The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, September 23, 2011

Racial Realism?

I was recently introduced to a new, and rather disturbing, term - "Race Realists" The concept of human race was once considered something of a fixed and real biological thing - with three major divisions (representing peoples from Europe, Asia, and Africa), and then many sub-divisions among these.

Now, most scientists hold that it is more of a cultural construction - that is, the way that people are grouped into races (based on skin color, hair type, facial morphology, etc.) is due to flukes of history rather than significant or meaningful biological differences, and the way in which we divide people up into racial groups is based more on cultural norms and ideals than on any actual biological information or model. The traits used to divide people into racial categories are often essentially arbitrary and based on what were the common traits in a given region as of a few centuries ago. Those who argue that there is a real biological phenomenon at work still tend to point out that the variation between races tends to be A) a result of historic geography (and therefore fluid and changing) and B) have as an end-result a tendency to create what could be called statistical "clumps" of traits - traits are more common in some groups than in others, but can be expressed in groups not generally associated with those traits.

The "Race Realists" (I refuse to use that term without scare quotes, as there is nothing realistic about these people), by contrast, believe that race is both a real biological phenomenon (that is, they tend to deny that there is social construction at work here) and that it is a reliable predictor of various traits (though they tend to focus on intelligence). The information that the "Race Realists" tend to cite is a handful of studies that show IQ differences between different ethnic groups, and a mish-mash of biological and anthropological studies on racial differences as well as polls showing the attitudes of anthropologists and biologists regarding the concept of race as a biological reality. Oh, and it's not uncommon for them to simply lie and claim that the studies and polls reach conclusions that they don't actually reach (for a good description of the problems with one particular "Race Realists" views, go here...and as the keeper of that blog, a fellow anthropologist, points out, the technical term for what the "Race Realists" are doing is biological reductionism).

There are a number of problems with the concept of race as a biological fact, and most of these are addressed at the blog linked to above, but I want to talk about a few specific problems here, as well as the apparent reason why people adopt the "racial realist" stance. The basic problem with the "Race Realist" stance is that ethnicity is, by its very nature, fluid. To explain why, though, requires a bit of basic biological background.

When a group of people splinters off from a larger population and leaves to occupy a new area, they carry with them a sub-set of the genes of the larger population, and (assuming that they are relatively isolated from the larger population) their descendants will resemble the members of the splinter population more than the larger population that spawned the splinter group. This is the Founder's Effect. So, if a group of colonists from the Red-Headed League leaves Ghoofiland, then the descendants of these colonists will have a larger number of redheads amongst them than the population of Ghoofiland did - the descendants of the original colonists will not be entirely redheads, as they will have carried the genes for other hair colors as well, but there sure will be a butt-load more redheads among the colonists' descendants than among the people of Ghoofiland.

Another matter that comes into play is genetic drift. This is the tendency for certain traits to become more or less common within a population due to random sampling. So, let's say that brown eyes start to become more common among the colonists, after a few generations there is a colony that has a larger number of brown-eyed redheads than one would expect in Ghoofiland.

Then, of course, there's selection. Perhaps the colonists have occupied a location that is rife with insects that carry a particular disease, let's call it Rubenitis, and say that it results in a chronic condition that involves lethargy and speech impairments. Some of the colonists carry a gene that gives them some resistance to Rubenitis, allowing them to go about their daily business while some of their fellows are having to routinely lay in bed while having a hard time conveying information to those around them. The ones who don't have the chronic condition will have more time and luck finding mates, and therefore their genes will be spread at a faster rate than those without the resistance. So, even elements that aren't directly linked to disease resistance (say, skin tone - many of those with the resistance have a slightly bluish tinge to their skin) will increase in frequency.

After several generations, the colonists begin to look a bit different from the people of Ghoofiland. Given a long enough amount of time, they will look and behave (remember, culture is also changing in both populations) differently enough that they will be considered (and likely come to consider themselves) a completely different ethnicity, or "race" to use the term in the way that the "Race Realists" tend to. Are there biological differences between the groups? Yes, there are cosmetic differences such as frequencies in hair color, eye color, and skin tone, as well as functional differences such as frequencies in resistance to disease...but these are differences in the frequency of genes and in phenotypes (the observable expressions of those genes - two organisms with the same set of genes may have different behaviors or traits if the environment forces different gene expression), each population still has most of the same genetic material (allowing that some new genes may have occurred due to mutations in either population), just in different frequencies, and each lives in different environments resulting in the shared genes potentially being expressed in different ways.

So, we now have two different races of people. What happens when they meet, say because technological change allows rapid transportation between their different homelands? Well, if history is any guide, they may or may not come into conflict, but they will definitely interbreed. In interbreeding, they will change the gene frequencies (and hence appearance) of both populations. The interbreeding may be slow, but over time it will change both populations significantly. If there are social taboos against interbreeding, this will slow it further, but if history is any guide, it will not stop it.

When we look at the modern world, we see several populations that sprang from the same stock population in Africa, and eventually went on to populate the rest of the continents (okay, Antarctica excepted). Some of these populations are more closely related to each other than others, but we ultimately have the same basic process as described above, just played out ona grand scale of both geography and time. However, all human populations are still so similar to each other that we can, and do, have viable children with each other, and we are, slowly but surely, changing the gene frequencies in every part of the world. Racial categories that once made perfect sense due to the relative isolation of populations are now thought of as nationalities, because the populations are no longer isolated and are intermixed. While there are still likely to be definite phenological differences between someone plucked out of the middle of Europe and someone plucked out of the middle of Africa, the populations are converging at a slow but definite rate. That's not to say that there will, someday, be only one ethnicity, likely something will occur that will restore isolation (wars, societal collapse, etc.), but the populations that are isolated this time will be different than those from the last time, with different biological and cultural traits. In other words, even if they call themselves the same things, there will be different races from the standpoint of genetic and phenotypic variation.

And this is nothing new, one need only read some of the old Roman or Greek histories to see that there were once distinct populations throughout the Mediterannean that have since merged with other populations, creating new ethnicities. Race/ethnicity have always been fluid. Okay, so, even if there are biological races (which is debatable, as there is no clear way that one would decide when a person was a member of one race and not another, as we are talking about gene frequencies not markers of certainty - the very concept of "biological race" is murky at best), that doesn't mean that these represent any sort of distribution of traits such as intelligence.

That being said, is it possible that variations in genetic and phenotypic frequencies may also result in variations in intelligence? Maybe, but there are problems with that assertion. The definition of intelligence is a slippery term. We typically use it to mean the ability to aggregate data and engage in abstract thought in order to plan, process, and interact with the world. Seems straightforward, right? Humans are clearly more intelligent than hamsters. Humans are clearly more intelligent than dogs. But when we start comparing humans to each other, it gets muddy. Is a master chess player - clearly someone possessing a skill set requiring great intelligence as applied to mastering a rule-set and thinking ahead - more intelligent than a well-connected socialite - someone who has had to master a skill set requiring planning and thinking ahead in interacting with other people? To answer that question, we would have to decide that one set of skills requires a greater degree or type of intelligence than the other, which may not be the case. The chess player is likely better at dealing with systems and rules, but the socialite has to be able to engage in situations which are much less predictable and prone to sudden change. Both are displaying a high degree of intelligence, but applied in different ways, and possibly even different types of intelligence. So, is one more intelligent than the other? Hard to say, and the question might actually be completely meaningless when applied in this way. What's more, there is evidence that intelligence, in this sense, is somewhat malleable, and that someone can actually improve it by their actions and education. Also, there is strong evidence that intelligence is tied to issues such as nutrition, conditions during pregnancy, and early childhood, all of which are highly dependent on things not tied in to genes but to physical and social environment. So, your ethnicity may have much less to do with your intellectual capacities than do your parents level of affluence or poverty.

Most of the "Race Realists" like to cite studies showing IQ differences amongst ethnic groups. On the surface, the use of IQ seems ideal, as it measures a few specific skills and provides an overall quotient for the person taking the test. There are a few very serious problems, however. The first is that the simple act of taking a test - while most of us who attended schools in the U.S. and Europe don't think of it as such, test taking itself is a skill, and people can be trained to perform better on tests without actually knowing more about the subject of the test. So, if you compare a group of people who have attended affluent suburban schools with regular testing to people who have attended poorer inner-city schools with less regular or rigorous testing, you should expect the people from the suburbs to perform better not because they are necessarily more intelligent, but because they are more accustomed to (and trained for) taking tests.

Another problem is that the tasks and the questions within an IQ test are not devoid of their own cultural context - they reflect, from the actual tasks or questions chosen to the way that they are worded, the background of the people making the test (despite the best efforts of these individuals to eliminate this), and that means that the closer you are in social class and culture to the makers of the test, the less time and energy you are likely to spend trying to decipher what a question means are how a task should be performed. And when you start looking into studies of IQ across ethnicities, these types of issues tend to show up time and again, meaning that the results of the studies, while interesting and potentially of value, should not necessarily be taken to reflect a biological rather than social reality.

So, the case for biological race is a shaky one, and the claims that there are distinct intelligence difference between races even more so. So, why are the "Race Realists" even making these claims?

Well, many (probably most) of them are, of course, just good old-fashioned racists. They have heard that there is a new set of arguments that they can use to try to justify their existing bigotries, so they are jumping on them. But it's just a post-hoc rationalization for their old prejudices.

Others, though, are a bit more complicated. For basic historical reasons, there are a disproportionate number of people of African and Native American descent within the U.S. and Europe who are impoverished. There are many, admittedly often expensive, social programs aimed at trying to change this. If an argument can be made that the poor can not be helped, then that undercuts the programs and provides a rationalization for removing them altogether. Now, it should be said that the majority of people who oppose social programs do not engage in this sort of racist thinking - their oppositions are on philosophical or political grounds, and the ethnic make-up of the people affected by these programs doesn't enter into the matter for them (or if it does, it does so in a much more complex way than is often portrayed). However, there is a sub-set of people who are opposed to social programs who see using a notion of biological racial differences as a way of arguing against the usefulness of social programs, and therefore for eliminating the program - whether or not the impulse for grasping the argument is racist, the outcome most certainly is.

Now, many "Race Realists" would respond to what is written here by saying that, because of historical rather than scientific reasons, legitimate research into racial differences tends to be stifled and little reported. They might have a point, but their response is to exaggerate, misrepresent, and often lie about both the outcomes and the quality of the research that is available. You don't fill a gap in knowledge with ignorance and expect it to be respected.


Lynn said...

The Bell Curve is back again, huh?

Too bad, but not surprising.

Anthroslug said...

Yep, pretty much.