Re: What Are the Race Deniers Denying?

1 Nov 1996 21:49:22 GMT

In article <553ake$>,
Ron Kephart <> wrote:
> () wrote:
>> Now if you'll just tell me what you mean by "meaningful," you'll have
>> answered the original question, "What are the race deniers denying?"
>By "biologically meaningful" I meant genetically determined traits
>which cluster together within a given population and which do not
>occur in other populations. Let's say that all humans with very light-brown
>skin, blue eyes, and straight blonde hair also had type O blood, and
>they all happened to live on Iceland. Let's say further that they
>had lived there for maybe 10,000 years with no gene flow between them
>and any other human population. Maybe you could make a good case for
>this being a "race"; what do the real biologists think?

Thanks for taking another crack at this problem, but your definition this
time seems to me to be far too restrictive, if taken literally. You say
"genetically occuring traits which cluster together within a given
population and do not occur in other populations." This absolute
non-occurence probably rules out any possibility of their being races,
as long as there remains any gene flow between the subpopulations. In
fact, I am not sure that *species* satisfy this criterion in all cases. It
may be the case that there are some genes that occur in humans but never,
ever in chimps, but I suspect that this may not be true among those
thousands upon thousands species of beetles.

The issue still comes down to a matter of degree, unless you intend that
the race deniers are not denying very much at all, per defintion. On the
other hand, the American Indians have been separated from the rest of the
world more than your 10,000 years. Some raciologists, namely the
splitters, would call them a separate race if not separate races.
_Science_ recently reported that reconsideration of DNA evidence now
seemingly leads to the conclusion that there was only one migration to the
New World, against the two or three linguists and archeologists *and* the
old DNA analysis had supported. Moral: gene counting is treacherous

>This situation simply does not describe any human population that I
>am aware of. All the traits used above occur separately in combination
>with still other traits, and all human populations have been for our
>entire history in long-distance genetic contact with all others via
>gene flow.

Not the Indians!

>The original classification of biological organisms into species and
>subspecies or "races" had as one of its underpinnings the creationist
>assumption that the characteristics used in doing the classifications
>were permanent features of the organisms in question.

This is entirely correct. The dispute is not entirely over, not that
taxonomists do not ultimately aim at the construction of the true
evolutionary tree, but that cladists use characterists and pheneticists
gene counting (I may have these backward) as data inputs to reconstruct
the tree. Cladists work on the model of big gaps and pheneticists little
gaps. And, surprise!, nature varies in the size of the gaps and that
cladistics sometimes works better than phenetics, sometimes the reverse. I
wrote an extended piece on this a while back (based upon my reading the
relevant chapters in Elliot Sober, ed., _Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary
Biology_) but I don't remember whether I posted it on the current thread.
I don't think so, for I cross-posted it to, and no one
there howled back at me that I was an idiot, so I think I must have gotten
the gist of the dispute among taxonomists correct. It is an important
issue in its own right, and at the time I was trying to persuade
Objectivists that, although biologists use the Aristotelian *language* of
genus-species, they do not *define* a species by its characterists (even
though they often have nothing better to go on and so have no choice, esp.
with fossils).

I'm no biologist
>but what I learnd in my physical anthropology courses was that most
>biologists, in the light of evolutionary theory and the realization
>that most if not all the traits used in classifications are more-or-
>less plastic, had pretty abandoned the notion of "race"/subspecies in
>favor of looking at the distribution and possible adaptive advantage
>of the aforementioned traits.

Now if this is so, I'd like to hear from some physical anthropologists on
the matter. AND to hear from biologists that concentrate on different
species. And of those species in which there do seem to be distinct
subspecies, how many generations (minimum and maximum) does it take for
subspeciation to occur. 10,000 years, or say 40,000 generations, seems to
me to be more than enough time. That's not all that much change per
generation and man is remarkable for the rapidity with which one aspect,
his brain, changed.

>Translated to anthropology, what this means is that rather than trying
>to use, say, skin color as a diagnostic for placing people into
>taxonomic groupings (which in the light of other biological evidence
>simply does not work) we now want to know what the selective advantages
>of darker or lighter skin color might be in particular kinds of local
>environments. And what other factors, such as sexual selection, etc.
>might be involved?

I don't see any incompatibility here in the least. No matter how far
evolution in a species has progressed in the direction of subspeciation,
the questions of selective advantages are going to occur. Same goes for
species. I don't know how much consideration has been give to evolution
above the species level (though there is a book by that title), since
there is a dogma, based upon a bad metaphysics that says every term can be
defined *inside* a theory, claiming that there can be only *one* unit of
selection. The candidates have varied, species, individual, chromosome,
gene (the most popular one today), but I've never hear of genus, family,
etc. being proposed as candidates for "the" unit of selection.

>Another point that comes to mind is that one of the traits that makes
>us unique, language, is distributed evenly over the whole species.
>What if people from, say, Europe could only acquire languages that
>OVERmark plural in noun phrases (e.g., the NP THOSE THREE cowS,
>contains three overt plural markers). Now that would be a real good
>"racial" classification, wouldn't it? But it won't work, because any
>human from anywhere can acquire any human language. Language clearly
>has a biological basis far more "meaningful" than most of the traits
>traditionally used in "racial" classifications, and it has to be
>universal or else Europeans would not be able to learn languages like
>Aymara, which do not over-mark plural.

You are just saying that making classifications can be a tricky business.
I certainly agree.

>I take language to be a truly meaningful trait, in the sense that
>if it "fails" for some reason the life of the person affected is
>severely changed. A trait like skin color, on the other hand, is
>relatively less meaningful; dark-skinned people transplanted to
>Norway can get their calcium in other ways, while light-skinned
>people in the tropics can cover up and drink extra fluids. It might
>be "meaningful" to group people into races by blood type, but then
>you have to ask "Why?".

You are saying that, as the environment changes, so do selective
pressures. I certainly agree with this also. Still, subspecies (and
species and genera and ...) are a product of evolutionary *history*. The
difference is that once speciation has occured, it can't be undone. Up to
that point, regroupings can take place. Suppose that religion, say, became
a far larger factor in mate selection than it is now and suppose also that
each religion comes to appeal to sizable portions of each existing race
(suspend disbelief here for the moment). Then suppose that these believers
hate each others guts (very true historically) but that they come to
realize that they had better separate rather than fight it out in a world
of nuclear weapons (that we really are homo *sapiens*. So suspend much
more belief!). So there comes to pass tremendous migrations led by each
religion's Brigham Young, and humanity regrouped lives in peace but with
little cross-breeding for your 10,000 years, or whatever. We would then
have, eventually, *new* subspecies, characterized by the selective forces
that each religion makes on its members. (To be a Christian, you must like
rock music so much that you want it in church, which is the way
Christianty in America is now moving.)

>I don't know if this takes us anywhere or not, but it's what was
>on my mind.
>Ron Kephart
>University of North Florida

It may take us a little further, if you can see my basic point that the
existence of races is not something that can be dispensed with by defining
words but rather is a matter of degree. Some species have them; others
don't. You certainly can be a race denier, in humans, but the denial ought
to be based somewhere on comparative facts about other species.