

Why then do governments set so bad an example? Why do they appear to insist that race does exist—as evidenced by the requirement that we specify, inter alia, our race (choose one of three? of nine? of seventeen?) in responding to the census-taker, or when completing an application for admission, bidding for a contract, being tested for a job? The answer you get, if you get one at all, will take this form: “Well, there is no such thing as race. We’re all the same, and the little differences in various competences noted among us are due to upbringing, lifestyle, unequal social services, and the like. The differences we see are no more than skin deep; any difference we can measure is socially constructed. But: bad people argue that we are not all the same. Therefore we must assemble and keep data and records on this false category—race—so as to defeat the racists and to undo the social evils they propagate.” [...]

“Race” is a word used widely and traditionally in biology to identify subpopulations within a species, that is, varieties, extended families, fuzzy subsets of individuals of common descent, sets more or less differentiable one from the other by appearance and/or behavior. It is no surprise that races or recognizable varieties in other species turn out to be distinguishable—although not necessarily easily—at the level of genetics. To put this another way: obvious external differences among the races of a plant or animal species turn out to result from genetic differences, although those can sometimes be subtle. But of course this must be so! For a race or variety to persist in time, its obvious distinguishing traits must be to some significant extent heritable. And if heritable, the traits must reside ultimately in genes (or more likely) in combinations of genes. “Traits” are the products of gene sets —genomes—acting in particular environments over particular life histories.

The book’s title announces that Sarich and Miele recognize human group differences, and that however fuzzy these sets may be, they are still sufficiently stable as biological subpopulations, varieties, extended families, and “races” to be identified as such. Which word one uses doesn’t matter: the physical reality does. They argue that the recognition of group differences, of races, among humans is very ancient, a cognitive capability (i.e., not an invention of capitalism or colonialism, as is claimed by all politically correct commentators), of a piece with other category-making competences we share. The burden of the book’s central scientific sections is that those differences have a highly plausible evolutionary (and therefore genetic, biological) basis. Far from minimizing the significance of group differences, the relatively short history of our species implies that they must have been very strongly selected for in the several different environments in which our ancestors first flourished. None of which, as the authors insist (perhaps in vain) is any excuse for racism or racial discrimination.


Race is one of those issues where the PC environment of academia forces biologists to descend into nonsense so manifestly absurd as to undercut the claims they make about other aspects of evolution. The problem is compounded by the fear of being associated with the various applied Darwinisms--Nazism, eugenics, etc. At any rate, their desire to deny the implications of their philosophy is entirely comendable no matter its effect on their coherence.

MORE:
-REVIEW: of Race (Steve Sailer, V-Dare)
-REVIEW: of Race (Edward Shorter, Globe and Mail)
-CONFERENCE: Revisiting Race and Ethnicity in the Context of Emerging Genetic Research (Stanford School of Medicine)

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2004 9:21 AM
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