Admixture Troubles: Race, Selection, Evolution, Intelligence

Posted by / Race, Racism

One of the main themes of this blog–see Race redux: What are people “tilting against”?–has been to track the revival of race-as-biology across academia and the popular sphere; to underscore the need for anthropology to not only challenge this revival but call attention to ongoing structural racism; and to prepare for a possible upsurge in ethnicity-as-genetics, what I’ve called ethnobiogeny.

Pessimistic signposts:

  • On 2 January 2012 Nicholas Wade published Genome Study Points to Adaptation in Early African-Americans. Following the earlier Natural Selection Leaves Fresh Footprints on a Canadian Island, this is another study on what is portrayed as natural selection working much more rapidly than previously thought. Except this time it is from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, studying and sequencing African Americans: Genome-wide detection of natural selection in African Americans pre-and post-admixture. Wade reports several skeptical voices, and at least admits that “among human populations, there are very few absolute differences” in genetic site variation. But I find Wade’s description of “admixture, a geneticist’s term for when two populations or races intermarry” quite troubling. It seems OK to use the term “admixture” to describe the new research on Neandertal and Denisovan contribution to the modern gene pool, and I wrote about how this means It’s admixture all the way down. But it seems dangerous to apply admixture terminology to contemporary populations, as it implies much larger breaks than we know exist. No surprise from Wade, but it demonstrates the troubles with admixture terminology.
  • On the Richard Dawkins Foundation website, anthropologist Helga Vierich bravely initiated a discussion about race, specifically referencing my summary of several pieces which I titled “Race Reconciled” re-debunks race. I may not be the best ambassador for summarizing those excellent articles, but reading through the comment stream at the “Foundation for Reason and Science” is excessively depressing. There you can find all the old arguments for race existence, ranging from a misunderstanding of what the social construction of race argument was all about to a rehearsal of the “Lewontin’s Fallacy” claims. You can also find people trotting out the lines about how anthropology is at “war” and self-pronouncing as no longer a science. Again, Helga Vierich is staging a brave defense, but if this kind of stuff is coming from the “Reason and Science” crowd, it’s scary to think what anthropology is up against.
  • In a feature called Is Intelligence in the Genes?, the Chronicle of Higher Education first reports on a paper that shows most studies of genetic-intelligence linkages to be false. Should be good news, but no, it ends with an affirmation of the validity of general intelligence and how we need to figure out the genetics of it: “I think that understanding the reasons for this state of affairs is a compelling scientific goal, and genetics is an important category of reasons that must be explored if social science is to reach a correct understanding.”
  • Meanwhile, several Republican presidential candidates chose Martin Luther King, Jr. day to fan race-baiting flames. As Charles M. Blow put it: “That’s the way I like to spend my Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: watching Newt Gingrich sneer at Juan Williams, a black man, for having the temerity to ask him if his condescending remarks about the work ethic of poor black people are indeed condescending” (Newt Gingrich and the Art of Racial Politics)

Combining reified notions of intelligence together with a genetics emphasizing recent selection, all within an atmosphere of ongoing structural racism is a toxic brew. From the very last passage of Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment:

Of all the historical products of the human imagination, perhaps the most decisive and far-reaching has been the idea that there exists such a thing as an “intelligence”, installed in the heads of each and every one of us, and that is ultimately responsible for our activities. (2000:419)

Optimistic counterpoints

  • Greg Downey’s recent piece, The long slow sexual revolution is trying to replace “pernicious evolutionary narratives” by telling a “competing story.” This three-part series of posts, which includes video and eventually presentations, holds a promise of telling different stories than a simplistic version of admixture implies.
  • Greg Downey also appears in the comment stream of Is Robert Trivers Deceiving Himself about Evolutionary Psychology’s Flaws? Together with the above, these pieces do point to some pushback on some of the main and most problematic narratives that have emerged from evolutionary psychology. Read with earlier revision statements–see Darwin in Mind–-The End of Evolutionary Psychology for Anthropology–I’m wondering if there is a need to refocus critique from evolutionary psychology to other issues.
  • In a long piece that could be included in either the pessimistic or optimistic section, Christopher Stringer reflects on Rethinking “Out of Africa”. Stringer points to a complexification, and how in fact those old supposed species boundaries are revealed to be much more porous than expected. As Jon Marks commented on the BioAnthropology News Facebook group: “If, as the diagram suggests, Homo sapiens is polyphyletic, then if species means anything at all, everything at least as far back as Heidelbergensis is all sapiens, n’est-ce pas?”

    At the same time, Stringer also talks about possible “racial” variation that might be very much in line with the emerging ethnobiogeny.

As before, opportunity but many dangers for anthropology.

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