On the Social Science of Race and the Question of "What is a University for?"
I had an interesting discussion in my theory course last week. More accurately, a student asked a question and then I answered it at some length because I thought the question merited a substantive response.
I thought it might be worth sharing the basics of what happened because it concerns a good deal of what’s happening on college campuses and elsewhere in the culture at present.
Among the books I have them read in this course is my latest, Toward a Biosocial Science, which I have taken to saying is my sayonara to academic social science, my recognition that the field as it is currently constituted is on the way to intellectual extinction.
(Yes, I know it’s “bad form” to assign your own book to a class you teach. I do it because the book is very recent and I don’t know anything more up-to-date on the relevant material to put in its place. I tell them very clearly at the start of the semester that they don’t need to purchase it because our library has an e-book that all can consult at the same time and they should feel perfectly free to just use that. And given the dismal terms of academic book publishing, I make next to no money on sales of the book in any event, which is one among many of the reasons that I doubt I will ever write another book for an academic press.)
Over the last few weeks, we’ve read three chapters in the book on, respectively, the sex difference, stratification, and racial identity and disparities in human societies. It was the last of these that we took on in the class meeting to which I refer here.
Much of that chapter is just an extended argument for the viability of the concept “race” in the social science. The bulk of the argument in the chapter defending the concept is in the section excerpted below in italics; consult or not at your leisure. I humbly believe it’s a pretty decent case for why the concept should not be jettisoned entirely, even if we choose to use a different term to name it (I like “clinal class”).
At the opening of the class meeting, after a minute or two summarizing the class performance on the midterm, I said a few words of introduction to the chapter, then opened the discussion up to them.
The very first question was situated on a theme that I have hit on again and again throughout the semester: namely, that a social science that deserves the name has to embrace Truth as its core goal, and it has to be willing to follow evidence wherever it goes and however much some true things about our species might disturb us.
For this reason, social science has to stay out of the morality business and leave the application of social science results to social and moral policy to the realm of politics. There is no more important element in the definition of a proper social science. Indeed, a “social science” that insists on compromising the pursuit of Truth based on this, that, or another moral principle no longer deserves to call itself a science.
The student’s question had to do with whether this separation between the scientist’s work and that of the moralist was possible when it came to topics like racial identity. The question-poser also went on to allude to some of the pseudo-science of the past on race that wound up providing fodder to distasteful political programs.
Here’s the short version of the answer I gave.
It’s true that separating science and morality is doomed to be an imperfect task because scientists are human beings and human beings are inveterate moralizers. Science itself takes as its central value something that cannot be arrived at (entirely) scientifically but that must be accepted a priori as a moral good: Truth.
There are some practical goods that you can point to as supporting Truth as a value, so choosing Truth as our central value can at least partially be justified by reference to argument and evidence. If we want to e.g., make the occurrence of fatal cancers in five year old kids less common, as we do if we are well-formed and morally normal human beings, then finding out the truth of what cancer is, what causes it, and what can be done to prevent it and to eliminate it once it appears will be conducive to that end.
Alongside these practical reasons to accept Truth as a central value are also moral arguments about e.g., the kinds of creatures we are (at least in part reasoning creatures, and so innately curious about the workings of the world) and the beauty of Truth (it is sometimes—though only sometimes—stunningly beautiful).
But objectivity will always, as Max Weber recognized, be an imperfect task, an ideal rather than a potential accomplishment. We bring biases to our scientific work, there is no doubt about this. Plenty of scientific scandals emerge all the time today in which e.g., someone fudges some data to make it look more convincing that it actually is. Egoism and self-interest exist in scientists too, and the culture of science—which endeavors to teach individual scientists to trust the process and to seek the surpassing of their own efforts—only very incompletely trains this out of them. Everyone who has spent a few moments looking at the work of science knows this.
Weber presented objectivity as an ideal, and a necessary ideal, toward which we aspire even as we realize we will never fully get there. The question to ask of critics of objectivity is this: What have you got that’s better? If we just give up on it, what ruler will keep us from simply moving full-on to ideology, and what makes us believe that ideology will not lead us in directions at least as undesirable as those that the pursuit of Truth might produce?
The examples of catastrophes emerging from “science” driven in fact and sometimes openly by ideology are myriad. My student, who has been educated by Woke American professors, only referred to the ones in our national history, but others just as or more horrific can be found elsewhere.
Look for example to communist states and the Marxist “science” of Lysenkoism, which led to the science of neo-Darwinian genetics being rejected as “bourgeois” or, worse, “fascist.” It produced the jailing, professional destruction, and execution of many scientific critics of this false belief system about how acquired traits could purportedly be genetically transmitted to offspring and the deaths of some 15 to 55 million Chinese as a result of the Great Famine of 1959-61 provoked in significant part because of the embrace of Lysenkoism in Chinese agricultural policy. Here, “moral” discourses trumped (“bourgeois/fascist”) scientific ones, and things went really poorly.
Now, how might a scientific examination of race produce goods we—we, all of us—want to acquire? I gave them medical examples first of all. We know some diseases are specific to populations with a given ancestral ecological history and not to others. Even if they are not neatly reducible in all cases to “race-specific” (e.g., Tay-Sachs and Ashkenazi Jews, but also French Canadians and Cajuns; sickle cell anemia and sub-Saharan Africans, who are around 80% of cases, but also other tropical populations in some parts of India and Middle East), they are confined to particular regional populations with shared long histories in given ecologies. Knowing who is most at risk is tremendously helpful for screening.
There is evidence too that certain populations will face health risks not faced by others in given environments, and knowing the genetics will help us prevent and treat disease coming from this. I gave them the example of vitamin-D deficiency in American blacks. Many Americans are vitamin-D deficient, perhaps close to 1/2, but it is substantially higher in blacks, perhaps 80-90%. Some of this is diet, as it is for others in the population, but unquestionably a contribution is made in American blacks by the fact that their skin color evolved in specific ecological conditions and now they live in an ecologically very different part of the world where they often do not get enough sunlight exposure (because of the melanin in their skin) to make enough vitamin-D on their own. We know that vitamin-D deficiency can increase risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers, and blacks have elevated rates of all these. So vitamin-D supplements for blacks are being investigated as a way to potentially help mitigate these risks.
If susceptibility to disease differs across regional populations because of genetics, why would we assume in advance that those populational differences could not conceivably make any contribution to other features of the organisms involved—e.g., behavioral predilections, distributions in psychological profiles, etc.? Brains are subject to evolution too, and even very, very similar human brains (e.g., across the male-female divide) can produce significant differences. Why would we rule out populational differences before the fact? What’s the advantage scientifically in that?
That is, if our goal is to understand truthfully what causes particular outcomes in the human world, whether those outcomes are differential burdens of some disease, or disparities along group lines in social outcomes of various kinds, and ultimately in order that we can intelligently intervene in at least some of these effects to move them in directions more amenable to our moral culture, why would we close down viable modes of inquiry in advance? Isn’t that a bad moral move, in addition to being a bad scientific one?
I reiterated, as I have done already dozens of times in this class, and as I do in every class I teach—because it is so important, but also because students are so very good at not hearing it and needing it repeated endlessly because they’ve been so thoroughly indoctrinated into a particular way of thinking about this—that we know that almost everything we’re interested in as social scientists is neither purely nature nor nurture but some complicated combination of both. This certainly includes all of the stuff we’re interested in that fits into the category of “racial difference.”
There are many possible and probable causal factors in differences that map along racial or clinal class lines. Some of them are social and cultural, there is no doubt about this. What mainstream social sciences does on this, though, is to assume that the social and cultural causes are by definition the only ones possible. That is, they want to cut off the investigation of the contribution made to this by different long histories of ancestral populations in different ecologies and the changes in their genomes that natural selection produces in them as a result of those different histories.
This, I told them again, bears saying again and again: a properly evolutionary social science is more inclusive in intellectual terms (and more concerned with the Truth) than the mainstream, ideological social “science” that most students seem to prefer because it makes them feel (incorrectly, for the reasons given above) they are on the right side of a moral question.
And the advantage we have over the past, when one has to admit that grave errors emerged in discourses that called themselves “scientific” that were in fact warping evolutionary thinking to fit a preconceived ideology, is that we have recognized a good deal of the reasons why that pseudo-science of the past happened and why it was accepted. We now have societies that are actively involved (frankly, sometimes excessively so, to the point of having to invent it when it is not actually there) in seeking out discrimination along racial lines. Indeed, we actively promote affirmative action and other policies to try to correct for its history, with plenty of limitations and unintended consequences. We have IRBs in science to catch problematic research, however imperfectly—and again, however much these new institutions sometimes produce new problems of their own, typically leaning in the direction of ruling out of bounds some kinds of research that should be permitted because of a desire to overcorrect for past problems.
I closed by reminding my students again that it’s not enough to find potential problems and risks of a given response to the question “Do we choose to study this question fully or not?” You also have to make a case, if you say “No,” as to why and how your response is less problematic and risky.
If we systematically shut down scholarly inquiry into the possible consequences in behavioral and psychological profiles of groups that derive at least in part from genetic differences in those populations and presume that all of the disparities we see among those groups must have purely social causes, what happens if it turns out we’re wrong about that presumption?
What if we proceed on that presumption and we find, to our dismay, that group disparities do not go away, as all the proponents of this view say they should if we can just end discrimination and rectify the “structural” factors producing inequality?
We’ll certainly, certainly be told by many of these people that it’s not because their theory is wrong. It’s just because we haven’t tried hard enough yet, we haven’t spent enough money, we haven’t sufficiently probed with governmental mechanisms into the private lives and consciousnesses of everyone in the country to make perfect equity materialize. There’s little reason to believe these people will change their minds about this, no matter how much we have to spend and no matter how invasive we have to make programs designed to ensure that we catch and fix all the bigots and racists, even those of the subliminal variety.
As a child of the 1970s, I remember how controversial and divisive policies like mandatory school busing were. As a scholar, I know how much evidence exists of the ineffectiveness of those policies at solving the problem they set out to fix (Raymond Wolters’ The Burden of Brown is one of the best single sources on this). As a parent, I also know that I would be quite suspect of any effort by the state to force me, on the moral grounds of a utopian equity policy and with little or no evidence that the policy could accomplish its purported goals, to send my child from the school district my wife and I chose in making our decision for home ownership to a school we did not choose in a distant area just because that is in line with an abstract elite ideology. I am sure there are many more parents like me.
And the advocates of top-down draconian efforts to enforce (as best they can) equal outcomes along group lines have plenty more methods dreamed up to take decision-making power away from families and to place it in the hands of bureaucrats and officials, should they feel the need to wield them. That is not a recipe for social harmony, to say the least, and so long as families have ways of refusing to participate in such plans, many will do so. Even if one deplores that resistance, and I know many do, the problem remains. How much are we willing to stretch the already-strained fabric of social harmony in this country to pursue goals that may well be unachievable?
More, a demonstrated failure of the “It’s all social” vision for addressing unequal outcomes by group will be an additional moral lesson to a public that already has plenty of reasons to distrust the wisdom of public authorities. If those purporting that all group differences can be explained through social forces and arguing that therefore we have a moral responsibility to remake those social forces cannot show evidence that their efforts are achieving the goal, many more people than the already significant number who believe this already will come to accept the view that those authorities are mere ideologues who not only do not understand how societies operate, but who also insist on persisting, despite their ignorance, in exerting power and expending resources in irresponsible ways based on that ignorance. They will therefore refuse to accept the authority of those authorities. This problem—that of authorities who face rebellious populations at least in part because of their own poor decision-making and overreach—is a massive one in contemporary America. The already-torn fabric of social cohesion will certainly rip more in such a scenario, and many more people will simply assume in advance that elite opinion and decision-making are not based on a hard look at reality but rather on the fog of a suspect ideology.
All things considered, I see Truth as the better option here, even if there are risks and even if we cannot guarantee that we can fully control against all the risks. There is even the possibility, however slim, that the “It’s all social” people will be vindicated when we’ve done the work to examine how other factors contribute to differences. And if that position is rejected by evidence, we will at least know the reasonable parameters of responsible policy decision-making in light of the science.
This is one of a number of topics that are becoming increasingly difficult even to present to students.
The degree of hostility to even trying to correctly understand the argument presented in the reading was palpable in our discussion, as it is every time discussions like this come up in my classes. Every single time I assign work like this, I have to do a huge amount of work just correcting misperceptions that students have gotten despite the fact that writers on this topic taking the stance I take typically repeat over and over and over again why certain predictable misreadings are misreadings.
The students who do understand the arguments and find them at all compelling or even just worth discussing are typically cowed by the energy of their Woker colleagues into silence. I have had lots of such students tell me of this in private conversations, though their numbers are shrinking, and I feel certain this is because the Woke view on this is becoming more universal among the students at Bucknell. How could it be otherwise, given how widespread the view is among the Bucknell faculty and administration?
Here’s the question I ask myself constantly: “In this environment, how much longer will you even be able to get away with having students read stuff like this?”
[excerpted from Toward a Biosocial Science]
What is race, at bottom, for a social scientist? Briefly put, it is a consequence of the reality of human population genetic diversity and the natural selection mechanism of attraction to in-groups and aversion to out-groups. But the mainstream of the discipline of sociology in 2020 denies the existence of human population differences that could reasonably be defined in this way. Sometimes this consists of a denial of the categories themselves, which are described as social constructions, while still acknowledging real biological differences in populations. But some mainstream texts in the discipline deny the reality of significant genetic differences in regional populations altogether or deny that such differences could conceivably have any possible effect on anything that social science considers important. Here is an example of how bluntly one commonly used textbook defines the term: “Race is a modern social construction, meaning that the idea of race is not based on biological differences among people, even though race has become important in determining how we interact. It is a particular way of viewing human difference that is a product of colonial encounters” (Golash-Boza 2015:6). This and many other introductory texts on the topic in the social sciences largely ignore and leap over the biological science of human population difference. They will often simply repeat variations on the same theme, i.e., that members of our species share more than 99% of our genomes and therefore any differences at that genetic level by definition cannot be anything but minimal and superficial. Sometimes, no mention is made of any genetic contribution to human difference at all. The text just cited, for example, has only one reference in its index to genetics, and this is to an exceedingly brief passage in the book attacking the “myth” of diseases that are unique to specific racial groups.
It is of course true that all members of our species are genetically quite similar. This similarity is part of the definition of the term “species.” But the questions that are not asked by the mainstream texts are precisely what genetic variation in the species looks like and what consequences it might have on human behavior and social organization. To a fair degree, the claim “all humans are 99+% the same” relies for its rhetorical power on a basic ignorance of the sheer size of the genome and the statistically small amount of genetic difference required to produce profound phenotypical difference given that size. The total number of base pairs in the human genome is around 6.4 billion. The number is sometimes given as 3.2 billion, but this derives from the reference genome compiled by the Human Genome Project, which gave only the DNA sequence for single copies of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, the X and Y sex chromosomes, and the mitochondrial DNA. The actual amount of DNA in a human being is roughly twice that because our genome is diploid, that is, we have a pair of each of the chromosomes, one from our mother, one from our father. Given the size of the genome, even a miniscule fraction of variance produces many real genetic differences. Evidence suggests that the typical human individual’s genome differs from the reference genome of the Human Genome Project at around 5 million sites (The 1000 Genomes Project Consortium 2015). That is more than enough genetic variation to generate real phenotypical difference, depending on which base pairs in which genes are in play in the variation. This is an empirical question that, in the human genome, we are only just beginning to unpack and address. Another way to demonstrate the ignorance relied on in the insinuation is to show how much genetic similarity exists between two species that are clearly phenotypically different. Chimps and humans, for example, share just under 99% of their genomes. It is a mere 1% difference in their genomes that generates the massive, undeniable distinctions we see between us and our closest primate relative in appearance, intelligence, and behavior.
Those who would deny any meaningful scientific utility of the category “race” will often point out that there has been significant disagreement among scientists endeavoring to define how many races exist. Darwin himself pointed to this diversity of opinion, while yet affirming the scientific utility of racial difference as a concept. It is true that there has been considerable disagreement on the precise number of human races. But this does not invalidate the idea that human groups can be reasonably differentiated based on characteristics derived from the combination of different genes and exposure to different environments, or that such differentiation and categorization might not only be something scientists do but that the groups themselves might with some accuracy use those real genetic differences as a basis for thinking about identities and acting in the world.
The reason that it is of no shattering importance that one theorist has argued for five races and another for fifteen or even fifty is that this is an inevitable situation given the way variation in the human population works. Human population variation is continuous, which means that what we think of as race is a variable that exists on a continuum, rather than as a set of naturally existing discrete categories. In the Shaio article with which I started the chapter, it is pointed out that the classic social constructionist account of race, like the biophobic accounts in other realms we have already discussed, situates itself in a complex discourse by a simplifying move that is not justified by the evidence. This perspective, represented in the article by a book (Omi and Winant 1986) that has become one of the classic sources for constructionists, argues that race has no biological content at all, and that it is entirely and only a conceptual grid produced by “social, economic, and political forces” (Shiao et al. 2012:67). Such forces do indeed have something to contribute to the substance of racial categories. It is not hard to see, for example, how much the substantive content—especially at the level of connotation and emotional meaning—of the racial categories “black” and “white” in nineteenth-century America was influenced by an existing system of stratification based on a limited set of phenotypical features. But this does not invalidate the significant evidence in support of real biological content that differentiates human groups. Gradual variation in phenotypical traits, which we can now demonstrate to be tied in important ways to variation at the genetic level, is undeniably present in the human global population. One finds it hard to see such variation from ground-level, but imagine the following thought experiment: You are flying above the surface of the planet with a viewing device that allows you to see human beings both in their broad phenotypical characteristics (skin color, body morphology and size, facial features, eye shape, hair color and texture, etc.), but also at a distance that permits a scope of vision that encompasses large populations in the way they are often represented graphically on world maps. You would see, if you started, say, at the southern tip of the continent of Africa and then flew northward over the continent, and then up through Morocco and into Spain, then northward through Europe to Scandinavia, a gradual shift in those population phenotypes that would, over sufficient distances, appear quite starkly obvious and undeniable. But the change would happen subtly and incrementally, not categorically, all at once. That is, at no point would one be able to draw a line and say ‘Objectively, this is the one clear point in the continuum at which racial group A ends and racial group B begins.’ You could easily move the line a little bit northward, or a little bit to the south and then make the same statement, and it would be equally false. But it would also contain the truth that change, phenotypically, was clearly happening. And we know now that this change is genomic as well.
The critics of the idea of racial groups are correct that no such groups are given as discrete, categorical distinctions in the natural world. They require human beings—whether scientists or just ordinary members of social groups—to observe and act on them. But this does not mean there is no real population diversity on which the scientists and non-scientists can make their distinctions. And especially when we are talking about scientific efforts to describe human phenomena, racial or clinal class categories might well be useful notwithstanding the fact that different scientists with different intellectual tasks might find a different set of racial or clinal class groups useful. So long as they are based in the actual variation in the population, all such categories can be correct. It is simply a matter of the level of relief at which you concentrate your analytic attention. The racial differences between two sub-groups in a population can be genetically demonstrated, for example, by showing a difference in a specific number X of alleles and a consistency of genome within groups of some specific percentage Y, then when you look more closely, you find, for example, each of those two groups can be cut into two smaller groups, which differ from one another on some number of alleles less than X, and a consistency of genome within groups of something greater than Y%. The original categorical schema of two groups is scientifically correct, and so is the second schema of four groups. The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, in a book on the evolution of the human species that ought to be read by every social scientist, made the key point about as succinctly and clearly as it can be made: “[I]t should always be kept in mind that while race differences are objectively ascertainable facts, the number of races we choose to recognize is a matter of convenience” (1962:266).
The classificatory principle here is, it should be emphasized, the same as that used to define social class groups. Where is the objective line between the working class and the lower middle class? It does not exist in nature. We social scientists decide where the line demarcating the two categories will exist for the purposes of any given study—or, as is more common, we just omit this careful step altogether and nonetheless continue to use the category terms in a loose, unscientific way. Is the income level separating one class group from another $40,000/year or $50,000/year? It depends. Careful sociologists will feel the intellectual need to make some defense of their particular definition of the categories, but they make the categories nonetheless. Tellingly, no sociologists I have ever encountered raise any objections whatever to the use of this classificatory strategy on class along the lines of those we hear constantly in the discussion of race, nor do any I know accuse those who insist on making such categorical distinctions of social class of engaging in the harmful reification of the social constructs of material income and wealth difference. It is universally recognized, at least by sociologists who have thought carefully about this topic, that class categories are, on the one hand, malleable and constructed by scientists and, on the other, based in real features of variation in the relevant population at the same time. Rigorous categories of race meet the same criteria.
All serious study of the human genome shows that there is genetic variation in our species and that this variation can be seen both between individuals—even those who are closely related—and between members of ancestral population groups with different evolutionary histories. In the first systematic effort in the era of modern genetics to describe the genetic geography of our species, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza recognized the great difficulties involved in accurately accounting for the regional differences, and they rejected the term “race” because of its history of entanglement with “prejudice, misunderstanding, and social problems” (1994:19). However, they then went on to show that a genetic linkage tree can be drawn using the 42 populations they studied on 120 gene allele frequencies that maps remarkably well on to the conventional set of racial categories most readers of the book would have known and at least informally used in making sense of human identities before reading the book. That is, there emerged from their analysis three broad human population subgroups—African, North Eurasian, and Southeast Asian. They then grouped the 42 populations into nine clusters based on similarity of genome: 1) sub-Saharan Africans, 2) European Caucasoids, 3) extra-European Caucasoids, 4) Northern Mongoloids, 5) Northeast Asian Arctic populations, 6) Southern Mongoloids, 7) New Guineans plus Australians, 8) those from minor Pacific Islands, and 9) Americans (ibid.:78–80). In their words, “[t]he single most important conclusion…is that the greatest difference within the human species is between Africans and non-Africans” (ibid.:83). The magnitude of the genetic difference between these two groups was more than two times greater than that between the Southeast Asian and North Eurasian groups (ibid.:80). More recent large-scale analyses that have examined still larger numbers of alleles show quite similar groupings.
Dobzhansky provided a comparative angle from non-human genetics on why racial classification in humans was potentially useful and yet subject to the kind of categorization variation just noted:
One should distinguish two aspects of the problem of “reality” of race—race as a category of classification and racial differences as data of observation…We have seen that populations of Drosophila pseudoobscura in parts of the United States and Mexico and even at high and low elevations of the Sierra Nevada range differ in their relative frequencies of the gene arrangements in their third chromosomes. These are racial differences. We have also seen that human populations of different countries have diverse frequencies of certain blood groups. These are likewise racial differences. There is nothing arbitrary or unreal about these differences. However, classifying races or subspecies is an altogether separate issue. One could affix racial names, in English or Latin, to populations of Drosophila pseudoobscura that inhabit the Pacific Coast of the United States, the Rocky Mountains, and northern and central Mexico. But this would hardly serve a useful purpose; saying that a given population is of such-and-such geographic origin is good enough. To most students of human racial variation racial labels seem convenient…The number of names that one wishes to have is again a matter largely of convenience.
He then suggest a schema, strikingly similar to the one just described in Cavalli-Sforza, that is provided by Stanley Garn (1961) with a “proposed…subdivision of the human species into nine ‘geographical races’ or 34 ‘local races.’” The nine geographical races are Amerindian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Melanesian-Papuan, Australian, Asiatic, Indian, European, and African (ibid.:145–146).
Dobzhansky defended the scientific rigor of the concept of race in the human species against one of the leading lights in the movement in modern cultural anthropology to undermine it, Ashley Montagu. Homo sapiens, he argued, is a “polytypic species,” that is, a species with significantly differentiated sub-groups that can scientifically be classed as genetically distinct. The term “race” as it is used in humans is in fact a synonym for subspecies, and racial groups in humans are equivalent to e.g., the subspecies variants of the golden whistler, a bird of the Solomon Islands. The definition of the term “race” Dobzhansky gives is “Mendelian populations or arrays of genotypes that inhabit parts of the distribution area of a polytypic species” (ibid.:137). Elsewhere, still more succinctly, he gives this definition: “subordinate Mendelian populations within a species” (1973:57). A Mendelian population is simply a group of organisms that interbreed and share a common gene pool. Racial differences in nature have a range from minimal, having to do with frequencies of just a few genes, all the way to distinctions between populations in sufficient reproductive isolation to teeter on separation into different species (Dobzhansky et al. 1977:137).
It is often claimed by opponents of this approach to race that the number of individuals who elude the categories—those who are racially hybrid, or mixed—is so numerous as to disrupt any classificatory utility. A typical pedagogical example advocates of this idea utilize to attempt to undermine the race concept is to display images of individuals who are phenotypically interstitial to existing racial groups, or who might reasonably be placed visually in two or more categories. The reality is that the self-identified racial group and the objective grouping data of one’s genome are very nearly perfectly correlated in actual studies of the relationship. In one study of the relationship between these two definitions of race, barely one-tenth of 1% of subjects showed genetic cluster membership that differed from their self-identified racial identity (Tang et al. 2005). The subjects, from a range of different locales in the US and in Taiwan, of this study were asked to identify themselves as a member of one of four major racial/ethnic groups—white, African-American, East Asian, and Hispanic. The genetic analysis of the subjects also revealed four main groups or clusters and overlap between the identities and the genetic analysis was nearly perfect. Only five of the 3,636 subjects did not show correspondence.
Dobzhansky died in the mid-1970s, and contemporary critics of his vision of the biological basis of human ancestral populations frequently claim that the scientific consensus today opposes his position, which they dismiss as antiquated. But there are contemporary biologists and geneticists of considerable profile in the scientific community who agree with Dobzhansky’s general perspective on this topic. Jerry Coyne, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Chicago, has articulated a similar view of race or sub-species in humans on his widely read blog (https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/). Even more notably, the Harvard geneticist David Reich has, in both a recent book (Reich 2018) and a New York Times op-ed that accompanied its 2018 publication, argued firmly for the existence of genetic differences among human population groups with different ancestral profiles and for the need for continued serious research into the nature and extent of such differences. He notes that the now dominant orthodoxy in many academic circles that genetic differences between human ancestral populations are so minimal as to have no possible implications for cognitive and behavioral traits is simply indefensible in light of current knowledge. Genetic data alone, for example, gives us a “far from trivial” ability to predict an individual’s years of education, and there is no good reason to suspect that further research into group differences on this and other such variables can only reveal trivial such differences (ibid.:256, 258). Reich makes it clear that, while there is a risk that genuine racists will potentially find comfort in some of what we are learning about the genetics of human difference, the risk of retreating from scientific inquiry for political reasons and pretending no such data exist is far greater, as it cedes the field of discussion of the genetic discoveries to those without scientific expertise.
While social scientists who deny the utility of the notion of race often evince suspicion at scientific evidence for it, frequently on the grounds that the science is purportedly too mired in the racism of human society, they tend to trust blindly in other items of scientific consensus that are in fact contested. For example, they will often defend their rejection of the potential importance of genetic diversity in our species by reiterating that, whatever our superficial differences, “all people who were ever born anywhere on Earth have been, are, and will be descendants of Africans” (Krimsky and Sloan 2011:31). It is indeed the current conventional understanding that modern Homo sapiens evolved once, in Africa, and that all contemporary humans directly descend from this original group. But there is a significant contender to the out of Africa theory that has adherents in the scientific community, a formidable logic, and data to support it. The multiregional hypothesis on human origins argues that Homo erectus, a predecessor of our species, originated in Africa, but some members of this species then migrated out of Africa and that subgroup evolved independently a number of times into the several regional variations of modern humans. A major variant of the multiregional hypothesis posits that regional variants of Homo erectus in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia gave rise to the modern populations of those four groups. There is, some scientists attest, sufficiently significant genetic variation among the four to make the theory plausible (Lee 2015:223–224; Coyne 2009:206).
The lack of sharp boundaries between the subordinate Mendelian populations that make up racial groups in humans can be frustrating for many. But this point has nothing to do with its scientific validity, and we must follow the science where it goes. A political philosophical commitment to human equality protects us as much as possible from dangers, but the truth on this cannot simply be abandoned on the shaky argumentative grounds of political correctness. For “diversity is an observable fact of nature, while equality is an ethical commandment” (Dobzhansky 1973:4). Nothing in the science of human difference can legitimately be used as justification for unequal treatment of citizens under law, and we can take comfort in this distinction between scientific and moral/legal discourses.
I’ve been at this project now for more than seven months. Hardly seems possible, but I just checked the calendar and I believe that is the right math.
So, this is a note to you: Thank you.
I’m tremendously flattered by your interest in what I have to say about life, art, politics, death and I’m grateful that you read my ramblings. Every writer desires to be read (Lovecraft’s letter accompanying his submission to an editor notwithstanding) and thus owes a debt that cannot really be repaid to readers, however much the writer sometimes pretends not to recognize this (it’s part of the persona, you see…).
So that’s something I want to be sure to say and say again: THANK YOU.
Now, the other reason for this little note.
I finally got around to doing the technical stuff necessary to provide a paid subscription option.
What does a paid option mean?
It means it’s an option. At present, everything on this account remains open to all subscribers, paid or free. Even if I move at some currently unforeseen point to separating material here into paid and unpaid categories, I still plan to always make the bulk of it available when it’s produced without cost to everyone interested in seeing it. I’m tremendously appreciative that you read this site and want to do everything I can to ensure you continue to be interested in doing so.
I am hopeful though, and I make so bold as to ask, that if you have a few extra dollars rattling around, you’ll consider kicking some of them my way to help make it more feasible for me to spend more time on this project.
Inevitably, and despite my deepest feelings about writing, I think at least a bit about possible material returns when I am allocating time to writing projects. I have two kids who insist on eating despite the rising costs of food and who are in constant need of new clothes and a house in which things are constantly breaking down. Add to that the fact that, to my great regret, I do not have infinite time to dedicate to writing, and it emerges necessarily that sometimes the possibility of writing things for pay trumps writing things here. This is so even though I much prefer writing here precisely because it allows me more freedom to engage with the topics I find most interesting.
If I can generate some paid subscriptions, then, I can spend more time doing this writing, the writing I most care about, and the writing that I hope you find valuable. If I generate enough, I may even finally find enough time and energy to get around to dipping my toes into Podcast World, which is professionally speaking probably the last thing I should do, given my tendency to say things that get me into trouble, but YOLO, as I’ve heard they say.
I hope you’ll consider a paid subscription and, whatever your decision on that, I look forward to writing more for you as All Things Rhapsodical Phase II gets underway. Should you decide to “go paid,” you need only click the button below and it should lead you in the right direction.
Cheers, and thanks again! And very special thanks to those who have already switched to a paid subscription!
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I think you have to teach these texts, come what may. I chose a less controversial book this semester, but one that does not shy away from controversy, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. It offers both center-right and center-left solutions but is unequivocal in its embrace of core Western values. If I weren't retiring, I would gladly teach your book in my class.