Race Redux with Henry Harpending: What are people “tilting against”?

by Jason Antrosio

It is not every day that Professor Henry C. Harpending, Thomas Chair and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology visits my blog. Professor Harpending stopped by to comment on some of the interactions with Razib Khan’s Gene Expression blog–see the original Non-overlapping magisteria for the social and biological? and the follow-up The race question: are bonobos human?

Harpending’s comment on Race is a Social Construction deserves a fuller treatment, and so rather than answer in the comment stream, this is my attempt. I will address this as

  1. if there is anything new in the articles published for Race Reconciled;
  2. what exactly people think they are “tilting against”;
  3. what this means for undergraduate education or popular beliefs; and
  4. what Harpending’s own work on the acceleration of human genomic change could mean for anthropology.

I’ll also attempt to bring in some of Harpending’s other points with reference to these themes. As I was composing this post, Khan put up another take on the issue, Jerry Coyne on race: a reflection of evolution. The references discussed below do not support Coyne’s recent statements, and for two blog-posts dealing specifically with Coyne, see A rant on race and genetics by Jonathan Marks and Continuous geographic structure is real, “discrete races” aren’t by Nick Matzke.

In an off-blog e-mail, Harpending told me to can the “professor” talk, saying only first-year undergraduates call him that, and insisted on the professional importance of blogging. I don’t disagree, but I maintain deference is in order. By his own account, Harpending has been reading these kinds of articles for forty years–and one of my main points has been to indeed take account of anthropological work on human variation that has both a deep tradition and contemporary vibrance. I begin with that work.

Is there anything new in Race Reconciled?

I am approaching these issues as an interested and engaged observer, but not as an insider to the subfield. The following articles struck me as especially pertinent:

  • John H. Relethford’s Race and global patterns of phenotypic variation may not be new. However, it is wonderfully clear and concise, with ideal language for undergraduates. Relethford deals both with skin color as completely clinal, and then craniometrics where more clustering is apparent, but nevertheless affirms race is a “a culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation” (2009:20).
  • Two of the most fascinating articles are the contributions from forensic anthropology. Ousley et al., Understanding race and human variation: Why forensic anthropologists are good at identifying race details just how good forensic anthropologists can be at identifying meaningful variation. However, this means that they can distinguish bones by a host of different criteria: “white males born between 1840 and 1890 can be separated from white males born 1930 to 1980 very well, and they are distinguished by time, and would appear to qualify as different races” (2009:74). This leads these authors to conclude “there are so many possible distinctive biological races that the concept is virtually meaningless” (2009:74).
    A second contribution, from Konigsberg et al., Estimation and evidence in forensic anthropology: Sex and race is equally fascinating, as these authors show how an analysis of the same set of bones could have been identified as Easter Islander, white, black, or Pacific Islander depending entirely on the context of probabilities. The authors conclude, perhaps somewhat surprisingly that “forensic anthropologists are not particularly adept at identifying races when they must deal with a very heterogeneous population at large, and this is the one setting in which a definitive racial identification would be useful” (Konigsberg et al. 2009:86).

Again, I am not sure how new these articles would be to those invested in the sub-field. But they are must-reads for people in other parts of anthropology, adjacent social sciences, and really should be read by people like Jerry Coyne.

Harpending suggests Guido Barbujani as an “old hand” when it comes to “measure the lumpiness” and enjoins to “Why chatter about something when one can come up with a ruler and measure it?” This was a very helpful suggestion–I consulted one of Barbujani’s most recent pieces Human genome diversity: frequently asked questions (2010 and co-authored with Vincenza Colonna). Barbujani and Colonna’s analysis is quite consistent with the material in Race Reconciled, but why chatter when we can take a look at the measurements:

More recent work suggests that the human species’ FST could actually be lower, between 0.05 and 0.13 for autosomal SNPs, in other words between one-third and one-half of that observed in gorilla (Gorilla gorilla; FST = 0.38) and between Western and Eastern chimpanzee (FST = 0.32) despite humans occupying a much broader geographic area. In short, not only do humans show the lowest species diversity among primates but are also subdivided into populations that are more closely related than any other primate species, with the possible exception of bonobos (Pan paniscus) [287]

Hunley and colleagues found that diversity in the 783 loci of the CEPH database is not fully consistent with either isolation by distance (predicting a monotonic decline of genetic similarity with distance) or serial founder effects (predicting a number of population splits of approximately equal effect upon genetic diversity). The closest match between observed and simulated data was found for a model called ‘nested populations’ in which major founder effects occur as humans enter the main geographical regions, with relatively small founder effects and short-range gene flow during the expansions within these regions. [288]

We can cluster people based on any set of polymorphisms, but there is no guarantee that the same clustering will be observed when considering other polymorphisms in the same individuals. [289]

In a sense, races do exist, but only in the sense that the labels we apply to ourselves, and to others, can have practical consequences even if they do not correspond to empirically identifiable biological realities. However, what matters for future research is whether by racial labeling we can approximate what is in a person’s genome, and this does not often appear to be the case. [292]

In short, Guido Barbujani is indeed an old hand at measuring the lumpiness of the pudding, and should be read widely. I am very grateful for the reference–Barbujani’s professional website is also quite informative. I only wish his books were translated into English and more widely available–you can easily get a copy of L’invenzione delle razze (2006) from Amazon-Italy! (I’m also wishing I could live up to my surname and read Italian.)

Race: What are people “tilting against?”

This question is perhaps best addressed historically–in 1962 with Frank Livingstone and then in 1972 with Richard Lewontin, the answer seems more obvious: people were tilting against those traditional ideas of race as clearly defined genetic subspecies. Livingstone, Lewontin, and then the 1987 Mitochondrial Eve seemed to be driving so many nails into the coffin of the dead horse of race that by the time of Jared Diamond’s 1994 Race Without Color, Diamond compared it to a kind of earth-going-around-the-sun moment: a clearly established scientific fact that while contrary to sense perception only had to be popularized and beaten into people so they could finally see the truth. And who better to do that than… Jared Diamond!

Since Diamond’s article, there has been quite a shift. Without rehearsing all the changes, there was of course the idea of Lewontin’s Fallacy, Armand Marie Leroi’s 2005 editorial “A Family Tree in Every Gene,” the reporting of Nicholas Wade, race-based medicine, recreational genomics. There are now a number of people who claim validation of traditional race ideas and label any critics as politically-correct dunderheads who don’t understand Lewontin’s Fallacy.

So when it comes to what people are tilting against, while some of the authors cited above may still be addressing some of the traditional ideas of race, others are indeed concerned about the resuscitation of these ideas under different guises. The Barbujani and Colonna article details this nicely, describing both traditional and more recent ideas around race.

What do the undergraduates think about race?

In the original post and comment stream, I was perhaps not as clear as I should have been. Although some of my evidence comes from undergraduate teaching, I am definitely not saying current undergraduates harbor traditional race ideas which then must be tilted against. I would say, rather–and please allow for some generalizations about a variable population–that my current undergraduates tend to be impatient when it comes to discussions of race. They tend to believe differences really are only skin deep, and only the older generations are hung up on race ideas. They believe they are beyond all that–and although they do not usually use terms like post-racial or colorblind, they locate the problems as old-fashioned “stereotypes” and believe the solution is to treat people as individuals. Racism of course is only a question of personal attitudes or individual acts of meanness.

For the last two semesters in the class immediately after they read Diamond’s “Race Without Color” I poll the students with this question: “Is there enough biological difference within the human species to classify human beings into groups?” Approximately two-thirds of the students think the answer is “no.” Again, this is after being assigned Diamond, who has just tried to detail all the ways human beings vary and could be classified into groups.

If I were one of those evil politically-correct anthropology professors so many people rail against, it would actually be quite easy to run with the no-biological-difference approach. Two-thirds believe it already! With a little mumbo-jumbo about genetic uniformity and FST, imagine the great feel-good moment and hugs all around.

Instead, I emphasize–as do the authors of Race Reconciled–that human biological variation is real and important. To do otherwise would not just be counterfactual, it would risk reducing biology to genetics, which is never a good idea.

My next move is to try and convince them of the historical importance of the race idea, explaining how race emerges with colonialism, before Darwin, and that anthropology was born as an academic discipline exactly in the heyday of what we call “scientific racism.” Running over this history risks confirming their notions that race is an old-fashioned idea rooted in past generations, but this historical reckoning does have several purposes. In outlining this historical importance, I am also trying to dispel the idea that racial categories have been an eternal and unchanging aspect of human history, and then also to later set up the context for why the concept of culture became so important to anthropology–what Franz Boas was tilting against.

At this point I do spend some time debunking the traditional race ideas, running through both Diamond and then some of the material in Race Reconciled. However, I spend much less time on this than I once did, and these days move swiftly toward emphasizing the ongoing importance of race as a lived category, bringing in the kind of material Gravlee discusses in how “race becomes biology”:

The toxic effects of exposure to racism in one’s own lifetime include a higher risk of hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and other conditions. These conditions, in turn, affect the health of the next generation, because they alter the quality of the fetal and early postnatal environment. The immediate consequence of this intergenerational effect is a higher risk of adverse birth outcomes, but there is also a lingering effect into adulthood, as adult chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes can be traced in part to prenatal and early life conditions. Thus, the cycle begins again. (Gravlee 2009:52)

I’m not sure if any of it works, of course. But my intention–in the classroom and in the blogosphere–has been to highlight a long and rich tradition of anthropological research on human variation as well as its contemporary vibrancy, to carefully present the empirical science, but to always monitor the political context and the implications of our attempted interventions.

Ethnobiogeny: The next thing to tilt against?

In my first year of trying to blog about these issues, I’ve become increasingly aware of some new twists to these arguments that may be on the horizon. In The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2010), Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending explode what had become traditional wisdom: that the human genome has been relatively unchanged for the last 30,000 years, which was when we see the advent of accelerating cultural-historical change but not genomic change. This work is consistent with what John Hawks has been researching and the 2007 article Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution, features Hawks, Harpending, Cochran, et al. In contrast to received wisdom, it appears there has been quite a lot of human genomic change, even in the last several millennia.

I note here a perhaps unlikely parallel to the work of Tim Ingold and his fascinating essay “People like us”: The concept of the anatomically modern human (2000). In this essay, Ingold was in fact arguing against a separation between the biological and the cultural, arguing against the idea of a kind of “take-off point” when history or culture is built on a template of biological stasis.

At the time, Ingold did not know about the measures of human genomic change in the last 30,000 years–and it would indeed be quite a feat to bring Hawks, Harpending and Ingold into conversation!–but Ingold did provide an important warning about “the orthodox position in current anthropology” (2000:373) which perhaps could have anticipated some of the issues raised today.

Today we may see a rise in what I’m calling ethnobiogeny or ethnicity-as-genetics. Part of this rise will be based on the work of Harpending and Hawks. I am not saying this work is not important or should be discontinued. I am saying it could result in incredible reverberations. Or, in the estimation of psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

Virtues are acquired slowly, by practice within a cultural context, but the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is–and this is my prediction–going to be a “game changing” scientific event. (By “ethnic” I mean any group of people who believe they share common descent, actually do share common descent, and that descent involved at least 500 years of a sustained selection pressure, such as sheep herding, rice farming, exposure to malaria, or a caste-based social order, which favored some heritable behavioral predispositions and not others.)

I believe that the “Bell Curve” wars of the 1990s, over race differences in intelligence, will seem genteel and short-lived compared to the coming arguments over ethnic differences in moralized traits. I predict that this “war” will break out between 2012 and 2017. (Faster evolution means more ethnic differences)

If Haidt is correct about the scope and intensity of the coming battles, then my prediction is that 2012-2017 will either be when anthropology re-discovers its four-field holism and purpose–in the tradition of Franz Boas and Eric Wolf’s injunction to be Humanistic science and scientific humanism–or it will be when anthropology ceases to be a coherent discipline, eviscerated into camps that are unable to agree on a meaningful message or are simply peripheral to these debates: and for a 2013 example see Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity.

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  • Karl Reisman

    I am no physical anthropologist of any stripe – but my fairly long anthropological life experience in the West Indies, Europe, the US and elsewhere tells me that the ‘hatred’ (as in today’s Judge’s letter about Obama)comes BEFORE the race.
    Slavery produces racism (Black Black in NE Nigeria for instance). And other forces maintain it in its various patterns.
    But cool discussions of variation and genetics and phenotypes, while historically and biologically/culturally very interesting, are like a separate world.
    Yet these two kinds of discussion contaminate each other.
    Understanding variation is not going to cure or ameliorate racism.
    And racism doesn’t give much of a damn about the sources of variation.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Karl, thank you for the comment. I very much agree–while people have always been interested in human difference, the modern race systems (keeping an eye on Latin America and the Caribbean) are entwined with colonialism and slavery. Academics arrived later, but the political-economic machinery and attitudes were already well underway.

      I also completely agree that those who are looking for race differences are going to find them and don’t really care much about how all this genetics stuff works out. For example, in my take on Race becomes biology I note how Charles Murray readily shifted his terminology from “innate” to “intractable” without caring much about any precision on the sources of variation.

  • Quote from your post: “The toxic effects of exposure to racism in one’s own lifetime include a higher risk of hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and other conditions. These conditions, in turn, affect the health of the next generation, because they alter the quality of the fetal and early postnatal environment. The immediate consequence of this intergenerational effect is a higher risk of adverse birth outcomes, but there is also a lingering effect into adulthood, as adult chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes can be traced in part to prenatal and early life conditions. Thus, the cycle begins again. (Gravlee 2009:52)”

    These health consequences are also partly the result of vitamin D deprivation. Maternal vitamin D deprivation can result in offspring who are also vitamin D deprived and who later may develop diabetes and/or heart disease due to suboptimal levels of vitamin D. While I agree that there are no biological races, there is phenotypic variation. This variation can have health consequences depending on latitude of residence. I cover this topic in detail in my article “Health disparities: reframing the problem”, Med Sci Monitor, 2003; 9(3): SR9-15. Ignoring the health consequences of the relationship between phenotype and latitude of residence can be just as racist as pretending that human variation, which is the result of natural selection, has no meaning. This is not race-based as individuals of South Asian ancestry living in Canada experience the same negative health consequences of vitamin D deprivation as do heavily-pigmented African Americans. Another way to look at this, individuals of high-latitude European ancestry living in lower latitudes such as Australia suffer from extremely high rates of skin cancer, indicating a mismatch between phenotype and latitude of residence. Phenotype and latitude of residence matter, race does not.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Kathleen, thank you for the comment and your reference on these matters. We do seem to be discovering much more about the health implications of Vitamin D as at least part of this story. In the section I mentioned above for Karl, Race becomes biology, I speculate that Vitamin D might be part of a re-analysis of race and IQ, heading toward a biocultural framework.

      Of course would want to be careful about proposing a cure-all, but it certainly seems worth more research.

  • In addition to the fantastic articles you have listed here, I also strongly suggest:

    Faye V. Harrison
    1995 The Persistent Power of “Race” in the Cultural and Political Economy of Racism. Annual Review of Anthropology 24:47-74.

    1998 Introduction: Expanding the Discourse on “Race”. American Anthropologist 100(3):609-931.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Justin, many thanks for the additional references. I’ve under-treated here the issue of how this fits into racism, and the Faye Harrison reference is particularly good for thinking through that.

      Although it may not matter so much for these references, whenever dealing with the genetics-oriented crowd, it’s important to feature post-2005 references. Otherwise, they may start shouting something about Lewontin’s Fallacy and clustering. There are plenty of good post-2005 references, like the Barbujani and Collona 2010 cited above, but it’s good to be on the lookout for that line of attack.

  • I am not a scientist, merely an interested and somewhat informed layman with a graduate degree in public health. So, I ask what is the value to us (in any grouping you wish, including the human gene pool) of declaring there is such a thing as “race” and “races”, then to assign any given individual to a “race”? Would we, could we avoid the third rail of bigotry if we were to change the nomenclature? Even if we wouldn’t/couldn’t, shouldn’t we look for new nomenclature given what we now know via the mapping of the human genome? I have asked in various fora similar to this for a simple definition of “race”. I have not seen one, and the respondents here seem not to be unified in their definition. If it can’t be defined so that an interested person of 100 IQ can understand and accept it, I ask again the value of continuing the use of the term.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Ron,
      I very much agree with you here. The fact is that there is hardly some wonderfully-agreed upon race concept in biology that is crystal clear and consistently applied. As Ian Tattersall wrote in Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, and the question of species in paleoanthropology there are something like 25 current definitions of species, which would make any kind of sub-species designation interesting. And certainly if these races are so apparent, why has there been so much discord about how many there are, where they are, and what are their salient features, as Barbujani and Colonna wonderfully detail in Human genome diversity: frequently asked questions?

      Given all this fuzziness–and the significant historical baggage that racial terminology carries with it–I’ve been genuinely puzzled why people insist upon it. However, I think the answer to that has something to do with JB’s post below, which I’ll try to address soon!

  • Henry Harpending

    The Gravlee quote is indeed powerful, but it doesn’t mention nor reflect any effort to test his hypotheses. If social conditions are indeed such powerful modulators of health, what is the secret of superior health outcomes in Hispanics in the US?

    See Arias E. United States life tables by Hispanic origin. Vital Health Stat 2. 2010(152):1-33.

    The health experience of US Hispanics suggests to me that our agonies about social causes of poor health in other US minorities may be misdirected.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Henry,
      Thank you for the reference. The health outcomes for Hispanics in the U.S. is interesting, but not exactly comparable. Although discrimination, racializing and racism can’t be overlooked, the fact is that “Hispanic” is a very heterogeneous category, with quite variable measures of integration. As I’ve written in my critique of the New York Times series–see Race Remixed? — Reality Check–the Hispanic category is not recognized as a race for the census, and there may be some incipient bifurcation into Hispanic-White and Hispanic-Black.

      As Arias 2010 notes, the bulk of these health figures come from the Mexican-American population, and so are quite possibly confounded by how the source population for migrants tends to be younger and healthy: “It has been hypothesized that the lower observed mortality of the Hispanic population could be a function of migrant selectivity for better health (the healthy migrant effect)” (13-14). As I just finished teaching–and can highly recommend–Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network, Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz notes that the Mexican undocumented migrant population has one of the highest employment rates of any U.S. group. This would make a lot of sense, and obviously creates a potentially much different population than what Gravlee is describing.

      I’ll send a quick tweet over to Gravlee to see if he could verify or chime in.

    • Lowie

      Superior health outcomes for Hispanics are arguable:


      • Jason Antrosio

        Thanks, Lowie, I agree that there’s more to Hispanic health outcomes than life expectancy data, and as I noted previously, it’s a quite difficult category to generalize about.

      • d

        I don’t know much about the situation with Hispanics in the US, but regardless, we can’t think of “social conditions” as if it was a very well defined set of variables kept constant in any populations said to loosely be in relatively worse “social conditions” than some other.


        It is useful/practical to speak of “social conditions” as a “single thing” for certain levels of analysis (or “meaningful adult conversations” as someone else has put it once), but it may also obfuscate the key factor/”secret”, that can still be something within this grab-bag of variables, rather than something external, even when there’s meaningful deviation.

  • Helga Vierich

    I agree with Henry Harpending on this one. But genetics is not going to supply even a partial causal explanation for human variation. I agree also with Kathleen Fuller. The Vitamin D story, by the way, is only beginning to be understood. It now appears that low neonatal Vitamin D is associated with significant increase in incidence of schizophrenia in later life, for instance. (http://www.physorg.com/news203058334.html, see also http://news.discovery.com/human/vitamin-d-schizophrenia.html) You can imagine what this means for darker skinned populations (or well-covered pregnant women)in climates where getting enough Vitamin D is difficult, especially during the winter, even with light skin. And then there are all the other nutritional and cultural factors that affect general health as well as cognitive maturation in children.

  • jb

    Jason, I’m wondering whether you would agree or disagree with these two related statements:

    1) The question of genetic differences in intelligence between human groups has not yet been settled. This means, for example, that it is possible for reasonable and well informed people to believe that the measured difference in intelligence between American blacks and American whites is at least partially explained by genetic differences between the two groups. Further, it means that, because the question is still open, one is required to acknowledge that there is a non-trivial possibility that those people might in the end turn out to be right.

    2) Nothing we currently know about human genetics either supports or rules out the possibility of significant genetic contributions to measured differences in intelligence between groups such as American blacks and whites.

    I ask because it seems to me that this, above all, is what has really been driving the debate about the existence of race: a desire on the part of many to assert that, since “race does not exist,” it is therefore a priori impossible that genetic differences in racial intelligence could exist. Anti-racism is an extremely powerful moral and political orthodoxy in our society, and anti-racists are generally unwilling to accept that the question remains open. Their position is that the question has long been definitively settled, that people who disagree do so because they are either ignorant or wicked, and that such people, if they cannot be educated, must be cast into the outer darkness.

    Basically I’m trying to put you on the spot here! I think the reason the “race does not exist” meme became so popular so quickly after it was introduced by Lewontin is precisely because most people understood it to mean that there are no significant genetic differences between (socially constructed) racial groups, other than those that are visible on the surface. And it’s clear you understand that this much at least is incorrect. So what is your position on the openness of the question? If you personally believe that the explanation for the measured differences is entirely environmental, I think that’s perfectly legitimate, and you could easily be right. But are you willing to risk the outer darkness by acknowledging that people who disagree, such as Charles Murray and J. Philippe Rushton, also have a tenable position, and that it’s possible that they are the ones who are right?

    • Chuck


      This is the most penetrating comment here — It’s noticeable that Jason declined to answer the question proposed. So, let’s ask again: Jason, do you think that it’s a priori impossible or implausible that genetic differences in intelligence, or more specifically general mental ability, could exist between the socially defined racial groups called African-Americans and European-Americans? If so, why?

      • Jason Antrosio

        Hello Chuck, Hello JB,

        Indeed, this comment is very telling. I believe it opens onto a much wider picture about why the idea of race will continue to surface and re-surface. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and–without wanting to be glib–believe it deserves a much larger answer than can be done in a comment stream. I am therefore working on a much longer piece to address these questions, and will let you know when it is ready. I am not trying to decline the question–but I also am not about to go sounding off about these issues without careful consideration.

        Thank you for commenting,

        • Jason: An important component of this issue is the heritability of intelligence, the proportion of variance in intelligence that is due to additive genetic variance. If intelligence has no additive genetic variance in a population then it has zero heritability and will not be passed on from parent offspring, and even if genetically distinct human “races” were recognized the issue of race-specific differences in intelligence seems like a moot point (or would have to be explained in ways other than via genetics). Of course it also works the other way ’round.

          • Jason Antrosio

            Hi Stan, thank you for this comment. The issue of heritability is certainly on the agenda, and can be linked over to a comment and article posted on my other thread–it refers to a piece by Eric Turkheimer on heritability.

    • As I’m sure you know, I used this answer on a different blog, but here it finally is:

      On 2 May 2012, Razib Khan wrote that “Race, the way we have traditionally thought of it, is indeed a social construction. . . . The key issue is to move beyond the term race” (Human Races May Have Biological Meaning, But Races Mean Nothing About Humanity).

      On 21 July 2012, Dienekes wrote how “Admixture matters” and “It’s time to give up trees and embrace networks!” (Admixture matters). Dienekes had previously praised Keith Hunley and Meghan Healey for their work on how Latent admixture causes spurious serial founder effect, and how he hoped this paper would result in “increased appreciation of admixture in the human story.”

      Meanwhile, of course, Ron Unz put out his “Race, IQ, and Wealth” piece, which I claim is Race IQ – Game Over.

      JB has asked me if I’m “willing to risk the outer darkness”? My question is–why should I? With Razib Khan trying to move away from race terminology, with Dienekes sounding like a post-modernist (he would never admit it, but getting rid of “tree metaphors” was exactly what Deleuze and Guattari were up to!), and with Ron Unz adopting a position I find quite amenable–seems like things are going my way.

  • Seinundzeit

    While browsing the comment stream at Gene Expression, I found this very interesting paper on the phylogeny of dog breeds https://www.princeton.edu/genomics/kruglyak/publication/PDF/2004_Parker_Genetic.pdf. All domesticated dogs belong to the same subspecies, or “race” of Canis lupus. This is not something that you find endlessly debated. Yet dog breeds have significantly more genetic differentiation than human populations. If they all belong to the same “race”, with so much genetic variation, why are humans divisible into subspecies (admittedly, most would agree that all living humans belong to a single “race” of Homo sapiens, but some still want to debate this)? The reasons for this lack of reflection have to be political.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Seinundzeit, thank you for the reference and comment. Indeed, if we go further with the Canis idea, we’ve found that dogs, wolves and coyotes are a single interbreeding species: “No wonder, then, that interactions among these species have led to a genetic mess that researchers sometimes refer to as ‘Canis soupus’” (Yoon 2010). I knew some of that from growing up in Montana, where people had half-dog half-wolf combinations, and it’s something I tried to push in my section on Denisovans and Neandertals as human races–that at a time when we are demonstrating so much permeability at the species level, it’s strange to start claiming race clusters.

      • Chuck

        “Indeed…that at a time when we are demonstrating so much permeability at the species level, it’s strange to start claiming race clusters.”

        Indeed, nothing.

        Jason argues that human populations were “too” fluid to qualify as geographic races. Were they, they would never have differentiated significantly enough, where taxonomic significance is typically understood in terms of the 75% rule. Whether they did is an empirical question, answerable by multivariate analysis applied to a suite of morphological traits.

        Of course, we already know the answer, which is why we get the games.

        • Jason Antrosio

          The permeability of species-level taxonomic classifications is extremely relevant here. See Razib Khan’s blog-post on The utility and reality of species. Moreover, as Khan makes clear in Human Races May Have Biological Meaning, But Races Mean Nothing About Humanity, “Race, the way we have traditionally thought of it, is indeed a social construction. . . . The key issue is to move beyond the term race.” Now, Khan has no allegiance to a politically correct agenda and has surely read about the 75% rule. If it were as easy to clear up as you indicate, it would have been done long ago by someone like Khan. But as Khan says, race is a social construction and we should move beyond that terminology if we are interested in truly understanding human biological variation.

    • Dogs! It is truly astonishing how much phenotypic plasticity has been revealed by selective breeding in that one species (Canis lupus). But I have never heard of anyone referring to different “breeds” of dogs as “races” (even though some are potentially —physico/mechanically— reproductively isolated, such as Great Danes and Chihuahuas).

  • Helga Vierich

    Jason, I tend to agree that Neanderthals and Denisovans were human – members of our species, Homo sapiens, but were subspecies. They were geographically isolated long enough from the subspecies that became Homo sapiens sapiens, to develop some distinct immunological and morphological features, and yet it appears all three subspecies recognized one another as human and interbred. I do not know of any genetic/karyotypic variations among them that would have precluded fertile hybrids. I also doubt that we “became” fully human as late as 40,000 years ago. Have you heard much about the “orchid” children? That was a mutation affecting dopamine production that appears at least 80,000 years old. Here is the link: http://newscientist1.blogspot.com/2012/02/health-orchid-children-how-bad-news.html I think we might consider the cognitive/behaviour implications for this = and find out which subspecies it arose in. That might tell us something interesting.

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  • I think one of the confusing things here with humans is that it is easy to conflate pattern with process. I thought of this when someone brought up “ring species” where you have a cline of subpopulations of increasing differentiation that can culminate in reproductively incompatible species. Clearly this is a continuing process of differentiation with geographic distance. In humans it seems like we have partially differentiated populations that, due to increasing ease of migration, are in the PROCESS of reversing that process, of de-differentiating, blending into each other. In this view, the geographic “races” of humans are at best transient entities that are in the process of gradually disappearing. Seems like the use of the word “race’ is too fraught with socio-politico-economic currents to be very useful in describing what is going on.

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