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Racial Justice, Part 2: Race and Biology 18 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Inequality & Stratification, Philosophy & Social Theory, Race & Ethnicity.

A Jewish American couple (straight or gay, doesn't matter) adopt a baby from China. The couple name the baby Rachel, raise her in the United States, bring her up Reform Jewish in Los Angeles, bat mitz'voh her at 13; she graduates from high school and attends college at NYU. If you met her, would you think she was Chinese (or at least Asian)? Would Israeli immigration consider her Jewish? When she fills out her census form or a job application, should she check Asian American?

In traditional racist ideology, Rachel is once and for all, Chinese. She cannot escape her "true" heritage, her "bloodline," indeed her "essence." Racism claims that someone's true inner nature is visible in their physical characteristics and that human being can be ranked hierarchally (in morals, civilization, and intelligence) based on observable physical features.

And yet when examined for cultural or personal characteristics, other than a handful of physical traits—eye shape, hair color and texture, and maybe skin color, depending on her birth parents—Rachel has nothing more in common with a Chinese person than I do. This was really the watershed anti-racist argument Franz Boas made in the early 20th century (which ultimately got him kicked out of Germany), that race is merely an issue of appearance and is no more salient to culture and individual character than different hair color or body weight. Boas got the ball rolling on a massive amount of science which has been building over the past 75 years to prove that we are actually all the same species.[1]

Of course there is much complexity here, because human beings create meanings based on experience; and if you live in a culture that treats you differently based on your physicaly appearance, you will have to make adjustments—social, cultural and personal—to deal with that differential treatment. And so the cultural belief in race can actually create what I think of as racial ethnicities. America's history of racism and its institutions (especially slavery and segregration) served as a context wherein those individuals who were marked different, i.e., black, had to create cultural and social means of dealing with their inferior position. In some ways, socially, it doesn't matter that race per se isn't biological, because race is an observable social effect. In the contemporary United States, the underlying belief that physical traits matter, that they are salient for categorizing human beings, has been leading to the emergence of pan-ethnic identities, most notably Asian American, Native American, and Latino. Obviously, people within any of these three groups (let alone African American and European or Slavic American) are diverse and ultimately these categories fail; and yet again, they do function as social effects of racism. And as if that weren't complicated enough, the ethnic identities of individuals and groups within any of these categories still depend on the salience of physical characteristics, such that the very processes of claiming an ethnic identity and drawing an ethnic boundaries rely on racist assumptions.[2]

In a nut shell, if you say that Rachel is Chinese, you are accepting racist beliefs about the salience of physical characteristics to identity. Or say her parents had sent her to Chinese Camp during the summer to learn about "her true heritage," they would be accepting the racist notion that culture (heritage) flows from race (biology).[3]

On the other hand, it is obvious to any human being that we look different from each other and that, at least historically, our physical characteristics have been broadly grouped into populations. What those physical characteristics are and which ones count for grouping which groups together can get incredibly messy. We now live in a world where global migration is increasing, and when populations do not move they are still confronted with cultural (racial) differences daily through the global media, and where inter-ethnic marriages and blended cultures are increasingly common. But this is a world where racist beliefs still structure societies around the world, although each society may have a different way of enacting and organizing its racism, as it has arisen out of a different historical process. Might a return to the biological study of "race" have an anti-racist effect on a world which seems to have gone mad with ethnic conflict?

Unfortunately, the history of anthropology (and other social and biological sciences) is such that a return to biological study of race is fraught with controversy. In the early 1970s, when Eward O. Wilson suggested that animal behaviors are connected to their biology, the outcry was immediate and harsh. Lucky for him he already had tenure at the time.[4] But scientists working on the evolution of the human species have started to look at race in different ways, which seek to explain why we look different from each other and yet how we are all deeply, biologically connected.

The standard argument has been that different physical characterstics evolved as adaptations to particular environments. Some of these things make sense to me, for example, the presence of the sickle-cell gene in populations where malaria is prevalent. It turns out if you are a carrier of sickle-cell but don't have the disease, you have a built in resistance to the bacteria that cause malaria. This is true especially of equatorial Africans. Another example, Europeans have a lactase gene that allows them to digest milk into adulthood, whereas most humans get sick from drinking milk as they get older.[5] However, this argument looses steam when you reach the level of observable characteristics, such as skin color. A hypothesis tossed around for years has been that in northern latitudes with less sun, you need lighter skin for vitamin D production. However, africans living in the north do not suffer from vitamin d deficiency and eskimos have brown skin and cover their bodies almost completely.

The mos recent hypothesis for things like eye shape, hair texture and color, nose shape, skin color, and even penis size is sexual selection. Many species have certain mating rituals and criteria which are not in fact biologically adaptive. The standard example of this is the pea cock's tail, which makes him vulnerable to predators but makes him quite fetching to the peahens so that he can mate. The hypothesis is simply that as humanity has evolved over the past 50,000 years, different populations with different cultural value systems and different aesthetics simply produced their own physical traits through generations of selective breeding. It will be interesting to watch these developments over the coming years. [6]

But for my question of how biology of "race" might help actually alleviate racism, I am drawn to the more broad study of the evolution of humans as a species. The Genographic Project, run by the National Geographic Society, is using blood samples from indigenous peoples around the world to trace the genetic changes in mitochondrial DNA and in Y chromosomes, both of which pass with virtually no genetic blending from generation to generation. This allows scientists to take these genes in mDNA and Y chromosome and, using the "molecular clock" technique, measure the length of time populations have been separated from each other and their migration patterns. This migration out of northeastern African took place after we were fully human. What strikes me about these findings is that we are human and we have a shared history.

Unfortunately, some cognitive science has found that our brains may be set up to know enemies. Preliminary research has indicated that across cultures, by the age of 5-6, children have the same fear and anxiety responses, or relaxation and comfort responses, to given populations of people. It is clear that these responses are learned (as they match those of the parents), but it is highly suggestive that our brains are actually structured to learn such responses. If this is true, in smaller societies, this was probably a useful adaptive feature of our brains, helping communities defend themselves and survive. But in the modern world, if this turns out to be true, this could be one of the most maladaptive features of human biology, as we continue to kill each other based on "race" and ethnicity. If this turns out to be the case, platitudes about "shared histories" and "we're all one species" will probably have little effect on the continuing violence, especially considering the scale of the killing technology at our disposal, unless peoples around the world can be taught multicultural values at very young ages.

[1] See Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture, published in 1940, in which he summarized his anti-racist observations and arguments to move anthropology as a discipline away from unscientific racism.
[2] See Kwame A. Appiah Color Consciousness for an amazing exploration of the complexities of identity formations based on physical characteristics, how they break down under scrutiny, and why people form those identities anyway. See Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America's "Racial" Crisis for a detailed examination of how the liberal anti-racist ideal clashes with the ethnic identity formations within racial groups with a preservationist-multicultural value.
[3] For a fantastic exploration of the dynamics of authentic ethnic identity formation, I highly recommend Vincent Cheng, Inauthentic: The Anxiety over Culture and Identity.
[4] See Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology for a look at the inflamatory work. The introduction to the 25th anniversary edition explains the controversy.
[5] These issues were discussed briefly in a segment on NPR's Science Friday on March 10th with Jonathan Pritchard, Professor of Human Genetics at University of Chicago.
[6] Richard Dawkins covers this hypothesis well (and quite entertainingly) in his newest book, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution.

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