Using ever improving molecular techniques, population geneticists study the history of extended families that are inbred to some degree. In other words, they trace the genealogies of racial groups. It`s an inherently fascinating subject, and science journalist Steve Olson introduces it adequately in his new book, Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes (Houghton Mifflin Co. $25). Written in the breezy style of a National Geographic travel-log, Olson`s book is a quick read, but a little too superficial to be intellectually satisfying. Still, it`s not a bad overview of an important subject.
It would be better, though, without the recurrent political sermonizing. Unfortunately for population geneticists, their subject matter—race—is vastly unfashionable. So, the dean of the field, Stanford`s great L.L. Cavalli-Sforza long ago developed the transparent subterfuge of defining the word "race" in the most ludicrous straw-man terms possible—as the classification of the human race into absolutely separate, never-overlapping, mutually exclusive categories—thus allowing himself to deny the biological meaningfulness of race. (Never specified is exactly who today believes such a thing: the Grand Kleagle`s retarded brother, perhaps?) Still, it allows Cavalli-Sforza to get back to work without being crucified for political incorrectness, so we shouldn`t hold it against him.
As I pointed out last year in my response to Olson`s Atlantic Monthly article about Cavalli-Sforza, the journalist never seems to grasp that this is just pro forma boilerplate. In his book, Olson stops every few pages to tell you that there are no races that have been absolutely isolated genetically since the beginning of time because—you will be shocked, shocked to learn this—humans have been known to outbreed. (The reality of course is that for any human racial group, the inbreeding glass is both part empty and part full.) This makes Mapping Human History rather like a geology book that repeatedly admonishes the reader that the Earth is not flat.
I shouldn`t criticize Olson too harshly even though his attacks on the science of physical anthropology are certainly unfair. Sure, the old "bone guys" made mistakes, but by Carleton Coon`s 1965 book The Living Races of Man, they had arrived—just by looking at bones, visible features, and a few rudimentary genetic markers—at a racial map of contemporary humanity that is quite similar to what Cavalli-Sforza came up with using molecular analysis in his 1994 magnum opus The History and Geography of Human Genes. In fact, the molecular anthropologists` most important new finding was much more politically incorrect than what Coon had believed. Coon saw Caucasoids as more similar to Negroids than to Mongoloids. Coon argued that the fundamental division of humanity ran north-south along the great mountain ranges of Central Asia, with whites and blacks on the west and oriental peoples on the east. In contrast, the population geneticists see the great divide running east-west through the Sahara. Cavalli-Sforza wrote, "The most important conclusion in this section is that the greatest difference within the human species is between Africans and non-Africans …"
Still, Olson`s a half-hearted amateur at crushing distorted straw men compared to the most celebrated popularizer and politicizer of science, the late Stephen Jay Gould. That literary stylist perfected the rhetorical device of discrediting ideologically inconvenient modern sciences—such as the study of IQ, which he attempted to exterminate in his best-seller The Mismeasure of Man (see Arthur Jensen`s response "The Debunking of Scientific Fossils and Straw Persons")—by pointing out mistakes made by practitioners in the distant past. If, for example, Gould`s Marxian philosophy had made him dislike the discoveries of modern geology, he would no doubt have demonstrated that we can`t trust anything geologists tell us because earlier geological theorists had concluded that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle.
Another curious feature that Olson`s book shares with many other contemporary writings about population genetics is the author`s apparent longing for the abolition of his own subject matter via universal random interbreeding. Although animal and plant biodiversity is routinely celebrated as a supreme good, the conclusions of books on human biodiversity tend to treat it as a temporary evil that will soon be gone, and good riddance to it. It`s as if that geology textbook ended with an ode to the blessed day when the Earth will plunge into the Sun, thus happily eliminating the need for a science of geology.
In his final chapter, "The End of Race," Olson cites Hawaii as exemplifying the future of the human race. Still, not even Hawaii has achieved racial nirvana. Among residents of that lovely state, social class correlates positively with the average latitude of one`s ancestors` homelands. People who trace their descent primarily to New England, Japan, or China tend to be at the top of the ladder. The Portuguese and Filipinos are generally farther down, and Polynesians are near the bottom. Despite interracial marriage blurring the ethnic boundaries, the Native Hawaiians are now campaigning hard to have themselves declared a sovereign nation like American Indian tribes. (The right to run casinos in Hawaii would be lucrative, to say the least.)
On a vaster scale, Brazil exhibits the same tendency for class to correlate with color, and for the people at the bottom of the pile to agitate, not unreasonably, for race-based privileges for themselves. Currently, the government of Brazil is introducing racial quotas in response to black demands.
Further, the mixing of races often leads to new races rather than to no races, such as the "triracial isolate" communities that are found in the backwoods of the East Coast. The official ideology of Mexico is that the mixing of Spaniards and Indians created "La Raza" ("The Race"), also known as The Cosmic Race. (Here is my article on the population genetics of Mexico.)
This notion that the entire world will soon consist of one beige race is both highly popular and highly dubious. I see little statistical evidence to suggest that there will be significantly greater racial admixture in either Asia or Africa anytime in the 21st Century … and that`s where most humans will live.
For example, the UN`s best guess is that China will have 1,462 million people in 2050. The Chinese government shows no intention of ever admitting many immigrants, so the racial admixture level in China will not change perceptibly. The UN also projects that in 2050, India will have a population of 1,572 million. Almost all of these people will be racially descended from current Indians. Why? Well, who would want to move to India? It`s a country that`s more than full now, even before it adds another half billion people. Moreover, the average Hindu wouldn`t even dream of marrying the 98% of other Hindus who don`t belong to his particular caste and regional subcaste, so Hindus aren`t suddenly going to start marrying vast numbers of non-Hindus from distant lands.
Other populous countries that—trust me—won`t be attracting huge numbers of immigrants from other continents include Pakistan (344 million in 2050), Indonesia (311 million), Nigeria (279 million), Bangladesh (265 million), the Congo (204 million), and Yemen and Uganda (102 million each). In other words, the absolute numbers of racially distinct East Asians, blacks, and non-European Caucasians will be larger in 2050 than today.
Most of the growth in racial mixing will be restricted to regions where intermarriage has been a long tradition (primarily Latin America and some remote islands) or are immigrant magnets (presumably North America, Australia, and Western Europe).
In essence, what is so enthusiastically anticipated is the admixture of people of European descent. Evidently, there is something uniquely, even superhumanly evil and dangerous about European DNA that means it must be diluted. Strikingly, the greatest enthusiasts for this view tend to be highly European themselves. (Olson, for example, is blond.) This reflects that weird combination of racial self-loathing and racial egotism found in so many white intellectuals. A psychologist once said that alcoholics are egomaniacs with low self-esteem who see themselves as the turds around which the universe revolves. Post-modern whites tend to indulge in the same warped world-view.
Finally, I doubt that the Tiger Woodsification of Europeans will proceed all that quickly. I don`t think it`s at all inevitable that Eastern Europe will open its borders to non-Europeans. Prudent statesmen in the ex-Communist countries will be wary of reproducing Western Europe`s travails with hostile immigrant minorities, although the European Union will no doubt try to bully them into sharing their folly.
So, the odds are that—on a global scale—the current races will remain at the end of this century almost as distinct as they are today. Then, beyond 2100, DNA engineering and, perhaps, interstellar colonization will likely radically alter genetic differences among humans.
So, while a better book than this one could certainly be written about race, you can feel confident that if you do invest the modest amount of time required to read Olson`s effort, you don`t have to worry that its subject matter will suddenly evaporate.
June 28, 2002