Seizing the Holistic Moment

Anthropology on Race

Note: This post from December 2011 became a preview for later anthropology on race:

With the November 2011 re-emergence of race-and-IQ innuendo and the report of the Commission on Race and Racism in Anthropology, it’s time to take another look at anthropology on race. Anthropology is traversing treacherous terrain, but the good news is an opportunity to use this moment to recapture anthropological holism and four-field understandings, reclaiming the critique of race and racism which has been so fundamental to our disciplinary vitality.

As anthropology blogger Adam Van Arsdale explains, it’s Race and IQ, again and again. The new line on race-and-IQ is all about innuendo: to claim there really is something to the race-and-IQ research, but the liberal, politically-correct establishment sciences just won’t discuss it. Van Arsdale exposes the fallacy, and then ably defends against hostile blog-comments pushing exactly that line. Meanwhile, anthropology blogger Dalton Luther goes to the classroom to explain a Quick Take on Talking about Race, noting how the students “all so quickly understood the idea of ‘pure races,’ but it does create a visible target to deconstruct.”

Although anthropology has long been at the forefront of critiquing race-and-IQ as well as the “pure race” idea, many of us need an update on the current situation. Specifically, we need to better understand why race came roaring back in the last decade, and the ongoing effects of racial organization and racist inequalities. If we don’t get this right, now, we risk being unprepared for a possible new wave of ethnicity-as-genetics that in the words of psychologist Jonathan Haidt will make “the ‘Bell Curve’ wars of the 1990s, over race differences in intelligence . . . seem genteel and short-lived compared to the coming arguments over ethnic differences in moralized traits” (Faster evolution means more ethnic differences).

Why trellises turn into trees–it’s not because humans are natural classifiers

As I briefly discussed in The Tangled Bank, Rachel Caspari’s paper on “Race and Racism: Legacy of Human Evolution” for The Scars of Human Evolution panel at the 2011 AAA meetings asked why Franz Weidenreich’s diagram of a multiregional and always interconnected trellis kept getting turned into a tree, and even worse into candelabras depicting different groups crossing the “Homo sapien line” at different times.

The Franz Weidenreich trellis, from 1946, is simply incredible. I first encountered it through Alan Templeton’s 2007 Genetics and recent human evolution and had to run down to the library to retrieve the 1946 book and make sure the trellis was real. But unfortunately, as Templeton notes, the trellis became a tree in many textbooks.

Caspari likewise noted it was not just Carleton Coon’s candelabra, but apparently some innocent re-drawings of the Weidenreich trellis into a tree. This is something I had been wondering about in the More mothers than Mitochondrial Eve section, and indeed I argue figuring out how the trellis became a tree would be a vital part of understanding why some people wanted to so quickly ditch multiregionalism for the African Eve idea: because it seemed African Eve would finally banish the candelabra from anthropological presentations.

Caspari went on to note how notions of race seem to recur, especially in recent years. She speculated this was because it was so easy to forget: if we don’t keep reminding people of its non-existence, it seems to come back. Caspari then wondered if there was an in-built human urge to classify, drawing on research showing how early childhood is a period when kids seem to naturally construct humans of different kinds. Caspari’s question: Is racial thinking a legacy of human evolution?

This line of reasoning is inadequate for explaining what happened in the last decade. First, the people who re-asserted the importance of race were not the ones who somehow “forgot” or never learned the standard Lewontin critique (which Caspari cited approvingly). Rather, the re-assertion of race has been a deliberate attack on Lewontin, from the publication of Lewontin’s Fallacy (Edwards 2003) to the New York Times Op-Ed by Armand Marie Leroi, A Family Tree in Every Gene (2005) among others–for more references, see the section on Attacking Anthropology and the Race Revival).

In short, and allow me to be as bold as I can about this,

any time anthropologists talk about race, biology, and genetics, we have to cite something published after 2005.

We may still believe the Lewontin critique. We may feel Lewontin has been unfairly criticized. However, we cannot simply cite Lewontin as if he is the definitive last word on the subject. That era is over. This was one of my main complaints to the co-authors of that Mismeasure of Science article: they claimed affinity with Gould’s anti-racism and yet cited nothing post-2005 to deal with the critique of their too-simplistic Lewontin-esque portrayals.

Fortunately we do have a great source to draw on, the 2009 special issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Race Reconciled. The results of a convention of our very best geneticists, forensic anthropologists and other experts in biological anthropology, these articles are well worth reading. These anthropologists are familiar with the Lewontin critique, but are able to re-debunk race, concluding that “Race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation” (Edgar and Hunley 2009:2; for a summary of some of the findings, see the section Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race).

But to return to Caspari, the other issue here is the speculation that perhaps it is natural for children to classify humans into “kinds of people.” This may be true, but it would do little to explain why a particular and U.S.-traditional notion of race keeps re-emerging, and why those notions of race keep getting linked to abilities such as IQ. To explain why this issue comes back “again and again” we have to better understand a second anthropological theme:

Racial organization and racist inequalities continue to structure U.S. society, with marked social and biological consequences. Anthropology’s critique of race categorizations does not mean we should “go colorblind.”

A great article on this point is Clarence Gravlee’s How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality in the 2009 AJPA special issue. While Gravlee deconstructs deterministic accounts of race, he also explains how “Race ≠ Myth” (2009:53). Social ideas of race are very real, and have political, economic, and health consequences in the present. Health consequences are biological:

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. (2009:52)

Unfortunately while many of the standard anthropology textbooks concentrate on deconstructing race and deconstructing IQ, very few of them discuss these kinds of inequalities (see the review of anthropology textbooks). Students are very likely to conclude the anthropological critique of race supports their own desire to be “colorblind,” and that really no one should ever check off any boxes for racial categories. I discovered this in my introductory class–after running through my critique of the race concept, and even after going pretty heavily into Gravlee, about half of the students responded “true” to this statement: “My anthropology professor told us not to check off any box for race because ‘race is a cultural construction.'”

But worse is that anthropologists do the same, revealed in the 2010 report of the Commission on Race and Racism in Anthropology. As anthropology blogger Angela VandenBroek writes in Better Anthropology:

I was particularly taken aback by Karen Brodkin’s observation that many anthropologists refuse to answer demographic questions about race because, “Many of us don’t like these questions, because we believe either that ‘race is socially constructed’ or that we live in ‘a color-blind’ society” (CRRA 2010:2). My first thoughts were to a lecture I gave to my introductory level anthropology class on race just a month ago. I explained to my students how, despite the fact that race is social constructed and that true color-blindness would be wonderful, that racism exists as a fundamental thread that permeates every context of everyday life. So, to approach any situation from a “color-blind” stance denies the reality of the lived experience of racism and thus exacerbates the problem more than it solves it.

With these observations in mind, I wonder if it is now time to grab the issue of race-and-IQ by its twin horns and–rather than denying both race and IQ–state boldly that

  1. yes, there are discrepancies in IQ by race, just like there are health discrepancies, and
  2. yes we now know those are biological but not genetic, and
  3. yes these discrepancies can be ameliorated–if we have the political will and commitment.

So, now, those of you who are so concerned about race-and-IQ, what exactly do you intend to do about this?

I discuss some updates to the standard denials of race and IQ at the end of my section on Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied, but it would take a very adept and savvy anthropologist to pull this off. Daniel Lende was heading down that path in a post called Does Lack of Income Take Away the Brain’s Horses?, but I worried then as I still do now this potentially opens up the idea that “once you’re born poor you’re just always going to be dumb.” This perspective comes out better with the publication of The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology.

The race-and-IQ people aren’t about to go away. The we-should-be-colorblind people are not going to let up. Although I critiqued the study’s faulty methodology, the 2011 study on racism & anti-white bias certainly did confirm that most whites feel the playing field is now tilted against them.

Anthropology needs to figure out how to navigate these positions, while keeping an eye on the emerging research of more rapid genetic change than previously imagined. This was one of the topics of John Hawks paper “Recent Acceleration of Human Evolution” at the “Scars of Human Evolution” panel, and it is something Hawks has been writing about for a while. Although these discoveries have the potential to reshape notions of “deep” racial difference, they also have the potential to explode into an ethnicity-as-genetics argument, which Haidt alludes to above. It does not help that pseudo-science journalist Nicholas Wade is sniffing along exactly these lines.

The good news in all of this is that getting our act together requires re-discovering anthropological holism and becoming the humanistic science and scientific humanism anthropology should be. Sociocultural types need to read up on genetics and biology. Biological types need to understand the political-economic dimensions of their work. Our anthropological forebears built a discipline on critiques of race and racism–it’s time for us to meet the new challenges.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Anthropology on Race: Seizing the Holistic Moment.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 3 December 2011. Revised 21 September 2017.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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