Making Sense of the Concept of Race:
First Draft -- Comments Requested
by Steve Sailer
Copyright by Steve Sailer 1998
|For a number of years, mainstream anthropologists have been trying to
discredit the Concept of Race by claiming that races are just arbitrary social
constructs without biological underpinnings. Just flipping through today's
newspaper, however, demonstrates that the non-anthropologists of the world
are paying no attention. As one editor recently observed, "Without race,
what would we have to write about?"
Underlying much of the attack on the concept of race is repugnance at the mass murders that Nazis used racial thinking to justify. Of course, in this century even more people have been murdered by Marxists in the name of equality and the malleability of human nature. So, it's clear that humans are facile both at murdering other humans they find inconvenient and in developing ideological rationalizations for mass murder.
I believe that the relevant lesson of history is that, on the whole and in the long run, truth is more beneficial to humanity than obfuscation, lies, ignorance, and wishful thinking. And, even if it's not, the truth is a hell of a lot more interesting. Therefore, since race is obviously such an important topic, we deserve a clear discussion of what it means.
Most of the criticism of the concept of "races" focuses on the lack of agreement over how many races there are, what to call them, and precisely who belongs to them.
In contrast, scientists who defend the validity of the race concept make many good points, but their replies tend to be confuse the average person. I believe the problem is that they start from the wrong end of the stick; in fact, the wrong ends of two sticks. (1) They attempt to reason down from the species to the race, and (2) They attempt to argue that humans can be sorted into races based on their differing characteristics. These are the techniques used in classifications of non-human animals, so it's natural to explain race in these terms. Unfortunately, confusion tends to follow.
Clearly, humanity is now one species. (But our unity is fairly recent development, possibly brought about by our genocide of competitors like the Neandertal.)
Trying to explain the concept of race by starting from the concept of species is fraught with uncertainties. The modern definition of a species, a group that can produce fertile offspring, is of fairly recent origin. (It's informative to note that although Darwin titled his book "The Origin of Species," he possessed no clear definition of "species".) Also, there are many grey areas between animal species and animal races. Consider a male animal and a female animal selected from populations that are similar but not identical in appearance, and thus might or might not be members of separate species. Sometimes, biologists find that they don't mate in the wild (implying they represent separate species), but they do successfully breed in captivity if they are kept from their preferred partners (implying they represent merely separate races). Sometimes, science cannot tell at all if they could successfully breed: they won't mate in the wild because they have plenty of more preferred partners around, and they won't mate in captivity with anybody at all, because captivity makes them feel shy or out of sorts. So, with "species" providing such a wobbly foundation, it's not surprising than many people feel uncomfortably moving on to the even less clear-cut realm of "races".
Nor is trying to define races as populations that differ in physical characteristics a persuasive starting point for thinking about race. Jared Diamond followed this logic out to the point of logical absurdity in his October, 1994 Discover Magazine article "Race Without Color" by claiming that we could define races on any physical characteristic we chose, with say Norwegians and Nigerian Fulanis belonging to the Lactose Tolerant race and Japanese and Nigerian Ibos belonging to the Lactose Intolerant race.
Obviously, Diamond's logic leads to a travesty of reality. It is difficult to determine whether he meant it seriously. Diamond is far too logical and realistic to normally write something that stupid, yet on one subject, he often writes nonsense: race. Whether this article was an amusing hoax, or whether he really believes it, or whether he was just pandering to a market hungry for politically correct obfuscation is impossible to determine by anyone who doesn't have access to his conscience. Despite, or, more likely, because of its high flapdoodle content, "Race Without Color" has become quite influential, inspiring in part a subsequent Newsweek cover story claiming that race doesn't exist.
That biological realists have not successfully buried such a transparently bogus claim is evidence that they are neither making themselves clear, nor that they are even thinking that clearly themselves. The reason that defining Fulanis and Ibo as belonging to separate races is ridiculous is because the true definition of races is not built on any particular trait, it's built on ancestry. We all intuitively know that Fulanis and Ibos are more racially similar with each other because they have more recent ancestors in common with each other than they do with Norwegians or Japanese. Race starts with boy meets girl, followed by baby.
It's important to note that the standard critique of the concept of "race" -- nobody can agree on their number, name, or precise constituents -- applies even more so to the concept of "extended family". Yet nobody doubts the reality of extended families.
Vince Sarich has rightly pointed out that races are what mathematicians call "fuzzy sets," which is not an insult these days: "fuzzy logic" is a booming field in mathematics and computer science. Nonetheless, I suggest that describing races to the average reader in terms of a cutting edge realm of mathematics is not a winning tactic. Instead, simply give the reader an analogy he can immediately understand: extended families. Everybody knows that extended families are fuzzy: the reader defines his own extended family more broadly when making up his Christmas card list than when thinking about who he'd donate a kidney to or hit up for a loan. That doesn't mean there is no biological reality underlying extended families. Everybody knows that their can be some social fictions in defining a family (many people dote on their adopted nephews as much as their biological ones), but they also understand that there are limits to social constructionism (most would dote more upon a nephew who was adopted into the family as a beguiling baby than as a pimply teenager). The absurdity of Diamond's putative Lactose Tolerant race is revealed by analogy to extended family. What response would I get if I sent the DuPont family Diamond's article and a letter pointing out that by analogizing from Diamond's logic, we could posit the existence of a Six-Letters-In-The-Last-Name Family to which both Dupont and Sailer belong, so therefore please cut me in on the family fortune?
Now the crucial step is point out that the reason extended families provide such perfect analogies for races is because they are actually the same thing. A RACE IS SIMPLY AN EXTREMELY EXTENDED FAMILY.
Why are extended families even fuzzier than races? Or, to put it another way, why are races more coherent, cohesive and longer lasting than extended families? The difference stems from the degree of outmarriage (exogamy). While extended families share a lot of genes (the next time you're looking at a picture of another Kennedy caught in a scandal, notice how much he looks like other Kennedys), their genetic distinctiveness fades back into the average for the general population with which they intermarry as you move outward to more distant relatives or you move forward or backward in time. The partial exceptions are extended families that intermarry heavily. The most famous examples are the crowned heads of Europe, who for the last two centuries or could reasonably be considered to be one clan. Among Europe's extended family of royals, inbreeding has kept traits like hemophilia, weak chins, and jug ears around longer and more abundantly than would be found in a family with a greater aversion against first cousins marrying.
Yet, as you extend the boundaries of the extended family farther and farther out, you typically find that they start turning in upon themselves. Most families down through history have married almost exclusively within some sort of population that's more restricted than the entire human species. Thus, while traits unique to a family fade with time (forward or backward) and outward to more distant relatives, a racial group's biological traits can remain quite stable over fairly long periods.
This of course doesn't mean that racial groups are permanent or immutable. It all depends on the degree of exogamy. Racial groups can change rather rapidly -- e.g.,Mexicans could be considered a reasonably distinct racial grouping that originated in 1519. California will possess a sizable population of Eurasians in the 21st Century.
Do the races actually differ genetically? Of course, they do -- by definition. If you have a group that's not defined by ancestry (e.g., Roman Catholics, left-handers, homosexuals, Hispanics, etc.), you don't have a racial group.
Do races differ enough genetically to matter practically? There is one small group of anthropologists who would answer "Of course". They are the forensic anthropologists, and they by far have the most down to earth, life or death responsibilities of all anthropologists. The police call them in when somebody finds a skeleton in the woods. The first step to identifying the dead person is to determine sex and race. In the U.S., at least, this is surprisingly easy.
In general, race plays a hugely important role in forensics. Eye-witness identifications of individual suspects are notoriously doubtful, yet their testimony about the race of the suspect they saw running away from the scene of the crime tends to be quite accurate and helpful. While many cultural anthropologists scoff that racial identifications are based purely on skin color, they're really based on the witness' gestalt of appearance. In our increasingly multiethnic society, average Americans are becoming more sophisticated about distinguishing by race and subrace. Consider four medium brown people: a typical African-American of 75% black, 25% white heritage; a dark Asian Indian; a dark Southeast Asian; and a dark Mexican. Few Americans who live in big cities would fail to distinguish the race of the African-American as being different from the others. I suspect that most of you reading this essay could in fact distinguish all four people and name the region their ancestors came from. (However, I would not expect the average American to be able to confidently distinguish African-Americans from, say, Australian aborigines, or, especially, certain Melanesians. However, that level of sophistication may well come about in future decades).
It's often said that most human biodiversity occurs between individuals within races, not between races. There is truth to this, but of course it differs by trait, by individual, and by racial grouping. For example, there is no variation at all among humans, racial or individual, in terms of the number of heads we have. Everybody gets one. At the other extreme, there is pervasive individual variation in fingerprints, yet fingerprints are close to useless for determining an individual's race. On the other hand, there is no overlap whatsoever in skin color between, say, the English and the Kalenjin of Kenya (albinos excepted). Most traits, however, show both individual variation and racial variation. Consider sprinting ability. There's lots of diversity within every group. Nonetheless, small average differences can have huge cumulative results -- that's why the man who owns the roulette wheel makes more money than the people who play it. If you still don't believe me, let's bet. You randomly pick 100 Mexican-American youths and I'll randomly pick 100 African-American youths, and I will bet you any amount of money you like that my guys will sprint faster on average over 100 meters than your guys. (In case you are wondering, up through 1997 of the 134 times humans had run 100m in less than 10 seconds, every single instance was accomplished by a man of West African descent.)
Clearly, the outer boundaries to out-marriage that define a racial group are not solid but probabilistic. An American of Norwegian descent is unlikely to have any black African ancestors in last 50 generations. In contrast, a Sicilian-American might well have some black ancestors. Geographic proximity matters. This truth has lead to the most rational assault on the concept of race, Ashley Montagu's "clinal variation" idea: the concept of race isn't useful because traits tend to vary incrementally across distances. There is some truth to this. The question is how much. Clinal variation would be a very useful model if the surface of the Earth resembled the Yucatan peninsula: dead flat, lacking in any kind of surface water, all limestone, and just generally featureless. In reality, Earth is covered with oceans, deserts, mountains, rivers, glaciers, and other natural boundaries. It would also improve the validity of the clinal model if human history -- conquests, migrations, enslavements, genocides, etc. -- had never happened. In general, reality tends to be lumpy. (This lumpiness extends all the way back to the Big Bang: if there hadn't been variations in density in the primal atom, the universe would be a thin, featureless broth today, rather resembling the clinal model on a cosmic scale.) Thus, areas where this clinal variation ought to exist (the Sahara, Central Asia, the Himalayas, the Atlantic Ocean, etc.) tend to be mostly unpopulated. In contrast, the places with the great big clumps of population (China, Europe, etc.) tend to be monoracial.
Consider clinal variation between black Africans and Southeast Asians. There'd be a lot of it except that the Indian Ocean gets in the way. In fact, there is one place where there is clinal variation between black Africans and Southeast Asians: Madagascar. But, this is an exception that proves the rule. Jared Diamond calls the ancient Malgasy settlement of Madagascar the most surprising fact in the history of geography. Or consider a place that's perfect for clinal variation: the Nile. As you go due south along the Blue Nile from the Mediterranean to Lake Victoria, as the sun climbs higher in the sky, clinal variation predicts that you should witness a smooth, harmonious, almost imperceptible change from light brown to very dark brown skins. Yet, if you've been the reading the foreign news for the last thirty years, you'll note there's been an almost nonstop civil war has gone on in the Sudan between the white northerners and the black southerners. So, even on the Nile, the elegant clinal model proves less realistic than the lumpy racial model.
Let me pause to suggest some terminology. "Race" is often used very broadly -- "the human race" vs. "the Irish race". Similarly, "family" is sometimes used very broadly: "the human family" or "the family of man." This vagueness can be salutary because it shows that there are no real hard and fast boundaries between races and families. However, I think it would be useful for descriptive purposes to generally refer to humanity as a "species" and to use "race" to refer to continental-scale genetic groupings. Australian-Papuans fill an entire continent and a huge island next door. Subsaharan Africans fill all but the northern fringe of the inhabitable ranges of Africa (I'll leave out the khoisan and pygmies for now). Whites or caucasians or whatever you want to call them inhabit the western half of Eurasia. East Asians inhabit the Eastern half. You can split East Asians into Northeastern Asians and Southeastern Asians, or lump them together. My reading of Cavalli-Sforza says either choice makes about the same amount of sense. Amerindians inhabit two continents, although you could also lump them with East Asians. So, while enumerating continental-scale races is not an exact process, and there are groups that don't fit this Big Picture, we probably don't have more than six continent-scale races. And if you lump like crazy and ignore the Australians, you can reasonably justify even the old-fashioned Negroid-Caucasoid-Mongoloid triad.
When referring to groups that are subsets of the continental scale races, I'd recommend "subraces. " The number of subraces is endless. Many might prefer "ethnic groups" to "subraces," as in Jews, Italians, Irish, English, Koreans, Japanese, and other groups that possess a fair degree of genetic distinctiveness, but don't monopolize anything close to a continent. The problem is that the term "ethnic group" comes with a lot of non-genetic baggage. For example, the U.S. government applies the term to all Spanish speaking people, no matter what their ancestry.
But isn't the example of Hispanics or Latinos a perfect illustration of the social construction of race? It's definitely a social construction of some sort (a language group?), but it's not a racial grouping. That the concepts of social constructs and genetic racial groups can complement each other is nicely shown by examining Latino baseball players. Baseball people think of major league baseball players as falling into three main groups: "whites", "blacks" (i.e., African-Americans), and "Latinos" (players who either speak Spanish or, arguably, come from a background of Spanish-speakers). Nobody ever lumps Spanish-speaking blacks with American blacks.
You see important cultural similarities among most Latin players, despite their coming from different nations and being comprised of three different ethnic groups in varying combinations: blacks like Sammy Sosa, whites like Jose Canseco, and Amerindians like Fernando Valenzuela, and various hybrids. Most notably, Latin ballplayers are usually free swingers: on average, they accept fewer bases on balls than white or African-American hitters. This tends to be true even of awesome sluggers like Sammy and Juan Gonzales. It seems reasonable to attribute the differences in number of walks between, say, black Dominicans and African-Americans to the Latin Caribbean's exuberant culture vs. the cult of cool that prevails among black Americans. So, this appears to be purely a cultural artifact, showing that the social construct model can provide useful predictions in this case.
On the other hand, despite cultural similarities, there are major differences in innate talent among Latin ballplayers that appear to follow ethnic lines: black Hispanic ballplayers have the best chance of making the big leagues, followed by black-white mixes, then white, with Mexican-Indians having the toughest time. The almost-all black Dominican Republic is the world's greatest producer of baseball talent, producing about 6 times as many major leaguers as baseball-mad Mexico, which has many times more people. The LA Dodgers' scout in Mexico, who is of course of Mexican descent himself, explained a few years ago that there were so few Mexican big leaguers because Mexicans tended to be slow and short because of short legs. (The only Mexican ballplayer to win a Cy Young or MVP is Fernando Valenzuela, who certainly relied more on brain, heart, coordination, and baseball-experience than on a perfect physique). The usual lynch mob started to form to get this scout, but then it dissipated because nobody could figure out exactly how to criticize what he said. In summary, racial biology seems to play a large role even in a field where almost no observers (except scouts) notices it.
Finally, many argue that there's no biological reality behind calling African-Americans "black" since most are some shade of brown, reflecting their mixed race heritage. The usual guesstimate is that African-Americans average about 25% white or Amerindian genes. While I was at UCLA I spent a lot of time hanging out with my Cameroonian friends, and I could soon reliably distinguish Africans from African-Americans by sight.
The theory of the social construction of blackness is particularly popular among intellectuals, in part because many famous black intellectuals are quite white in appearance (e.g., Lani Guinier looks like she was separated at birth from her identical twin Gilda Radner; also note Shelby Steele, August Wilson, W.E.B. Dubois, and the superb writer Jean Toomer; in contrast, my hero, Thomas Sowell is very dark).
Nonetheless, it is my observation that the vast majority of African-Americans appear to be no more than half white. Why is this? I think it stems from three social factors that were very powerful in American society until recently: the "one-drop" rule; the near absolute ban on black male-white female sexual relations; and the less onerous social aversion toward white male-black female relations, especially against interracial marriage.
I've been drawing hypothetical family trees to get some sense of what would have had to have happened in previous generations to lead to a current "black" being 3/4 white. The fewest number of interracial matings required is two: your parents and one pair of your grandparents. In the future this will not be uncommon, but until recently, it's been pretty unlikely -- there was just too much social (and often legal and extra-legal --e.g., lynchings) hostility against miscegenation for it too happen twice out of three couples.
Let's assume, however, that all the socially-defined miscegenation took place 4 and 5 generations ago in the 19th Century, and since then there have only been marriages among socially-defined "blacks." For you to end up as 3/4 white and 1/4 black, my crude model suggests that that would have required 4 of the 8 "marriages" among your great-great-grandparents to be miscegenations, and all 4 "marriages" among your great-grandparents to have been interracial. This combination strikes me as possible but very rare, consider the racial climate at the time. You can make up other family trees, but you'll find similar implications.
Also, keep in mind that the near-absolute ban on black male-white female couplings until recent decades means that 50% of the part black-part white individuals were locked out of almost any chance of mating with pure-whites.
Finally, since society and often the law frowned very heavily upon white male-black female marriages, and frowned upon white male-black female non-marital relations, I'd suspect that most of the interracial relationships produced only 1 or 2 children, in contrast to the 6 or 8 that were common in black-black marriages at the time.
All this suggests that mostly white "black" families would have tended to become blacker over time as they were most likely to mate with blacker blacks. This seems to explain why America has clearly distinct black and white populations, whereas Latin countries with different social rules have much more blended, less dichotomous racial groups. (I suspect that the difference is that white men in the slave sections of America tended to have enough white women around to provide them with the pleasures of family life, allowing them to focus on their pure white sons and ignore their half black sons. In contrast, the conquistadores tend to lack white wives, so they took paternal interest in their hybrid sons. If true, this could help explain why "half-breed" white/Indian hybrids were so much more socially accepted in America. For example, Winston Churchill's American grandmother was a major high society battleax, despite being the 1/4 Iroquois. On the frontier, white women were in short supply, so white men integrated their half-breed kids more into white society.
In summary, the concept of race appears to be a reasonable and useful one for helping us understand more about the reality of human existence.
Steve Sailer (email@example.com)
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