As I mentioned in my summary of my experience at Eschaton2012 in Ottawa, I had a brief exchange after my presentation with biologist ad blogger Larry Moran. He took me to task for a statement that I made during my presentation, in which I asserted that race is not a biologically-defined reality, but rather a socially-derived construct. In response, Larry had this to say:
My position is that the term “race” is used frequently to describe sub-populations of species, or groups that have been genetically isolated from each other1 for many generations. By this definition, races exist in humans just as they do in many other species.
The genetic evidence shows clearly that Africans form a distinctive, but somewhat polyphyletic, group that differs from the people living outside of Africa. Amongst the non-Africans, we recognize two major sub-groups; Europeans and Asians. I see no reason why these major sub-populations don’t qualify as races in the biological sense. Please read: Do Human Races Exist?.
I don’t think that denying the existence of races is going to make racism go away. Nor do I think that accepting the existence of biological races is going to foster racism.
I think that most of my disagreement with Dr. Moran (or perhaps more accurately his disagreement with me) is a product of a number of things. The first and most obvious one is my lack of familiarity with the full scope of the genetic literature when it comes to human beings and their (our) descendent trees. The second seems to be an unfortunate result of the time limit of the presentation and the imprecision of the language I chose. The third one is a bit more complicated, but has largely to do with what evidence we are using to arrive at a definition. I will discuss each of these issues in detail, with the hope of clarifying the problem.
The state of the genetic evidence
I should state unequivocally here that I am not a human geneticist, nor do I have any great background in genetics or anthropology, and so will take Dr. Moran at his word* that the genetic evidence suggests that genetic subgroups exist within a single human species. These subgroups (or ‘races’, if you prefer) are not at all the same thing as identifying different species (a point that I took as obvious, but that someone at the talk apparently found it worth fighting Dr. Moran over), but rather simply differences in some phenotypic traits that are due to a history of shared geography, of the kind that we see in many non-human species – the day before he had shown an example of Canadian Geese.
This fact, entirely non-controversial to me, does not affect my position whatsoever. It is to be entirely expected from the anthropological evidence that as different groups become separated by time and space, certain alleles will become more common in some populations than others, resulting in groups that resemble each other at both a phenotypic and genotypic level. If this is the definition of ‘race’ that Dr. Moran is using, then we have no disagreement. It is biological fact, nothing more.
My working definition of race
However, it should be noted that my position is not that “there are no genetic subgroups among human beings”. My position is that race, as is relevant to a conversation about racism, is not based on genetic subgroupings. It is based on a much more cursory, and much more fluid divvying up of the human population into groups, to which characteristics are ascribed. One of the more interesting examples of this phenomenon is in the gradual de-racialization of groups like Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants throughout the 20th century. Before relatively recently (and some would argue that it is still not complete), certain European people were not seen as ‘white’, but rather had a distinct racialized status. As generations passed, those groups were adopted into the “white” narrative – a feat that was and continues to be quite impossible for those groups who had been there longer (i.e., blacks and Latin@s).
Group membership in races, as understood and operationalized in the real-world context of our society, have never been about genetic differences. Dr. Moran rightly notes that there is a long history of pseudoscientific “scholarship” that ascribes phenotypic differences such as disposition, work ethic, intelligence, human decency, and overall merit, to those genetic differences, but that like all pseudoscience these attributions are inaccurate. And so when I make the statement that race is not biologically defined, that is the reference that I am making**.
Source of the discrepancy
And that speaks directly to the conflict that exists between Dr. Moran’s understanding of race, and my own. Dr. Moran is looking at the genetic data and seeing subgroups within homo sapiens. To deny the existence of that data is absurd in the extreme, which is (I gather) the reason why my presentation irritated him.
I, on the other hand, am looking at differences in outcomes, and the attitudes and beliefs that inform those differences, within a societal and historical context. I am looking at the fact that while both First Nations Canadians and Chinese people (to use one example) may both belong to the Asian ‘race’ (in a genetic sense), they most certainly do not occupy the same social ‘race’ (in an economic, political, historical, or sociological sense). The fact is that the genetic data do not, in any way, correspond to the way in which different groups are viewed or treated. In the context of a discussion of racism, the fact that some groups share more genes than other groups is not nearly so relevant as understand race in the way that we use it as a society.
The issue I still have with Dr. Moran’s genetic definition of ‘race’ is that I do not understand where the discerning line between ‘races’ is drawn – that is, why it is not simply arbitrary to group people. My father and Barack Obama’s father probably share more genetic traits than he does with Barack Obama’s mother. However, the senior Obama probably shares more with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki than he does with my dear old dad – what about grouping the three of them all together is non-arbitrary, except insofar as it is possible to observe two separate emigrations from ancient Africa? I would imagine that the people of Cambodia share a number of genetic markers that make them more similar to each other than to the people of either India or China – are Cambodians a hybrid ‘race’ or a separate ‘race’, and why?
As far as the bit about “accepting the existence of biological races” not being likely to be used to justify bigotry… I guess Dr. Moran has a much more optimistic view of humanity than I do.
I look forward to discussing this more with him.
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*”At his word” in this case means that he has extensively cited the source of his conclusions, not merely asserted it from thin air.
**I used the term “meaningfully different” in my presentation, by which I meant that there is nothing in the biological evidence to suggest that those characteristics that would inform achievement in a meritocracy are different between racial groups. To my knowledge, the genetic evidence still bears that out.