Re: New uses of "race" (fwd)

Ralph L Holloway (rlh2@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Thu, 12 Oct 1995 11:03:45 -0400

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 10 Oct 1995 17:50:59 -0400 (EDT)
From: Ralph L Holloway <>
To: anthro-l <>
Subject: Re: New uses of "race" (fwd)

On Mon, 9 Oct 1995, Jay Kotliar wrote:

> While I agree with Dwight's points about race as 1. a social construct, and
> 2. its possible use as a referential biological construct varying to
> distinguish between various populations and groups with particular allele
> frequencies etc. I think that the using the word race to describe these
> clusters would not be in the interest of the profession.
> I would recommend that biological and physical anthropologists not use
> the word race to these very admirable ends, as the word has too much baggage
> associated and will tend to confuse rather than illuminate. Rather than
> trying to rehabilitate it, I think we should abandon it completely and use
> terms that we don't have to be defensive about. Just a thought.

I am now using the word "secars" on occasion...Look, "ethnic group"
comes pretty close, but it also confuses some students, who think of
"ethnicity" as something greater than biology, and where the ethnicity
can be the same but the biology varies...
I just started teaching a course (first time) called "Biological
Basis of Human Variation". Don't ask me why, but I regard it as evidence
that my mind is going... Seriously, I was discovering student after
student who claimed that races did not exist,never existed, and that
there was no such thing as "race". When I would ask why, for example,
epicanthic eye folds were not homogeneously distributed over the face of
the earth, I was asked what an epicanthic eye fold was! When I asked what
was the actual reason why black people had darker skins than white
people, no one ever mentioned melanin particles being larger and more
densely distributed in the epidermis. And so on and so on. In fact, in a
world where "race" is a paramount fact of tremendous social
significance, anthropology students are becoming more and more ignorant
about the basic biology of it all, opting for the quick neat fixes,
"...there are no races...". So I decided to teach this course, as the
social anthropological end of racial discrimination is well-covered in
our department. I can remember Ted McCown, my mentor at Berkeley,
teaching a course on human variation and I don't believe he ever used the
word "race".
Me? Yes, I believe that human biological variation exists in the
world and has for a million or so years. I believe the variation is not
always perfectly clinal, and I believe there as many "races" as there are
breeding isolates, that is, groups of people who regularly exchange genes
among themselves more frequently than with other groups (and whose gene
frequencies differ from contiguous and non-contiguous groups). This means
me that there are probably hundreds, nea, thousands of races in the world.
It also means (for me, at least) that there is little purpose in trying to
classify them, as the process of gene exchange changes with each
generation and thus do the breeding isolates, waxing and waning through
time. I can't think of a biological problem that requires a "listing" of
all the "races" or breeding isolates (even the term isolate has problems).
I think also that the strength of our species resides in our variability,
and it is a good, rather than bad thing, that that variability is
distributed in different patterns geographically. Not only that, but I
revel in this wondrous variation! It's great stuff! I still confess that
I feel uneasy when I hear or use the word "race", but to my horror (oh,
the inconsistency!), I don't feel too bad about the adjectival form "racial"
variation. You prefer "demic" variation? "Ethnic" variation?
Call it what you like, but it won't go away, and what I am finding is
that the students prefer to simply confront the biology whatever it is
called, and get on with it.
When one of them asks, incidentally, prior to the discovery of the
New World, how was human biological variation patterned, would it be
convenient, professor, to think of different continents as having
multiple breeding isolates where contact and gene exchange was much less
than today, and would it be OK to read Coon ,Garn, and Birdsell again?
What should I tell them?
Ralph Holloway