Race and The Politics of Ignorance

In his recent article, The Politics of Ignorance, Kenan Malik quite accurately focuses on some of the problems of race and racial classification in the social and biological sciences. The James Watson debacle that Malik refers to, though a few months old now, serves as a wonderful example of how scientists are influenced by politics. While it is hard to imagine why such a brilliant biologist would make such a nonsensical and profoundly non-biological statement about Africans is beyond me, the key point is that he should have been challenged on this point and given an opportunity to respond rather than having his lectures cancelled. Had that happened, and had he continued to make such ill-informed statements, then the cancellation of his lectures and various institutional appointments would be completely warranted on a scientific basis rather than political.

Talk about race has become taboo in many places, particularly human genetics. In my own discipline, anthropology, we continue to be plagued by the persistent problem of having no alternative. Race has been, since the early development of anthropological thought, one of the primary concepts – if not the primary concept – upon which the discipline was founded. The strange thing is that race is widely considered a non-issue by anthropologists. Why is that? There are two main reasons: 1) although we know that racial models have very little biological utility, race is the simplest concept available that can be used to explain the patterns of human variation; 2) because there are no widely accepted alternative models, racial language continues to be perpetuated. The key issue here is that human variation is exceedingly complex and, as such, we are presented with the challenge of developing analytical methods that reflect this complexity. Until this can be adequately achieved, anthropologists seem quite content to ignore the problems of simple conclusions based on simple analyses.

It seems then that the only disciplines that are seriously concerned with the problem of race (as a biological problem) are medicine and philosophy. There have been vigorous debates in the various medical journals about the utility of racial categories for the diagnoses of several types of diseases or health risks for certain ailments. The main question for those of us who are either sceptics or agnostics about the existence of racial categories is whether social racial categories in any way represent inclusion in definable biological groups.

This is where philosophers, particularly philosophers of science, have made the greatest contribution of late. The only problem is that it is quite easy to misread their arguments, which I must confess I have been guilty of. For example, Robin Andreasen has argued that if human groups mate more within their own group than between groups, then they can be thought of, and classified as, ancestor-descendant groups. As such, human history can be represented as an evolutionary tree, with the terminal ends of each branch representing extant racial groups. Similarly, but in a much more complex manner, Philip Kitcher suggests that there are certain conditions that could lead to the formation of discrete human populations: that ethnic group membership promotes selective mating (endogamy), which results in barriers to gene flow across groups. My initial reaction to both was disbelief that both of these authored wanted to argue that races are real, when my research has lead me to the conclusion that human variation is so complex, that there is no way in which these philosophical models could work. Upon reflection, I realised that what both Andreasen and Kitcher were arguing was conditional: if human groups meet certain conditions – that there is limited gene flow between various populations – they can be considered discrete racial groups and classified as such. These models are less controversial than I first thought, and actually prove to be quite provocative in terms of the ‘race debate.’ Although I do not agree that those conditions have been met, the conditions upon which we could have racial groups are better understood. But, again, human variation is far too complex to fit these models, particularly Andreasen’s cladistic model.

The main point here is that several philosophers of science, and particularly Kitcher, have pointed out that human biology, both on the phenotypic and genetic levels, has been shaped by social factors, and should be considered biosocial (this is not to be confused with sociobiological). Racial models are explicitly based on geography at the continental level, which is virtually meaningless in terms understanding human relationships on a more local level, which is where the majority of genetic exchange tends to occur. This exchange is affected not only by geography, but by language and politics and a myriad of other factors, which is variable through time. In my opinion, this is the reality of human population biology – that we form ethnic groups rather than racial groups – but this should be open to debate.

As Malik quite astutely points out, “As in many controversies about the human condition, the argument over race is a debate not so much about the facts of human differences, as about the meaning of these facts.” Debates over such meaning should not obscure the reality of those facts, and should not prevent scientific inquiries into the complexities of the patterns and processes of human biological variation. The problem still remains, however, that comments made by people like Watson make race a taboo subject, which also creates significant obstacles for those who are in search of better alternatives to simplistic racial models.


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