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On Human Subspecies: A Conversation

This morning, I noticed some anthropologists discussing a blog post from Jerry Coyne on Twitter. Coyne was writing on the subject of race.

I do think that human races exist in the sense that biologists apply the term to animals, though I don’t think the genetic differences between those races are profound, nor do I think there is a finite and easily delimitable number of human races.

Coyne made use of the term “subspecies”, which I have seen discussed before but am certainly no expert on. Luckily, I know an evolutionary biologist who specializes in humans–and who indulges my epistolary whims.

My question:

Dear Dr. Laden:

I see that Jerry Coyne is blogging on the topic of human races. Part of his thesis is that human races are just like subspecies in any other animal. Now, my biology education was never what it should have been, so I’m a little loose on the topic of subspecies. I understand that species is (for the most part and with some exceptions, but it’s biology) a measure of genetic distance between populations such that those species cannot interbreed. I can see that this is a very useful distinction for the study of evolution–any barrier to the sharing of genetic material is important.

So how does one define (generally and with some exceptions, since it’s biology) different subspecies? What makes this an important concept for the study of evolution, differentiating it from a mere “sociological construct”, which Coyne dismisses?

Awaiting your answer,
Stephanie

The response:

Dear Ms. Zvan,

The concept of “subspecies” is a tricky one.  Even in a species where people can agree that there are subspecies, it is not necessarily the case that all, or even most, of the populations that represent that species are divisible into subspecies.  They may arise here and there but they may also disappear quickly.

What makes a subspecies is genetic isolation and/or enough morphological variation to “see” (measure) the difference, but the definition is slippery and variable. But really, the concept is so slippery that subspecies come and go in the literature. Far more subspecies have been defined than are currently recognized because naive biologists over-defined them in the late 19th cen and through much of the 20th century.

The concept is useful when you have a real population that is isolated enough that conservation efforts have to consider it separately at risk from the rest of the population. Monarch butterflies that have different migratory routes, for example, and the various populations of African rhinos.

Almost all reasonable subspecies that can be thought of as valid are currently geographically isolated patches of a once continuous population … chimps, for example (there are three subspecies).

Most people who study human evolution these days think of Homo sapiens as a species represented at various times in the past by some populations that might be thought of as subspecies (like, for instance, Neanderthals) but the current representation of H. sap on this planet probably contains few if any groups that could be thought of as subspecies.

But yes, race = subspecies. The terms are interchangeable.

I hope this helps to address your questions,

Sincerely,
Dr. Greg Laden, PhD(H)

A follow-up:

Dear Dr. Laden:

Thank you for your helpful response. To make sure that I understand you correctly, please confirm the following.

In order to demonstrate the current or historical existence of subspecies or races in Homo sapiens, then, one would have to demonstrate that populations are or were isolated in such a way that novel genetic variation arose in the species that would be threatened by the destruction of that population. It is not enough to simply demonstrate a pattern of overlapping variations radiating from many locations, as that is, roughly, what we would expect to see in alleles that are not under heavy selective pressure in a mostly continuous population. Categorization applied to such a population would then be socially rather than biologically based?

Is that a reasonable extrapolation of your explanation?

Sincerely,
Stephanie Zvan

Nailing it down:

Dear Ms. Zvan,

That is a very good way of putting it.

Sincerely,
Dr. Greg Laden, PhD(H)

So, yeah, I’m going to have to disagree with Coyne on this one, and I feel pretty comfortable doing so.

Comments

  1. says

    I guess what I’m confused about is this: If I showed you a certain line-up of people and said, “Okay, which one of these individual’s ancestors is from Japan? How do you know?”, what words you use to refer to that?

    In other words, I think it’s pretty undeniable (at least, I’d shocked if anybody denied this) that there have historically been a number of rough subpopulations of humans who display genetically-inherited morphological differences that are strongly correlated with ancestral geography. What word do you use to refer to that phenomenon?

    And you can’t just say, “None at all, because it’s a useless concept,” because at an absolute minimum we need that concept to describe history…

    I’m not trying to be obstinate or even to initiate a debate here (though I will admit I’m inclined to agree with Jerry — but I’m also very much willing to entertain the possibility I am wrong). That humans possess “genetically-inherited morphological differences that are strongly correlated with ancestral geography” seems patently obvious to me, so I am assuming that what I am missing is that those who deny the existence of race use some other term to refer to the phrase in quotes…?

  2. says

    What is that group of people, James? Does it include a group of people whose ancestors have been in Korea for a long time? Does it include a group whose ancestors have been in Tibet for a long time? How about the Americas? In any of those cases, the word you’re looking for is “guess”. Or is the population you expect to pick this person out of made up of, say, a bunch of people whose ancestors have been in Nigeria a long time? In that case, the phrase is “stacked deck”.

    You’re trying to suggest the world can be divided up into discrete morphological groups by picking someone at a remove from you for your example. It doesn’t work that way. That just shows the gaps in your visualization of the world.

    If you want a word that’s useful in describing history, try “culture”. It encompasses things like political and religious systems that actually affect history, unlike (usually) genetics.

  3. says

    “If I showed you a certain line-up of people and said, “Okay, which one of these individual’s ancestors is from Japan? How do you know?”, what words you use to refer to that?”

    Ignorance and arrogance.

    http://www.alllooksame.com

    (Exam room #1, you have to sign up for it though)

    “In other words, I think it’s pretty undeniable (at least, I’d shocked if anybody denied this) that there have historically been a number of rough subpopulations of humans who display genetically-inherited morphological differences that are strongly correlated with ancestral geography. What word do you use to refer to that phenomenon?”

    Relation?

  4. says

    (So I’m going to take that phrase I used before, “genetically-inherited morphological differences that are strongly correlated with ancestral geography”, and call those things “geomorphisms” for short.)

    To be clear, I never said anything about any group being discrete, and I agree that there is a huge amount of ambiguity. If the contention here is that the specific dividing lines we have drawn to separate people according to geomorphisms are completely arbitrary and artificial, then of course I agree. What I’m having difficulty with is that the phenomenon of geomorphism seems patently obvious to me, and I’m not sure if you are a) denying that many (if not most) humans display a well-matched set of geomorphisms, or b) using some other words to describe that.

    As to using “culture” to describe history, I’m not sure that cuts it. America did not operate its slave trade on the basis of the culture of the victims; it did so on the basis of the victims’ geomorphisms. Now, the point is well taken that it was based on a phenotypic trait that did not cleanly correlate to one geographical region’s characteristic geomorphisms. But it’s not like it was a phenotype that manifested independent of geomorphisms: I’m not aware of any couple whose ancestors were from Europe that spontaneously had a dark-skinned baby who then became a slave, for example. And it seems manifestly obvious to me that the fact that the phenotype was geomorphic in nature was a big factor in that big a phenotype that we chose to determine who was a full person or not. We didn’t just decide to enslave people who were left-handed, we decided to enslave people whose phenotype betrayed a high likelihood that their ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa.

    I don’t see any way of adequately describing that shameful history and how it came about without making reference to geomorphisms and the way in which geomorphic clustering (ahem, “races”) provided a convenient criteria on which to discriminate a particular out group as non-people.

    Anyway, I don’t want to debate this too much, for a number of reasons. I would appreciate, though, if before I drop it you would clarify whether or not you think geomorphisms exist, and if so, how you refer to them.

  5. says

    English boiled down to nuts and bolts, if Human – home sapiens – were the species, regardless the word (“race”) variations would be sub-species. When I see evidence where one sub-species cannot mate with another I’ll change my mind.

  6. NewEnglandBob says

    …one would have to demonstrate that populations are or were isolated in such a way that novel genetic variation arose in the species that would be threatened by the destruction of that population.

    One must not forget about the recent variation in one race of humans that is genetically isolating them. This is a real-time variation in progress and we can watch over a couple of lifetimes how they will separate or possibly even go extinct.

    That variation is right-wing-Republicanism. They are isolating themselves more and more by their aberrant behavior and sane humans are sexually isolated from them because of their foul political odor. I suspect that in another 50 years they will be completely isolated or will become extinct. ;)

  7. says

    I’m realizing I may have asked in the wrong place, since I remember now that thick-headedness is not much tolerated around here — and as I tried to make clear in my first comment, I very much grant that I am possibly being a bit thick-headed here (almost always, but not quite always, when there is a particular progressive opinion which I resist in favor of a less progressive one, I eventually ended up changing my mind. There are exceptions, e.g. many people would consider it “progressive” to be of the opinion that we must embrace other “ways of knowing” lest we fall victim to a Western colonialist scientistic viewpoint, but I thoroughly reject that notion. Still, whenever I find myself taking the less “progressive” position, I always have a bit of a seed of doubt there that maybe I just don’t “get it” yet…) Perhaps if I ever have the opportunity, I’ll ask over at Crommunist’s blog; Ian has been very patient with a couple of rather thick-headed questions I have had in regards to race, and I feel comfortable talking to him when I realize I might in fact turn out to be badly wrong. He suffers fools, I think, a bit more than the crowd here at Almost Diamonds — which is neither an inherently good nor an inherently bad thing, but if I’m worried I might be The Fool, probably better to ask there than here ;D

    I appreciate Momo Elektra’s suggestion of “relation”, but I don’t think that quite captures it.. We are talk about relations which are both morphologically self-evident and which are often roughly indicative of geographic ancestor. Those characteristics have had tremendous sociopolitical consequences throughout recent human history, extending as far back as we have recorded. I don’t see how we can adequately discuss history without acknowledging this phenomenon.

    Perhaps the issue here is that you all are objecting to the discreteness aspect? How about if I propose the following definition for “race”:

    An artificial, unjustifiably rigid, and occasionally nonsensical* classification scheme that has been historically used to approximate the very real correlations between certain morphological features and geographical ancestry, and the historical tendency in some (but not all) regions for those correlations to cluster and diverge.

    * The various phenotypes which are classed under the umbrella of “Asian” form a rather preposterous grouping, for example. You’ll get no argument from me there.

    Is that something we can all agree on? Or are we still denying the existence of what I previously termed “geomorphisms”?

  8. MichaelD says

    I get the feeling having read some of Coynes posts and this one that he is using subspecies in a looser sense then that of Laden.

  9. says

    http://www.alllooksame.com

    (Exam room #1, you have to sign up for it though)

    Thanks for that. I did, in fact, do worse than I would have guessed, which is somewhat enlightening. (I do wonder the extent to which that is a “stacked deck”, to use Stephanie’s phrase criticizing me… but I will leave that idea alone for now)

    I don’t think it detracts from my main point though. If you were to take a random sampling of 18 people from anywhere in the world, you are seriously telling me that you would not be able to guess at their ancestral geography at a rate better than random chance? Because that’s all I’m really asserting here, is that the phenomenon of “geomorphism”, as I am calling it, is real enough, and in that sense “race” is real — though obviously the choice of discrete boundaries is artificial, duh. Just as the boundary between green and blue is artificial (and in fact one on which my wife and I frequently find ourselves disagreeing), but the concepts that different wavelengths of light produce different visual sensations is very real.

  10. scenario says

    The term race is a very loaded term in America. It is also not generally appropriate in humans because it implies that there has been genetic isolation. Humans have always moved around a lot. There has seldom been any truly genetically isolated humans for any substantial amount of time in a long time.

    I agree that the term race or subspecies is inappropriate for humans for both scientific and cultural reasons. But there needs to be a term for groups of people who have distinct genetic similarities. Terms like Japanese or Jewish or French or Mayan are more cultural than genetic and are not generic enough.

    Is there a generic word to describe closely related groups, either genetically or geographically, whose members share some genetic similarities such as a higher prevalence of a genetic trait like lactose intolerance? If I say that Group Y has a 20% greater chance of having a certain inherited disease than most people, am I being racist? This is clearly a genetic issue, yet I don’t believe the terms race or subspecies are appropriate terms for those genetically distinct groups.

    You cannot always substitute a cultural label. Someone does a genetic study of Europe and finds a certain genetic trait that is common among northern Italians people, Swiss people, Southern German people, and some Western French people. Is there a generic scientific term that could refer to groups that share a genetic trait and perhaps geographical location but not cultural similarity? Subspecies or race would be inappropriate for a group like this.

    If allele A is common in an specific area that comprises parts of 4 countries and allele B is common in a different area that comprises parts of 5 countries, is there a generic term for these types of groups?

  11. says

    Given that the genetic differences that differentiate one “race” from another, in aggregate, is actually less of a delta than between one man and his brother ( http://raceandgenomics.ssrc.org/Lewontin/ ), I fail to see how “subspecies” even begins to cover what few genetic markers each “race” shares in common. Aside from bare superficialities and some genetic predispositions toward or against certain diseases (sickle cell anemia, lactose intolerance, etc), I can’t imagine why anyone would think there’s a valid distinction between these races when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

  12. says

    To clarify, I suspect those superficial appearance genes might have knock-on effects that might also cause the other genetic differences, or they might be the barest beginnings of speciation, but we are not geographically isolated from one another for long enough to actually have speciated. Hell, we really haven’t enough genetic drift yet to call ourselves subspecies. When human populations start looking as different as great danes and chihuahuas, then we’ll talk.

  13. says

    Given that the genetic differences that differentiate one “race” from another, in aggregate, is actually less of a delta than between one man and his brother

    This is somewhat of a red herring — though not completely so — due to the fact that the averaged genetic difference between any pair of related groups is going to tend to be low in comparison to the specific genetic diversity between individuals within those groups. There’s a lot of noise in individuals that gets smoothed out when you average even just a few of them together, even a few that are fairly closely related.

    It’s not entirely a red herring, though, because it is a good reminder to those who think that race actually means something beyond its wretched historical consequences.

  14. says

    James, should I leave you alone a little longer so you can get more defensive? No? Well, how about you start by specifying which morphological traits you think are indicative of which populations? When you make up your own terms that are supposed to be different but the same as some other traits but not in very specific ways, I’m not sure what you’re asking me to agree to.

    By the way, your story about how the slave trade in the U.S. came to be is wrong in some rather important ways. Slaves were originally African because a slave trade already existed in Africa, which meant there were slaves there for sale. They were also Native American, because the indigenous population was captured in war. The racist justifications were an edifice built later. Then all sorts of fun things happened, like your freedom being determined by the freedom of your father…then your mother. Again, however, it wasn’t done based on color.

  15. MichaelD says

    For a sake of completeness Coyne also had a second post on this subject (not linked above) http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/more-on-genes-and-geography-diagnosing-your-home-from-your-dna/

    Which looked at a paper involving using genetic analysis to try see if you could group europeans to a country of origins.

    I guess I’m a bit sad that Greg only answered your questions and didn’t directly read and respond to Jerry’s posts as I think that might be a little more informative.

  16. says

    America did not operate its slave trade on the basis of the culture of the victims

    it also did not do so on the basis of biological race, seeing as populations of “black” people have greater genetic diversity than the rest of us (who seem to be a subgroup of one of these populations)

    don’t confuse a single blatant phenotypical marker with “population” or “subspecies” (and btw, your phrase “geomorphism” doesn’t work either. “black” is geographically diverse, and mostly limited by latitude, historically speaking; the stereotypically “asian” markers are also present in some african and some american populations; red/blond hair is probably the sole geographically very limited marker, if you assume that “ancestry” is only stuff from before the Age of Exploration; and even then, these redheaded populations reached as far as China even in prehistoric times); because biologically, that doesn’t work out at all.

  17. says

    If you were to take a random sampling of 18 people from anywhere in the world, you are seriously telling me that you would not be able to guess at their ancestral geography at a rate better than random chance?

    if it were a truly random sample, the truth is that probably, i could not. someone once linked to a quiz where you were supposed to guess which ethnicity someone identified as, and I failed miserably.

  18. says

    By the way, your story about how the slave trade in the U.S. came to be is wrong in some rather important ways. Slaves were originally African because a slave trade already existed in Africa,

    true that. there actually was a certain amount of white-slave trade early in America’s history, but it was outcompeted by the black-slave trade later; and then the race-justification of the slave-system started…

  19. says

    James, should I leave you alone a little longer so you can get more defensive? No?

    I guess it’s hard not to get defensive when I am hearing things like “That just shows the gaps in your visualization of the world,” “Ignorance and arrogance,” and “should I leave you alone a little longer so you can get more defensive?” :p

    Alright, I’m dropping it. I don’t really feel comfortable taking this position at Almost Diamonds — which I do not mean as a criticism, BTW, in general I very much appreciate that you do not tread lightly when dealing with people you think are being ignorant. You will surely see me in the comments again — it’s just hard for me, taking, as I admit, the apparently less progressive opinion here, to accept forthright criticism without becoming defensive. “It’s not you, it’s me”, as they say.

    But please do continue to be forthright in calling out what you perceive to be idiocy! It’s one reason I am a fan of your blog. And it’s important, too: Not to get too meta here, but I accept that I am possibly in the wrong, and that while handling me with kid gloves might have had a better shot of convincing me, your forthrightness might have convinced five lurkers that you were right.

    Or maybe I’m right after all :p Anyway: Peace. I’ve said what I think, and the responses have at the very minimum given me something to think about, even if they have not convinced me. Thanks for that.

  20. says

    Okay, sorry, just one more thing:

    “black” is…mostly limited by latitude, historically speaking;

    Nope, not really. You have very dark-skinned people at a far more southern latitude in Africa than you would otherwise expect. We know this is due to the Bantu Expansion, where dark-skinned people from equatorial latitudes conquered and killed all the lighter-skinned people to the south of them. And then their kids, um, still had dark skin.

    By the same token, you have rather light-skinned people in equatorial latitudes over in Asia, also almost certainly due to migration and conquest.

    Yeah, it all took place in relatively recent history, i.e. a few tens of thousands of years ago. I don’t see how this undermines any of the points I made, however.

  21. says

    Shit, I’m trying to shut up here, and then I notice I made a factual error in my last comment. Not a few tens of thousands of years, more like a few thousand years ago, ranging up into about ten. (The Bantu expansion started about three thousand years ago; IIRC the expansion that put lighter skinned people at equatorial latitudes in SE Asia was probably a fair bit longer ago than that, but my memory fades and my ability to think of the right Google terms fails as well. And in the interest of full disclosure, I did think the Bantu expansion was longer ago than that until I checked Wikipedia just now.)

  22. says

    Race is like cat breeds. Interesting, but ultimately irrelevant, because whether it’s a Tortie, a Siamese, or an American Shorthair, it’s STILL a cat. (Plus, like human breeds, cat breeds are inter-fertile.) Point is, no one breed of cat (OR human) is superior to the others, and the sooner we can get certain subsets of humanity to understand that, the better.

    /Just my opinion, probably not very well expressed.

  23. Pen says

    The whole geomorphology thing (I don’t know who invented that word but I can see what it means) is ironic in that the land mass that is Africa-Europe-Asia features continuous variation in the appearance of people. In North America especially, there was a historical illusion of racial separation when populations of West Africans and North Europeans were brought together without too many representatives from intervening areas. Just try to draw the line between black/white/asian on a map of the Old World. The people who live there never formed isolated populations BUT it’s also true that their variations in appearance are not geographically random.

    The real oldest once-isolated population of humans was the Australian Aborigines I believe. Skin colour not-withstanding, Europeans and Africans are more closely related to each other in terms of ancestry than either are to the Aborigines (before colonisation, anyway). I can’t think of an intelligent reason to describe them as a sub-species even in the past. Today, it is rare that a person who identifies as Aboriginal has no European ancestry. That totally invalidates any sub-species argument, I would think.

  24. Anat says

    Grouping all sub-Saharan Africans into a single ‘race’ is ignorant, as Jadehawk points out in #15 – to the degree that Caucasians are a ‘race’ (or any other named group) sub-Saharan Africans would be multiple such groups, with Bantu being the one with the broadest geographical domain. I’m guessing there are plenty of Africans with very mixed ancestry from the interactions of those groups.

    Then in places where descendants of those African groups intermixed with yet other groups whether offspring of mixed ancestry were (or are) considered black, white or some other grouping depended on cultural factors – eg in a society that wanted to keep ‘Blacks’ out the ‘one drop’ rule meant that people with mostly Caucasian ancestry were still designated ‘Black’ and lived under conditions shared by black people. In the US we still see the effects of ‘one drop’ rules in social outcomes (with reversal once someone can ‘pass’ for white).

  25. Adela says

    I would expect Haldane’s rule to come into play if we had true subspecies and intra-specific hybrids.

  26. Midnight Rambler says

    don’t confuse a single blatant phenotypical marker with “population” or “subspecies”

    As opposed to…what? It looks like many of the commenters here are showing their own ignorance of the broader field of taxonomy (it’s worth pointing out that biological anthropology, Greg’s field, is closer to anthropology than to other fields of biology). Subspecies almost always have no solid basis except for some slightly variable characters that are evident to the eye, and may or may not intergrade between the extremes. Sometimes there isn’t even any real difference, like among the North American mountain lion subspecies. Actual genetic differences and isolation are rarely considered, at least not until after they’re already defined and someone goes to see if they’re “real” or not.

    Consider tiger subspecies – the only differences between them are in size and coat color, much like human races are defined. And even those differences are probably only apparent as a result of humans fragmenting tiger’s habitat before we started classifying them.

    If, in 1491, all people in the Mediterranean basin across the Sahara and Middle East to Afghanistan had been suddenly wiped out, an alien coming here would find several fairly well-defined “subspecies” of humans.

  27. says

    Well, I had an interesting observation related to this just the other week.
    I met a friend with her husband and her son.
    We haven’tseen each other in a while, so it was the first time I saw the boy (5yo) after he’d grown out of his chubby baby features.
    They are a mixed marriage, she’s a blonde German woman, he’s Afro-Caribbean.
    If you’d shown me the boy alone and played the “ancestors game”, I’d have put him somewhere on the Indian subcontinent…

  28. rork says

    Genetic councilors will ask about “ethnicity”, and it’s not cause they care about how your face looks. It’s cause some knowledge of where your genes came from can be instrumental. Hemaglobinopathies are more common in some parts of the world than others. I work on a rare cancer where half the folks who get it that are from Brazil have a odd gene that we’ve never seen anywhere else. We aren’t trying to be bigots, just cure cancer.
    Generalities about genetic distances are great, but there are also rare alleles out there, and they can be fairly recent and have founders, and this can localize them.

  29. rukymoss says

    My ex was half-Okinawan and half Filipino, and was regularly mistaken for Mexican, Native American and/or eastern European. On Okinawa, of course, he was considered “white” because he lived on American military bases and went to the schools there for American dependents, and dressed and carried himself like an American. Speaking fluent Okinawan dialect didn’t seem to matter.

  30. says

    rork, any genetic counselor who is using categorization that in any way resembles morphology-based race is engaged in malpractice. If you, for example, only look for Tay Sachs in Ashkenazi Jews, you’re going to miss that little ol’ blond me with the retrousse nose has a higher-than-average chance of being a carrier of the gene. You’ll miss that a great many of the people with sickle cell anemia genes are “caucasian” or “Semitic” or “Asian”.

    In fact, what you actually describe as your practice doesn’t involve categorization based on morphology at all. You’re talking about tracing decent to specific geographic areas–presumably regardless of morphology. Right? You’re not failing to ask blond people whether they have Brazilian ancestors just because you’ve categorized them by “race” or “ethnicity”, correct? Then you’re talking about genetic variation. You’re talking about descent and geography and the spread of individual genes through a continuous population. You’re not talking about categorization based on morphology.

    The question at hand is not whether understanding something about people’s genetics is helpful. That’s a given. The question is about whether calling groups of people “races” or “subspecies” does any good. These are very much separate questions.

  31. rork says

    You say it’s a give Stephanie, but that wasn’t said anywhere clearly – perhaps I did not read carefully enough. I was trying to make points that not everyone appears to know about, judging from some of the comments. Sorry if I moved out of the narrow confines permitted.

  32. says

    Permitted? rork, you’re not buying into this “oh, we’re so persecuted because what we say isn’t politically correct” stuff, are you? This is a basic bit of science. Classification is part of the process, but everyone has to demonstrate that the particular classifications they use and the lines that they draw when they decide to classify add meaning and knowledge. If you look at the comments of Coyne’s post, you’ll see someone (a botanist if I remember correctly) who is lamenting that the categories she became attached to in her organism are no longer considered valid based on newer research. This is just how it goes. Crying “politically correct” just means not having to make a scientific justification.

  33. rork says

    I’m interested in genetics. In your question, not so much. It seems to be about words. I sorta was being sarcastic: I thought your point was that I was off topic, not wrong, and I’m saying “whatever”.

    To make up, I will try to say something that might be controversial.
    Just looking at the person and guessing about their genes or customs is better than not looking at all. We still measure something like “race” in many clinical trials, just in case we find something unexpected from that. Should we avoid that? It’s really dumbed down, but we find stuff. For example Head and Neck cancers are increasing in “White” males, and they more often have HPV16 involved, which has reversed a “race disparity” that formerly existed, and still exists as far as outcome goes – more black male smokers before but getting less so, more white guys practicing more oral sex now, is one hypothesis and it’s not even about genetics, but btw that’s also not very certain. (Oh, young man, get that HPV vaccine, or else avoid contact with other people’s genitals. Yes, it’s harsh.) If I had to transfuse a person that looked full-blooded Navajo to me (O+), I might try another person who looked Navajo. This is all sounding racist, but its in desperate situations, where you’re hoping some data is better than no data, and you’ll be wrong very often and better be aware of that (for example: don’t transfuse, try other things).
    It would be much better to ask the people what they know about where their ancestors were from (or what their history between the sheets and with tobacco is). Even that would be idiotic compared to measuring some genes or assaying HPV. Ignore the comments, they are so misleading, debug only code.

  34. rodrigo says

    Adding to the “No, one can’t really tell where others are from” anecdotes, I’ve noticed people’s guesses about me tend to be more related to *their* culture. I’ve been assumed Pakistani (in Austria), Filipino (by people from India), Hawaiian (in Oregon), Mexican (in California), Native American (in Arizona) and Peruvian (in Romania, of all places!)

  35. AMM says

    Actually, I recall reading a Stephen Jay Gould about how biologists were discarding concept of “subspecies,” preferring to simply graph how various characteristics (or perhaps the distributions of characteristics) vary geographically. (I’ve forgotten the term he used, and the book is at home.)

    It sounds like Dr. Laden is saying that “subspecies” is still appropriate for distinct, isolated populations of the same species that have been isolated long enough to develop distinct characteristics generally shared by the population but absent in other populations. Australian aborigines prior to the arrival of Europeans might qualify, but right-wing Republicans still have a few dozen millenia of strict (genetic) isolation ahead of them.

    However, once you start mixing, it gets more complicated. What “subspecies” do Tiger Woods or President Obama belong to? Yet most people in the USA see only the African part of their ancestry. We see the distinctions we have been trained to see — the ones that reinforce the socially constructed “racial” categories — and ignore the ones that don’t.

    In fact, I think that one reason people objected to miscegenation was that the children wouldn’t fit into their nice neat categories. Look at how upset many people get about people of ambiguous gender.

  36. says

    Just looking at the person and guessing about their genes or customs is better than not looking at all.

    Stupid bullshit, it actually is.
    I’ll call it the statistics fallacy.
    You’re trying to make accurate predictions about a person from your fucking guesswork done on the sole criterium of outward appearance.
    You’re not even validating your assumption by actually asking that person if their perceived ethnicity or customs conform to your suspicions.
    In short, it’s bad science.
    Yes, the fact that somebody is an Ashkenazi Jew, or from Brazil might help you in looking for certain things, but it doesn’t fucking allow you to make any conclusion about their actual status.

    You know, I have a neighbour who recently almost lost her leg from the knee downwards. She had knee-surgery and complained about pain and problems afterwards.
    All the doctors looked at her and concluded that
    -since she was overweight
    -and overweight people have a statistically higher risk for pain and problems
    -told her to lose 20lbs
    Until she found one who was actually willing to examine her knee. By that time, the infection and inflamation was already wide-spread so she had a 50/50 chance od keeping the leg.
    That’s what “looking and guessing” leads to.

  37. julian says

    This is all sounding racist, but its in desperate situations, where you’re hoping some data is better than no data

    It would be nice if people who had to make such decisions did a little more than ‘hope some data is better than no data.’ Something like learn a few ways of finding relevant data.

  38. says

    James [1]: If I showed you a certain line-up of people and said, “Okay, which one of these individual’s ancestors is from Japan? How do you know?”, what words you use to refer to that?

    In other words, I think it’s pretty undeniable (at least, I’d shocked if anybody denied this) that there have historically been a number of rough subpopulations of humans

    See, what you did there is to base a strong and rather detailed statement about the nature of the entire human species vis-a-vis morphology and genetic patterns on lining up an uncontrolled sample and making casual visual observations. That is what almost all people walking around with some sort of “humans are divided into races” concept draw from, and it is even what people who should know better often point to get people convinced of this concept.

  39. says

    Ten Bears [5]: were the species, regardless the word (“race”) variations would be sub-species.

    “variation” does not equal “subspecies” … certain patterns of variation lend themselves to using subspecies as a useful category, but it is not a priori true that variation=race. Usually it does not.

  40. says

    MichaelD: I guess I’m a bit sad that Greg only answered your questions and didn’t directly read and respond to Jerry’s posts as I think that might be a little more informative.

    I too am ensaddened by this. The timing is bad. I’ve got major time consuming responsibilities one after the other starting last week and going for the next two weeks, and just don’t have time. I’ve written a fair amount about race ( http://goo.gl/rH4yG ) and will continue to do so.

    I did make one comment on one aspect of Jerry Coyne’s post on his post, last week before Stephanie wrote this post. But I appreciate Stephanie’s coming to bat to discuss this in a timely manner.

    I really do want to write a lot more about race than I have. It is one of those strange things that my deep interest in the topic makes me write less, rather than more. I tend to do more public speaking on the topic (my talk to Minnesota Atheists two weeks ago was on this).

    See also this: http://goo.gl/pL3g1

  41. says

    WNDKitty [23] Race is like cat breeds. Interesting, but ultimately irrelevant, because whether it’s a Tortie, a Siamese, or an American Shorthair, it’s STILL a cat. (Plus, like human breeds, cat breeds are inter-fertile.) Point is, no one breed of cat (OR human) is superior to the others, and the sooner we can get certain subsets of humanity to understand that, the better.

    Race and breeds of cat or dog is a very apt comparison. The main take-home lesson here, really, is that it takes a huge amount of effort to maintain distinct breeds in cats or dogs. Without that effort the breeds dissolve very quickly.

    A human “race” could arise under certain conditions. I’m pretty sure that such things existed in the past, at various times and places. They may have existed in recent times. Many people assert that Austrlaians are a “good race” because of their long term isolation, but oddly, other people of Sunda and Sahel are often classified as distinct from australians, though they are all on the same continent, and there is much more evidence of non-isolation than people like to remember, so I’m not so sure about that I’ve argued that certain groups of people in Africa are very race-like while others show former “raceosity” (as it were) and the difference in in recent historical movements.

    Race, in the popular mind and frankly in the scientific mind among racist scientists is a rigid and steady concept and applies to everyone. In real life it is a fluid phenomenon and can come and go and occasionally be “real” … but that it can be real now and then (in humans) does not in any way support the argument that humans are best described as being in races now, or usually.

  42. says

    Hi everyone,

    Would just like to throw a couple of references into the mix here, referring to the Coyne piece and drawing upon over a century of anthopology studying human variation. The basic anthropological answer is that

    1) Humans do vary biologically. That biological variation is real and important.
    2) Traditional race categorizations are not a useful way to describe this real biological variation.
    3) However, the social categorization of race has been and continues to be tremendously real and important, with biological consequences.

    These issues are discussed at my blog-post titled Race redux: What are people “tilting against”? and by Jonathan Marks in A rant on race and genetics.

    While I was researching these issues, I was introduced (at the suggestion of anthropologist Henry Harpending) to the work of geneticist Guido Barbujani. His 2010 paper (co-authored with Vincenza Colonna) is a very careful overview of the scientific literature from someone who has been studying human genetic diversity for a long time. It’s readable and current and answers many of the issues posed by Jerry Coyne and on this thread: Human genome diversity: frequently asked questions. For a similar refutation from an evolutionary biologist, also see Continuous geographic structure is real, “discrete races” aren’t.

    Thanks!

  43. ThaiKen says

    “Adding to the “No, one can’t really tell where others are from” anecdotes, I’ve noticed people’s guesses about me tend to be more related to *their* culture.”

    —You’re an outlier (j/k). I think there is some accuracy in guessing some subspecies/nationalities. In my experience, Samoans and Tongans are pretty easy to identify, but I have never met a Maori. I’m about 80% accurate in guessing if someone is from Thailand, Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Hmong (NOT due to being part Thai, just who you grow up around). Malaysians and Indonesians give me trouble. When I lived in Europe, I couldn’t tell a person’s native country just from sight, but I could tell the difference between a Slavic white from a ‘western’ white with some efficiency. Maybe the non-Slavics were mixed pretty good due to the Romans?

    I probably ruined the topic with the above, but if subspecies are applicable to other species, humans shouldn’t be an exception. As long as we are sensitive that this topic could be easily dragged down to the “superior/inferior” road, the subject is pretty interesting (especially from a half-Italian who suffers from alcohol flush reaction).

  44. says

    ThaiKen, you remind me of the late 19th and early 20th century African explorers from Europe who had the same sorts of things to say about subspecies of various mammals and other critters they were observing.

    The thing is, this is a scientific question. Your comment, all due respect, demonstrates utter disdain for science. A key feature of science is verifiable measurement. Another is replication.

    So, pursuant to this, I see your wondrous classification of races and raise you one:

    1) As anthropologists traveled the world doing what you are claiming to do, only measuring people systematically (using various charts and reference material to define skin color, eye color and shape, breast shape, various features of the penus and nipples and hair, and so on and so forth) they kept finding the sort of variation that caused them to divide humanity up in to more and more groups which they called to races. Eventually they realized that the hundreds of races they had identified were really single points in what was mostly a continuum, and they gave up. I assume that if you apply your methods, which are not as rigorous as theirs, more uniformly and in a more careful manner, you’ll come up with the same conclusion.

    2) I’ve done this: Show people a slide with a bunch of faces and ask what “race” we were looking at, or to divide the pictures into races, etc. etc. only to find that everybody had it all wrong all the time. Perhaps they were not the expert you claim to be in doing this, but it was easy for me to replicate nearly perfect failure rates, which does not demonstrate that races are not real (it is mere trickery on my part) but that does demonstrate that the method is not robust.

  45. rork says

    @37:
    “You’re not even validating your assumption by actually asking that person if their perceived ethnicity or customs conform to your suspicions.”
    I explicitly said asking was better than guessing, and measuring was better than asking. Did you miss that? @38 is also unfair about that. “More data us good” is universally acknowledged – no lessons there.

    “but it doesn’t fucking allow you to make any conclusion about their actual status.”
    I think you are confusing certainty (“conclusion”) with probability. I cautioned against being overconfident in how much weight weak data provided. Are you trying to argue that weak data is the same as no data at all? I know of no theory of learning that includes such an idea, though we can create examples where, by luck, the data shifts your prior away from the truth. That however is not expected (in the technical sense).

    This is followed by an anecdote about being wrong. I never have and never will argue that more data is not better.

  46. jamessweet says

    Hey, sorry to delve into an older thread here, but I just wanted to say that, despite my somewhat ignominious departure from this thread, it gave me a lot of food for thought, and I think I finally more or less “got” what you all are saying.

    I went into this not really understanding what people who deny the existence of race were even really trying to say. I think now I do understand what you are saying, and although I wouldn’t put it in the same words as you all, I agree.

    And it has spurred me to think a little bit more about some unexamined assumptions. For instance, although I guess I always would have agreed with this:

    1) Humans do vary biologically. That biological variation is real and important.
    2) Traditional race categorizations are not a useful way to describe this real biological variation.

    …a takeaway for me from this discussion has been to see traditional race categorizations at being even less descriptive of biological variation than I had previously thought.

    So anyway, thanks for all that.

  47. ThaiKen says

    “The thing is, this is a scientific question. Your comment, all due respect, demonstrates utter disdain for science. A key feature of science is verifiable measurement. Another is replication.”

    —I recognize that there is an underlying order which helps explain different characteristics among nationalities. Populations can and do have distinct features that one can observe. However, there is variation within a group which prevents perfect identification. Human perception is categorical and dismissing this ability because it’s not ALWAYS correct is ignorant. If you require absolutes and definite classes, you’re in the wrong field and would be better served shaking your fist at the sky.

    “1) As anthropologists traveled the world doing what you are claiming to do, only measuring people systematically … they realized that the hundreds of races they had identified were really single points in what was mostly a continuum, and they gave up. I assume that if you apply your methods, which are not as rigorous as theirs, more uniformly and in a more careful manner, you’ll come up with the same conclusion.”

    —I know that there is variation within a group. Apparently, this concept escaped these scientists. Even when they represent a small portion of a community’s population (less than 6%), Asians can identify their nationalities. Immigration would be FAR more difficult if human lacked the ability to recognize their own.

    “2) I’ve done this: Show people a slide with a bunch of faces and ask what “race” we were looking at… it was easy for me to replicate nearly perfect failure rates, which does not demonstrate that races are not real (it is mere trickery on my part) but that does demonstrate that the method is not robust.”

    — Perfect failure rates? Really? Numerous studies document the ability to accurately identify race, with various levels of “trickery”. This one concluded that those “with significant exposure to particular ethnic groups exhibited higher success rates (82.2%) in identifying subjects from these groups than respondents without such exposure(67.8%).” At their worst these random participants were no where near perfect failure. In fact, the total accuracy for each ethnic group was above 63%. The inability to recognize differences between ethnic groups with any accuracy is probably an indication of a myopic worldview/life experiences.
    http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/posner/pdfs/ethnic_identifiability.pdf

    This study concerning the identification of multiracial individuals (talk about tricky) did not threaten absolute failure rates. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~socy/pdfs/what_i_am_mrh10.pdf

    Maybe you had access to some really racially ambiguous people for your study…

  48. says

    ThaiKen, you offer a bunch of confirmation bias and anecdote saying, hey, you’re really good at this categorization shit, you know, when you do it at all. Greg tells you that people who have looked at it scientifically say it’s not so easy. So you give us a couple of studies that confirm it’s not so easy, even when done in single locations in the U.S. that provide study samples that don’t match the overall continuous variation present in the rest of the world.

    In other words, you just confirmed what Greg had to say, only with a really U.S.-centric focus and a bunch of unearned attitude. So, uh…go, you?

  49. ThaiKen says

    “ThaiKen, you offer a bunch of confirmation bias and anecdote saying, hey, you’re really good at this categorization shit, you know, when you do it at all.”
    —I stated that for groups that I am familiar with, I am about 80% accurate in identifying nationalities. You can claim that this perception is unfounded, but the study I referred to backs up my experience as its respondents were correct more than 80% of the time when identifying ethnicities they had significant exposure to.

    “Greg tells you that people who have looked at it scientifically say it’s not so easy.”
    —Laden referred to some scientists running into problem of racial demarcation. This is a problem for those looking for some underlying, quantifiable system to categorize humans. My claim is that humans can accurately perceive how an another person self-identifies herself and/or her national origin. Racial demarcation is not a problem for those of us who do not need rigid and distinct measurements to verify that there are distinct and noticeable differences between populations.
    Laden also took issue with the accuracy in identifying others by appearance and brought up his own work. I referred to other studies and we can use our own experiences to find evidence contrary to his personal findings.

    “So you give us a couple of studies that confirm it’s not so easy…”
    —Not so easy? They were 95% accurate in correctly identifying some ethnicities.

    “In other words, you just confirmed what Greg had to say, only with a really U.S.-centric focus and a bunch of unearned attitude. So, uh…go, you?”
    —Laden is skeptical that others have the ability to identify another individual’s background by their appearance alone. People can be incredibly astute in categorizing separate nationalities from view. Have someone group 50 random Samoans and 50 random Hmong and they will probably be quite proficient in how they distinguish between the two groups. Asserting that this is an illusory ability just because we cannot quantify the difference between Samoans and Hmong is careless.

  50. says

    Laden is skeptical that others have the ability to identify another individual’s background by their appearance alone. People can be incredibly astute in categorizing separate nationalities from view. Have someone group 50 random Samoans and 50 random Hmong and they will probably be quite proficient in how

    Fifty random people from a selected group vs. fifty random people from a different selected group?

    That word “random.” I think it does not mean what you think it means.

  51. ThaiKen says

    “Fifty random people from a selected group vs. fifty random people from a different selected group? That word “random.” I think it does not mean what you think it means.”

    Wow. Now you’re taking issue with probability sampling, too. One can take a random sample from a selected group/population, just as it’s possible to select a random number between 50 and 55. The fact that every member of the group has an equal chance to be selected defines the process as random.

    Claiming that it is NOT a random selection process because we are specifying the population from which the sample will be taken is absolutely incorrect. Having a problem with this concept means you’re going to have issues with how R&D is actually performed. Scientific trials will often take a random sample from a control group and another random sample from an experimental group to compare. Network security also uses similar processes for fragment encoding/packet filtering.

    What other widely accepted concepts do you believe are false?

  52. Kevin Watson says

    Well, this is quite something. People who would have no problem identifying various subspecies of Lion, who would have no problem identifying different subspecies of Grey Wolf, who would have no problem identifying different subspecies of Brown Bear, who would have no problem identifying different subspecies of Reindeer and Caribou (leaving aside their different species classifications), people who would have no trouble recognizing the difference, once educated, between the different subspecies of wild North American Turkey, have a hard time distinguishing between the races of humanity. Come on. Yes, there’s a lot of overlap. But it sure does take a lot of energy to deny the truth, doesn’t it? Why, I’d be willing to bet $500 that a bunch of Indian people could distinguish at far better than average rates the physiognomical differences between individuals of lowest vs. middle. vs. highest caste in their particular region, based on photographs of naked subjects with uniform haircuts.

    People are so afraid of racism that they’ve come to convince themselves that the basis of racism is real.

    Now THAT’S amazing. That is a feat of human ingenuity. I’m half serious here. It really is something.

    Denying that race exists is surrendering to the lowest common denominator among us. Saying, “Yes, if race exists, then we have reason for racism. Racism is abhorrent. So we’ll make it so that race doesn’t exist. At least on paper.” Seems silly and weak to me.

    Ask a wolf expert if a wolf from the Italian alps is different from a wolf from the North Slope of Alaska. Both are grew wolves. Both are much the same. Yet differences exist.

    Chew on that.

    I think that all of a sudden when it comes to humans you’re holding us to a different standard than one would to wolves, etc.

    Think about that.

    We’re still all wolves/people. By the way, your biologist was wrong when he spoke of Neanderthals being a subspecies of Homo Sapiens. In this context, Neanderthals would be a separate species. A close cousin species. Morphologically and behaviourally distinct. Also, the Great Dane v. Chihua hua example that someone posited is ludicrous. As a matter of fact, all wolves, coyotes, red wolves, dogs, dingos, can reproduce just fine. Some people suggest that they are different species. Hmmmm. Well, no one’s saying that humans constitute different species.

    Think bigger, not smaller.

  53. says

    Kevin, in addition to being pointlessly dismissive and assuming motivations not demonstrated, you seem to have trouble distinguishing between genetic isolation and continuity and between species and subspecies/races. Did you want to try again to make a point?

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