A biocultural mélange

Alan Goodman, a professor of biological anthropology, explains that race is real but not genetic.

Like a fish in water, we’ve all been engulfed by “the smog” of thinking that “race” is biologically real. Thus, it is easy to incorrectly conclude that “racial” differences in health, wealth, and all manner of other outcomes are the inescapable result of genetic differences.

The reality is that socially defined racial groups in the U.S. and most everywhere else do differ in outcomes. But that’s not due to genes. Rather, it is due to systemic differences in lived experience and institutional racism.

As a professor of biological anthropology, I teach and advise college undergraduates. While my students are aware of inequalities in the life experiences of different socially delineated racial groups, most of them also think that biological “races” are real things. Indeed, more than half of Americans still believe that their racial identity is “determined by information contained in their DNA.”

In the 1700s, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and someone not without ego, liked to imagine himself as organizing what God created. Linnaeus famously classified our own species into races based on reports from explorers and conquerors.

The race categories he created included AmericanusAfricanus, and even Monstrosus (for wild and feral individuals and those with birth defects), and their essential defining traits included a biocultural mélange of color, personality, and modes of governance. Linnaeus described Europeaus as white, sanguine, and governed by law, and Asiaticus as yellow, melancholic, and ruled by opinion. These descriptions highlight just how much ideas of race are formulated by social ideas of the time.

Funny how all this time there was never any difficulty with pairs from different races producing viable offspring.

There have been lots of efforts since Charles Darwin’s time to fashion the typological and static concept of race into an evolutionary concept. For example, Carleton Coon, a former president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, argued in The Origin of Races (1962) that five races evolved separately and became modern humans at different times.

How odd that they’re able to interbreed then.

One nontrivial problem with Coon’s theory, and all attempts to make race into an evolutionary unit, is that there is no evidence. Rather, all the archaeological and genetic data point to abundant flows of individuals, ideas, and genes across continents, with modern humans evolving at the same time, together.

A few pundits such as Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute and science writers such as Nicholas Wade, formerly of The New York Times, still argue that even though humans don’t come in fixed, color-coded races, dividing us into races still does a decent job of describing human genetic variation. Their position is shockingly wrong. We’ve known for almost 50 years that race does not describe human genetic variation.

Read on.

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