Race Realism, Social Constructs, and Genetics

Denisovans, Neandertals, Archaics as Human Races – Anthropology 1.11

by Jason Antrosio, from Living Anthropologically

Current studies show genetically significant interbreeding with Neandertals, Denisovans, and possibly other archaics did occur. Milford Wolpoff’s idea that Neandertals should be considered a subspecies or race of humans seems closer to the truth (How Neandertals inform human variation, 2009). Neandertals are distinctive, so distinctive that many would say they were a separate species. Denisovans seem to be in a similar position. These are what races would really look like, not like the relatively minor differences observed in contemporary humans (see section Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race).

Race and Consequence: “Reality” and Social Constructs
by Cory Harris, from Torso and Oblong

Students definitely do usually interpret the traditional anthropological critique of race as “oh, anthropologists say race doesn’t exist, so it’s not important.” And while that’s clearly not what I’m arguing in class, it’s painstakingly difficult to clearly articulate the nuance.

This problem reminds me of an excellent, concise post by Jeremy Trombley, which I’ll quote in its entirety here:

We have to get past the idea that things that are socially constructed are somehow not real. I encountered it again today in something I was reading. “X is socially constructed” or “X are social constructs” as if to say they areonly or just social constructs – as if to say X is not real. But social constructs are real – that’s what makes them so powerful. Race, Class, Gender – these are all social constructs, but it is because they are socially constructed that they have tremendous effects on the lives of people who live in a particular society.

In fact, the only thing that saying something is socially constructed does is to indicate that it could have been (or could be) constructed differently – that it is historically and politically contingent. This is a first step (though maybe not a necessary step) towards creating the possibility for change, but it is not the change itself. Social constructions are powerful, deeply embedded structures, and change takes time and work. We’ve spent the last 30 years showing how socially constructed everything is – that was the easy part – now it’s time to get to work on making change.

In Gravlee’s article, he maintains the spirit of the critique of race as a social construct, but embraces race as a “real” concept–real in the sense of having real consequences, and he argues to “take seriously the claim that race is a cultural construct that profoundly shapes life chances” (2009:48).

I completely agree and think is is a critical goal in teaching about anthropology and race to undergraduates. Despite Gravlee’s clear elucidation of the relationship between social contexts and biological outcomes, I feel that many of my students implicitly continue to think that any reality to race can be reduced to gene pools (Gravlee 2009:51). In the end, I think many come away thinking anthropologists are a bit full of shit–”race is a ‘social construct,’ so it’s not real, but I see the reality of race all around me.”

Racial Realism
from Rational Wiki

Human genetics doesn’t work like race realists think it does.

Race realists spend a great deal of time and effort pointing out genetic differences between geographically separated populations in gene clustering research and insisting this is evidence for “races”.

In gene clustering research a set of populations is typically determined via subjective descriptors in ethnicity, language and geographics and people can be reliably identified as members of these groups. However, this way of categorizing people depends fundamentally on the quantity and method used to create the aforementioned framework of ancestral populations. Depending on what you subjectively chose to be aforementioned populations people may or may not end up in the same group. This is completely different from the problem of “races”, which presupposes that there is just one objectively and biologically demarcatable set of populations among all humans.

As Jonathan Marks points out

What is unclear is what this has to do with ‘race’ as that term has been used through much in the twentieth century – the mere fact that we can find groups to be different and can reliably allot people to them is trivial. Again, the point of the theory of race was to discover large clusters of people that are principally homogeneous within and heterogeneous between, contrasting groups.[4]

The idea of large clusters of people that are principally homogeneous within and heterogeneous in-between in terms of genetic similarity — the latter being necessary to speak of distinct “races” — has no scientific basis and in fact there is evidence against it. Witherspoon et al concluded in their 2007 paper “Genetic Similarities Within and Between Human Populations”:

The fact that, given enough genetic data, individuals can be correctly assigned to their populations of origin is compatible with the observation that most human genetic variation is found within populations, not between them. It is also compatible with our finding that, even when the most distinct populations are considered and hundreds of loci are used, individuals are frequently more similar to members of other populations than to members of their own population.[5]

Once “intermediate” populations — people living between two greater geographical extremes — are included, you find genetic continuity, not discontinuities. Racial realists’ proposed race-labeled genetic clusters all exclude “intermediate” populations; sampling and including such populations destroys any illusory genetic discontinuity.[6]

Icelanders and Ashkenazim constitute genetic clusters; “Asians”, “Europeans” and particularly “Negroes” do not.

why both sides are wrong in the race debate
by Kenan Malik, from Pandaemonium

An individual can have a number of social identities some of which may be important to the research at hand, and some of which are irrelevant. An individual donating DNA might be simultaneously a resident of a particular Indian village in Arizona, a member of the Hopi tribe, a descendant of a Laguna tribal family, a Native American, and someone of Spanish ancestry, as well as an American citizen. Each of these identities, Morris and Foster observe, tells a different social story about the individual and leads to a different scientific perspective on genetic variation. Researchers, in other words, should not assume a priori that the world is naturally divided into a set of ‘races’. Rather, depending on the particular questions they are asking they have to decide which of the socially-given populations are most useful to sample.

The importance occasionally of group differences in medicine does not reveal the reality of race. Indeed, what we popularly call races are generally least suited to genetic research. That is because the degree of biological relatedness in Continental groups is barely greater than in a randomly chosen group of people. That is what we mean when we say that just 4 per cent of total human variation exists between the major Continental groups. Races are, however, socially significant and a major way by which we divide up our societies. It may make social sense, therefore, for researchers and clinicians to use race as the basis by which they divide up the population.

race, science and the politics of identity
by Kenan Malik, from Pandaemonium

The contemporary idea of diversity, as the cultural analyst Brady Dunkee neatly puts it, acts as a ‘double entendre’. As a valued liberal standpoint, it gives race realism a political legitimacy. As an expression of genetic variation, it gives political arguments scientific legitimacy. Diversity, Dunkee writes, ‘kills two authority birds with one stone and extends the already flexible term “population” to substitute in another way for race’.

Today’s race realism is not simply the resurrection of Victorian racial science. The idea of race clearly means something very different today than it did 100 or 150 years ago. It is intimately bound up with contemporary notions of identity and belongingness and is an expression not so much of reactionary claims about inferiority and superiority as of the liberal impulse to embrace diversity and difference. But that makes the concept of race no more scientifically plausible or politically amenable than it did in the era of Cuvier, Broca and Morton.

More Mothers than Mitochondrial Eve – Anthropology 1.12
by Jason Antrosio, from Living Anthropologically

Anthropologists may have hoped the out-of-Africa hypothesis with a Mitochondrial Eve in Africa would bring much-needed attention to sub-Saharan Africa, as a celebrated cradle of humanity. It did not. Instead, people began to imply that leaving Africa was a good thing. “I call this ‘Out-of-Africa: Thank God!’ to point to the presumption that hominids became human in the process of leaving Africa–a slight that seems always unintentional, yet is surprisingly common. . . . Leaving Africa has become a troubling focus of a great deal of research and popular celebration” (Proctor 2003:225-226).

In 2011 New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade raised this slight to an insult, writing about “when and how modern humans escaped from their ancestral homeland” (Tools Suggest Earlier Human Exit From Africa). Modern humans did not escape! There were migrations out of Africa, within Africa, and people also migrated back into Africa.

Extreme versions of Mitochondrial Eve and the replacement hypothesis are gone. It is time to recapture the complexities of anthropological models. It is time to go back to Wolpoff’s statement from the 1988 Newsweek article: “we have a long history of people constantly mixing with one another and cooperating with one another and evolving into one great family.”

Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race – Anthropology 1.6
by Jason Antrosio, from Living Anthropologically

Sub-Saharan Africa has the greatest genetic diversity. This is not a surprise, since Sub-Saharan Africa is where almost all human evolution occurred. For most of human history, it was also the region with the largest human population. What may be more surprising is “that the diversity in non-Sub-Saharan African populations is essentially a subset of the diversity found in Sub-Saharan African populations” (Long et al. 2009:23).

Genetic classifications of races outside of Sub-Saharan Africa are simply subsets of Sub-Saharan African diversity. Moreover, and perhaps most strangely, “a classification that takes into account evolutionary relationships and the nested pattern of diversity would require that Sub-Saharan Africans are not a race because the most exclusive group that includes all Sub-Saharan African populations also includes every non-Sub-Saharan African population” (Long et al. 2009:32). In the end, the authors “agree entirely with Lewontin that classical race taxonomy is a poor reflection of human diversity” (Long et al. 2009:32). They disagree with Lewontin over whether this is intrinsic to human genetics–rather, it is a product of evolutionary history and migration.

This evolutionary history is explained in the article The global pattern of gene identity variation reveals a history of long-range migrations, bottlenecks, and local mate exchange: Implications for biological race. Once again, sophisticated techniques reveal a “nested pattern of genetic structure that is inconsistent with the existence of independently evolving biological races” (Hunley et al. 2009:35). The authors confirm greater genetic variation within Sub-Saharan Africa, and all other humans are a sub-set of this variation. Taxonomic classifications of race cannot account for observed genetic diversity. The authors take this further, challenging medical research that uses visible race-markers as a proxy for genetic structure:

Our findings confirm that broad ethnic categories employed in medical genetic research might not adequately take into account the complex geographic pattern of genetic structure in the species, but for the same reason, neither may continental ancestry. This is because our results also indicate that substantial, potentially medically important genetic differences may exist between populations within regions. (Hunley et al. 2009:45)

Race and medicine: the BiDil trial
by John Hawks, from the john hawks weblog

Blacks have good reason to be suspicious of studies like this, and not only for a historical reason. Race is a miserable substitute for the knowledge of alleles and genotypes in a study like this one. Compared to other populations in the world, Africans are more genetically variable, which means predicting effects for a drug for the entire population based on the average of study subjects is probably a mistake. The problem is worse when applied to African-Americans, which share much of the genetic diversity of Africans, but also include a relatively high proportion of alleles that are common in Europeans — a proportion that varies greatly from individual to individual. And the socioeconomic and cultural differences between many black and white Americans also may affect the response to drugs and other medical treatments. In short, if doctors had better information than race alone, they had better be using it.

How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality
Clarence C. Gravlee

The current debate over racial inequalities in health is arguably the most important venue for advancing both scientific and public understanding of race, racism, and human biological variation. In the United States and elsewhere, there are well-defined inequalities between racially defined groups for a range of biological outcomes—cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, certain cancers, low birth weight, preterm delivery, and others. Among biomedical researchers, these patterns are often taken as evidence of fundamental genetic differences between alleged races. However, a growing body of evidence establishes the primacy of social inequalities in the origin and persistence of racial health disparities. Here, I summarize this evidence and argue that the debate over racial inequalities in health presents an opportunity to refine the critique of race in three ways: 1) to reiterate why the race concept is inconsistent with patterns of global human genetic diversity; 2) to refocus attention on the complex, environmental influences on human biology at multiple levels of analysis and across the lifecourse; and 3) to revise the claim that race is a cultural construct and expand research on the sociocultural reality of race and racism. Drawing on recent developments in neighboring disciplines, I present a model for explaining how racial inequality becomes embodied—literally—in the biological well-being of racialized groups and individuals. This model requires a shift in the way we articulate the critique of race as bad biology.

Human DNA sequences: More variation and less race
Jeffrey C. Long, Jie Li, and Meghan E. Healy

The results are clear and somewhat surprising. We see that populations differ in the amount of diversity that they harbor. The pattern of DNA diversity is one of nested subsets, such that the diversity in non-Sub-Saharan African populations is essentially a subset of the diversity found in Sub-Saharan African populations. The actual pattern of DNA diversity creates some unsettling problems for using race as meaningful genetic categories. For example, the pattern of DNA diversity implies that some populations belong to more than one race (e.g., Europeans), whereas other populations do not belong to any race at all (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africans). As Frank Livingstone noted long ago, the Linnean classification system cannot accommodate this pattern because within the system a population cannot belong to more than one named group within a taxonomic level.

Race is a Social Construction – Anthropology on Race and Genetics
by Jason Antrosio, from Living Anthropologically

It is important to spell out what that means, and what people were after with the “race is a social construction” phrase. I am going to go out on an optimistic limb here and say that some recent posts on popular genetic-sorting blogs–Gene Expression andDienekes–demonstrate these bloggers

  1. acknowledge the genetic clustering data exhibits much more complexity and tells a much more complex story of human movement and mixing than is popularly understood; and
  2. therefore acknowledge that the lived experience of racial classification can be much more real than the kinds of genetic clustering they are outlining; so that
  3. correctly understood they are at least tacitly acknowledging that indeed “race is a social construction.”

Now before any of these bloggers or the people who inhabit their comment streams jump in and crush me, I want to make clear that this is an optimistic reading of some recent posts; that these comments apply to the main bloggers and not necessarily the commenters; and that since I am not a regular reader of these blogs, this may not be a new development even as I am reading a difference in tone.

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