Anthropology 2012-2013

Race is a Social Construction – Anthropology on Race and Genetics


I usually avoid phrases like “race is a social construction” or “gender is a social construction.” Such phrases have become too much like mantras, function too much like shortcuts, and they are wildly misunderstood and misinterpreted. The idea that race is a social construction also often misses the point about the salience of racism, which is what makes race categories so durable: see Race, Racism, and Protesting Anthropology.

A better phrase about the social construction of race–still concise but more accurate, and perhaps less susceptible to misinterpretation, is from John H. Relethford: Race is a “culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation” (Race and global patterns of phenotypic variation 2009:20).

It is important to spell out what that means, and what people were after with the “race is a social construction” phrase. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that some recent posts on popular genetic-sorting blogs–Gene Expression and Dienekes–demonstrate these bloggers

  1. acknowledge the genetic clustering data exhibits much more complexity and tells a much more complex story of human movement and mixing than is popularly understood; and
  2. therefore acknowledge that the lived experience of racial classification can be much more real than the kinds of genetic clustering they are outlining; so that
  3. correctly understood they are at least tacitly acknowledging that indeed “race is a social construction.”

Now before any of these bloggers or the people who inhabit their comment streams jump in and crush me, I want to make clear that this is an optimistic reading of some recent posts; that these comments apply to the main bloggers and not necessarily the commenters; and that since I am not a regular reader of these blogs, this may not be a new development even as I am reading a difference in tone.

I write this post in response to links to my blog which I did not solicit. The most recent was from the comment stream on Non-overlapping magisteria for the social and biological? The first part of the post is quite sensible, and it seems as if Razib Khan is basically agreeing with a comment that states “I get the social science perspective that the socially constructed race is the category that is often much more ‘real’–it is the lived experience of everyone in that group.” To this long comment, and without wanting to take his words out of context, Khan says “this all sounds reasonable, and some of the points are of course factually correct (e.g., racial identity as it is lived is a real thing, irrespective of one’s genetic heritage).” However, at the end of the post Khan leads with the line “will social scientists stop citing ‘Lewontin’s Fallacy’ in the near future?” and goes on from there. This was the part that seems to have eventually led the comment stream over to my blog and to take my comments quite out of context.

The other links I did not solicit were from the Richard Dawkins Foundation website, when anthropologist Helga Vierich bravely initiated a discussion about race (I discussed this earlier in my post on Admixture Troubles). In contrast to the above links, Vierich was trying to get to a real reading of the best anthropological research–however the comment stream was mostly various levels of diatribe and misunderstanding.

On a page called “Race Reconciled” re-debunks race I do try as best I can to summarize the key articles in the special May 2009 issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology titled Race Reconciled: How Biological Anthropologists View Human Variation. But what I would really like people to do–anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike–is to read the actual articles and grapple with the arguments. I’ve so far seen more incorrect cites and misinterpretations from these articles than I’ve seen accurate interpretations, and I would really like that to change.

“Race is a social construction” draws attention to how the social, legal, and political categories traditionally used to define “race” exhibit significant inter-society, within-society, and historical variability, so that these social categories are at best a crude appoximation of actually existing human biological variation.

In other words, it was not a denial of human biological variation and diversity. Nor was it necessarily a denial of how human biological variation might be structured, usually geographically. And it was especially and emphatically not a claim that these categories are not real. These social-political-legal categories of race have quite real lived effects, including quite real biological effects. This is something Clarence Gravlee details marvelously in How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality. For an illuminating follow-up with ethnographic material, see Race and Consequence: “Reality” and Social Constructs at the Torso and Oblong blog, which discusses how social categories become devastatingly real in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

As I cited above, Khan at Gene Expression seems to be at least agreeing with the lived importance of racial categorization, which can be quite distinct from biological variation.

Computer software that finds genetic clusters did not prove anything about traditional race categories, and in fact proves that race is a social construction.

The idea that computer software verified race is a common misconception from the early 2000s, perpetuated and amplified by none other than Nicholas Wade. Some key genetic-analysis points of rebuttal are Human DNA sequences: More variation and less race (Long et al. 2009) and The global pattern of gene identity variation reveals a history of long-range migrations, bottlenecks, and local mate exchange: Implications for biological race (Hunley et al. 2009). However, these are difficult pieces to plow through and the arguments are complex.

I have another favorite rebuttal:

Perhaps the most celebrated confusion of geographic difference for race followed the publication of Genestic Structure of Human Populations (Rosenberg et al., 2002). The authors studied genetic variation in 1052 people from 52 populations and then asked a computer program called Structure to group the samples. When they asked it to produce two groups, Structure gave them EurAfrica and East Asia-Oceiania-America. When asked for three groups, Structure gave Europe, Africa, and East Asia-Oceania-America. When asked for four, it gave Europe, Africa, East Asia-Oceania, and America. When asked for five, it gave roughly the continents. And when asked for six, it gave the continents and the Kalash people of Pakistan. When asked for more (up to twenty groups), it gave more (Bolnick, 2008)

This was more or less what population geneticists had been doing with the human gene pool since the pioneering work of Cavalli-Sforza and Edwards (1965). On the face of it, once again, this would seem to have little relevance for race. The user specifies the number of groups, and geographic proximity is the strongest predictor of similarity, so asking the computer to break the human species into five groups might reasonably be expected to yield groups roughly corresponding to the continents. And the Kalash people of Pakistan certainly do not have green skin and square heads; nor do they constitute a “natural” contrast against Europeans or Africans. (Ten Facts about Human Variation 2010:270-271)

Interestingly, Razib Khan’s latest post Kalash on the human tree is also about how they seem to pop out–also interesting to note how Khan gets his share of racist comments as well.

Of course the long quote above is from Jonathan Marks, who on some of these blogs is rather like citing (Satan 1999:666) or even Lewontin 1972. Which brings up the next point.

Anthropologists do not need to cast about for new arguments in the post-Lewontin’s fallacy era. Anthropology had home-grown critiques of traditional race categorizations long before Lewontin and we have good post-2004 critiques as well. We do need to start reading, citing, and promoting the material we already have, but we do not need to scramble for new critiques to prove race is a social construction.

Anthropologists were critiquing race long before Lewontin. One of my favorites is Franz Weidenreich in his 1946 book, Apes, Giants, and Man. Weidenreich does a devastating critique of racial classification with regard to so-called racial “purity.” The critique is sometimes hidden under prose and photos that might seem race-centered to contemporary readers, but the text clearly demonstrates interconnectedness and how racial typologies are impossible. As I argue in a section called More mothers than Mitochondrial Eve, the excessive citing of Gould and Lewontin became problematic for anthropology, as it tended to ignore some of these earlier critiques. But those critiques are still there and deserve due consideration.

More importantly, as I have myself excessively cited above, is the need for anthropologists to refer to the post-2004 work that already exists. The issue of Lewontin is one key area of the “Race Reconciled?” symposium where there was not a consensus among biological anthropologists:

There was really only one fundamental difference of opinion among the symposium participants, which was about the precise nature of the geographic patterning of human biological variation. Many participants supported the views of Livingstone and Lewontin that continue to be central to thinking and teaching about human variation in biological anthropology. These views highlight the clinal nature of human biological variation and the fact that little neutral genetic variation is apportioned among human groups. Several participants also argued that human neutral genetic and phenotypic variation conforms to a pattern of isolation by distance, in which case there are no geographic discontinuities and therefore no races. Others questioned the empirical and theoretical bases for these views and suggested that geographic patterns of human genetic variation are the result of a complex combination of population splits, regional founder events, and local migration. This difference of opinion about the geographic structure of human biological variation and its evolutionary causes is reminiscent of the disagreement between Livingstone and Dobzhansky (1962), and it has important implications for reconstructing human population history and possibly for identifying the genetic component of multifactorial disease.(Race Reconciled?: How Biological Anthropologists View Human Variation, Edgar and Hunley 2009:2)

Still, this was really the only big difference. On many other areas, including how “race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation” (Edgar and Hunley 2009:2) there was broad consensus.

There are some signs this message is getting through. In a September 2011 blog-post titled Latent admixture causes spurious serial founder effect, Dienekes Pontikos reviews an article by Hunley and Healy (two of the participants in “Race Reconciled), The Impact of Founder Effects, Gene Flow, and European Admixture on Native American Genetic Diversity. At the end of his review, Pontikos concludes:

Tree models are orderly and well-behaved. It would be great if people behaved that way, because the math would be easier. But, people aren’t laboratory mice that follow predefined paths in a maze: they mix with their neighbors, they split and move forward, but sometimes, they split and move backward. Hopefully, H&H’s paper will lead to an increased appreciation of admixture in the human story, beyond the case of the Americas.
Update July 2012: In Admixture matters, Dienekes concludes: “It’s time to give up trees and embrace networks!”

In other words–at least my intepretation–is that we are likely to discover a whole lot more complexity, because indeed people have never been laboratory mice (or perhaps are more like mice than we think!). A similar issue emerges in Khan’s analysis of Clusters where they “shouldn’t be”: “The ADMIXTURE software transformed a clearly hybridized population into its own ‘ancestral’ population.”

Which surely makes me wonder where exactly do the lines get drawn between hybridized and ancestral? Doesn’t that software seem to require quite a bit of reading and interpretation? Maybe even a bit of… art?

Follow-ups to “Race is a Social Construction”

  • Which surely makes me wonder where exactly do the lines get drawn between hybridized and ancestral? Doesn’t that software seem to require quite a bit of reading and interpretation? Maybe even a bit of… art?

    you can say the same about species.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Razib,
      Thanks for stopping by and reading. Your comment about species is definitely interesting and would have been part of another point, but I ran out of steam. It does seem curious to me with all we are learning biologically about species boundaries being more permeable than usually imagined–and of course with the Neandertal and Denisovan admixture results–that it’s a strange time to be ramping up the delineation of sub-species or race. I write a bit more about this in the page on Denisovans and Neandertals as human races which suggests–following Milford Wolpoff–that Neandertals are best seen as a true “human race.”
      Thanks again,

      • It does seem curious to me with all we are learning biologically about species boundaries being more permeable than usually imagined

        if you talk to plant biologists they wouldn’t have been surprised. the ‘species concepts’ are highly problematic. they’re useful though. but context specific.

  • Which surely makes me wonder where exactly do the lines get drawn between hybridized and ancestral? Doesn’t that software seem to require quite a bit of reading and interpretation? Maybe even a bit of… art?

    also, if you know pop gen and the assumptions in the programs the results are easier to interpret. e.g., the long branch of the kalash and mozabites are cuz the program doesn’t take into account the different rates of genetic drift of different pops.

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  • whosyourboi

    I can’t help but feel that social scientists in general and social anthropologists in particular are constantly having to account for a biological concept of race, such as there is one. This seems to be because biological discussions of race reach the general public (unfortunately often filtered through preexisting stereotypes of race and ethnicity). This leads to a reasonable aquaintence with the biological discussion, in fact it is often the biological subject about which social anthropologists are most informed. This isn’t mirrored in biologists (maybe I mean geneticists or some other more specific term) knowledge of the social sciences discussions of race. This wouldn’t really be important if biological research went on in a social vacuum but clearly it doesn’t. No suggestions or condemnations here, just an observation and a lament.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi, thank you for the comment. Based on my sojourn into the Gene Expression comment stream, I am inclined to both agree and disagree. It seems that at least some of the people doing up these gene-clustering accounts see social scientists as completely oblivious to the biological discussions, but that they know what is going on in the social sciences. Based on the fact that I haven’t seen too much discussion in the social sciences of developments like “Lewontin’s Fallacy” (not saying that this is definitively proven, just saying it has been under-discussed), it does not seem like social scientists have enough knowledge of some of the biological discussions. However and conversely, I have not found much acknowledgement from there of some of the post-Lewontin developments in anthropology.

  • . This isn’t mirrored in biologists (maybe I mean geneticists or some other more specific term) knowledge of the social sciences discussions of race.

    the social science discourse is culturally normative amongst educated people. most geneticists know (whether they accept race as useful or not, which is separate).

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Razib, thank you for the comment. It may be the case that certain parts of the social science discourse are “culturally normative.” But I seriously wonder whether that means a real understanding of that discourse or just some kind of vague parroting of received wisdom. Also, I find people really wanting to believe lines like “race is a social construction” because they really want to believe we already (or should) live in a colorblind society, and so they readily use this discourse to deny any reality to the lived experience of race and inequalities organized around racial categories.

  • But I seriously wonder whether that means a real understanding of that discourse or just some kind of vague parroting of received wisdom. Also, I find people really wanting to believe lines like “race is a social construction” because they really want to believe we already (or should) live in a colorblind society, and so they readily use this discourse to deny any reality to the lived experience of race and inequalities organized around racial categories.

    yes, lots of parroting. no to the issue of color blind society. most geneticists are conventionally liberal, so accept the standard stuff about white privilege, etc (at least rhetorically). what you’re talking about applies to conservatives (fyi, i’m a conservative).

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Razib,

      Interesting observations. This may help explain–my perception–why some people on your site feel so persecuted, perhaps not just from social science but within the conventionally liberal geneticist world.

      My observations are mostly from undergraduates, so a bit different take…

  • SeinundZeit

    An interesting perspective on these issues from a population-genetic vantage point is this old (yet eerily relevant, and vindicated) paper from Alan R. Templeton In all honesty, there is no real debate when it comes to “race”. Frank B. Livingstone cleared this up long ago. Nay, the basic principles of Darwinian theory have crystal clear implications for any kind of biological Platonism. It is (and has been for a long time) axiomatic that all living humans belong to a single subspecies, and the isolation-by-distance model is amongst the most consistently demonstrated conceptualizations produced by population genetics in relation to our species (and perhaps the most predictive). Nobody can honestly argue with either our status as Homo sapiens sapiens, or with isolation-by-distance. The resurrection of multiregional theory further augments both of these notions. Clades and trees have been dead for a long time, and clines and trellises are where all the research points to (for humans at least). There is no better place to apply Darwinian theory and abandon Platonism than our own species. As for Structure/Frappe/Admixture-like software, I think this paper clears up a lot of issues in a reasonable way

    • Jason Antrosio

      Dear SeinundZeit,
      Thank you for stopping by and many thanks for these references. I love Templeton’s work–we really should have listened to him more carefully on understanding multiregional theory, and I’m glad you pointed me to this paper. I’m also very glad you pointed out the paper by Weiss and Long. It exactly raises the issues that I’ve been trying to ponder during my browsing of the genetic-clustering blogs. Tremendously helpful.

    • arguing against platonism is a strawman. no geneticist believes this. that’s the stupid public. as for humans, isolation-by-distance was stronger a few years ago, and looks to get moderately weaker as a null in the next few years from what i can tell (papers to be published, blah, blah). i assume you’ll update your awesome knowledge of the field appropriately 😉

      • Jason Antrosio

        Hi Razib,
        Indeed, as I wrote in my post, there was one fundamental difference in the “Race Reconciled” Symposium between those favoring isolation-by-distance and others arguing for new models. However, the co-authors of Non-Darwinian estimation: My ancestors, my genes’ ancestors in Genome Research (2009) are quite aware of this critique and yet emerge with arguments that cannot be readily dismissed as strawmen.

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  • This is a note of thanks for your gracious engagement with Razib: we certainly need more discussion of this caliber.

    I do have a request for you. I have been reading the same papers on this topic for 40 years, and nothing changes. In particular, no one disagrees about the data, and Lewontin’s Fst is the same as it was way back then. Many, including yourself, are concerned with correcting ‘traditional’ or ‘popular’ concepts of race. What are these? You mention that you encounter these in your undergraduates. Interestingly I don’t. A careful description of just what people like those in the AAPA symposium are tilting against would sure help. Razib’s distinction between the science of race and people’s lived perception or race is helpful, but I would think science has little or nothing to say about the latter, it being more in the domain of humanities and of cultural anthropology.

    Apparently, as you say above, the only disagreement about anything at the AAPA symposium (it is behind the Wiley paywall for me) is about how lumpy the pudding is. Surely there are ways to measure the lumpiness and answer the question. Guido Barbujani, for example, is an old hand at issues like this. Why chatter about something when one can come up with a ruler and measure it?

  • Jason Antrosio

    Dear Professor Harpending,

    Many thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting. It’s quite an honor.

    Razib has posted the articles from the Race Reconciled symposium in a zip file here:

    Please let me know if that doesn’t work.

    I believe your comments deserve fuller treatment than would be appropriate for a comment-stream reply. I’m working on that as a new post and apologize for the delay in responding.

    Thank you again,

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  • Helga Vierich

    I have read Henry Harpending’s papers, particularly those touching on race, with interest over the years, partly because they are so good, and partly because I have fond memories of him and Pat Draper, (for the help they offered me, when i was first undertaking fieldwork among the Kua in Botswana,) over that memorable lunch with Richard Lee. I have a question for him, if he returns to this blog. What can we do to bring non-anthropologists, particularly evolutionary biologists and psychologists up to speed with cutting edge genetic information in Anthropology? We are so far from “popular” concepts of race now, I know, but how to get the message out there so that other scientists do not get bogged down (again?) in confusions arising from the differences between human variation (including plasticity) and social constructs of race?

    • Henry Harpending

      Hi Helga. I enjoyed your back and forth on the Dawkins website. I really do not think that there is much we can do to “bring non-anthropologists up to speed….” since I think most of them are way ahead of us. While I appreciate Jason’s response to my questions in a post of his following this one, I am still left with the feeling that anthropologists are tilting at windmills that everyone else has bypassed long ago.

      I have to say that if I were the emperor of Anthropology I would jump start our colleagues by imposing a strict moratorium on papers about race. This would (hope!) force them to confront current issues in the wider literature.

      For a start I would have everyone read

      by Eric Turkheimer, much of it about the “Visscher program”. Turkheimer is a first-rate psychologist and a leader among the skeptics of the Rushton-Jensen view of human cognitive differences. One can read this article as him throwing in the towel, more or less.

      Best, Henry

  • To my mind we need to address the misuse of race categorization in medical genetics. There is a persist naive approach that is too often taken. I see it as a big failing in disease genetics. Often ancestry is completely assumed through self-identified race, with no other consideration. There is very little attention given to admixture models, population history, the evolution of the genetic loci in question, etc. It is all swept under the self-identified race classification, as though that provides the best way to group individuals for case-control comparison. For example, in what sense is Hispanic equivalent to Asian as a racial category suitable for genetic disease association research?

    • Henry Harpending

      Can you give us some examples? My thought would be that one should use what information is available, taking careful family histories, race, or whatever.

      I understand that there is a drug called Bidil that is approved for African-Americans (is this right?). If so, and if I were a Somali, I would be pretty wary of taking it without knowing more than I do. I would presume that the difference between the ecology of tropical Africa and the ecology of the Horn would be pretty obvious to any physician and that he would not push Bidil on Somalis but I sure don’t know.

      • Jason Antrosio

        A quick search on Bidil and anthropology led me to this great post by John Hawks, Race and medicine: the BiDil trial (2005). As Hawks puts it “Blacks have good reason to be suspicious of studies like this, and not only for a historical reason. Race is a miserable substitute for the knowledge of alleles and genotypes in a study like this one.”

        One advantage to bringing down the cost of actual allele and genotype sequencing is it makes it less necessary to rely on race as “a miserable substitute” for better analysis. Barbujani and Colonna 2010 make a similar statement:

        Populations are indeed structured in the geographical space but, when it comes to predicting individual DNA features, labels such as ‘European’, ‘Asian’ and the like are misleading because members of the same group, Watson and Venter in this case, can be very different. Indeed, the only safe way to know what is in a person’s DNA is to study that person’s DNA, and this is now both feasible and cheap. (Human genome diversity: frequently asked questions, 292)

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  • Francois

    The real problem is that the track record of the race deniers isn’t so good. In the past decade, we’ve learned that Boas, Lewontin and Gould have all engaged in fraud in an attempt to prove “race doesn’t exist.”

    It seems that the preferred MO of the Boasian Cultural Marxists is deceit and disinformation.

    But what can one expect?

    We all know race is real:

    As Karl Popper once noted, only someone so wrapped up in an ideology tries to deny the obvious. The “race is a social construct” crowd are in a politically correct war against reality.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Francois,

      I delayed approving this comment for a while, because your accusations about Boasian Cultural Marxists sound an awfully lot like some guy named Dave over on Jon Marks blog. The accusations of deceit and disinformation against say Boas are pretty strange, considering Boas was always publishing his raw data so people could reanalyze and disagree.

      In any case, the assertion that “we all know race is real” should be seen against a recent post by Razib Khan, Human Races May Have Biological Meaning, But Races Mean Nothing About Humanity. Near the end, Khan asserts that in fact “Race, the way we have traditionally thought of it, is indeed a social construction. But whether racial groups are purely a biological myth is debatable.” Note how different that is from your assertion. And then note this line: “The key issue is to move beyond the term race.” In other words, far from the assertion that “we all know race is real,” we see that in fact one of the key proponents of genetic analysis is hardly making a convincing case for perpetuating the idea.

      • Henry Harpending

        Jason the accusation of deceit against Boas is not without foundation. Dick Jantz at Tennessee dug out Boas’ original measurements of head dimensions on migrants which were the basis of his famous paper claiming that head form was changing in the new environment of the US. Turns out that the data showed no such thing at all. Fraud? Honest mistake? Sparks and Jantz paper is here.

        • Jason Antrosio

          Hi Henry,

          Thank you for the comment. I am aware of the Sparks and Jantz piece, but don’t think it should be pressed to do more than it claims. As they write, “We make no claim that Boas made deceptive or ill-contrived conclusions.”

          You must of course know that Gravlee et al. did a similar re-analysis and came to quite different conclusions:

          As Boas hypothesized, our results show that children born in the U.S. environment are markedly less similar to their parents in terms of head form than foreign-born children are to theirs. . . . This finding thus corroborates Boas’s overarching conclusion that the cephalic index is sensitive to environmental influences and, therefore, does not serve as a valid marker of racial phylogeny. (Gravlee et al. 2003:135).

          Also Jantz revisited Boas in 2010, and actually concluded Boas was correct about the differential influence of immigrant environment on cranial changes:

          Change in Hebrew cranial indices resulted from abandoning the practice of cradling infants in America. U.S.-born Sicilian children experienced an environment worse than the one in Europe, and consequently experienced impaired growth. We conclude that the changes Boas observed resulted from specific behavioral and economic conditions unique to each group. (Jantz and Logan 2010:702)

  • Helga Vierich

    Henry I just went back and reread the Still Missing paper. I don’t think he is throwing in the towel, he just sounds totally perplexed. He makes no mention of the way that plasticity is built in to all the chains of missing links between the individual genome and the final phenotype and its behaviour. We now know that being breastfed can alter a child’s IQ, for Pete’s sake. And the people doing the genome analyses forget that the genes are not everything, they are just the starting point of the organism. What is the most impotent environmental factor to which the organism must adapt? It is culture. Please give me some feedback on this, if you can spare the time. By the way, what did you think of Weiss and Long’s paper?

  • Henry Harpending

    Hi Helga, thanks for the note.

    Eric is the first person out of all of them to insist that plasticity is important. He is perplexed I agree, as most of us are. It seems that Fisher in 1918 got it right and we are all coming back to the standard quantitative genetic model of a very large number of loci each with small effect on a trait. It is just AgSci 101 but no one takes Ag Sci any more.

    The breastfeeding effect may or may not be real. It is easy to dismiss because the data are observational: perhaps brighter women are more likely to breastfeed. The finding does make sense but the evidence is far from clean.

    I thought that the Weiss and Long paper was all right but along with all the other papers in that group there was an undercurrent of self-righteous preening and posturing, which I despise. It was painfully clear that no one disagrees about any of the data, so the whole lot frankly comes across as word salad.

    Taking off my scientist hat and putting on my citizen hat, let me propose an analogy to what I think I see in all this. Imagine that in North America there is a subpopulation (I would say race in conversation with colleagues) that is green. They don’t do very well in school nor in the job market since they are sluggish, some of them, and lots of them seem to have a mysterious swelling in their necks.

    They are the target of earnest social improvers with double doses of Head Start and the like. Everyone agrees that their problems are caused by discrimination against green people.

    One day someone notices that their environment over the last few millennia was a region with very high iodine concentrations. That person proposes experimenting with extra iodine supplementation for green people. He is immediately shunned and denounced as a racist since the idea of a biological problem is unthinkable. Goiter could be handled in no time at all but it never happens.

    My sense of the whole race argument is that it is just like claiming that iodine would be racist in my imaginary sociology.

    Maybe I am just too grouchy and pessimistic in my old age.

    Best, Henry

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Helga, Hi Henry, thank you for returning to this thread and the additional comments. I’ve been meaning to compose a longer reply regarding Turkheimer. Like Helga, I don’t necessarily read it as “throwing in the towel.” In fact, one could read it quite the opposite, as Turkheimer’s attempt to assimilate genetics to things social science has already understood: “Genomics is only now learning a hard lesson that social scientists had to learn a long time ago: sometimes prediction is just prediction” (2011:240).

      In any case, what has always been very puzzling to me–especially after this conversation on Razib’s blog got transformed into something very different after Jerry Coyne–is why the terminology of race will inevitably resurface, always appearing and reappearing on both sides of the equation. Take, for example, this sentence from Razib’s latest posting about race on The Crux: “Race, the way we have traditionally thought of it, is indeed a social construction. But whether racial groups are purely a biological myth is debatable.” Razib then says that “The key issue is to move beyond the term race” but it is tremendously unclear anyone will be doing that soon.

      The question is why. I would argue that the reappearance of race on both sides of that equation cannot be because of the science. There is hardly some sort of pristince race concept in biology that really helps us understand human difference. But I think Henry’s comment above about the sluggish green people, as combined with comments from JB and Chuck on my follow-up to this post reveals the reason why race will inevitably appear and re-appear. It’s about social policy and politics, mostly in the US, with a small international component.

      As I mentioned above, I’m working on these issues for a much longer piece, but it’s going to take some time. I appreciate the additional comments and will check in again when that’s ready.

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  • ScaryLarry

    are German Shepards a social construct?

    • Hi Scary Larry, well yes obviously German Shepherds are socially constructed. But to say that does not deny there are real dogs in the world, that there is real variation among dog varieties, and that understanding the human role in creating the German Shepherd doesn’t make anything possible–that social construct is very real. For more, please read Anthropology, Sex, Gender, Sexuality: Gender is a Social Construction.

      • vimothy

        Is anything _not_ a social construct?

        • Certainly in some ways we could say that all human knowledge about the world will inevitably entangle with the social. However, what is important here is not the general declaration but the particulars of how it happens and its implications in the world. Explaining how German Shepherds are socially constructed is probably of little importance. Understanding race and gender is a somewhat different issue.

          • vimothy

            What needs unpacking is not the social construction “German Shepherds,” but rather “social construction” itself. Since everything that can be described is eo ipso a social construction (including the phrase “social construction”), why is it necessary to say, or to be able to say, things like, “the white race is a social construction,” or, “the Japanese people are a social construction,” “Palestine is a social construction,” “Jason Antrosio is a social construction,” etc, etc?

          • vimothy

            Here’s another thought: are you familiar with the concept of homo sacer? The figure of homo sacer is like that of the medievil outlaw, someone who can be killed without tribunal or adjudication–a kind of non-person, someone who doesn’t legally exist. *Anything* can be done to someone who doesn’t exist.

            Now, let’s say that a race ceases to exist, for some arbitrary reason. It could be “the white race” or “the Ainu” or “the French” or “Tartars” or whoever you like according to whatever definition of race you like. Since race is a “social construct”, does it matter if this particular race ceases to exist?

          • Hi Vimothy, again it depends upon the context and the specifics. Indeed when certain groups are defined into or out of legal existence, it can have very real effects. In other cases, it may not matter so much.

          • Hi Vimothy, the issue really is about the specifics here. It is probably never *necessary* to say any of those things, but sometime it is important to describe how certain social constructions, but not others, have come to be.

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