Race is a topic of such enormous importance that it's essential to think clearly about it. Yet much of the intelligentsia now attempts to deal with the problem by defining race as merely a mass hallucination afflicting the entire human race - other than we few members of the Great and the Good. As we saw in last week's column on the schizophrenic writings of the leading population geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, much of the professoriat now publicly deny the very reality of race. Prominent anthropologist C. Loring Brace asserts, "There is no such thing as a biological entity that warrants the term 'race.'" The American Association of Physical Anthropologists recently announced: "… old biological concepts of race no longer provide scientifically valid distinctions…" Similarly, the American Anthropological Association proclaimed " … differentiating species into biologically defined 'races' has proven meaningless and unscientific as a way of explaining variation…"
Well, wishing isn't going to make race vanish into thin air. Let's review some of the major myths about race.
Look, this is one big non-sequiter: Of course, there are different racial groups. And of course their members tend to inherit certain different genes, on average, than the members of other racial groups. And that means racial groups will differ, on average, in various innate capabilities. But that also means that no group can be supreme at all jobs. To be excellent at one skill frequently implies being worse at something else. So, there can't be a Master Race. Sports fans can cite countless examples. Men of West African descent monopolize the Olympic 100m dash, but their explosive musculature, which is so helpful in sprinting, weighs them down in distance running, where they are also-rans. Similarly, there are far more Samoans in the National Football League than Chinese, simply because Samoans tend to be much, much bigger. But precisely because Samoans are so huge, they'll never do as well as the Chinese in gymnastics.
The best example of the fuzziness of natural categories is the concept of "extended family." All the criticisms made about the fuzziness of racial groups apply in spades to extended families. How many extended families do you belong to? Well, at least two: your mom's and your dad's. But they each belonged to their parents' two extended families, so maybe you belong to four. And your grandparents each belonged to two …
And what are the boundaries of your various extended families? If the question at hand is who you'd give a spare kidney to, you'd probably draw the limits rather narrowly. But, when making up your Christmas card list, you probably toss in the occasional third cousin, twice removed. And exactly what's the appropriate name for all these extended families anyway?
In fact, extended families are even less clear-cut than racial groups. Yet, nobody goes around smugly claiming that extended families don't exist.
But why is extended family such a perfect analogy for race? Because it's not an analogy. They are the same thing: kin, individuals united by common descent. There's no natural law defining where extended families end. A racial group is merely an extended family (often an extremely extended family) that inbreeds to some extent. It's this tendency to marry within the group that makes racial groups somewhat more coherent, cohesive, and longer lasting than smaller-scale extended families.
In the History and Geography of Human Genes, Cavalli-Sforza calculates the surprisingly short time in which a version of a gene that leads to more offspring can spread from 1% to 99% of the population. If a rare variant of a gene produces just 1% more surviving offspring, it will become nearly universal in a human group in 11,500 years. But, if it provides 10% more "reproductive fitness," it will come to dominate in just 1,150 years. A classic example is the gene for lactose-tolerance. It was almost nonexistent until humans started milking cattle about 10,000 years ago. Today, its prevalence ranges from negligible among East Asians to 97% among Danes.
You often hear that between-group racial differences only account for 15% of genetic variation. This number comes from a 1972 study by Richard Lewontin of 17 blood types, comparing variation between continental-scale races and between national-scale racial groups (e.g., Swedes vs. Italians). Now, blood types are, I suppose, important, but they hardly represent all we want to know about human genetic diversity. Certain other traits are known to be more racially determined — the figure for skin color, not surprisingly, is 60%. What the overall number is for all the important genes remains unknown.
Still, let's assume that Lewontin's 15% solution is widely applicable. That's like going to a casino that has American Indian and African American croupiers, and 85% of the time the roulette spins are random, but 15% of the time the ball always comes up red for Indian croupiers and black for the black croupiers — pretty useful information, huh?
Then, are black Africans highly diverse physically? Well, that depends upon who you are lumping together. There are indeed some highly unusual peoples in Africa, but almost none of them were brought to America as slaves. The most genetically distinct people in sub-Saharan Africa are the Khoisan. These are the yellowish-brown, tongue-clicking Bushmen and Hottentots of the Southern African wastelands, the remnants of a great race that once dominated most of Africa before the blacks ethnically cleansed them from the more desirable lands. The most striking contrast in Africa is between the tiny Pygmies and the ultra-tall herding tribes of East Africa. But except for the 7'7", 190-pound basketball novelty Manute Bol, few of either group made it to America. In contrast, the West African tribes that did provide the vast majority of American slaves are relatively homogenous. Cavalli-Sforza sums up the situation on the ground like this, "… differences between most sub-Saharan Africans other than Khoisan and Pygmies seem rather small."
This does not exhaust the list of dumb ideas about race that I've collected. But it does give a taste of how anthropologists try to make race disappear by closing their eyes and wishing. Well, race won't go away, because it's an inevitable outgrowth of family. Our only hope to manage the problems of race is to study it honestly.
May 31, 2000