Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?

Here is an alt-righter struggling with scientific understanding:

When I first came upon the argument that “culture is a racial construct” last year, I was pretty horrified. I saw this as a re-gurgitated Nazi talking point that was clearly unfactual.

But like other longtime taboo topics such as HBD, eugenics, and White identity, I’ve seen this theory pop up over the past year in some shocking places. First, a scientific magazine revealed that orcas genetics’ are affected by culture and vice versa. Then, I started seeing normies discuss this talking point in comment sections in the Wall Street Journal and even NY Times.

Finally, a liberal academic has thrown himself into the discussion. Bret Weinsten, a Jewish Leftist who most people here know as the targeted professor of the Marxist insanity at Evergreen University, posted this tweet yesterday: “Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. Culture is biological,” and then this one today: “Culture is as adaptive, evolutionary and biological as genes. You’re unlikely to accept it. But if you did you’d see people with 10X clarity.”

This is a pretty remarkable assertion coming from someone like Bret Weinstein. I wonder if the dam will eventually break and rather than being seen as incredibly taboo, this theory will be commonly accepted. If so, it’s probably the best talking point you have for America to prioritize its demographics.

What is so shocking?

This line of thought, taken broadly, has been developing and taking hold in the mainstream for more than a century. Social constructionism was popularized and spread by the anthropologist Franz Boaz. I don’t think this guy grasps what this theory means nor its implications. That “culture is a racial construct” goes hand in hand with race being a cultural construct, which is to say we understand the world and our own humanity through the lens of ideology, in the sense used by Louis Althusser. As applied to the ideology of pseudo-scientific race realism and gender realism, claims of linear determinism of singular and isolated causal factors are meaningless because research has shown that all aspects are intertwined factors in how we develop and who we become.

Bret Weinstein makes three assertions: “Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. Culture is biological.” I don’t know what is his ideological position. But he sounds like a genetic determinist, although this is not clear since he also claims that his assertions have nothing to do with group selection (a standard reductionist approach). Anyway, to make these statements accurate, other statements would need to be added — such as that, biology is epigenetics, epigenetics is environment, and environment is culture. We’d have to throw in other things as well, from biome to linguistic relativism. To interpret Weinstein generously and not taking his use of ‘is’ too literally: Many things are many other things or rather closely related, if by that we mean that multiple factors can’t be reduced to one another in that they influence each other in multiple directions and through multiple pathways.

Recent research has taken this even further in showing that neither sex nor gender is binary *, as genetics and its relationship to environment, epigenetics, and culture is more complex than was previously realized. It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA. It has to do with diverse interlinking and overlapping causal relationships. We aren’t all that certain at this point what ultimately determines the precise process of conditions, factors, and influences in how and why any given gene expresses or not and how and why it expresses in a particular way. Most of the genetics in human DNA is entirely unknown in its purpose or maybe lack of purpose, although the Junk DNA theory has become highly contested. And most genetics in the human body is non-human: bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, and parasites. The point is that, scientifically speaking, causation is a lot harder to prove than many would like to admit.

The second claim by Weinstein is even more interesting: “Culture is as adaptive, evolutionary and biological as genes.” That easily could be interpreted in alignment with Richard Dawkins theory of memetics. That argument is that there are cultural elements that act and spread similarly to genes, like a virus replicating. With the growing research on epigenetics, microbiome, parasites, and such, the mechanisms for such a thing become more plausible. We are treading in unexplored territory when we combine memetics not just with culture but also with extended mind and extended phenotype. Linguistic relativism, for example, has proven that cultural influences can operate through non-biological causes — in that bilingual individuals with the same genetics will think, perceive, and act differently depending on which language they are using. Yes, culture is adaptive, whether or not in the way Weinstein believes.

The problems in this area only occur when one demands a reductionist conclusion. The simplistic thinking of reductionism appeals to the limits of the human mind. But reality has no compulsion to comform to the human mind. Reality is irreducible. And so we need a scientific understanding that deals with, rather than dismisses, complexity. Indeed, the tide is turning.

* * *

Intersex in history (Wikipedia)

Intersex people have been treated in different ways by different cultures. Whether or not they were socially tolerated or accepted by any particular culture, the existence of intersex people was known to many ancient and pre-modern cultures and legal systems, and numerous historical accounts exist.

Third gender (Wikipedia)

In different cultures, a third or fourth gender may represent very different things. To Native Hawaiians and Tahitians, Māhū is an intermediate state between man and woman, or a “person of indeterminate gender”.[9] The traditional Diné of the Southwestern US acknowledge four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man.[10] The term “third gender” has also been used to describe hijras of India[11] who have gained legal identity, fa’afafine of Polynesia, and sworn virgins of Albania.[12]

Intersex (Wikipedia)

History

Whether or not they were socially tolerated or accepted by any particular culture, the existence of intersex people was known to many ancient and pre-modern cultures. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote of “hermaphroditus” in the first century BCE that Hermaphroditus “is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman”, and with supernatural properties.[32]

In European societies, Roman law, post-classical canon law, and later common law, referred to a person’s sex as male, female or hermaphrodite, with legal rights as male or female depending on the characteristics that appeared most dominant.[33] The 12th-century Decretum Gratiani states that “Whether an hermaphrodite may witness a testament, depends on which sex prevails”.[34][35][36] The foundation of common law, the 17th Century Institutes of the Lawes of England described how a hermaphrodite could inherit “either as male or female, according to that kind of sexe which doth prevaile.”[37][38] Legal cases have been described in canon law and elsewhere over the centuries.

In some non-European societies, sex or gender systems with more than two categories may have allowed for other forms of inclusion of both intersex and transgender people. Such societies have been characterized as “primitive”, while Morgan Holmes states that subsequent analysis has been simplistic or romanticized, failing to take account of the ways that subjects of all categories are treated.[39]

During the Victorian era, medical authors introduced the terms “true hermaphrodite” for an individual who has both ovarian and testicular tissue, “male pseudo-hermaphrodite” for a person with testicular tissue, but either female or ambiguous sexual anatomy, and “female pseudo-hermaphrodite” for a person with ovarian tissue, but either male or ambiguous sexual anatomy. Some later shifts in terminology have reflected advances in genetics, while other shifts are suggested to be due to pejorative associations.[40]

The Gender Binary Is a Dumb, but Relatively New Concept
by Bethy Squires

So when and why did doctors move from one sex to two? Many scholars set the change during a time known as the “long 18th century”: 1688-1815. This time period covers the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the period of political revolution that followed. It was during this time that many ideas about man’s inalienable rights were conceived.

Before the long 18th century, Western societies operated under feudalism, which presupposes that people are born unequal. Kings were better than lords who were better than peasants, and this sense of betterness extended to their physical bodies. “Aristocrats have better bodies, bodies are racialized,” says Laqueur, summing up the idea. “The body is open and fluid and the consequence of a hierarchy in heaven.” Specifics of this corruptible flesh are of less consequence than our souls. We were all servants in the Kingdom of Heaven, which set the hierarchy on earth.

This idea of a natural hierarchy was challenged by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. We see it in the Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. But it was also understood that women and people of color couldn’t possibly have been created equal. Therefore, it became necessary to conceive of innate biological differences between men and women, white and black. “As political theorists were increasingly invoking a potentially egalitarian language of natural rights in the 18th century, ‘woman’ had to be defined as qualitatively different from men in order that political power would be kept out of women’s reach,” writes Karen Harvey in Cambridge University Press’s Historical Journal.

Sexual difference becomes much more explicit in medical texts once women’s anatomy gets its own words. […] What follows in the long 18th century and into the Victorian era is a solidifying of masculine and feminine as diametrically opposed. When doctors followed humoral system, it was understood that everyone was a little hot, a little cold, a little country, a little rock and roll. Women were frequently represented as hornier than men. But once everyone has to be shunted into a binary, women are rendered passive and disinclined to sex. “Historically, women had been perceived as lascivious and lustful creatures,” writes Ruth Perry in the amazingly titled academic paper “Colonizing the Breast.” “[B]y the middle of the eighteenth century they were increasingly reimagined as belonging to another order of being: loving but without sexual needs.” Men are horny, therefore women must be the opposite of horny.

Nonbinary and genderfluid people of the 21st century can gain some comfort from the notion that sex and gender divisions weren’t always so rigid. But that understanding is nevertheless tinged with the knowledge that the sexes, fluid though they were, were still ranked. Someone was still coming out a winner, and yet again it was whoever was most masculine.

Gender Role (Wikipedia)

Biological factors

Several studies have been conducted looking at the gender roles of intersex children.

One such study looked at female infants with adrenal hyperplasia, and who had excess male hormone levels, but were thought to be females and raised as such by their parents. These girls were more likely to express masculine traits.[50][51]

Another study looked at 18 infants with the intersex condition 5-alpha reductase deficiency, and XY chromosomes, assigned female at birth. At adult age only one individual maintained a female role, all the others being stereotypically male.[52]

In a third study, 14 male children born with cloacal exstrophy and assigned female at birth, including through intersex medical interventions. Upon follow-up between the ages of 5 to 12, eight of them identified as boys, and all of the subjects had at least moderately male-typical attitudes and interests.[53]

Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem is a psychologist who developed the gender schema theory, based on the combination of aspects of the social learning theory and the cognitive-development theory of sex role acquisition, to explain how individuals come to use gender as an organizing category in all aspects of their life. In 1971, she created the Bem Sex-Role Inventory to measure how well an individual conformed to a traditional gender role, characterizing those tested as having masculine, feminine, androgynous, or undifferentiated personality. She believed that through gender-schematic processing, a person spontaneously sorts attributes and behaviors into masculine and feminine categories, and that therefore individuals processes information and regulate their behavior based on whatever definitions of femininity and masculinity their culture provides.[54]

While there are differences in average capabilities of various kinds (E.g. better average balance in females or greater average physical size and endurance in males) between the sexes[citation needed] the capabilities of some members of one sex will fall within the range of capabilities needed for tasks conventionally assigned to the other sex. Eve Shapiro, author of Gender Circuits, explains that “gender, like other social categories, is both a personal identity and a culture set of behaviors, beliefs and values.”[55] […]

Culture

Ideas of appropriate behavior according to gender vary among cultures and era, although some aspects receive more widespread attention than others. R.W. Connell in Men, Masculinities and Feminism[58] claims:

There are cultures where it has been normal, not exceptional, for men to have homosexual relations. There have been periods in ‘Western’ history when the modern convention that men suppress displays of emotion did not apply at all, when men were demonstrative about their feeling for their friends. Mateship in the Australian outback last century is a case in point.

There are huge areal differences in attitudes towards appropriate gender roles. In the World Values Survey, responders were asked if they thought that wage work should be restricted to only men in the case of shortage in jobs: in Iceland the proportion that agreed with the proposition was 3.6%; while in Egypt it was 94.9%.[59]

Attitudes have also varied historically, for example, in Europe, during the Middle Ages, women were commonly associated with roles related to medicine and healing.[60] Because of the rise of witch-hunts across Europe and the institutionalization of medicine, these roles became exclusively associated with men[60] but in the last few decades these roles have become largely gender-neutral in Western society.[61]

The myth that gender is binary is perpetuated by a flawed education system
by Jeremy Colangelo

Sex and gender are much more complex and nuanced than people have long believed. Defining sex as a binary treats it like a light switch: on or off. But it’s actually more similar to a dimmer switch, with many people sitting somewhere in between male and female genetically, physiologically, and/or mentally. To reflect this, scientists now describe sex as a spectrum.

The more we have learned about human genetics, the more complicated it has revealed itself to be. Because of this, the idea of binary gender has become less and less tenable. As Claire Ainsworth summarizes in an article for Nature, recent discoveries “have pointed to a complex process of sex determination, in which the identity of the gonad emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity … can tip the balance towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes.”

Sex redefined
by Claire Ainsworth

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD2.

When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex. What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health.

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.

“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”

How science is helping us understand gender
by Robin Marantz Henig

Many of us learned in high school biology that sex chromosomes determine a baby’s sex, full stop: XX means it’s a girl; XY means it’s a boy. But on occasion, XX and XY don’t tell the whole story.

Today we know that the various elements of what we consider “male” and “female” don’t always line up neatly, with all the XXs—complete with ovaries, vagina, estrogen, female gender identity, and feminine behavior—on one side and all the XYs—testes, penis, testosterone, male gender identity, and masculine behavior—on the other. It’s possible to be XX and mostly male in terms of anatomy, physiology, and psychology, just as it’s possible to be XY and mostly female.

Each embryo starts out with a pair of primitive organs, the proto-gonads, that develop into male or female gonads at about six to eight weeks. Sex differentiation is usually set in motion by a gene on the Y chromosome, the SRY gene, that makes the proto-gonads turn into testes. The testes then secrete testosterone and other male hormones (collectively called androgens), and the fetus develops a prostate, scrotum, and penis. Without the SRY gene, the proto-gonads become ovaries that secrete estrogen, and the fetus develops female anatomy (uterus, vagina, and clitoris).

But the SRY gene’s function isn’t always straightforward. The gene might be missing or dysfunctional, leading to an XY embryo that fails to develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a girl. Or it might show up on the X chromosome, leading to an XX embryo that does develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a boy.

Genetic variations can occur that are unrelated to the SRY gene, such as complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), in which an XY embryo’s cells respond minimally, if at all, to the signals of male hormones. Even though the proto-gonads become testes and the fetus produces androgens, male genitals don’t develop. The baby looks female, with a clitoris and vagina, and in most cases will grow up feeling herself to be a girl.

Which is this baby, then? Is she the girl she believes herself to be? Or, because of her XY chromosomes—not to mention the testes in her abdomen—is she “really” male? […]

In terms of biology, some scientists think it might be traced to the syncopated pacing of fetal development. “Sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy,” wrote Dick Swaab, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam, “and sexual differentiation of the brain starts during the second half of pregnancy.” Genitals and brains are thus subjected to different environments of “hormones, nutrients, medication, and other chemical substances,” several weeks apart in the womb, that affect sexual differentiation.

This doesn’t mean there’s such a thing as a “male” or “female” brain, exactly. But at least a few brain characteristics, such as density of the gray matter or size of the hypothalamus, do tend to differ between genders. It turns out transgender people’s brains may more closely resemble brains of their self-identified gender than those of the gender assigned at birth. In one study, for example, Swaab and his colleagues found that in one region of the brain, transgender women, like other women, have fewer cells associated with the regulator hormone somatostatin than men. In another study scientists from Spain conducted brain scans on transgender men and found that their white matter was neither typically male nor typically female, but somewhere in between.

These studies have several problems. They are often small, involving as few as half a dozen transgender individuals. And they sometimes include people who already have started taking hormones to transition to the opposite gender, meaning that observed brain differences might be the result of, rather than the explanation for, a subject’s transgender identity.

Still, one finding in transgender research has been robust: a connection between gender nonconformity and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to John Strang, a pediatric neuropsychologist with the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Gender and Sexuality Development Program at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., children and adolescents on the autism spectrum are seven times more likely than other young people to be gender nonconforming. And, conversely, children and adolescents at gender clinics are six to 15 times more likely than other young people to have ASD.

* * *

Transgender history: Ancient History (Wikipedia)

Transgender History: Trans Expression in Ancient Times
by Mercedes Allen

52 Queer Gods Who Ruled Ancient History
by Jacob Ogles

Ancient Civilization in Iran Recognized Transgender People 3,000 Years Ago, Study Suggests
by Ariel David

A Womb by Magic – Transcending Gender, Transcending Realities
by Maria Kvilhaug

A Brief Biography of Elagabalus: the transgender ruler of Rome
by Alexis Mijatovic

A trans soldier in the ancient Roman army?
by Tom Sapsford

Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?
by Gabrielle Bychowski

Intersex in the Middle Ages
by Sandra Alvarez

Impossible Hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620–1960
by Elizabeth Reis

Transgender Acceptance in Indigenous Cultures Worldwide

A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures (PBS)

A Third Gender Identity Has Existed for Centuries
by Katie Moritz

The Third Gender in Native American Tribes (UCSB SexInfo)

A Third Gender Among Indigenous Peoples
by Doug George-Kanentiio

Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders
by Duane Brayboy

The ‘two-spirit’ people of indigenous North Americans
by Walter L. Williams

Native American tribes recognized a gender separate from male and female it was called – “Two-Spirits”. They weren’t seen as homosexual among their tribe
by Goran Blazeski

The Disappearance of the Two-Spirit Traditions in Canada
by Hamish Copley

Gender roles among the indigenous peoples of North America (Wikipedia)

Two-spirit (Wikipedia)

Koekchuch (Wikipedia)

Māhū (Wikipedia)

Mapuche (Wikipedia)

Muxe (Wikipedia)

Osh-Tisch (Wikipedia)

Hombres Mujeres: An Indigenous Third Gender
by Alfredo Mirandé

Colombia’s indigenous transgender women live freer lives working on coffee farms
by Kenneth Dickerman

The transcendent bissu
by Sharyn Graham Davies

A Brief History Of Hijra, India’s Third Gender
by Sridevi Nambiar

Why terms like ‘transgender’ don’t work for India’s ‘third-gender’ communities
by Max Bearak

The Splendor of Gender Non-Conformity In Africa
by Shanna Collins

Unspoken facts: a history of homosexualities in Africa
by Keletso Makofane

Social Construction & Ideological Abstraction

The following passages from two books help to explain what is social construction. As society has headed in a particular direction of development, abstract thought has become increasingly dominant.

But for us modern people who take abstractions for granted, we often don’t even recognize abstractions for what they are. Many abstractions simply become reality as we know it. They are ‘looped’ into existence, as race realism, capitalist realism, etc.

Ideological abstractions become so pervasive and systemic that we lose the capacity to think outside of them. They form our reality tunnel.

This wasn’t always so. Humans used to conceive of and hence perceive the world far differently. And this shaped their sense of identity, which is hard for us to imagine.

* * *

Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity:
A Unified Approach

by Elisa J. Sobo
Kindle Locations 94-104)

Until now, many biocultural anthropologists have focused mainly on the ‘bio’ half of the equation, using ‘biocultural’ generically, like biology, to refer to genetic, anatomical, physiological, and related features of the human body that vary across cultural groups. The number of scholars with a more sophisticated approach is on the upswing, but they often write only for super-educated expert audiences. Accordingly, although introductory biocultural anthropology texts make some attempt to acknowledge the role of culture, most still treat culture as an external variable— as an add-on to an essentially biological system. Most fail to present a model of biocultural diversity that gives adequate weight to the cultural side of things.

Note that I said most, not all: happily, things are changing. A movement is afoot to take anthropology’s claim of holism more seriously by doing more to connect— or reconnect— perspectives from both sides of the fence. Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world. Today, the leading edge of science recognizes the links and interdependencies that such thinking keeps falsely hidden.

Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference:
Race in Early Modern Philosophy
by Justin E. H. Smith

pp. 9-10

The connection to the problem of race should be obvious: kinds of people are to no small extent administered into being, brought into existence through record keeping, census taking, and, indeed, bills of sale. A census form asks whether a citizen is “white,” and the possibility of answering this question affirmatively helps to bring into being a subkind of the human species that is by no means simply there and given, ready to be picked out, prior to the emergence of social practices such as the census. Censuses, in part, bring white people into existence, but once they are in existence they easily come to appear as if they had been there all along. This is in part what Hacking means by “looping”: human kinds, in contrast with properly natural kinds such as helium or water, come to be what they are in large part as a result of the human act of identifying them as this or that. Two millennia ago no one thought of themselves as neurotic, or straight, or white, and nothing has changed in human biology in the meantime that could explain how these categories came into being on their own. This is not to say that no one is melancholic, neurotic, straight, white, and so on, but only that how that person got to be that way cannot be accounted for in the same way as, say, how birds evolved the ability to fly, or how iron oxidizes.

In some cases, such as the diagnosis of mental illness, kinds of people are looped into existence out of a desire, successful or not, to help them. Racial categories seem to have been looped into existence, by contrast, for the facilitation of the systematic exploitation of certain groups of people by others. Again, the categories facilitate the exploitation in large part because of the way moral status flows from legal status. Why can the one man be enslaved, and the other not? Because the one belongs to the natural-seeming kind of people that is suitable for enslavement. This reasoning is tautological from the outside, yet self-evident from within. Edward Long, as we have seen, provides a vivid illustration of it in his defense of plantation labor in Jamaica. But again, categories cannot be made to stick on the slightest whim of their would-be coiner. They must build upon habits of thinking that are already somewhat in place. And this is where the history of natural science becomes crucial for understanding the history of modern racial thinking, for the latter built directly upon innovations in the former. Modern racial thinking could not have taken the form it did if it had not been able to piggyback, so to speak, on conceptual innovations in the way science was beginning to approach the diversity of the natural world, and in particular of the living world.

This much ought to be obvious: racial thinking could not have been biologized if there were no emerging science of biology. It may be worthwhile to dwell on this obvious point, however, and to see what more unexpected insights might be drawn out of it. What might not be so obvious, or what seems to be ever in need of renewed pointing out, is a point that ought to be of importance for our understanding of the differing, yet ideally parallel, scope and aims of the natural and social sciences: the emergence of racial categories, of categories of kinds of humans, may in large part be understood as an overextension of the project of biological classification that was proving so successful in the same period. We might go further, and suggest that all of the subsequent kinds of people that would emerge over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the kinds of central interest to Foucault and Hacking, amount to a further reaching still, an unprecedented, peculiarly modern ambition to make sense of the slightest variations within the human species as if these were themselves species differentia. Thus for example Foucault’s well-known argument that until the nineteenth century there was no such thing as “the homosexual,” but only people whose desires could impel them to do various things at various times. But the last two centuries have witnessed a proliferation of purportedly natural kinds of humans, a typology of “extroverts,” “depressives,” and so on, whose objects are generally spoken of as if on an ontological par with elephants and slime molds. Things were not always this way. In fact, as we will see, they were not yet this way throughout much of the early part of the period we call “modern.”

Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs

A less typical angle on race and racism is to look to the ancient world. Some early texts and other evidence can be used to this end. But these sources are sparse and the authors weren’t representative of the average person.

Plus, we end up projecting onto the past. That is how the early ideas of race developed, as those thinkers themselves looked to ancient texts. Scholars agree that modern notions of scientific racism didn’t exist in the ancient world. Still, it is normal in all periods for others to be perceived according to differences, although similarities are often emphasized.

It can be problematic to call this proto-racism, though. That is anachronistic. There is no proto-racism. There is just racism, which itself is inseparable from the rise of scientific thinking. It’s like calling the earliest Egyptian Empire proto-modern because it was an early example of what modernity would build upon millennia later. Or it’s like calling the Roman Empire proto-industrialization because they were an industrious people who liked to build infrastructure that helped their economy to develop.

Racism is a word with a ton of baggage to it. That baggage didn’t exist in the ancient world. Their entire way of looking at the world and identifying themselves is alien to us. This is something I don’t think many modern people appreciate, scholars included. Go far back enough in time and you’re in not just a foreign world but a foreign reality. It’s hard to enter a mindset so different from ours or even to imagine what that mindset might have been going by such limited evidence.

As an example, ancient people had a different sense of ethnicity, culture, language, and religion. These things didn’t exist to them. There was simply the world they knew. It also seems there was much fluidity in those societies. We can see that from how much people borrowed ideas and traditions from one another, and were regularly creating new syncretistic cultures and social systems.

The Greeks weren’t a single people. It took centuries for a collective identity to form through trade and travel. Greek culture became so influential that colonized people and even foreign empires adopted Greek mythology as their own origins. It was irrelevant whether or not people shared ancestry or necessarily looked like one another. A mythological system like that of the Greeks allowed for a fair amount of broad inclusion.

The same pattern was seen with the Celts. Like the Greeks, they had formed a large, influential trading society. It spread their Celtic culture, including religion and language, to other populations. The Irish weren’t Celtic when they took on Celtic culture.

To be Greek or Celtic was a specific worldview, not a race. It’s like calling oneself an American, an identity that contains diversity and means many things to many people. Yet Greeks and Celts, like other cultural groups, were perceived in terms of physical features. Romans saw as significant that Celts had blue skin. Were Celts born as a blue-skinned race. No, they dyed their skin blue. That is what Romans saw on the battlefield, a bunch of naked men who were blue all over.

Other cultures dyed their skin or hair various colors or else permanently modified their bodies in other ways: scarifying, tattoos, extending earlobes and lips, etc. Plus, each culture had a different way of doing their hair along with having different clothing, jewelry, etc that they wore or else lack thereof. Even two genetically near identical groups could appear as absolutely different in physical appearance, not to mention other aspects of culture, religion, language, and social behavior.

To ancient Romans or Greeks, the blue-skinned Celts were more foreign than darker-skinned Egyptians or even more foreign. Some Romans did speculate on such physical differences, but not more than they speculated about all of the thousands of other differences (and similarities) between various cultures. Besides, a barbarian was someone who spoke a different language, specifically a language that wasn’t Greek or Latin (or else spoke accented, provincial Greek or Latin), no matter their physical appearance. And a foreigner was simply anyone who was outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s home and homeland. Ancients perceived certain groups as ‘other’, but race as we know it wasn’t a mental category they had to place people in.

Sure, white and black were colors with great symbolic value in the ancient world, often indicating moral and aesthetic value. It’s just not clear how that applied to people. Ancients unlikely portrayed all darker-skinned people as ‘black’, considering that darker-skinned people are actually varying shades of brown. The Roman Empire, in particular, was a cosmopolitan society including many Africans who weren’t just slaves but also gladiators, charioteers, soldiers, entertainers, philosophers, theologians, priests, and even numerous popes and emperors—diversity was found both in Rome and at the frontier and this diversity led to intermixing, through culture and marriage. Also, I doubt various swarthy Mediterranean peoples looked to the Irish and Scandinavians as being superior because of their lighter skin, no matter what was their view of the symbolic value of light and dark.

Besides, we’re not entirely sure the skin color and tone of various ancient populations, as much population mixing has occurred over the millennia. For example, the early Jews probably were darker-skinned before outbreeding with Europeans and Arabs (Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews that never left). Or consider how those early Jews perceived the Samaritans as a separate people, even though they shared the same holy texts. The ancients had plenty of prejudices, just not our modern prejudices. There is much debate about when and how long it took those modern prejudices to develop, but they certainly didn’t exist in classical antiquity.

Lets just be clear that skin color was no more defining of otherness than anything else, although in any given context in a particular text a particular defining feature would be emphasized. Sure, someone could look for all the examples of ancient people focusing one thing while ignoring all of the many more examples when ancient people focused on other things (and many have done this). But how would that offer any insight into anything beyond the biases of the person looking for examples to fit a preconceived ideological worldview?

Worse still, talking about proto-racism gives an air of inevitability to racism. How could proto-racism become anything other than racism? The theory of social construction offers an alternative perspective—as stated in a review of Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?: “Hacking provides an interesting perspective on this whole trend by de-emphasizing the social aspect and focusing on the construction aspect. He views this simply as a way of arguing against the inevitability of something.”

Maybe the precursors to racism could be interpreted differently. And maybe their subsequent development is much more historically contingent than many assume, which is to say maybe there are many pathways that might not have led to racism as we know it or anything like it. What happened isn’t what necessarily had to happen.

Seeing the past with fresh eyes is difficult, as the main evidence we have are texts, what people wanted to be remembered and how they wanted it to be remembered. The texts that survived were either written by or favored by a long lineage of victors that shaped what civilization would become. And traditions of interpreting those texts have also been passed down by the victors. To impose one’s ideological views, racial or otherwise, onto others is the ultimate privilege for who controls the stories a society tells controls that society.

Consider a specific piece of evidence. In Airs, Waters, Places, Hippocrates of Kos has a passage that indicates a worldview of environmental determinism. Some modern scholars have interpreted this as proto-racism.

The problem with this is that environmental determinism is often used as evidence against modern race-based explanations of human differences. What Hippocrates argues is that people are the way they are because of the environments they live in, but that leaves much left to explain. He never claims that people have inherent traits outside of an environment, that people can’t change by changing environment. That is significant for in the ancient world, entire populations were known to migrate to new environments. This point is emphasized by how, during the colonial era, Europeans began to worry that their unique identity or superior character could be lost by spending too much time in native environments. Also, Hippocrates seems to argue, using Greeks as an example, that people in other environments can sometimes take the best traits from nearby environments while making them their own and so not be trapped by environmental determinism of their own narrow environmental niche.

By the way, the majority of the Greek population were slaves and the majority of slaves were ethnic Greeks. When Greek thinkers sought to justify slavery, they sometimes argued about physical differences. These perceived differences, however, weren’t skin color. Instead, the slave was different, even more animal-like, because he stooped over or something like that. It’s not as if supposedly stooped over people represented a separate race. Greek society was rare in having so many slaves, possibly the earliest example. The reason there were so many slaves is because Greeks were constantly fighting each other and they chose to enslave rather than kill the defeated people. Africans and other non-Greeks were rare slaves among Greeks and they were highly prized as more valuable than the ethnic Greek slave.

The negative connotation was in being enslaved, not in being a particular ethnicity or race. This is why group identity was so often based on kinship, more than even ethnicity. What differentiated the enslaved ethnic Greek and the free ethnic Greek is that they didn’t tend to intermarry, unless a slave gained freedom or a free person lost it, which wasn’t uncommon but even then a former slave wouldn’t likely marry far above their own class. Kinship identity in such a society was to some extent class identity (and that remained dominant until the end of feudalism and persists to this day with the aristocracy in Britain), although most importantly kinship was about familial descent. It required later multicultural colonial empires for larger group identities to form, but the fluidity of ancient ethnic/cultural/mythological origins demonstrates an early form of larger identity (specifically in how origin stories were more mythological than biological). It’s hard to make clear conclusions with confidence, as much vagueness exists in ancient texts.

Even if we wanted to accept that proto-racism is a valid theory, how is environmental determinism (or whatever other similar theory) clearly, necessarily, and inevitably proto-racism? Others have noted this is extremely weak evidence being used in a biased manner. We are in severely problematic territory. Race has been shown to be scientifically meaningless, as the genetic difference between humans is smaller than found in most similar species and certainly couldn’t justify the classification of racial sub-species. Trying to interpret the past according to a proto-racism lens based on modern racialist thought is asking for endless confusion and hence false conclusions.

There is already enough confusion in the world. This confusion is even found among highly intelligent and well informed people. This was demonstrated to me recently when talking to a guy I’ve known for many years. He is a left-winger in the Marxist tradition, although when he was younger he was a right-winger, maybe a libertarian or something like that.

I’ve talked to him many times over the years about race and racism. He is well versed in views such as race being a social construct. In talking to him not too long ago, he kept repeating that he didn’t think race as social construct meant what liberals think it means. I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at. He knows me fairly well and so knows that I’m not a typical liberal. He also should know that liberalism is a wide category, including much disagreement, as I’ve often explained this to him. Who are these ‘liberals’ he speaks of? And what does he think they think? I don’t know.

As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t seem like anyone really knows what it means to say race is a social construct. The one thing that is clear is that ideas are powerful in the human mind, in shaping imagination and perception. Talking about this, we are going deep into the muddy waters of the psyche. The confusion that exists goes far beyond a single ideological group such as liberals.

I didn’t think too much about this at first. I figured maybe he meant that people weren’t thinking carefully enough. I’d agree with that much, if that is what he was trying to communicate. Then he said something that caught me off guard. What he said was basically this: That Africans look all the same. Or at least look more the same than Europeans. Of course, he used scientific terminology to make this statement. But the basic message was too close to bigotry for my taste. I was surprised to hear him say it.

Ignoring the racist connotations, it simply makes no sense scientifically. Africa has the most human genetic diversity in the world, moreso than all the rest of the world combined. I told this guy that I doubt Africans would agree with him about his assessment. He tried to defend himself by saying he visited Africa, as if a visit to Africa would even begin to touch upon the vast number of distinct populations across a vast continent, second only to Asia in size of landmass.

This racist/racialist/race-realist viewpoint is even more meaningless in the larger historical context. In the ancient world, all Mediterranean people had more genetically and culturally in common with each other than they did with the other societies far away on the the respective continents. For example, some Greeks looked to the Egyptians as their cultural forefathers, as the source of great art and high culture. A number of great thinkers in the supposed ‘Western’ tradition didn’t even come from Europe, such as Augustine who was an African (even some ‘Greek’ philosophers weren’t born and raised in Greece: Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, etc). Millennia of Mediterranean trade had not only spread culture but also genetics. The genetic aspect can still be seen today, as certain Southern European populations and certain Northern African populations remain linked by common genetics.

The statement about all Africans looking the same (or more simiar than other found on other continents) in order to justify racial ideology could, at best, be called lazy thinking. The guy who made this statment is normally a more careful thinker. And he wouldn’t accept that kind of simplistic comment from someone else. That is the problem with ‘race’ as an ideological lens. By design, it adds confusion to the thought process. That is its purpose, to obscure details and pulverize them into a mass of generalizations.

Having been raised in a society where racial ideology is ubiquitous, such a social construct gets embedded deeply in our minds. Trying to free ourselves of such maladaptive thinking is like trying to remove a barbed hook out of your chest. This is one of the most powerful memes ever released into the world. It messes with your head in a way few things can. It’s a mind virus of plague proportions, easy to be infected and yet no known cure.

It’s hard for us to imagine a society that might have operated with entirely different social constructs based on entirely different worldviews and cultures. This is why the ancient world ends up being a foreign land. Go back far enough and societies begin to seem incomprehensibly alien to us. And this can be disconcerting. It’s more comforting to get the past to fit the present.

I would point out that we don’t even have to look to the ancient world to see how much the world has changed over time. The word race was originally used to refer to such things as breeds of cattle. It came to be associated with socioeconomic class in the feudal social order. Peasants were considered a separate ‘race’ from the aristocrats and monarchs. As others have pointed out, “in early modern discourse, the concept of race was primarily linked with notions of bloodline, lineage, and genealogy rather than with skin colour and ethnicity.”

It’s not just that broad groups were seen as different: Europeans vs Africans, Eastern Europeans vs Western Europeans, Germans vs French, Britains vs Mainland Europeans, English vs Irish, etc. Originally, race was seen as distinctions within a single society or some other defined population area, which is to say there wasn’t even an English race, much less a white race (such thinking persisted into modernity, such as how Antebellum American whites in the North and South talked about one another as if they were separate races, Roundheads and Cavaliers). If notions of race itself were so drastically different in the recent past, imagine how different was thinking millennia before race was even an idea.

It wasn’t until the era of colonial imperialism in Europe that Europeans even began to think of themselves as Europeans. This is because of their encounter with American Indians who were more different than any societies they had ever before seen. Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Africans had been interacting with and influencing each other for Millennia by that point. However, American Indians were foreign and strange beyond all imagination, and this required new ideological thinking.

If (proto-)racism existed in the ancient world, how would we recognize it without any word for and concept of ‘race’? Early texts show evidence of prejudice and othering. I get that some elite thinkers among an ethnic group like Athenians considered themselves as part of a distinct people, but that was such a small population that shared physical appearance, culture, religion, and language with neighboring Greeks. How could a tiny population be considered a race in any meaningful sense? Speculating on such meager and unclear evidence seems pointless.

Anyway, this isn’t ultimately and solely about race. Many scholars have questioned the application of a number of modern concepts to the ancient world, from the idea of a distinct thing called ‘religion’ to the experience of ‘individuality’ that we presently take for granted. The point being is that the ancient world isn’t merely the modern world in less developed form. The ancient world must be taken on its own terms. We must study those temporally distant societies as an anthropologist observes a newly discovered tribe.

It’s not only that our understanding of the present is projected onto the past. Also, how we interpret the past determines how we will see the present. More importantly, how we imagine the past, accurate or not, constrains the kind of future we are able to envision. And never doubt that imagination fueled by ideas is the most powerful force of humanity.

Anyone who claims to have all of this figured out is either lying or deceiving themselves. I could read something tomorrow that might change my entire understanding of social identities in the ancient world and how they relate to the modern world. Even the scholars in the the related fields disagree immensely.

One thing does seem clear to me, though. In the ancient world, all aspects of culture were central in differentiating people. That is unlike the modern world where race often trumps culture. It would have been incomprehensibly bizarre to the ancients that geographically distant and ethnically/nationally diverse peoples with different languages, religions, and customs would be considered as having a common social identity because of being categorized within an arbitrarily defined range of skin color and tone.

* * *

Nina Jablonski, Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color
reviewed by Josh Trapani

The Color of Sin / The Color of Skin:
Ancient Color Blindness and
the Philosophical Origins of Modern Racism
by Nicholas F. Gier

The central question: what was Hellenization
by Monte Polizzo Project

Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture
by Jonathan M. Hall

Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity
by Jonathan M. Hall

Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity 
by Irad Malkin (Editor)

Lee E. Patterson, Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece
reviewed by Naoíse Mac Sweeney

Denise Demetriou, Negotiating Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean: The Archaic and Classical Greek Multiethnic Emporia
reviewed by Meritxell Ferrer-Martín and reviewed by Álvaro Ibarra

Greeks, Persians, and Perseus: Oh, My!
Herodotus and the Genealogy of War
by Carly Silver

Herodotus’ Conception Of Foreign Languages
by Thomas Harrison

Race and Culture in Hannibal’s Army
by Erik Jensen

Us vs. Them: Good News From the Ancients!
by Carlin Romano

Understanding The ‘Other’ In An East Greek Context
by J.D.C. McCallum

Philosophy and the Foreigner in Plato’s Dialogues
by Rebecca LeMoine

Roman Perceptions Of Blacks
by Lloyd Thompson

Egypt In Roman Imperial Literature:
Tacitus’ Ann. 2.59-61
by Lina Girdvainytė

Papyrology, Gender, and Diversity: A Natural ménage à trios
by M. G. Parca

The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present
by Siân Jones

Alterity in Late Antiquity: Disrupting Binaries
by Susanna Drake

The Origins of Foreigners
by Emily Wilson

Erich S. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity
by Michael Broder

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, by Erich S. Gruen (Book Review)
by Craige Champion

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)
by Jona Lendering and Bill Thayer

Reading Rabbinic Literature: It’s Not All Black and White
(A Response to Jonathan Schorsch)
by David M. Goldenberg

Jew or Judaean?
by Michael L. Sa

The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties
by Shaye J. D. Cohen

 

Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds

In thinking about race as an idea, I’m reminded of an anecdote Harlan Ellison shared in his introduction to Strange Wine. The incident was told to him by Dan Blocker, one of the stars of Bonanza who played the character of Hoss Cartwright.

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

For more than a half century now, scientists have known that race is not biologically real and that, therefore, it is not a valid scientific concept. It is, as many refer to it, a social construction. This was well known enough for Martin Luther King, Jr. to talk about it in his 1963 book, The Strength to Love (as quoted here):

“So men conveniently twisted the insights of religion, science, and philosophy to give sanction to the doctrine of white supremacy…they will even argue that God was the first segregationist. ‘Red birds and blue birds don’t fly together,’ they contend…they turn to some pseudo-scientific writing and argue that the Negro’s brain is smaller than the white man’s brain. They do not know, or they refuse to know, that the idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits agree that although there may be inferior and superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. And segregationists refuse to acknowledge that there are four types of blood, and these four types are found within every racial group.”

It is unsurprising that the allegation of racism is denied even by racists and those who express racial prejudice and bias. Few bigots remain who openly advocate racism in stark terms. Racism is rightly considered politically incorrect, as it is morally wrong and socially unjust.

Still, that doesn’t mean we are colorblind citizens of a post-racial society. Racism is obviously far from dead. It is alive and well, in various forms, psychological and structural. Some wold argue that, in certain ways, it is stronger than ever at the systemic level. It has been driven deeper where it is harder to see, to point to, and to root out. It has become so pervasive that it is like the air we breathe.

As studies have shown, pretty much everyone possesses racial prejudice and bias. It is mostly deep in our minds at an unconscious level. We aren’t intentionally bigoted. When a cop shoots an unarmed black guy, it is most likely that the cop genuinely thought he saw a gun because the stereotype of the black guy in his mind unconsciously tells him that black guys carry guns, even though the data shows that whites are more likely to carry guns, including illegal guns.

This implicit racism isn’t rational. We can understand many things at an intellectual level of our conscious minds, but this is a superficial level of how our brains operate. Even black people end up internalizing this racism. The entire system is racist. We live in a racialized social order that makes it impossible for us to see outside of race. Everything gets filtered through and conflated with race. The racial narrative dominates our minds, our relationships, and every aspect of our lives.

If you talk to the average anti-racist activist, they will tell you that race is not real, that it is just an idea. Yet they put everything into the frame of race, as if it were the most real thing in the world. Their way of speaking demonstrates that they really do believe race is real, at some level of their mind.

The problem is, in our society, we don’t fully appreciate the power of ideas and the language that represents them. The reality of race is built into the language of race itself. Similarly, racism is also inseparable from the concept and language of race. Using the language reifies the social construction which, even if unintentionally, promotes the racial order.

As such, even mainstream anti-racist activism is tied up with the very problem it seeks to resolve. Identity politics, in particular, is dependent on the racial order for that is the basis of racial identities. Many activists don’t fundamentally believe racism and the racial order can end. They just hope to rearrange the social order in favor of their preferred group and so shift the balance of power. These people, for all their fighting against the oppressive racial order in the world, are unable to fight the oppressive racial order entrenched in their own minds.

I want to emphasize the point that most of this is not conscious. This isn’t how most people explicitly think and talk about race. The idea of race not being real is so radically challenging that it is difficult to make sense of, to process and assimilate into one’s being. Everything about our society tells us that race is real. The racial order dominates and determines all aspects of our experience, of our lives. How can race not be real when we see it everywhere? Politicians, the media, and activists obsess about race. The framing of race is repeated endlessly. We never get a moment free from the prison of racial ideology that traps our minds, constrains our thought and awareness. Race is a mind virus and we are all infected.

This is how people can simultaneously know and not know race is not real. This is why racism persists. This is why activism fails, again and again. To change the ideas at the heart of our society will take generations or even centuries. As Martin Luther King Jr. understood, this will be a long struggle to be fought with persistence and determination, with faith and hope.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The change being sought isn’t just about a system of power. It is more fundamentally change to a system of thought, an ideological reality tunnel. To push for change at the level of our minds and of our being is the most radical act of all. It is revolution of the human soul.

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.