When’s the last time you held a scientific journal? Probably never, I bet. In the age of digital publishing, distinct “volumes” are mostly a nod to tradition instead of something curated, during those rare times where you can access them at all.
This virtual issue, organized by contributing editor Channah Leff and managing editor Sean Mallin, brings together articles published in American Anthropologist around race and biology, focusing on genetics as one way to understand–and counter misunderstandings about–human difference. From early work on immigration and evolution to more recent work on epigenetics, anthropologists have been at the forefront of conversations about what race is–and what it isn’t.
Which makes this virtual edition of American Anthropologist quite a treat. It isn’t often you get to hear scientists break down the concept of race, and rarer still to realize how long they’ve been questioning it for.
With what we know now, two conclusions are quite inescapable. First, human races – like higher taxonomic units – are subject to evolutionary change. Second, the particular traits by which races distinguish themselves are subject to natural selection, and therefore do not have eternal taxonomic value. I n retrospect, all of the characters used in constructing a classification of man must have been grist in the evolutionary mill.
Now we cannot have change and no change simultaneously. Present frequencies of blood groups or of morphological traits are, at best, interim reports of present conditions. They need not be identical to frequencies in the recent or remote past, and they need not predict gene or trait frequencies in the future. […] As a consequence, the search for ancestors becomes far more difficult than it once seemed. … As soon as we accept changes in gene frequencies, we can no longer employ present frequencies as certain indications of past events.
While this obvious corollary admittedly pulls the rug from beneath our more cherished reconstructions, evidence for changing race may free us from the burden of prefabricated and hypothetical ancestors.
Nor is that even the oldest paper in the collection; one from 1912 found large physical changes in the children of immigrants which brought them in line with the locals, demonstrating a plasticity that contradicts to the rigidity demanded by biological race. If you’d rather have a broad overview of the subject,
We present a review of the history of scientific inquiry into modern human origins, focusing on the role of the American Anthropologist. We begin during the mid–20th century, at the time when the problem of modern human origins was first presented in the American Anthropologist and could first be distinguished from more general questions about human and hominid origins. Next, we discuss the effects of the modern evolutionary synthesis on biological anthropology and paleoanthropology in particular, and its role in the origin of anthropological genetics. The rise of human genetics is discussed along two tracks, which have taken starkly different approaches to the historical interpretation of recent human diversity.Hawks, John, and Milford H. Wolpoff. “Sixty Years of Modern Human Origins in the American Anthropological Association.” American Anthropologist 105, no. 1 (March 1, 2003): 89–100. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2003.105.1.89.
For those who are about to wail about them taking a constructivist approach which denies genetics, you’re in for a bit of a shock.
Indeed, multiple studies in 2017 have dramatically expanded our knowledge of genomic variation involving hundreds of ancient and present‐day peoples from across the globe (Marciniak and Perry 2017; Nielsen et al. 2017). Maybe not surprisingly, the results of these studies have empirically confirmed that our understanding of human genetic variation was incomplete, flawed, and biased (Martin, Gignoux, et al. 2017). More relevant to this review, these studies, in addition to the massive amount of data that they produced, have also added dozens of new twists to how we perceive human variation. […]
We have known for some time that contemporary genetic variation is best explained by “geography.” In other words, the closer two humans are geographically, the less their genetic variation to each other is expected to be (Novembre et al. 2008)—mostly independent of ethnicity, religion, or any other group identities. Now our field is at a stage to move beyond simple geographic distance and take the topographic features (e.g., mountains, deserts, seas, etc.) into account to visualize and understand the paths and barriers to contemporary genetic variation (Peter, Petkova, and Novembre 2017). Ancient genomics has now added a chronological twist to it. It turns out that genetic continuity in a given region across time is often an exception rather than the rule (Kılınç et al. 2016; Lazaridis et al. 2016; Skoglund et al. 2017; but see Yang et al. 2017). People move, interact with their neighbors, and create ever‐changing gradients of genetic variation across time and geography.Gokcumen, Omer. “The Year In Genetic Anthropology: New Lands, New Technologies, New Questions.” American Anthropologist 120, no. 2 (June 1, 2018): 266–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13032.
A number of anthropologists embrace genetic testing, and find that it also discounts lay views of race. For instance, genetic testing has found there are distinct lineages, which is what biological race would predict, but was able to trace some of them back to admixture from Neanderthals and Denisovians. In other words, the racial categories we’ve settled on today don’t map to the lineages we find in our genes.
There’s even some general-purpose awesomeness in this treasure trove.
The value ladenness of this science allows us to identify an important popular fallacy—that a primary axis of modern society is science versus nonscience. Yet no one is really “anti‐science”; such a person is a product of scientistic paranoia. We all make decisions about what science to accept, what science to reject, and what science to ignore. … After all, biological anthropology is obliged to navigate between the creationists, on the one hand, who don’t take evolution seriously enough, and enthusiasts of fads like eugenics in the 1920s or “The Paleo Diet” today, on the other hand, who take evolution too seriously. So, who is worse: the citizen who rejects evolution or the citizen who uses evolution to rationalize a program of genocide? Both are out there and are actively constructing, imposing, and utilizing different meanings on the science; whether or not either of them accepts the descent with modification of species—and is thus “pro‐science”—may be a trivial question.
As if you didn’t need enough reason to dig in, this is a limited-time offer: these papers will slip back behind the paywall at the end of 2018. So go on, feast your eyes and feed your brain.