Traditional Race Ideas

From Races to Ethnobiogeny?

In 2012, the late Professor Henry C. Harpending, Thomas Chair and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology visited 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 deserved a fuller treatment, and so rather than answer it in the comment stream, this was my attempt. I addressed it 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 also attempted 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 maintained deference was in order. By his own account, Harpending had 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 vibrancy. I begin with that work.

Is there anything new in Race Reconciled?

I approach 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 Barbujani’s 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: Capire La Biodiversità Umana (2006) from Amazon (I’m 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 attempt to 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. Or, see Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Harpending, Guido Barbujani and Traditional Race Ideas” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 1 March 2012. Revised 29 March 2018.