Re: What Are the Race Deniers Denying?

Ron Kephart (
28 Oct 1996 22:03:58 GMT () 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?

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.

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. 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.

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?

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.

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?".

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