Monday, June 16, 2014

The misappropriation of human diversity

We somewhat cautiously decided to chime in on the issues driving the widespread internet and media exchanges about the publication of what we and many others who think about these issues for a living know presents a rather simplistic and overtly and gratuitously racist treatment of human genetic variation.  We wanted to point out, from our view at least, why the underlying issues are complex and don't yield to simple answers.  In addition, we don't think it's at all irrelevant that history shows the societal traumas that can result from the arrogantly casual, careless, categorical, and value-laden treatment of one group of people by another.  This has been called scientific racism in the past, and it's scientific racism now.

We tried to avoid personal attacks or polemics, and just lay out the issues as we see them.  However, and not surprisingly given the nature of the current 'discussion', this opened the floodgates.  Let's just say that the number of ways that people can find to tell strangers, under cover of anonymity and with such glee, that they are the scum of the earth is impressive.  This whole subject merits measured discussion, based on evidence -- and many people have treated it as such, and we have appreciated what they've had to say, and the thoughtful, knowledgeable way they've said it.

But then there's the rest.  The internet can be an ugly place.  We have chosen not to contribute to that by posting comments that, let's just say, don't move the discussion forward.  At present, it's impossible to have a wide-ranging discussion of human variation in any scientific way because the subject has been appropriated by ideologues with either a superficial understanding of the science, or a willingness to pick and choose the evidence that suits their purposes.  There are plenty of places to find their rants.  But not here.


Anonymous said...

And now it turns out that some people we think of as very similar have less in common than people we think of as very different:

Anne Buchanan said...

Sounds suspiciously as though you are saying that race might be categories people think up.

Tom519 said...

Just out of curiosity, do you believe the PBS production of "Race: Power of an Illusion" is scientifically accurate?

Ken Weiss said...

I hardly watch any television (don't want to pollute my feeble genes, already overloaded with dealing with life), so haven't seen that. So I can't comment on it at all.

Kirk Maxey said...

I've been meaning to write a quick note to the Mermaid crew about human race and diversity, but wanted to wait until the stench of singed hair cleared a bit. The internet is, indeed, a nasty place. But that should not discourage any of us from articulating a more informed perspective on human diversity. Anthropologists should not be stuck with discussing, deriding, or paying any degree of lip service to the thoroughly discredited group of "races" now enshrined in history, and protected and promulgated by the US government each time it tries to take a census. There is no "Asian". There is no "White". There is certainly no "Black".
But what is there? Human children have innate abilities to detect things in their classmates that we as grownups botch beyond all recognition. One is intelligence. I learned as soon as my first children progressed through grade school that they automatically generate a mental ranking of their classmates according to "smart." They know who's the smartest kid in class - and who is second. It has little to do with grades - it probably has more to do with who tricks them, who understands puzzles before they do - who knows. Kids also recognize "The other." Grossly simplified, that could stand for race. But clear and simple explanations exist for making sense of the fact that kids can distinguish types of people. No one can know a priori what sort of society they will be born into, but it will certainly be SOME sort of society. There will be class. There will be rank. There will be elitism, and there will be others not in that society. Failing to be able to recognize these potential divisions could be fatal. So each of us comes clearly equipped with some pretty sophisticated image processing software in our brains, ready to learn and understand each small physical or cultural clue that will be needed to stay streetwise in that social landscape.
This is not to say that nowhere on the planet do genetically unique and distinct groups of humans exist. They do, and the are, just like their languages, a vanishing treasure of human diversity. Anthropologists need to dispense with the nonsense of politically inspired race, and focus instead on real race. There really are groups of people, many of them small, who have special genetic endowments stemming from both isolation and severe bouts of natural selection. The group of native Americans called the Pima are one. There are dozens in Siberia. These are peoples of limited genetic diversity within their own group, but with notable distinctions from the great, intermixed bulk of humanity. They represent the only meaningful articulation of race. Things can be learned from them. Things can be said about them - not baseless, derogatory slurs. But phenotypes, in the best, most calibrated sense of that word, can be constructed for them. And those phenotypes will almost certainly be found, but with a different proportion, in all of the rest of us. Diseases, abilities, and disabilities will also be found, and with a differing set of proportions than we might have guessed. Scientists should study those, talk about those, and learn lessons from them that can ultimately help us all lead healthier lives.

Ken Weiss said...

I think if you read what we have written here, and in papers going back over decades, you will find that we have not denied the existence of local variation, nor have we endorsed blanket political correctness. You and I are genetically distinguishable, so are our two families back several generations, etc. But one would not call them 'races' nor treat them, not even individuals really, as categories.

Nobody denies that there are differences between groups, but the nature, amount, interpretation, and societal use of those differences is what is debated. So where one draws a line and calls it a race, or if one decides to treat variation that way, is the issue. The Pima are surely not one of the Big 5 races that have recently been advocated so stridently, are they? Indeed other neighboring groups are very similar and your assertion that the Pima a somehow categorically different can be challenged (how do you count the Tarahumara?). In any case, isolate studies such as gene mapping and other similar things have a long history for that general reason. The problem is the broad generalizations by which the 'intermixed bulk' of human as you refer to it, have often been characterized. History shows the reasons to avoid thinking in terms of categories rather than variation.

But these discussions seem never to get anywhere, and we've moved on to other topics here.