Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth

Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth

by Ian Tattersall, Rob DeSalle
     
 

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Race has provided the rationale and excuse for some of the worst atrocities in human history. Yet, according to many biologists, physical anthropologists, and geneticists, there is no valid scientific justification for the concept of race.
To be more precise, although there is clearly some physical basis for the variations that underlie perceptions of race, clear… See more details below

Overview

Race has provided the rationale and excuse for some of the worst atrocities in human history. Yet, according to many biologists, physical anthropologists, and geneticists, there is no valid scientific justification for the concept of race.
To be more precise, although there is clearly some physical basis for the variations that underlie perceptions of race, clear boundaries among “races” remain highly elusive from a purely biological standpoint. Differences among human populations that people intuitively view as “racial” are not only superficial but are also of astonishingly recent origin.
In this intriguing and highly accessible book, physical anthropologist Ian Tattersall and geneticist Rob DeSalle, both senior scholars from the American Museum of Natural History, explain what human races actually are—and are not—and place them within the wider perspective of natural diversity. They explain that the relative isolation of local populations of the newly evolved human species during the last Ice Age—when Homo sapiens was spreading across the world from an African point of origin—has now begun to reverse itself, as differentiated human populations come back into contact and interbreed. Indeed, the authors suggest that all of the variety seen outside of Africa seems to have both accumulated and started reintegrating within only the last 50,000 or 60,000 years—the blink of an eye, from an evolutionary perspective.
The overarching message of Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth is that scientifically speaking, there is nothing special about racial variation within the human species. These distinctions result from the working of entirely mundane evolutionary processes, such as those encountered in other organisms. 

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Editorial Reviews

Birdbooker Report 195

"If you think you understand what 'race' is, read this book!"--Ian Paulsen, Birdbooker Report, The Guardian

— Ian Paulsen

American Scientist

"Tattersall and DeSalle argue that not only are the differences between the classically defined "races" very superficial, they are also of suprisingly recent origin...The diversity among us has risen in a blink of evolution's eye...began to reverse as formerly isolated human groups came back into contact and interbred...Tattersall and DeSalle confront those industries head on and in no uncertain terms, arguing that "race-based medicene" and "race-based genomics" are deeply flawed."--Jan Sapp, professor in the biology department at York University in Toronto, American Scientist

— Jan Sapp

Choice

"This well-written, enjoyable book should be suitable for a broad range of readers interested in human diversity, its origins, and its future."--S.D. Stout, Choice

— S.D Stout, Ohio State University

Expedition

"Race? is an accessible primer on much of the biological theory relevant to the question of race...this book appeals to both general readers and students of biology, anthropology, and the history and philosophy of science as a valuable, if incomplete, overview of the topic's major themes."--Paul Mitchell, Expedition

— Paul Mitchell

Jon Marks

"In the footsteps of Haddon and Huxley, a prominent anthropologist and a prominent evolutionary geneticist have teamed up to give us a powerful scientific critique of the commonsensical idea of race. Distinguished scholars and skilled communicators, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle show clearly how “race” simply cannot be used as a synonym for “human biological diversity”. In the age of genomics, this partnership of intellectual specialties is particularly valuable, and the result is a splendid testament to the merits of trans-disciplinary collaborations."--Jon Marks, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

Birdbooker Report 195 - Ian Paulsen

"If you think you understand what 'race' is, read this book!"--Ian Paulsen, Birdbooker Report, The Guardian

American Scientist - Jan Sapp

"Tattersall and DeSalle argue that not only are the differences between the classically defined "races" very superficial, they are also of suprisingly recent origin...The diversity among us has risen in a blink of evolution's eye...began to reverse as formerly isolated human groups came back into contact and interbred...Tattersall and DeSalle confront those industries head on and in no uncertain terms, arguing that "race-based medicene" and "race-based genomics" are deeply flawed."--Jan Sapp, professor in the biology department at York University in Toronto, American Scientist

Choice - S.D Stout

"This well-written, enjoyable book should be suitable for a broad range of readers interested in human diversity, its origins, and its future."--S.D. Stout, Choice

Expedition - Paul Mitchell

"Race? is an accessible primer on much of the biological theory relevant to the question of race...this book appeals to both general readers and students of biology, anthropology, and the history and philosophy of science as a valuable, if incomplete, overview of the topic's major themes."--Paul Mitchell, Expedition
International Social Science Review - Dr. Okori Uneke

"In Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth, they [the authors] dismantle the biological notion of race...the authors argue that a valid justification for the concept of race does not exist...that all the variations we characterize as 'racial' accumulated over a relatively short time span...an informative, well-researched, and well-written contribution to the scientific, intellectual (and even mundane) discourse on the lingering problem of race."--Okori Uneke, International Social Science Review
Quarterly Review of Biology

"This is a helpful book for anyone who wants a short, accurate and scholarly appraisal of race as a concept . . . Students in both anthropology and human genetic courses will benefit from the discussions this book will provide."--Quarterly Review of Biology
Victorian Studies

“Tattersall and DeSalle expertly and clearly summarize the scientific findings that provide the best evidence about the insignificance of race. They also survey, usefully and succinctly, the history of ideas about race from the Enlightenment through the genome project. Summarizing current biological and archaeological work, Tattersall and DeSalle note that all humans have a genetic make-up nearly 100 percent African in Origin.” — Victorian Studies

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781603444774
Publisher:
Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
09/01/2011
Series:
Texas A&M University Anthropology Series , #15
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
1,003,699
File size:
1 MB

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Race?

Debunking a Scientific Myth


By Ian Tattersall, Rob DeSalle

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2011 Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-477-4



CHAPTER 1

RACE IN WESTERN SCIENTIFIC HISTORY


AS A CULTURAL, historical, and political phenomenon, race still permeates modern society in a way that nothing else does. The issues it raises are complex, and, to make the situation more difficult, they are deeply embedded in the often opaque human psyche. For scholars this makes the intricate linkages between the varied aspects of the race question extremely difficult to disentangle, just as in individual minds it is hard to disengage the intellectual from the emotional components of the issue. In a species as cognitively complicated as ours, things could hardly be otherwise. Still, we do believe that the social conversation would be vastly simplified—and improved—by subtracting many if not most aspects of biology from it. The reasons for this belief are numerous, as we will see, but one place to start making the point is that the historical record of "science" in this arena has been very far from stellar. As only the most obvious example, notions propounded by scientists about the innate biological "inferiority" or "superiority" of particular races have underwritten some of the most atrocious socioeconomic policies of the past two or three centuries—without actually possessing any underpinnings in objective science.

Sadly, though, with a few notable exceptions, scientists over the years have done little to counter the notion that race in the larger sense and biology are inextricably entangled, and some have actually fanned the flames. As a result, there is still a huge amount of misunderstanding about what "race" really is in biological terms, and its intrinsic importance and functional significance to larger society have consequently been enormously overestimated. We have written this book because we see an urgent need to put "race" into appropriate perspective and to look at just what science can and cannot usefully say about this sociologically and historically important issue. Our conclusions will be very simple; indeed, many will find them anticlimactic. First, we will point out that, as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, race is a pretty routine matter: so unremarkable, indeed, as to require no special explanation from biologists. Second, we strongly believe that emphasizing this simple reality is the single most important contribution that scientists can make in the arena of race. Indeed, it may be the only one that, as dispassionate observers, they can really helpfully make on the subject.

Human populations undeniably differ in various visible characteristics. Biology has shown such variation to be typically trivial (in biological terms, selectively neutral), and always epiphenomenal; yet it is equally true that hideous historical excesses have been committed in the name of the differences perceived. Given this unfortunate combination of realities, it appears imperative to many people that science and scientists both cannot, and should not, stand apart from the larger social debates about race, especially where inequity is implicated. But at the same time it must be recognized that the record of science as an arbiter of social policies is hardly a distinguished one, and it is equally true that, merely to preserve its unique identity, science is obliged to maintain a distance from the sociopolitical arena. Mixing science with politics has all too often resulted in such destructive distortions as the imposition of Lysenkoism upon the nascent science of genetics in interwar Russia, or of Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene) on German and other European societies in the 1930s and 1940s. Science can, of course, often provide information that is useful to society in making decisions about what is moral or desirable (or not). But it cannot itself make those decisions. So, while it seems self-evident to many that science should be socially engaged and ought to be placed specifically in the service of what in the light of scientific or other knowledge seems right, it's just not that simple. Science has been hugely abused in the past in the name of sociopolitical agendas, and if scientists are going to have any sociopolitical agenda at all, it is surely to prevent this from happening again.

History, then, suggests that beyond the flow of essential information from science to society, extreme caution is in order. For scientific knowledge is truly different from any other way of knowing, most importantly in being inherently provisional. Scientists are not seeking enduring truths; they are simply edging in upon a fuller and more accurate description of the world around them, by proposing testable new ideas about it and discarding those that are shown to be wrong. Composed as it is of falsifiable bricks, the scientific edifice will never be completed; indeed, even its very foundations are theoretically at risk from advances in testable knowledge. In stark contrast, moral and ethical judgments are at least in principle absolutes—even though our views of what is just and right may change. And in many ways politics exists either to exploit or to implement the imperatives that emerge from those absolutes.

We have said that our main aim here is to point out the limits of what biology can say about race. And the implication is, of course, that the rest is up to the social scientists, philosophers, and politicians. This we truly believe. But some historical background to the issue of race and science nonetheless seems necessary, if only because scientists have historically been so ready to exceed their remit and to pontificate on aspects of race that carry strong political and historical and social implications. This is why we're starting off this book with a chapter on the history of race in western thought, the intellectual tradition from which modern science emerged. We don't claim that this chapter provides anything new, either in fact or in conceptual framework, and we have certainly not tried to be comprehensive, even within the Western canon. The subject is far too vast. We also recognize that, viewed from other perspectives, the sociopolitical implications of this history may well appear significantly different than they do from within science. But this book is written for an audience that is, for better or for worse, deeply influenced by the Western tradition that gave birth to modern science, and we think it important to sketch here the main lines of developing thought about race in the western world—as a way of explaining the devious path by which biology has reached both its modern perspectives and its current predicament.


EARLY INTIMATIONS OF HUMAN DIVERSITY

We human beings are many things. But one attribute we all seem to have in common is an urge to classify everything around us. That's the way our brains work, and it is not coincidentally the way we communicate, too, naming and thus in some sense pigeonholing virtually everything that can be objectified in any way. After all, this is something we have to do if we want to talk or even to think about those things. So it's not surprising that we are instantly ready to classify and categorize each other as well. We are exquisitely sensitive to the variations we perceive among the people around us, whether in dress, class, economic status, appearance, accent, or language, and we respond to these variations by an instinctive categorization: He is dressed like a banker; she is speaking German; someone else looks Asian.

Imagine yourself, then, in Europe as it slowly emerged from the Middle Ages. Nothing could have been further removed from life in today's great cities, where the streets teem with an almost unimaginable diversity of people. As the Age of Reason dawned, most Europeans' life horizons still hovered within a few miles of where they were born, and almost everybody with whom an individual might have interacted on a daily basis was a family member, a neighbor, or at most from the next village or town. Societies were small and homogeneous; and even in great capital cities such as Paris or London, small towns by modern standards, the occasional foreigner was most likely a European member of a tiny international noble or royal class or maybe a prosperous merchant. The key was homogeneity, and class and occupation divisions within European societies were vastly greater than the overall differences among them. Beneath their often extravagant and symbolic clothing almost everyone, even one's hated neighbor, looked basically the same. For those with access to classical literature there were, of course, ancient tales of barbaric tribes and exotic peoples, dating back as far as the days when the armies of Alexander the Great were cutting a swath into the underbelly of central Asia. And to those on the exposed eastern flank of Europe, the thirteenth-century Mongol invasions were still fresh in popular memory. But in most of Europe, where the "scientific" study of race began, such semi-mythical peoples often ranked alongside the fantastical denizens of bestiaries, with little if any relevance to daily life other than as characters in a morality tale.

What, then, were European intellectuals and others to make of the stories—and the occasional exotic individual—brought back by early explorers as the Age of Discovery began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? Our species is highly intolerant of boredom; and at a time when much public amusement in the cities was furnished by such pastimes as bear-baiting, cock-fighting, the stocks, and public executions, the occasional arrival of exotic-looking people caused huge excitement, and stereotypes rapidly emerged of the peoples at the far ends of the rapidly developing trade routes. The public lapped up such accounts as those of Antonio Pigafetta, one of the only eighteen survivors of the epic Magellan round-the-world expedition of 1519 to 1522, who claimed that a native of Tierra del Fuego at South America's southern tip was so tall that "we reached only to his waist." Later explorers over the next two centuries were more than happy to embroider on the idea of "Fuegian giants," even though the Fuegians themselves, when a group of them finally arrived in London in 1830, proved to be disappointingly modest in height.

Unlike those first Fuegians to visit England, who arrived as something in between the guests and captives of Robert Fitzroy, captain of the round-the-world voyage of the Beagle during which Charles Darwin first formulated his evolutionary ideas, the first Africans to come to England had arrived more or less as slaves. They were brought from West Africa in 1554, by the notorious Capt. John Lok, to assist in the development of the burgeoning slave trade. Actually, while they were probably slaves on the ship, they were "free" once they stepped ashore, for slavery had no statutory recognition in England, and in any event they eventually returned home, to unrecorded fates. Still, slaves or not, these were hardly the most auspicious of circumstances in which to reach a new country, and indeed, most of the early unfamiliar faces to come to Europe did so in disadvantaged conditions, as slaves or at best as curiosities.

Familiarity rapidly bred unease, perhaps even fear, and as early as 1596 and again in 1601, Queen Elizabeth I, deploring African "infidels" as freeloaders, issued orders expelling them from England. The ploy failed because not a few Africans had actually managed quite successfully to integrate themselves into English society, but clearly the expatriates had acquired an image problem in some quarters at least. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, then, social attitudes towards exotic people in the midst of European society were already showing signs of being as conflicted as they were to become in later times. As with almost all social attitudes, this was nothing new. Among other ancient societies the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians had all classified the peoples they encountered in outlying areas of their known worlds (and not a few mythical and monstrous ones as well), using much the same features as we do today, and imputing various disreputable character traits to them. In a more scientific spirit of inquiry, from the ancient Greeks onwards a tradition was established of attributing physical differences among peoples from different parts of the world to environmental influences, to different "Airs, Waters, and Places," as Hippocrates put it.


BIBLICAL INFLUENCE

The first intellectual debates in Europe over the status of exotic peoples took place in the context of Christian theology. As interpreted by the medieval Scholastics, defenders of orthodoxy, the Bible furnished the accepted account of human origins. According to the first ten chapters of Genesis, all human beings were descended from Adam and Eve, and all forms of mankind from Noah's curious variety of sons. Everyone was, as it were, in the family, albeit a family with three branches. The default position was thus the "monogenist" one: a single origin for all of humankind, diverse as it might be.

Yet by the sixteenth century this notion was beginning—very occasionally—to be questioned by heterodox thinkers. In 1520 the humanist physician Paracelsus had the temerity to suggest that people living in far-off places "did not descend from Adam." And around a century later the Italian philosopher Giulio Cesare Vanini, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, raised the possibility that humans were in some way related to or even descended from monkeys. Sadly, this suggestion got him strangled and burned at the stake, in the central square of Toulouse, by a Catholic church that was not renowned for its sense of humor. Half a century later yet, the Calvinist Isaac de la Peyrère saw not himself but his books publicly burned in Paris for suggesting, among other things, that "if Adam sinned ... there must have been an Adamic law according to which he sinned.... If law began with Adam, there must have been a lawless world before Adam, containing people." The clear implication of de la Peyrère's "Pre-Adamite" suggestion was of multiple creations, and while this heretical notion did not go down well at the time with the Catholic authorities, it sowed the seeds of energetic later debate as the monogenists took issue with the "polygenists" who favored separate origins for the races.

In all of this it has to be borne in mind that there were practical as well as theological considerations at issue for the Catholic Church. Much of the Iberian conquest of South America in the sixteenth century was carried out under the veneer of a Christianizing mission. This meant that, where they could not be hidden or denied, the horrible abuses inflicted on natives by the conquistadors had to be somehow justified. One avenue for doing this lay in the polygenist argument: if the Amerindians were a separate creation, then they had essentially the same status as beasts of burden, and no rights as human beings. To his credit, Pope Paul III took the high road on this one: in 1537 he issued a Papal Bull declaring that the Indians were "true men ... capable of receiving the Christian faith ... [who] must not be deprived of their freedom and the ownership of their property." Sadly, this did little to stop the abuses, and things got so bad that thirteen years later, the Habsburg ruler of Spain convened a conference on whether the colonization process should be continued. Clerics made impassioned arguments on both sides, and, largely due to eloquent pleading of the cause that "all men are human" by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, colonization was eventually legally suspended. The respite was, alas, temporary, as commercial and political interests reasserted themselves over moral ones.


THE ENLIGHTENMENT

On the more secular front, and further from the political fray, the intellectual landscape was rather different. As early as the late fifteenth century the first reports of Columbus (who had initially headed west in high trepidation at the thought of encountering giants and assorted monsters of the kind described by Pliny and others) had begun to usher in the idea of a sort of New World Arcadia in which people lived in harmony with Nature and without the constraints of European society; in the seventeenth century this dreamy illusion was developed by Enlightenment philosophers into the ideal of the "noble savage." This was the iconic image of pristine peoples who had existed in Europe in the remote past and who still occupied far-flung lands. They lived in harmony with nature and without need of what then passed in Europe for creature comforts. The image was a seductive one, harking back as it did to an earlier Eden for which Europeans living in the crowded, noisome cities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries yearned. In this spirit, the failure of New World peoples to invent ironworking technologies was taken less as a matter of technological inferiority than as an indication of a kind of simplicity and purity that had been lost in European society.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Race? by Ian Tattersall, Rob DeSalle. Copyright © 2011 Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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