Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Flirting with old-tyme racism. Is anyone paying attention?

The ability to extract DNA from archeological bone specimens has opened a new area for research to reconstruct the past, but in some senses, this is allowing the field of anthropology to recapitulate its sometimes questionable history.  Anthropology has always been the study of groups of people, often characterized categorically, that is, as if their members were all alike, and were quite different from other groups.

There's a fine line between this kind of typological thinking and the hierarchical ranking of groups, often been aided and abetted by the technologies of the day, from phrenology in the 19th century, which could be used to show, for example, that Africans were born to be slaves, and in need of masters, to the use of DNA markers today, which have been interpreted by some to confirm the existence of biological races, and the primacy of genes over environment in the determination of who we are.  In a time when social policy is too often based on this kind of categorial thinking, with, for example, spreading belief in the evils of immigration, the inherent right of some to more of society's goods, from education to health care to tax relief, etc., our generation's version of "scientific racism" can land on receptive ears.  We cannot assume that the gross evils of the passed are gone, and the lessons learned.

There is a long line of examples of dangerously over-simplified but cute dumbed-down categorical assertions about groups, often in the genetic era from non-anthropologically sophisticated but prominent geneticists.  One from years ago was the sequence of 'mitochondrial Eve', in which a set of mtDNA sequences was used to infer a common ancestral sequence, and that was then attributed to our founding first woman.  There was, of course, one woman in which the imputed mtDNA sequence (or some sequence like it) occurred.  But the rest of that woman's genome, her dual sets of 23 chromosomes, had genetic variation that was also found in countless contemporary women (and men); each variant in each gene found in a different set of those contemporaries, and each 'coalescing' as the term is, in some single ancestral individual at some time and in some place.  This 'Eve' was only our common ancestor in her mtDNA, not her other genes, and so she, as a person, was not our 'Eve'--our shared female progenitor a la Genesis.  Indeed, among all of our genes there was no single, common ancestral time or place--probably not in hundreds of miles, or thousands of years.  Each DNA segment found today has its own ancestry.

Using the 'Eve' phrase was a cute liberty that got the story widely circulated, and as a Barnum & Bailey tactic, it worked very well.  But its reference to the Biblical Eve, a woman from whom all of us are purportedly descended, was culpably misleading even if catchily attention-seeking.  And, of course, the purported common ancestral mtDNA sequence is only inferred in a statistical sense, from today's mtDNA variation. This Eve-imagery came out of the Allan Wilson lab at UC Berkeley, a source of free-wheeling, glibly cute public claims.  That sort of thing gets picked up by a media hungry for cute stories and gives it legs.  So the behavior is rewarded.

More serious abuses of stereotypes
The 'mitochondrial Eve' characterization was cute and catchy, but perhaps harmless.  But categorical oversimplifying by scientists isn't always just cute and harmless.  In my day as a graduate student, a prominent physical anthropologist, at Penn no less, Carleton Coon, said in one of his widely read books on racial variation, that  "No one can express anguish more convincingly by his facial expression than an Italian.  A Negro's facial expression, on the other hand, consists largely of exposing his eyeballs and his teeth.  There is good reason for this difference: the Italian's mobile and moving communication would be lost, under most lighting conditions, on a black face."  

Yet when I was in graduate school, at about the same time as this was published, I took human anatomy at the University of Michigan medical school.  When we got to the superficial facial muscles, here is the illustration of those muscles from my professor's own, prominent, anatomy text:

From Woodburne: Essentials of Human Anatomy (4th ed.),  1969

This drawing, uses a black person as an exemplar of human facial muscles.  They are clear and clearly identified as functional; they are not degenerate or minimalized, incapable of full expression.  They are not the muscles of but one category of people: they are the human muscles.

Rumors, at least, were that the eminent Professor Coon had argued, behind the scenes, against integrating schools in the US, on the grounds that 'Negroes' were of intellectually inferior ability.  Categorical thinking, with its typically concomitant value judgments, is nothing new, and it's never over, but sloppy scientific thinking shouldn't contribute to the problem.

Even without making qualitative value judgments, categorical thinking about humans, a form of racism, is historically dangerous, and everyone in science should know that.  Yet, recently, there has been a simple, dramatic story of past human 'breeding' habits that indicates that categorical scientific racism still has legs in our society and, indeed, our most prominent journals. If not intentionally, it's by a kind of convenient default.

Here are the cover, and one of the figures, from a recent issue of Nature.  The embracing hands of people of different 'colors' shown as types who mated, indeed thus producing 'hybrids' between a Neanderthal and a Denisovan parent.  This is a splashy story because these are considered to be different species.  And the journal, naturally, used this as its lurid cover.  The cover figure is about the 6 September story in that issue, from which we reproduce one figure that shows groups represented as regionally distributed people of different color.  Is it unfair to call this stereotyping, of the old-fashioned type, even if only subliminally?  Whatever the intent, the typological thinking is not subtle.

Thinking of this sort should have been long gone from Anthropology because DNA sequencing has clearly shown the internal variation and inter-group (or, better put, inter-geographic) overlap in variation.  But when the publicity engines and the sensationalistic adrenalin are at work in science, whatever sells seems OK.

Even with a very long history of racism, including of course intentional slavery and genocide, we cannot seem to give up on types and categories, even inadvertent habits with no value judgment intended.  But whether intentional and vicious, or merely inadvertent and de facto, this is essentially racism, and should be called out as such.  And racism is dangerous, especially when voiced by scientists who should know better, or even, as I presume in this case, who are not racists in the usual discriminatory sense (that may not apply to their readers!).  As a prominent colleague once said privately to me, he was not a 'personal racist' (he had African friends, after all)--he was just a typologist, a genetic determinist; i.e., a scientific racist.

Even if the authors of the human hybrid piece, happy enough for a cover story in a major journal, are not themselves "personal racists:, they perpetuate classificatory thinking.  Countless people have lost their lives because of careless sloganeering.  No matter its more polite guise, and carefully nonbiological group coloring in the figures, is this any different?

Is science heading back to those good ol' days again?


Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks for this Ken.
With those color-coded figures... I can't help but think about what increasingly bothers me that's related closely to this: We insist that we are "half" our mother and "half" our father, as if they're separate and wholly different genomes, our parents'. They are largely the same! So the half that I got from mom and the half that I got from my dad are largely the same which is how I'm far closer than 50% similar to each parent, genetically. When we insist on this "relatedness" idea, of halves, and quarters, and eighths and so we push distant cousins into the tiniest of fractions... they may as well be potatoes. That's a misleading perspective on genetic variation that we teach in elementary school biology and it just carries forward and underlies our views of global genetic variation, I'm positive, but I've got no data to back it up.

Ken Weiss said...

As a single species, with an evolutionarily recent origin, we are all very genomically similar. The typical figure that I've seen is that we average roughly 1 nucleotide difference every million nucleotides. Whatever one wishes to count in this regard, we are mostly the same on both our chromosomes, and of course especially so in functionally important parts of the genome (because, for example, of the effects of natural selection).

So your point is very well-taken. The article, perhaps for convenience or Nature's need to dumb-down and not bother about the details, used categorical colors, so all the 'blue' race were identically blue and there was no portrayed gradation between the 'races'. Even in science, we seem to hunger for simplicity, even when it conflicts with reality.