Today’s Shared Post_Link: 11 March 2017

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Published Date: 03.11.2017 

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How difficult is it to jettison the idea of race as biology?

To understand why the idea of race is a biological myth requires a major paradigm shift – an absolutely paradigm shift, a shift in perspective. And for me, it’s like seeing what it must have been like to understand that the world isn’t flat. The world looks flat to our eyes. And perhaps I can invite you to a mountaintop or to a plain, and you can look out the window at the horizon, and see, “Oh, what I thought was flat I can see a curve in now.” And that race is not based on biology, but race is rather an idea that we ascribe to biology.” …

What’s wrong with classifying by race as biology?

But think about race and its universality or lack thereof. Where is your measurement device? There is no way to measure race first. We sometimes do it by skin color. Other people may do it by hair texture. Other people may have the dividing lines different in terms of skin color. What’s black in the United States is not what’s black in Brazil or what’s black in South Africa. What was black in 1940 is different from what is black in 2000. Certainly, with the evolution of whiteness, what was white in 1920 – as a Jew I was not white then, but I’m white now, so white has changed tremendously.

There’s no stability and constancy. That’s life. That’s fine as social ideas go, that we all have our individual classification systems and may use them, but for science, it’s death. It does not work. Science is based on generalizability, it’s based on consistency, it’s based on reproducibility. If you have none of that, you have junk science.” …

What is non-concordance and what does that tell us about race?

For race to have meaning, for race to be more than skin-deep, for race to be more than a typology, one has to have concordance. In other words, skin color needs to reflect things that are deeper in the body, under the skin. But, in fact, human variation is rather non-concordant…

But most of human variation is non-concordant. Skin color or eye color or hair color is not correlated with height or weight. And they’re definitely not correlated with more complex traits like intelligence or athletic performance. Those things evolve and develop in entirely different ways. Just as skin color develops in a different way from size, intelligence, athletic performance, other traits develop in different and independent ways…

When we adopt a racial view, we have to see concordance. And perhaps if we don’t see it, we make it up. Because if there’s no concordance, there is no race. So, racist scientists, for example, have to see a concordance between skin color and IQ, otherwise there’s no meaning there, there is no there there. There’s nothing under the skin. Race stops at the color of your skin.” …


We basically are the same plan, and we don’t need to alter our plan. In fact, one of the hallmarks of humans is that we’re flexible. We are built with this very flexible brain and flexible structure that lets us go into a lot of new situations without needing to genetically adapt to it. We’re kind of like the Swiss Army knife of species. We can apply culture and our ideas to conquer different environments. When we go into the cold we don’t need to grow hair. We just need to find a buffalo skin to put on. Or better yet, we invent central heating.


How much human variation falls within any population, and how much between “races”?

Richard Lewontin did an amazing piece of work which he published in 1972, in a famous article called “The Apportionment of Human Variation.” Literally what he tried to do was see how much genetic variation showed up at three different levels…

So, for instance, in Europe, how much variation would there be between the Germans, the Finns and the Spanish? Or how much variation could we call local variation, occurring within an ethnicity such as the Navaho or Hopi or the Chatua.

And the amazing result was that, on average, about 85% of the variation occurred within any given group. The vast majority of that variation was found at a local level. In fact, groups like the Finns are not homogeneous – they actually contain, I guess one could literally say, 85% of the genetic diversity of the world…

But, for the most part, you know that basic human plan is really a basic human plan, and is found almost anywhere in the world. Most variation is found locally within any group. Why don’t we believe that? Because we happen to ascribe great significance to skin color, and a few other physical cues that tell us that that’s not so. And, in fact though, these may happen to be a few of the things that do widely vary from place to place. But, that’s not true under the skin. Rather, quite another story is told by looking at genes under the skin.” …

Are there boundaries dividing populations?

The idea of race, of course, assumes that there are set boundaries between the races, but we know that to be untrue. You know, there’s no racial boundary that’s ever been found. Any trait that one looks at, one tends to see gradual variation from one group to another. The facts of human variation are that it’s continuous, it’s not lumped into three or four or five racial groups…

The challenge would be to say where does one race begin, and where does another race end. Or even where does dark skin begin, and light skin end? Or, perhaps as you leave the equator, where does light skin begin to show up again? In fact, what you find is a rather subtle gradation in skin colors. This is called “clinal variation”, and it’s really quite like what you see in your weather maps of temperature in the back of USA Today, or your 11 o’clock weather forecast, where you can see how temperature grades change ever so slightly as you go from north to south. Well, skin color is actually quite the same thing. It varies clinally – continuously. There is no abrupt change from one skin color to the next.” …

How is human genetic difference – and similarity – traced to our history?

As best we know, humans started in Africa. And they had a lot of time working out what they were going to be like in Africa. And through that time of working out what they were going to be like in Africa, they began to diverge and change slowly, ever so slowly…

Another way we change is more or less by random flow of genes. This is one of the big hallmarks of humans, that we tend to be very mobile. We’ve always been very mobile. And our genes are even more mobile. We may not move, but our genes may move because somebody we mated with, or the grandchild of somebody we’ve mated with, that person moves. And that person’s great, great, great grandchild moves, and so our genes are constantly on the move and literally moving around the planet.” …

Are we all Africans?

Well, we all spent a lot of time in Africa. Our genes certainly spent a lot of time in Africa. If we are anything, we are African. I think my genes spent less time in Europe, and less time in Asia, than they spent as an African, being in Africa. So, yes, I’m African, except that my skin color changed perhaps when the lineage that led to me left Africa. So, yeah, we are all Africans under the skin.

But, that’s an idea too. I think the more accurate idea, or the way to think about things, is that we’re all mongrels. People moved around in Africa, they moved around when they came out of Africa, they constantly inter-bred with each other. So today we have this notion that, “Oh, you’re multi-racial. Oh, you’re this and that.” Or, “Wow!” like that was a new concept, that all of a sudden the races are mixing together. Well, not so. We’ve always been mixing. We’re always mongrels. Every single one of us is a mongrel.

We are constantly going across barriers, over barriers, under barriers. There’s been no breeding isolation really that’s occurred at all. So, the combination of ours being a young species, and there being no breeding isolation is what generates the fact that all you see is very little variation among peoples. That the variation is rather continuous, and localized.” …

How do diseases become racalized?

It used to be at the turn of the century that we would think of individual races as having very specific diseases. Well, that idea of race-specific diseases was soon shown to be not true. But, what we are ending up with is the idea that race is a risk factor, and osteoporosis is an interesting example of that…

For instance, if you look at any review article on osteoporosis, it may suggest race is a risk factor. But, when you try to interrogate that a little bit, it’s not totally clear what they mean by race. Do they mean genetics? Do they mean something about life experience? It isn’t quite clear…

A couple of ways this one takes on material reality is that doctors are trained to think that Black people are somewhat immune to osteoporosis because that’s what their textbooks say. And that then reflects what they do in actual practice. And that’s a point I’d like to get back to…

It also reflects the label on a Tums calcium bottle. The label on the back of the Tums bottles suggests that white, or sometimes Caucasian and Asian, women are more prone to osteoporosis. The label doesn’t mention anything about the potential benefits of taking a calcium supplement for Black people…

So, the interesting point is where did that information come from? Well, here we have the Tums bottle that we can get off our drugstore shelf today. The information on the label comes from the Food and Drug Administration. Now, the Food and Drug Administration has to get their information from somewhere. And the one study that is cited most frequently was actually a 1962 study that was done comparing 40 cadavers of whites and 40 cadavers of Blacks. The individuals died and were basically made into cadavers because nobody claimed them. They were rather poor individuals in this particular circumstance who grew up around St. Louis.

So, the information that finds its way onto Tums labels is actually a study of the bones of 80 individuals. What did the study actually show? What did it do?” …


But what is important is that race is a very salient social and historical concept, a social and historical idea… Racism rests in part on the idea that race is biology; it is based on biology. So, the biology becomes an excuse for social differences. The social differences become naturalized in biology. It’s not that our institutions cause differences in mortality; it’s that there really are biological differences between the races…


What is the false logic behind the racialization of disease?

If we look at race and diabetes we can see a double leap of faith. There are two leaps. Frequently, one finds that there may be something genetically involved in a trait – for instance, diabetes, where there may be a possibility that diabetes is partly genetic. And what that does is it casts the lens on looking for genetic differences, so that all those environmental things that may go into diabetes are sort of put aside for the moment as less controllable, perhaps less interesting.

So the Pima Indians, who have a 50% adult diabetes rate, don’t think about their diabetes as related to the changes that have taken place in their lifestyle – from heavy activity to low activity, from diverse diets to junk food, fast food diets – that are consistent with the epidemic of diabetes. Rather, what they’re told by the medical people who work on them is that it’s in their genes, it’s in their blood. And so they focus there. So, the first problem is thinking exclusively that a condition is due to genetics and not looking at environmental factors.

Then perhaps the second and greatest leap is to think that just because it’s genetic it’s racial, that genetics break down along racial lines, or that individuals on one side of a racial line had those genes and the individuals on the other don’t. Of course, we now know that that’s ludicrous, that in fact genes and race don’t mix together.

But don’t different groups have different rates of diseases?

Frequently studies are done that show that there are racial differences in all sorts of diseases. Blacks, for example, have twice the rate of infant mortality in the United States than whites. Native Americans, overall, have higher rates of diabetes. And so the question is, how do you interpret that?

First, that may mean to some people – oh, the differences between blacks and whites are really about prenatal nutrition. That’s why there are differences in infant mortality. Other individuals may think that that has something to do with medical care. And other individuals may think it has to do with genetics – that there really is something about African-American genes.

So until we address that fundamental confusion about what race is, you know, we’re going to be open to different actions and interpretations. And clearly, if you think it’s genetics, it may lead to one medical intervention or maybe no medical intervention. If you think it’s nutritional, it leads to another. If you think its medical care, it leads to yet another potential medical intervention.” …

“Well, that’s one thing. The other thing was to actually take a close look at where malaria actually arose and became endemic and severe. Then also to look at who has sickle cell. Frank Livingston did this, and lo and behold the two maps matched extremely well. Places in which malaria was endemic, and had been endemic for a long time, were exactly the places in which sickle cell was highest. Conversely, places where endemic malaria was rather low were places in which sickle cell was virtually non-existent…

Sickle cell isn’t an African disease. It is true that some Africans have sickle cell, particularly individuals who have ancestry around West Africa. That’s one of the highest places of sickle cell. But, it’s also true that East Africans hardly have any sickle cell. South Africans don’t have any sickle cell. But, it’s also a Middle Eastern disease, and it’s also a Mediterranean disease. Individuals in Turkey and Greece and Italy, Sicily, have sickle cell; more than individuals do in South Africa, or in East Africa. So, sickle cell is not an African disease; it’s a condition that developed in response to malaria.” …

What made Jesse Owens and other great black athletes great?

With the rise of the great Negro athletes in the 1930s, it became this question about where did they come from and that there must be a reason that they’re great, and that that reason must reside in biology rather than in culture or history or circumstance. And one of the tie-ins here is that there’s this shifting relationship between athleticism and intelligence. In the early part of the century, when blacks were considered to be less athletic, less robust, perhaps even a dying race because of their inability to deal with the stresses of civilization, there was an obvious belief that intelligence was associated with athleticism and Europeans have the best of both…

… obviously he was a great athlete. Where did his greatness came from? Was it determination, was it his muscle structure, was it his training, was it his desire, was it his circumstance? All of those things certainly came into play. Exactly what it was, we don’t know. But I think that’s an interesting story, that there isn’t a simple answer. It wasn’t located in one place, it was located in the complexities of his historical development in a culture with his biological basis, whatever he was born with, biologically, genetically, culturally, how it came that he was motivated in 1936. All of those things came into play. It’s not a simple answer. What made Jesse Owens great? Many things made him great and unique.” …


We are constantly going across barriers, over barriers, under barriers. There’s been no breeding isolation really that’s occurred at all. So, the combination of ours being a young species, and there being no breeding isolation is what generates the fact that all you see is very little variation among peoples. That the variation is rather continuous, and localized.” …


Aren’t great sprinters more genetically endowed with fast twitch muscles?

Let’s take fast twitch muscles and go forward and back with them. Let’s go back with them and try to understand, what are the genetics of fast twitch muscles. Well, three words – I don’t know. I don’t really know. I think nobody really knows what the genetics are behind something that’s really quite complicated.” …

My guess is it’s trying to simplify something that’s very, very complicated. To try to just explain the greatness of West African descended sprinters by fast twitch muscles involves many, many things we don’t know – all assumptions.” …

How does Social Darwinism – and race – rationalize inequality?

Social Darwinism was really just an explanation for the order of things. We had to come up with an explanation for why certain Europeans had more access to power and were wealthier than others.

So we use nature as an explanation for what we saw, or seem to think we saw in nature: those who were more aggressive, or more intelligent, got things, and those who weren’t got less. So that became the continuing justification for taking over lands, for slavery, for competition. That competition was good. And to the winners went the spoils. And there’s no need to feel guilt or anxiety about that, because that’s natural, it’s a reflection of nature. And to the winner go the advantages of having been a winner.

I think there are many, many legacies of social Darwinism today. We don’t see how uneven the playing field is, for one. We don’t acknowledge that individuals grow up with less advantage and more advantage. We seem to think that in America we all are born with a blank slate and an equal ability to get ahead.” …

What about studies equating race with intelligence?

Scientific work abetting the idea that race is real, typological, and hierarchically arranged is actually rather an old occupation, you know. In the mid-1840s we see Samuel Morton measuring crania to get at cranial capacity and then to try to rank the races on the amount of cranial capacity they have, and to equate that with racial differences and intelligence…

… But then let’s to back and look at the assumptions again. Is there a white group, a black group, an Asian group? Are these reproducible? Are they trained equally? Can we really measure a variable called intelligence? Is it really something that’s not affected by environment, about how we’re trained, how we grow up, what stimulation we have by children?

I’ll give you an example. One test has shown that just a little bit of lead in the blood can affect intelligence – a little bit of lead in the blood, prenatal, can affect intelligence by easily eight points on an intelligence score. Are we to believe that those factors were unimportant in looking at the differences in IQ scores? Of course not.

The assumptions that go into believing that there are racial differences in intelligence are absurd ones. They’re ones that we shouldn’t even be coming close to as scientists. The chief one is that here’s such a thing as race, that there are races, and that a score on a test, an average group score, has any meaning for an individual.” …

What was the significance of Franz Boas’ skull experiments?

Franz Boaz was a very prominent public intellectual, and he taught at Columbia and gave birth to a brand of anthropology that was labeled “cultural relativism.” Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Zora Neal Hurston were among the followers…

He actually worked with the immigration office at Ellis Island, and had the opportunity to measure skulls of individuals in families – of which some of the siblings were born in Europe and some were born in the United States…

It was assumed that different groups of Europeans – Slavs, Jews, Italian, Irish – that they had distinct skull types and shapes, and that these wouldn’t change with environmental circumstances; they were primordial. There was an Irish type, a Jewish type – all were types and races, and all unchanging. So if you knew that, you could then read into the skull certain characteristics such as intelligence…

Boaz would not have done his experiment, would not have asked the question, “Do skull shapes change between boys who were born in the United States and those who were born in Europe?” if he had believed in a racial typology. If he had believed that race and culture were the same, that culture was a reflection of racial biology, he would not have asked the question, he would not have done the experiment.

And so that, I think, is the fascinating point. Somehow he had his suspicions and he went ahead and asked the question and did the experiment, and that was what I think his real contribution was.” …

Why is it important to overturn the idea of race as biology?

We live in racial smog. This is a world of racial smog. We can’t help but breathe that smog. Everybody breathes it. But what’s nice is that you can recognize that you are breathing that smog, and that’s the first step…

But what is important is that race is a very salient social and historical concept, a social and historical idea. It’s shaped institutions, it’s shaped our legal system, it shapes interactions in law offices and housing offices and in medical schools, in dentist’s offices… Racism rests in part on the idea that race is biology; it is based on biology. So, the biology becomes an excuse for social differences. The social differences become naturalized in biology. It’s not that our institutions cause differences in mortality; it’s that there really are biological differences between the races…

So, until we address that there is no race in biology, that race is an idea that we ascribe to biology, that there’s no race there, there’s a possibility that well-meaning and not-so-well meaning individuals will drag that up and will inevitably put that in our faces as the reasons why there are differences in life circumstances between different groups.” …

Read complete interview of Alan Goodman (Professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire College and co-editor of Genetic Nature / Culture: Anthropology and Science Beyond the Cultural Divide and Building a New Biocultural Synthesis) in: 

Race: The Power of an Illusion at

PBS Logo.svg 
Click above logo to know more about PBS’s activities, and click here about to know about the series documentary on Race. 
 Click the photo to know more about Professor Alan Goodman
Photo Credit: Photos are collected from author’s article and Race: The Power of an Illusion; subz info: race the power of an illusion: full documentary; eco joven: evolucionismo
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