Re: A Demand for the Kennewick Man's Remains

Gerold Firl (
25 Nov 1996 23:42:08 GMT

In article <>, writes:

n 22 Nov 1996, Gerold Firl wrote:

|> On 22 Nov 1996, Gerold Firl wrote:

|> > In article <>, writes:

|> > |> Which begs the question, "what is race"? It is a folk concept -- it
|> > |> certainly has no scientific currency, especially in anthropology.

|> > What do you make of the fact that the concept of race (in the sense of
|> > subspecies) is a vital concept in evolutionary biology, and yet it has
|> > no "scientific" currency in anthro?

|> I think, from the example you give below, that we are using the term
|> "race" in two different senses. I am using it to refer to the popular
|> conception of what is meant by "race" -- three major quasi-geographic
|> populations of humans, African (Negroid), Asian (Asiatic), and European
|> (Caucasoid). It seems from your example that you are referring to "race"
|> in a sense of "subspecies." This is a significant difference, because
|> the variation among any one of the quasi-geographic "races" is (I think)
|> as great as the variation between them -- so basically the "racial"
|> identifications are used as justifications of a classification by skin color.
|> "Race" is one of those dangerous terms with both technical and popular
|> meanings; people unfamiliar with the word's technical meaning see it used
|> in a technical sense but interpret it in line with their popular
|> understanding.

We don't judge the veracity of einsteins theory of relativity based on
the understanding of the man in the street. Nor do we toss out the
entire field of cartography because some maps label vast tracts of
terra incognita with "here there be dragons". The idea of partitioning
mankind into the black, white, and yellow races was an extremely crude
and primitive attempt to make sense of human variation; such a scheme
is clearly at odds with rational cladistics.

The human species can be viewed as having any number of subspecies
("races"), depending on what level of lumping/splitting you prefer.
However, to take the extreme lumping position and declare that
humankind has *no* races whatsoever is clearly based on politics, not
on biology. We are a widely dispersed species, with clearly defined
local adaptations.

|> Similarly, the kinds of races of which you speak (rainforest pygmies and
|> nilo-sudanese) may be part of a larger "racial family" which is popularly
|> called "African" or "Negroid."

Again, don't bother to discredit the 3-race model of the human family.
It is long obsolete.

At the same time that physical anthropology achieved sufficient
maturity to view the evolution of man from a scientifically objective
viewpoint (say, 1960, with the work of dobzhansky and mayr clarifying
the meaning of "species" and "subspecies"), western culture reached a
historic decision-point: ethnocentrism was repudiated, with the
embrace of multi-culturalism and racial equality. This discussion is
about the conflict between scientific objectivity, which recognizes
the existance of human races, and political expediancy/conformity. In
the interest of promoting the rapid acceptance of racial tolerance,
many find it expedient to pretend that race has no scientific basis; I
object to such tactics. I believe that the value of tolerance needs no
assistance from mendacity.

I realise that most proponents of your view would prefer to have this
dialog with bob whitaker; any idea why?

|> > Well; the frequency of occurance of skeletal traits can be used to
|> > infer the probabilities concerning population origin for particular
|> > remains. If that's the only information you have, then that's the best
|> > you can do.

|> The key here in terms of NAGPRA is "the only information you have". We
|> have no evidence for populations of "caucasians" in North America circa
|> 9,000 years ago. This is one individual.

And the scientific approach would be to study the remains of this
individual, to learn as much as possible about our past. Some prefer
to bury the past, others to throw a light upon it. Some want to forget
the past, or make up a story about it; others want to learn from the
past, to understand what happened and why.

|> > Not necessarily. Suppose you had skeletal remains from the rwandan
|> > highlands, ca. 500 ad. This area has been an overlapping range for
|> > both rainforest pygmies and nilo-sudanese invaders since the
|> > introduction of iron working and domesticated cattle; a very
|> > unsophisticated forensic analysis will be sufficient to determine
|> > racial affiliation, unless the individual was a hybrid. You can argue
|> > that the racial distinction between a pygmy and a watutsi is trivially
|> > insignificant, of absolutely no import except as a means for imposing
|> > socio-economic/caste distinctions, but such a claim ignores the very
|> > real, long-term ecological adaptations of these two populations.

|> Again, you're using "race" in a very different sense from the one in
|> which I meant and from the popular conception. Moreover, you're not
|> justifying the use of statistical indices as a primary means of racial
|> identification very well. You are referring to two small (in comparison
|> to "African/Negroid") populations, which may not have nearly as much
|> internal variation as the larger ("African/Negroid") population.

I'll repeat that using the idea of an "african/negroid" population
within the context of human evolution and variation is not very
useful. As the birthplace of man, africa has much more variety and
history than the other continents. There may be more genetic distance
between pygmies and other africans than between englishmen and other

As far as statistical indices of physical variation, there can be no
mistake when it comes to pygmies and watutsi. There are several
standard deviations between average heights between the two
populations, so there is essentially no overlap between them.

In many cases comparison of skeletal indices between races may be
equivocal; in other cases they are crystal clear.

|> But even so, if all you have is a skeleton, you are still only making an
|> educated guess. Statistical probabilities can never be more than
|> probabilities. There is always that small probability that it isn't what
|> you would expect. In the case of the Washington skeleton, the
|> pro-caucasian people are privileging the statistical indices over
|> archaeological evidence. A sample of one does not suffice to rewrite
|> archaeology.

That's why we need more samples, rather than trying to hide the

|> > Recent history should be sufficient to show that while our world might
|> > be a better place if such distinctions really were insignificant,
|> > wishing does not make it so.

|> True -- but what has this to do with statistical indices and NAGPRA?

The native americans who argued for hasty re-interment were spurred by
reports that the remains showed caucasoid features; they feared that
such findings might undermine their political claims. This whole
discussion is reminiscent of the lysenko period of soviet biology,
when scientific fact had to be submerged for political purposes. I
dislike seeing such tactics used here and now, but I find it
interesting that it appears to operate autonomously. The vociferous
proponents of the "one race" point of view are under no external

This sheds some light on some very interesting anthropological/
sociological phenomena: the human herd instinct operating on very
abstract concepts. Western culture is reformulating itself to expunge
racial bigotry and cultural ethnocentrism, and many individuals try to
get out in front of the parade. They trumpet the erroneous view that
human race is merely a social fiction, without any grounding in
evolutionary biology, to create the appearance that they are leading
the parade. Factually, they are wrong, which is going to end up making
them look pretty silly, but it seems to be paying-off for now.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf