Re: Definition of Race [LONG]

Cameron Laird (claird@Starbase.NeoSoft.COM)
26 Jan 1995 14:27:40 -0600

In article <>,
Gerold Firl <> wrote:
>In article <3fuanf$> (R. William Sowders) writes:
>>I need some help of professionals! I work for a k-12 school district and
>>we are in the midst of a controversy with parents over the definition of
>>"race" in our curriculum guides (1988). Although our middle school
>>We are trying to avoid having kids make comparisons of physical features
>>with their classmates.
>There is no way you can prevent children from comparing each other. Why
I probably agree with the policy implication you
derive from that, but I'm curious to know whether
you have any data behind your assertion apart from
the anecdotal. Are you familiar with the relevant
literature from developmental psychology?
>The concept of "race" can be misused for social or political ends, but
>ultimately race is a biological concept, an organic outcome of gene flow
>within a species which is distributed within an environment which is large
>in geographic extent and/or ecological diversity. Humans have been
>distributed over most of the world for over a million years (since the homo
>erectus breakout from africa). Given the diffusion rates of human genes,
>this is easily large enough to produce subspecies. (Note: the terms "race"
>and "subspecies" are biologically equivalent). Local populations develop
>local characteristics, and while gene flow in and out of local populations is
>always present, tending to produce uniformity throughout the species, both
>geographical barriers, producing breeding isolation, and local environmental
>conditions, leading to particular adaptations, encourage racial diversity.
It's a plausible story, but it doesn't apply to humans.
I write this not from any religio-politico-... agenda,
but just because the scientific data point to a dif-
ferent conclusion.
>Race is real. Race exists. This need not be a problem. Rather than try to
>pretend that race is imaginary, as some well-intentioned though misguided
>people do, we need to develop an appreciation for diversity. Check-out the
A lot of the words and clauses are correct, but not in
I want to make three kinds of replies:
A. What do we tell Mr. Sowders? Professor Hagen's ad-
vice was, of course, both accurate and eloquent, but
my guess is that Mr. Sowders does not feel himself
in a position to read even such an ubiquitous author
as Gould. I'll summarize: the races we are ac-
culturated to see are poor, poor indicators of
biological reality. It could be otherwise, and, in
some species, it is. The biology of humans, though,
is that we are all darn close to being brothers and
sisters, or at least cousins.
B. What's wrong with what Mr. Firl has written?
1. Human phylogeny: yes, *Homo erectus* diffused
impressively a long time ago, plenty long enough
for subspeciation to have transpired. In fact,
nobody much questions that it was long enough for
new species, such as *H. sapiens*, to have evolved.
What does this have to do with race? Probably a
lot less than Mr. Firl believes. Humans have
extraordinarily little genetic diversity (we are
NOT now a subspeciated species), and all of us
alive today seem to descend from a relatively
small breeding population alive not long ago,
maybe 10,000 or so years B.P. For a recent
popular treatment of these matters, see

Gibbons, Ann
1995 "The Mystery of Humanity's Missing
Mutations", Science, volume 267,
pages 35-36 (6 January 1995)

There are, by the way, at least a few readers
of sci.anthropology who work at the front lines
of bioanthropologic questions such as this. I
can understand why they post as infrequently as
they do.
2. Certainly race is real. Which way do you want
it, though?
a. If you're talking about biological
race, it simply isn't present in
humans in the same sense as some
other species. We have more genetic
diversity than some species, but not
as much as those biologists typical-
ly divide into subspecies.
b. If you have in mind the kinds of
silly categories the USA government
uses in its classifications, you're
outside the realm of biology. We
can call that "race", but let's not
pretend that biological science is
going to help us.
c. If you have in mind one of the more
arcane speculations about how our
genomes perhaps sort themselves into
seventeen different breeding popula-
tions, then you're obliged to explain
that George Bush and Willie Horton
are more likely to be the same race
than Nelson Mandela and King Buthulezi.
C. Personal remarks: the main message I want to give
those k-12 inmates is to generalize modestly. I
sincerely don't understand why the biology of race
is supposed to be so controversial. I think people
have in mind some diagram like

[member of ethnicity] ->
[member of descent lineage] ->
[shared biology] ->
[shared neurology] ->
[known limits to behavior]

which is so tendentious and contrived I can only
giggle. PLEASE tell the students that each of
the linkages above is far from being a simple
story, scientifically. Combining them definitely
smacks of traveling from New York to Philadelphia
by way of the shortcut through Dusseldorf.

I can accept that you might look at the color of
my skin or hair and decide I'm a dolt or a crimi-
nal. Invoking biology to justify the prejudice
only adds pathos to the mix, not certainty.


Cameron Laird +1 713 267 7966 +1 713 996 8546