Re: What Are the Race Deniers Denying?

8 Oct 1996 01:47:58 GMT

In article <>, unregistered <> wrote:
> wrote:


>> In article <52ral1$>, Susan <> wrote:
>> >
>> >So it is not contradictory to state, on the one hand, that some groups
>> >are disadvantaged and need help to rectify that disadvantage, while also
>> >maintaining that the BIOLOGICAL concept of race is not particular valid
>> >or useful in dealing with human populations.
>> I am not sure what you are maintaining. Later, I will be postig some
>> e-mail between myself and Ronald Kephart (with his permission) that will
>> get closer to answering my question of what the race deniers are denying.
>Unfortunately, I'm late to the conversation. Hope you don't mind if I butt in, but
>could you explain the question?

Gladly. There are many people around who deny the existence of biological
race in humans, but I've never been clear about what they are denying. It
often seems that they are really denying that men can be broken up into
different *species*, whenever they point out that there is a continuous
gradation among the purported races. But that's not denying the existence
of biological races.

Anyhow, I tried to post my discussion with Ron Kephart, but sometimes my
ISP takes days to get it up, or it never gets up at all, or I goofed. But
happily (???), I can just read this discussion in as a file, which I will
do at once, with apologies to those whose ISPs will require them to sit by
idly while waiting for the whole thing to get download on the home
computer. (UNIX shell accounts do not have this problem! I haul up each
*page* at a time, and if I don't like an article, just move on to the
next. They have wonderful killfile features, too, but I have not yet
figured out how to kill all articles with "$" in the subject line. TOO

Here's an exchange of e-letters between me and Ronald Kephart, a
professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of North
Florida, on this question of what the race deniers are denying. He
had intended to post to the UseNet groups but e-mailed it instead
and, when I asked him, gave me permission to post the only
apparent copy of it in the world, since he lost his original. At
the same time, he made some further remarks. I downloaded it all
from my UNIX shell account to WordPerfect on my home computer and
decided to integrate the whole exchange rather than use the usual
>,>>,>>>. This will make for more connected reading.

The validity of biological race depends on finding subgroups of a
species that vary from other subgroups of the same species
according to a suite of inherited traits. The traits, such as
skin color, hair form, etc. that were originally used to define
human "races" however do not travel in a suite. If we travel
around the planet, we find very light-skinned people with very
curly hair, dark-skinned people with wavy blonde hair, and every
other possible combination."

Now all this is a matter of degree, isn't it? Shouldn't we find
such anomalies if there are races and not species? This should be
esp. true in man, because he has been moving around a lot and at
an accelerating pace.

Not only that, but all these traits are relatively superficial;
other, more fundamentally important traits such as blood type do
not coincide with any of the socio-cultural 'races' people have
set up." [When I asked in a follow-up e-message what you meant by
"superficial," you said you meant] traits for which variation has
relatively little biological effect. Skin color was important in
the past, but it's relatively unimportant today, given that we can
compensate in various ways (light-skinned people in tropical
regions can avoid overexposure and drink a lot of water to keep
from getting kidney stones; dark-skinned people in northern
climates, on the other hand, can produce enough calcium to avoid
rickets by getting vitamin D in milk and other sources). Of
course, skin color stands out precisely because we are covered by
skin, but it's only controlled by about 6 genes. Blood type,
which is invisible, is much more important: get the wrong type of
blood in a transfusion and you die!

I don't see that skin color and other external traits are
superficial at all, since I don't know of any animals other than
man that are even capable of giving Wassermann tests (or AIDS
tests) to prospective mates. They have to rely upon appearance a
very great deal, and we learned from Darwin himself the importance
of sexual selection. Although the exact mechanisms are still being
debated (_Science_ devoted an issue to it a few years back), it
explains such things as antlers of moose and tails of peacocks.

Traits that were once considered to be passed from one generation
to the next unchanged, such as skull shape, have been shown to be
'plastic,' i.e., more determined by external factors such as diet,
exercise., etc. than by genes."

What does this mean, other than to say that anthropologists should
retool their criteria for defining races? Do you know how much
reclassification this has entailed? I get the impression that
biologists do a great deal of reclassifying.

For all these reasons, anthropologists have mostly given up trying
to fit people into biological "races." Instead, we are more
interested today in exploring the ways in which particular traits
help us adapt to our environments. A trait such as skin color
varies not in a simple "black-white" dichotomy, but rather along a
continuum from very darkly pigmented to almost transparent. In
general, the darkest skin is found near the equator, and the
lightest nearest the poles. In between these two extremes exists
an unbroken continuum, with no internally defined breaking point.
The interesting question, for us, is "what does skin color help us
do in these different regions?", not "where do 'black' people end
and 'white' people begin?"

It seems that what race deniers are denying is that men do not
constitute separate non-interbreedable species. Of course there is
an "unbroken continuum"!

I also asked him, in the message asking for his permission to
post, how the degree of mixing in man compares with that in other

As for "mixing", I assume you mean "race mixing." Most
anthropologists today would say that the phrase is meaningless as
applied to humans, since no human population has been completely
genetically isolated from all others since the first appearance of
Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago. We are all connected
genetically through gene flow, and we always have been. Which
brings up an interesting point, which is that American "blacks"
and "whites" are, as a result of gene flow, genetically more LIKE
EACH OTHER than either is like their parent European or African

Again, we are back to the issue that races are not (yet!) species.
As for your last statement, I have never heard such a claim and
suspect if there were good evidence for it that I would certainly
have heard about it and so would every school child.

RON (continuing):
Even animal populations are often not as isolated from one another
as was once thought, and my impression is that biologists in
general do not use the term "race" much, since it just does not
describe reality as clearly as some other ways that have been

The contrary is also the case! You'll be very interested to learn
that biologists have discovered that it does not take isolation to
create *species*! The September 13 issue of _Science_ has a
"Special News Report" (the first one I've noticed in _Science_:
maybe it's a new feature), called "On the Many Origins of
Species." The summary says, "Researchers thought it took mighty
barriers like mountains to make new species. Now they are learning
that the process can rest on something as slight as a taste for
new fruit." What this means is that one group of animals in a
species starts specializing in eating one kind of fruit and
another group in the same species starts specializing in eating a
different kind of fruit. In time, these two groups co-evolve with
the different kinds of fruit they eat and start heading in
different evolutionary directions and eventually become new
species. Now we know this happens on a larger scale, and the
reason that plant became so colorful, in spite of the fact that
green is the most effective color as far as photosynthesis goes,
is because of coevolution with animals. (I'd have to look up when
this happened.)

It also goes to show, once again, that scientists, like everybody
else, make implicit assumptions that, when rooted out and
examined, turn out to be false.

RON (continuing):
The idea of "race" comes from a time when biology was seen as
static, unchanging. We know now that biology is at heart
evolutionary; the old way of thinking has simply outlived its

You are indeed correct when you speak of past biology, certainly
in pre-Darwinist times. The great Linneaus was, after all, a
Creationist! I've been having a running dispute with certain
Objectivists (this is being cross-posted to
alt.philosophy.objectivism) who believe in what Ayn Rand said
about forming concepts, namely that we do so rather much as
Aristotle did (he was a Creationist, too, but believed gods in
more than the three Linneaus did) and classify in terms of genus
and species and do so on the basis of the *properties* of the
organisms. Modern biologists strive to classify on the basis of
their *history* (evolutionary descent), though they often wind up
using knowledge of their properties only, when that is all they
have to go on. Others would rather rely on DNA matches to
construct the true evolutionary tree. In fact, sometimes one
method is better, sometime the other. The *philosophical* point is
that the history of a thing is not a property of a thing, since
their are multiple pathways to the present. This means that
Objectivism needs to be updated, since their underlying model is a
static, unchanging world. Philosophy is just the most general of
the sciences and drags out the most basic of our underlying
assumptions. The static model was hardly an unreasonable one for
Aristotle or Linneaus to adopt, as it covered the experience of
the world they knew. Alas, their experience was limited.

But whether the conception of race is a holdover from those days
is something that needs to ascertained. I would say that it is a
concept that needs to be refined, not abandoned. I think of races
as populations that are the building blocks of species. I know of
no case where a single organism, as opposed to a population of
them, evolved into a new species! And, once again, I don't see
what is so special about man.

RON (continuing):
Keep in mind that I am a linguistic anthropologist, with a minor
specialization in biological anthropology; I responded to your
post on sci.anthropology because I enjoy educating about these
issues. Biological anthropologists might give you more details on
genetics, but most would not, I am sure, disagree with the broad
conclusions I have given you.

Bring 'em here and I'll take 'em on! Not that I am an arrogant
cuss, but because I have a knack for spotting underlying
assumptions in a wide variety of fields and enjoy talking to
specialists, although it is often tough ploughing to read certain
articles when I know very little of the jargon. So let me ask you
about the connection between race and "language." (See, I can put
"language" in quotation marks and raise objections about its real
existence not unlike the ones you raised about race.) I would
expect there to be a fairly large correlation--not initially
perhaps but over time--between populations (sub-races or sub-sub-
species, maybe) and language, simply on the strength of the idea
that people who speak to each other are more likely to breed with
each other.

Stephen Jay Gould has written extensively on these issues in his
Books, which are compilations of his Natural History Magazine
articles. Also, see Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. Marvin
Harris' Patterns of Race in the Americas is especially useful, as
it lays out the different ways in which "race" has worked itself
out in different parts of the Americas, and why. You might also
check out Harris' more recent Our Kind.

I hope this helps. If you need more, let me know.

I have a very strong suspicion that political passions are behind
the denial of race in humans. I examined that $150 tome called
_The History and Geography of Human Genes_, by Cavalli-Sforzi
(something like that) which made a big splash when it came out. C-
S denied the existence of races, but he never explained what he
was denying. But I'll be glad to overlook the bias if I can just
find out what is being denied. Then I'll repeat my question of
where man falls in.

As for Steven Jay Gould, I'm surprised you'd bring him up, since
his biases are so patent. He'll write a piece picking apart some
nineteenth century study on the comparative brain sizes of whites
and blacks. He'll argue that the study does not show that whites
are superior to blacks, because:

1. The data were cooked. (There is no scientist who does not cook
his data, even if it is just tossing out "outliers."
2. Brain size has nothing whatever to do with IQ.
3. IQ does not measure intelligence.
4. Intelligence is a meaningless concept.
5. Races do not exists.
6. Superiority has no meaning.

And you thought the "country lawyer" who said, "My client did not
commit the murder and was insane when he did," was giving a bad