Ethnicity and evolution

JC Garelli (gare@PSY1.SATLINK.NET)
Tue, 18 Oct 1994 13:42:15 -0400

Message forwarded by Professor Will Pflaum

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Sunday, October 16, 1994

New York Times Book Review
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Dear Sir or Madam;

Some will consider Malcolm Browne's recent review of The Bell Curve ,
Race, Evolution and Behavior, and The Decline of Intelligence in America
politically faulty , and I am sure you will receive many letters
criticizing the politics of both the reviewer and the authors reviewed. My
criticism comes from a different point of view. I see little in this
review to suggest that either Browne or the writers he considers
understand some basic principles of evolution.

First of all, why would anyone expect a genetic difference between races?
Until about 150 years ago the vast majority of all continents were
illiterate subsistence agriculturists. The modern era has not existed long
enough to cause genetic change, only a few generations. For the majority,
pre-modern conditions, both social and environmental, did not require
different levels of intelligence. Also, the tiny pre-modern literate
elites were not independent breeding populations. In short, there is no
reason to expect genetic difference between the large populations
identified by Browne and the writers he reviews.

Secondly, the concept of ethnicity - as when Browne notes the comparison
in The Bell Curve between Whites, Asians, and Blacks in the United States
- is not a useful category for breaking down evolutionary change. A
breeding population - a group of people who have bred with each other for
a long time - can have unique characteristics. "Asians," "Whites," and
"Blacks" are not necessarily breeding populations. It is a mistake to
assume these groups share any genetic characteristics. In fact, a person
from Northern China may be much less likely to share a common ancestor
with, say, a Laotian than a Greek is too share an ancestor with an

Furthermore, Blacks from genetically unrelated parts of Africa, to name
one ethnicity, did not become a separate Black breeding population upon
they arrival in the New World. The advent of America is too recent in
genetic time and the rates of inter-racial breeding are too high to assume
that African Americans form a distinctive breeding population in genetic
terms. In other words, Browne and possibly the writers he reviews have
failed to consider the time scale of evolution and the pre-modern breeding
patterns of either Old World or New World populations.

Analysis of the mitochondria DNA can help identify a breeding population
and can help determine how separate genetically that population is from
another population. Appearance and arbitrary differences - skin color,
nose shape, hair texture - cannot help determine the separation of
breeding populations. Botanists stopped classifying flower populations by
color in the eighteenth century. Sometimes what you see is not what you

If these writers claim racial differences do exist I want to know HOW
such differences could possibly arise - in what time scale, in what
geographic regions. I want to know WHY such changes might arise - what
long standing social or environmental differences might differentiate
populations. Lastly I want the proponents of racial differences to
justify WHO they are talking about from a genetic point of view - why they
believe cultural or folk category like "Black" or "White" might have any
biological validity for cognition in the first place. Don't give me
statistics to prove something is true (and don't give a book cataloguing
these statistics a positive review) until you convince me that the point
you are trying to prove is within the realm of scientific possibility.

There may be some subtle genetic differences between the cognition of
some breeding populations. There is absolutely no reason to expect
differences in intelligence between the macro populations colloquially
called "race" from an evolutionary basis. It seems that Browne and writers
he has reviewed have built their world view on the basis of a number of as
yet unsubstantiated assumptions, at least from an evolutionary point of


Will Pflaum
Professor of Anthropology
Medgar Evers College
City University of New York
1650 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11225

Juan Carlos Garelli, MD
Attachment Research Center
Juncal 1966, 6B, 1116 Buenos Aires, Argentina
E-mail: Fax: +54-1 812 5432