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A Genetic Basis for 'Race'
January 23, 2008 7:40 PM   Subscribe

'Race' graphically illustrated - "most Europeans" vs. Ashkenazim (previously; see also IQ & Gladwell, viz. ;)

In the words of Ernest Gellner, however, I'd stress that:
...The variety of human societies is staggering.

This diversity is not explicable genetically. The nature and extent of the contribution of genetic make-up to social forms is a contentious and unsettled issue, bedevilled by its political associations and implications. What is obvious, however, is that a very large part of the explanation of the form human societies assume must be social-historical and not genetic. This is obvious from the fact that populations which can be safely assumed to remain genetically identical, or very nearly so, can and do assume totally different social forms at different times. Very often, social change is simply far too rapid to be explicable by genetic change.

To say all this is not to say that genetic constitution makes no contribution whatever to history. It is conceivable that some genetic constitutions have a greater predisposition to some social forms than others. The issue is difficult...
also see "Let 1,000 genomes bloom," cf. [and btw...]

cheers!
posted by kliuless (101 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the Ashkenazim link:

Ashkenazi Jews occupied a different social niche from their European hosts

What an unfortunate choice of words, bringing up the old anti-semitic connotations of "Jews as disease" infecting their "host" countries.
posted by Falconetti at 7:55 PM on January 23, 2008


I don't get the blog post. The classic anthropological racial definitions would have classified the Ashkenazim as "caucasoid". Doesn't the PCA plot he's showing argue against such facile classifications?
posted by mr_roboto at 8:03 PM on January 23, 2008


w00t w00t! u goyz r teh dum!
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 8:05 PM on January 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Am I being thick, or does the first graph just show a distinct genetics shared by a small population famed for endogamy and thus have not a great deal to say on "race," which is a social construct, at all? I don't think that's the same argument as "there are no genetic factors in human difference."
On preview, I think mr_roboto is making the same point.
posted by Abiezer at 8:08 PM on January 23, 2008


also previously
posted by p3on at 8:14 PM on January 23, 2008


Any argument about race that relies on post-Holocaust Ashkenazi Jews is flawed. They were never a large population to begin with, and we lost six million of them during WWII and the period that led up to it.

We will never know what that population would look like today if that disaster hadn't happened.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:15 PM on January 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


The graphs in the paper show a strong, but not complete, separation on the first eigenvector, but no clear separation on the second eigenvector. The Ashkenazim cluster, but given the population bottleneck of European Jews in the past few thousand years, that's not surprising.

To jump from that to "SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF RACE!" is ridiculous, especially considering the scores of genetic studies that show classical races (caucusoid, negroid, etc.) to be completely false. Some populations cluster, sure, but very often a persons of African and European descent are genetically closer than two people of African descent or two people of European descent.

I also share mr_roboto's concern: the post could not have been more obtuse.
posted by The Michael The at 8:18 PM on January 23, 2008


Some of my best friends are goyim!

(NOT ASHKENAZIST)
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:24 PM on January 23, 2008


I'm unclear of what definition of "race" is being used? You're all non-Gaels to me.
posted by meehawl at 8:27 PM on January 23, 2008


IF YOU CAN MATE WITH IT AND YOUR OFFSPRING HAVE WORKING GONADS THEN IT IS A PERSON JUST LIKE YOU.

ahem, excuse me...sorry bout that.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:27 PM on January 23, 2008 [8 favorites]


Also, while there's no question that a gene can code for multiple traits, and that intelligence and disease susceptibility can both be, in part, genetically influence, one should be very wary of any study that uses intelligence as a variable due the heavy effect of culture and environment on intelligence and measures thereof. According to the NY Times article, the authors state that Ashkenazim have a much greater chance to win a Nobel Prize. This is easily explained away by a tradition of near-compulsory higher education and academic careers among Ashkenazim that isn't shared by non-Ashkenazi Europeans and Americans. They also posit that the Ashkenazim will have higher IQ scores, and it's pretty widely held that IQ scores are heavily culturally biased. Unless the authors can demonstrate that the intelligence is unquestionably the result of genetics, which, as they can't control for cultural influence, they can't, their entire argument falls apart.
posted by The Michael The at 8:31 PM on January 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


try this one, too

oh, and this one

wait, there's more

again

Being descendant from Eastern European jews myself, I've always sort of just understood that being a Jew was never just about the religion. There are ways in which a lot of jews from similar background are, well, similar. That Judaism has historically encouraged its members to continue to make more jew-babies is not even an isolated phenomenon. Most groups/religions encourage this.

As for race, intelligence, and social norms among different groups; if you stop thinking of it as racism, you can see that different peoples have evolved differently. Why would there not be genetic differences among different peoples? Or am I just totally seeing this 'debate' the wrong way?
posted by ninjew at 8:31 PM on January 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is ridiculous. There are a number of genetic markers that are (unsurprisingly) linked to geography or clan connections in the past. What does that have to do with race?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:41 PM on January 23, 2008


As for race, intelligence, and social norms among different groups; if you stop thinking of it as racism, you can see that different peoples have evolved differently. Why would there not be genetic differences among different peoples? Or am I just totally seeing this 'debate' the wrong way?

The argument is whether the groupings of people labeled with the various race terms (white, black, Asian, etc.) correspond to meaningful genetic groupings (beyond the obvious morphological genes). The argument against a classical conception of race claims that the genetic variation within any of the racial groups far overwhelms any systemic variation between those groups.

These results would seem to argue against the classical conception of race, since they find a distinct subgrouping within the "white" race. Unless you consider "Ashkenazi Jew" a race, which you might, depending on how you were raised and what your social preconceptions are, since race is a social construct.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:44 PM on January 23, 2008


As for race, intelligence, and social norms among different groups; if you stop thinking of it as racism, you can see that different peoples have evolved differently. Why would there not be genetic differences among different peoples? Or am I just totally seeing this 'debate' the wrong way?

What on earth is wrong with you that, at this late date, you're still spewing this Bell Curve nonsense? Are you stupid or just ignorant?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:44 PM on January 23, 2008


if you stop thinking of it as racism...

Also if you stop thinking of a gun as a gun and start to think of it as a pillow, you're going to make a really big mess, and I'll be damned if I'm going to help you clean it up.

Jewboy out!
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 8:49 PM on January 23, 2008


I think it's provocative to link to these pieces without an explanation of the argument. And not in a good way.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:54 PM on January 23, 2008


it's kind of brilliant as a turn of phrase.... So, if you stop thinking of it as racism, you can see that different people have evolved differently ... why would there not be genetic differences among different peoples? I love it so much! That kind of self-canceling structure could come in so handy.... If you stop thinking of it as laziness, why shouldn't I come into work at noon? If you stop thinking of it as violence, why shouldn't I punch him in the face?....
posted by moxiedoll at 8:57 PM on January 23, 2008


I wasn't making a case for race-based intelligence, so I don't think it was any sort of Bell Curve argument. What I was getting at it, is that if these characteristics are linked with genetics, then why wouldn't genetically similar people share some of them?

And I was not saying, at all, that one group is more or less evolved than another.

Maybe I really was looking at this totally wrong.
posted by ninjew at 8:59 PM on January 23, 2008


welcome back, Burhanistan.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 9:01 PM on January 23, 2008


the results---race: still a social construct.

i guess we should say still an overwhelmingly social construct, just so we're not accused of being "politically correct."
posted by eustatic at 9:04 PM on January 23, 2008


If that's settled could some braver soul move on to debunking the second link? What the fuck was his point? I bailed out about where it seemed to be an enormously turgid attempt to ask what it was that set white nationalism beyond the pale (arf). The basic answer is that as an avowed political creed it's motivated only by hatred, weakness, psychosis and/or fear, even if they pretend otherwise.
posted by Abiezer at 9:12 PM on January 23, 2008


Momus explains why geneticists see that clustering in Ashkenazim.
posted by bunnytricks at 9:13 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's so much variation within "races" that the difference between races is probably negligible at best. There's some evidence that, say, elite Kenyan runners have slightly different leg muscles than elite non-Kenyan runners. Stuff like that. But we're talking about tiny variations. Diet, education, and so forth are going to have a much bigger impact than genes that code for "race."
posted by wastelands at 9:15 PM on January 23, 2008


I thought I was going to regret plowing all the way through that "most europeans" link, but then I came to this:

Behold the massive crack infusion flowing into your arm. (Or at least trying to. Remember, kids, you can always just pull the needle out.)

...and it made it all worthwhile.

YOU SMOKE CRACK, YOU MORON!
posted by InfidelZombie at 9:17 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also:

"Why does white nationalism strike us as evil? Because Hitler was a white nationalist, and Hitler was evil."

Oh, is that why? Is white nationalism just another neutral idea floating around in the ether? Should I shed a tear that poor, innocent white nationalism has had the misfortune of only being plucked out of the ether by evil people? Should I pat white nationalism on the shoulder and tell it there, there, surely someday someone who isn't evil is bound to wake up with it inside of her head, and she should just stay strong and not lose faith?

Idealists think that if we just educate people enough, their heads will stop getting filled with crazy, batshit, half-baked ideas. Realists know that sending stupid people to college doesn't change *what* they think. It just allows them to wrap their stupid ideas in a flaky, greasy phyllo dough of ridiculous argument.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 9:21 PM on January 23, 2008


*think, then type*

'Race', in and of itself, is a stupid way to look at people. It is, however, a quick way to categorize people. It is essentially an arbitrary designator.

Yeah, the more I read the links, the more I wonder what this post is getting at, exactly.
posted by ninjew at 9:22 PM on January 23, 2008


"And I was not saying, at all, that one group is more or less evolved than another.

Maybe I really was looking at this totally wrong."

Ninjew, I'm with you on this. I have often pondered this. If race weren't an issue that was so easily used to create bias, how would we classify different groups of people on a scientific level? Example, say you were an alien studying humans on earth and used the same methodology we do, but with nothing to gain or lose based on "race". (the only unbiased hypothetical I can come up with). What would be said about human genetics, evolution and population dynamics?

Unfortunately its such a charged topic that its impossible to be unbiased about so discussion is nearly impossible. Every time someone does bring up a study that might refer to some genetic advantage/disadvantage of a group of peoples, its supposed to be biased somehow. And probably is. I can't even think about it in my own internal dialog without questioning my own motives.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:24 PM on January 23, 2008


I think it's impossible to make a cogent argument about it until a good scientific definition of "intelligence," a way to measure it, and a decent understanding of how the brain works are developed, and furthermore, I think human intelligence is acquired. However, given all that I am forced to believe that arriving at the conclusion that genetic differences between humans DEFINITELY DON'T affect the potential for intelligence is overreaching just as much as the conclusion that they do.

Given that the human race only left Africa quite recently, though, and I don't feel like there were harsh selective pressures forcing a speedy evolution of greater potential intelligence, any differences should be pretty negligible.

Proper solution, of course, is to drop all these group identities - reduce skin color, etc. to the status of that genetic factor that lets you roll your tongue or not, and just be one big group of thinking animals, but if we do that then we can't have as many Metatalk shitshows.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:37 PM on January 23, 2008


Maybe race is just not the right word, aside from being so loaded. Maybe it's something on a somewhat grander scale than "all the Joneses are great musicians" and on a somewhat smaller scale than those grand racial stereotypes that we've all rightly been taught to abhor. It's pretty clear that certain traits are clustered in different ways and I don't see that it's inappropriate to explore that and talk about it.
posted by padraigin at 9:41 PM on January 23, 2008


I think it was Steven Jay Gould who pointed out that the genetic variation within racial groups is far, far greater than the average differences between any racial groups. In other words, race is a useless predictor of individual characteristics in any sphere.

PBS has a good visual race test that makes this point nicely on the basis of facial appearance. Race is such a poor predictor of individual characteristics that you can't even tell what someone's race is by looking at them -- a lesson I've learned in real life more than once.
posted by dylan20 at 9:44 PM on January 23, 2008


I think it's impossible to make a cogent argument about it until a good scientific definition of "intelligence,"

i'd go for "intelligence = any species that doesn't push itself and the world it lives in to the brink of extinction", except that that would make us the only non-intelligent species on earth
posted by pyramid termite at 9:47 PM on January 23, 2008


If race weren't an issue that was so easily used to create bias, how would we classify different groups of people on a scientific level? Example, say you were an alien studying humans on earth and used the same methodology we do, but with nothing to gain or lose based on "race". (the only unbiased hypothetical I can come up with). What would be said about human genetics, evolution and population dynamics?

Are you suggesting that non-biased aliens would readily differentiate between jews and christians? Or british and irish? Or hutus and tutsis?
posted by moxiedoll at 9:48 PM on January 23, 2008


36x36 icons? I think that fails at being a good visual race test.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:54 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


i'd go for "intelligence = any species that doesn't push itself and the world it lives in to the brink of extinction", except that that would make us the only non-intelligent species on earth

Mass extinction caused by the dominant life forms putting certain gases into the atmosphere that maybe they shouldn't have.

Stop thinking humanity's all that special.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:00 PM on January 23, 2008


I'm an Irish-American who was adopted by Jews, and yet I'm a freakin' genius. Put that in your bell curve and smoke it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:02 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Are you suggesting that non-biased aliens would readily differentiate between jews and christians? Or british and irish? Or hutus and tutsis?

Well, I'm going to say no, because I've never heard of Christians as a race, but as a religion. Jews appear to be more than just a religious grouping because of the afformentioned debated genetics as well as social and cultural pressure. British and Irish are nationalities. Couldn't say much about the hutus and tutis do to lack of familiarity on my part.

My question is more along the lines of how an unbiased view would classify different genotypes and phenotypes, and how similiar and/or different would they be from what our pre-conceived notion of race is.

But apparently I can't wonder that without it being misconstrued as some sort of bigotry.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:11 PM on January 23, 2008


Perhaps the putative alien classifiers would see it like we do different colours and breeds of cat. I tend to the ginger tom, myself.
posted by Abiezer at 10:24 PM on January 23, 2008


I... I don't know what an eigenvector is. :(
posted by boo_radley at 10:28 PM on January 23, 2008


Well, "insert clever", that's my point. You're the one who brought up the un-baggaged aliens who'd sort us out without being "supposed to be biased". You and I agree that "british" and "irish" are nationalities, but not so long ago, irish people weren't considered to be white. As an irish american, who identifies as white and benefits from white privilege here and now, my ancestors (who were phenotypically identical) weren't considered to be white. I also, in my day and age, think of jewish-americans as being "white", but sixty years ago their phenotypically identical ancestors were being marched into gas chambers in Europe. Are we the same race? What does "race" mean? Maybe the aliens and I would both notice certain physical traits and call certain people "asian".... but japanese people certainly do not consider chinese people to be of the same race that they are.... what does "race" mean for them? Maybe the aliens and I would figure that anyone native to Rwanda is of the same race, but the Hutus and Tutsis didn't figure the same way... what does it mean to be "black"? If you think it's one "race", others would disagree.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:30 PM on January 23, 2008


I have to say that it is more likely that the genetic diseases are the result of the toxic pigments in the ink that money was printed with, and possibly gold poisoning as well, and maybe a little dash of lead, from scale weights, and a dash of mercury poisoning that goes along with handling gold. The intellect comes from strict monogamy that guards the young, and clannishness and a need for focus on intellect. there is also this other societal construct, which is that, intellect was not discouraged in Jewish women, as it has been in other groups. With both parents encouraged and rewarded for intellectual prowess, perhaps there is a selection link there as well.

Really, back then no one even thought about toxicity in pigments. If Jews were exclusively employed handling monies, and gold, this is more likely the source of environmental damage. Then more successful people have larger families, they are more successful, because they work more in the business that hurts them.

Also, there was a lot of experimentation with medicines that contain gold, early in the twentieth century, perhaps experimentation in the era of the Holocaust might have triggered singular genetic expressions. I am not sure how long these illnesses have been around.

I read recently some similar thinking about fertility and Huntington's disease, the thought was that people with Huntington's were less inhibited so they make more children, that carry the disease. I heard some even more ridiculous thinking about the origins of the blond and the redhead, being that they became blond and redheaded to attract a dwindling population of hunters. Really though, the Northern Europeans were the only cultural group, who chose their own spouses, and generally married when a pregnancy was underway. They could choose, males and females, and that makes variation, rather than formal and clan introductions dominated by conservative mores.

Recently articles postulate that the closer knit the family bonds, the longer people live. The more isolated these clans are the longer they live as well, due to the immune protection from isolation.

When populations can't get genetic variation, such as in the case of the socially isolated Jews then mutations introduced from environmental hazards, increase, trapped in the population. Utah is home to some very particular genetic damage, in tight Polygamous groups.

The other things about the genetic variations, and their survival...The Jews cared for and raised their injured young, regardless of the personal cost. More of them survived to marry, as that culture puts a high premium on monogamy, and marriage.
posted by Oyéah at 10:50 PM on January 23, 2008


Seconding the aliens seeing us as cats conception. A cat's a cat, a man's a man. End.
posted by saysthis at 11:11 PM on January 23, 2008


If that's settled could some braver soul move on to debunking the second link? What the fuck was his point? I bailed out about where it seemed to be an enormously turgid attempt to ask what it was that set white nationalism beyond the pale (arf).

I read the whole thing. Essentially, his problem with white nationalism is that it's just not an effective political tool for, specifically, protecting the huddled white masses against the "swarthy", violent, unstable, and ravenous hordes which seek to destroy them. His problem with white nationalism, in other words, is that it's not enough like Nazism. Because the Nazis, they got things done.
posted by jokeefe at 11:18 PM on January 23, 2008


"To grasp, to seize -- to apprehend, as we say -- reality from out of the deep dark cave of the mind!" -- lionel trilling on isaac babel's treatment of reason & violence :P
i guess the overtly subtle (obtuse ;) 'point' of the post is that the genetic foundations of 'difference' (if not race, if that is now much too loaded a term) is regaining some influence given the technology and declining costs of mapping wide swathes of the genome (and the ability to place your own on that continuum, à la venter)... how much an influence i think should be open to debate; gellner thought it could be effectively and safely ignored, but i think that that is proving "difficult."

i'm in full agreement that gene expression is (still) secondary to cultural/phenotypic expression, but in my opinion it is not negligible and as gene expression becomes more malleable as a _choice_ the social construction of 'humanity' -- or whatever you want to call it -- will swing open to (re)interpretation. in short, i think the debate parallels that of performance enhancement or say cosmetic pharmacology... nothing that hasn't already also been covered endlessly in science fiction and comics; i just think it's neat that it's popping up more in RL.

like gattaca is certainly a cautionary tale, as is prior experience in eugenics, but then short of a self-imposed ban (impotently administered by some bioethics panel?) on the one hand and blindly barreling along and making it up as we go (is there any other way?) on the other, i wonder what productive, coercive and cognitive possibilities open up when genetic description and manipulation become more prevalent... more broadly, i guess i just find the contours of human evolution and the history of thinking pretty fascinating.

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 11:18 PM on January 23, 2008


And I wouldn't advise taking the time to refute his screed point by point. The very prospect hurts my brain. It is to logic and reason what "My Humps" is to music.
posted by jokeefe at 11:19 PM on January 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


^^^ Still in answer to Abiezer.
posted by jokeefe at 11:20 PM on January 23, 2008


kluiless, I really have to question the point of linking to that blog, which is overtly racist, no matter how much the author tries to insist that he's just a rational, balanced thinker dealing with an objective problem... the problem being black people.
posted by jokeefe at 11:22 PM on January 23, 2008


"It is conceivable that some genetic constitutions have a greater predisposition to some social forms than others."

Mhhhh.....it's also conceivable that blondes are genetically sluttier then redheads , which would explain why there are more blondes then redheads !

The fact that I know more blondes than redheads absolutely didn't influence my reasoning in constructing a theory that I'd like to be so very true.
posted by elpapacito at 11:26 PM on January 23, 2008


Thanks jokeefe. You're a braver screed-parser than me.
posted by Abiezer at 11:34 PM on January 23, 2008


Mhhhh.....it's also conceivable that blondes are genetically sluttier then redheads , which would explain why there are more blondes then redheads!

I think we need to be discriminating against the bearded race. Those motherfuckers clearly aren't as smart as the rest of us. If they were, they'd shave their facial hair, obviously.

And dishonest! Everyone knows they wear those beards to hide a weak chin -- the obvious mark of a liar and a thief.

I'd never hire one of the lazy bastards either.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:58 AM on January 24, 2008


I had to stop reading when I ran into the line about 'every 18th century building is a masterpiece' and nothing built in the last century was worth even looking at. That man has no bloody aesthetics if he's lumping like that.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:01 AM on January 24, 2008


Pick another set of chromosomal loci and we are all related
posted by francesca too at 5:17 AM on January 24, 2008


cobaltnine, did you miss this bit at the end, then? Cause it's even more ridiculous. Here he is setting us all straight on the French Revolution:

Note that, before the coming of nationalist democracy, it was actually not a problem at all for wealthy, high-IQ people to live in the same society as poor, low-IQ people. It worked just fine. The latter served the former. They got paid. No one starved. If the mob wanted to riot, there were more than enough Swiss Guards to handle them. It was not Louis XVI's fictitious oppressions that doomed him to the implacable vengeance of the People, but his irresolution and gullibility that drew him to the deadly Anglo-American fad of popular government.
posted by jokeefe at 7:41 AM on January 24, 2008


This is like arguments about English etymology in the 16th century. Without a database of reconstructed Indo-European roots, the discussions couldn't help but be uninformed and 99% useless.

I'm sure the 1,000 genome project will have plenty of surprises for all. I can't wait!
posted by quercus at 8:03 AM on January 24, 2008


A lot of folks here need to breathe a little more freely. First of all, this constant assertion that race is just a social construct... it's plainly silly. So too the strawman that 'race' can only mean black/white/asian, and is thus irrelevant. Finally, the idea that intelligence cannot be defined or measured.

There is some truth to all these claims. But they are also obviously desperate defenses against something that people don't want to think (myself included), that there could be intellectual or behavioral differences between races.

In this day and age, it's important to qualify where I'm coming from. I'm a person who would prefer that there are no major differences in the intelligence of various populations based on geographical ancestry. And I tend to think this is probably the case; that differences, if they exist, are minor.

However, you cannot argue away the possibility with hysterical attempts to 'undefine' words like "race" and "intelligence". These are real things, and it is theoretically possible for them to correlate. This reality does not align with what the most high-minded of us would desire, but you can't just squeeze your eyes shut and stop your ears.

I know it's a painful thing to imagine for a high-minded liberal (or even medium-minded moderate such as myself). The question you need to ask yourself is how would it change things if there were significant differences between races. Would that all of a sudden justify different laws and customs? Aren't we all entitled to the benefit of the doubt? If your arguments against bigotry rely on the genetic equivalence of all human populations, then you're building on sand.
posted by Edgewise at 10:35 AM on January 24, 2008


A lot of folks here need to breathe a little more freely. First of all, this constant assertion that race is just a social construct... it's plainly silly. So too the strawman that 'race' can only mean black/white/asian, and is thus irrelevant.

Well, that's what it's limited to when I fill out government forms, which reflect, to some extent, society's conception of what race is.

Now, you're arguing that this (clearly widely accepted: it's on government forms, after all) social conception of race is somehow incorrect, and your trying to construct another framework for race.

What will we use in making constructing this framework? Science, certainly, but also history, the biases and preconceptions of contemporary people, the law, media protrayals of race and race relations; in short, all the elements of our society go into constructing our framework for understanding race.

Race is a social construct.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:04 AM on January 24, 2008


Whose hysteria, Edgewise? As I said above, I don't think genetic differences between certain populations are being dismissed; the extent and nature of the effect are up for debate and dispute. And we're being presented with this alongside a special plea for "white nationalism," which is the only crude reductionism I see.
How about you offer a working definition of race that's not a pointless, anti-scientific generalisation? Because unless you are talking about a social construct (you may have heard that term), that's what you'll have.
posted by Abiezer at 11:30 AM on January 24, 2008


"Black, white, Asian etc." is a social construct to the extent "animal, vegetable, or mineral" is a social construct, i.e. an extremely crude categorization that nevertheless has some connection to reality based on current understanding of biological history.
posted by quercus at 11:47 AM on January 24, 2008


A lot of folks here need to breathe a little more freely. First of all, this constant assertion that race is just a social construct... it's plainly silly. So too the strawman that 'race' can only mean black/white/asian, and is thus irrelevant. Finally, the idea that intelligence cannot be defined or measured.

You're making a lot of assertions of your own here, and they don't seem to be coming from well-grounded foundations. Race as a social construct is not "plainly silly," as there is no general and obvious consensus that race is not a social construct. While "race" does have several different definitions, in common usage it is used to denote primarily color-based groups: black, white, asian, hispanic, etc. When we speak of "racial harmony" or "racial hate crimes" or fill out a form asking for race, it is understood that the aforementioned groups are the ones in question. No one needs to create a strawman of the usage of the term because that is how it is commonly used. As for intelligence, as I wrote above, there are literally hundreds of papers and viewpoints debating the objectivity or subjectivity of the IQ measure. Much of the objection comes from the fact that much of behavior and knowledge is learned, not innate, and thus when one attempts to objectively measure intelligence, one actually measures in large part test-taking ability and culturally specific knowledge. There is no way to solely measure the genetic input of intelligence. If there is, please do show us, because I'm sure there are a bunch of researchers that would like to see such a thing.

There is some truth to all these claims. But they are also obviously desperate defenses against something that people don't want to think (myself included), that there could be intellectual or behavioral differences between races.

Even if one glosses your use of "races" to mean populations or ethnicities, the onus is still on you to demonstrate genetic bases for those intellectual and behavioral differences. Which you cannot do, because such evidence does not exist in the scientific literature.

In this day and age, it's important to qualify where I'm coming from. I'm a person who would prefer that there are no major differences in the intelligence of various populations based on geographical ancestry. And I tend to think this is probably the case; that differences, if they exist, are minor.

However, you cannot argue away the possibility with hysterical attempts to 'undefine' words like "race" and "intelligence". These are real things, and it is theoretically possible for them to correlate. This reality does not align with what the most high-minded of us would desire, but you can't just squeeze your eyes shut and stop your ears.


See, you cannot just keep stating that race and intelligence are real things in spite of the fact that there is complete consensus in the scientific community is that there is no genetic basis of race as the term is commonly understood and there is no consensus of what intelligence is, how intelligence is formed, or how to even measure intelligence or intelligences. It's not that I and others in this thread are closing off our eyes and ears and shouting "NAHNAHNAHNAH!", it's that I have read a good deal of the literature about race and intelligence (nb: I am an anthropologist) and have formed an educated point of view from that information.

I know it's a painful thing to imagine for a high-minded liberal (or even medium-minded moderate such as myself). The question you need to ask yourself is how would it change things if there were significant differences between races. Would that all of a sudden justify different laws and customs? Aren't we all entitled to the benefit of the doubt? If your arguments against bigotry rely on the genetic equivalence of all human populations, then you're building on sand.

No argument against bigotry relies solely on genetic equivalence. There are a plethora of reasons to not be bigoted. But genetic non-distinction (this is not the same thing as equivalence) is certainly a powerful way to state that races as have been commonly understood, especially by racists, are based on factors distinct from the underlying biology of humans.
posted by The Michael The at 11:47 AM on January 24, 2008


"Race" really comes down to extended family. We all have a common ancestor, so we're truly all one family, yet you and your siblings are more closely related to your parents than I am and vice versa.

If your brother moves to a new town and starts a family, 100 years from now his offspring are still going to share more genes with you and your offspring than any of my kids.

Well say by about 25,000 B.C. the human family had spread over the globe and had several large clusters. We can trace the genetic history of any present day individual to various branches of the family. Thus "race" exists-not so much for a person-but his or her genes. And our present vocabulary is far too limited. There are more "races" in Africa than anywhere else because people have lived there the longest.

If you want to go beyond 25,000 B.C. to a time when all people are one, that's fine. You can trace genetic history back to before mammals evolve and argue that "species" is a social construct as well. But you'll still be able to diferentiate a whale from a fish with a little genetic analysis, and with that same genetic analysis we're starting to get a handle of where a person's genetic ancestors were living 25,000 years ago.
posted by quercus at 12:09 PM on January 24, 2008


As far as potential intellectual differences among races, it's far too early to speculate, but, in any event, such findings will only be statistical average and should not have any impact upon an individual.

If there ever does come a time one one can say race x is smarter than race y, it will be a truism and nothing more. Thus, men are physically stronger are women based on large scale studies of muscle mass. A truism and nothing more. Any randomly selected woman may well be stronger than any randomly selected man.
posted by quercus at 12:22 PM on January 24, 2008


Well put, The Michael The.
I'd further add that most political arguments for the equality of humankind emerged at a time when inborn differences between races or nations or social classes were widely taken for granted. They usually have a moral basis; they never relied on "genetic equivalence," more on ideas like "we are all God's creatures". As a broad overview of the history, genetic arguments were dragged in post-hoc by those seeking to justify inequalities and exploitation like colonialism at a time when they were coming under this increasing moral assault. It's been a compromised debate from the get-go.
On preview: but then quercus, you're tinkering with the vocabulary in a way that misses the actual point of conflict. If it really were a case that this was about geneticists seeking to identify certain realities of population groups for the various ends of science, no-one else would feel the need to get involved. But since race is a social construct (sorry :p) and a political concept, attempts to link genetics to it are naturally contested. It's really not the same as species, precisely because the history of the idea and its uses is so different.
posted by Abiezer at 12:23 PM on January 24, 2008


I'm not denying that large amounts of social construction are involved in race. Take the myth of the redhead mystique. Now that's purely a social construction.

As far as I know no one has ever proven that one's hair color has any causal effects on one's behavior. Now, if you are raised to be constantly told you're somehow special because you're a redhead, maybe your behavior does get influenced by this socialization.

Still, underneath it all, you do have a gene for redheadness, and in some populations, it's rarer than others, so all this social construction does revolve around a nucleus of biological reality.
posted by quercus at 12:29 PM on January 24, 2008


Well, that's what it's limited to when I fill out government forms, which reflect, to some extent, society's conception of what race is.

That's a bit of a strawman. Government forms? That's not where I go for my science.

Here's a good, loose, definition of race: a population, usually associated with an ancestral geographical locale, that currently or recently restricted most of its mating to members of that population.

By that definition, you can say that the Ashkenazim are a race. Or a whatever. I don't really care what term you use. The point is that such a group will have some genetic clustering. This is visually apparent in the case of the most obvious racial groupings (white/black/etc.).

Whose hysteria, Edgewise? As I said above, I don't think genetic differences between certain populations are being dismissed; the extent and nature of the effect are up for debate and dispute. And we're being presented with this alongside a special plea for "white nationalism," which is the only crude reductionism I see.

Well, not your hysteria. I consider anyone who says that race or intelligence don't exist, or are meaningless concepts, to be a bit hysterical. Also, the article in question was specifically NOT a plea for white nationalism, although the author was sympathetic with some of its ideas.

How about you offer a working definition of race that's not a pointless, anti-scientific generalisation?

Let me know what you think of the one I gave. It does not correspond with everyone's understanding of the word, and I am not referencing any scientific or other kind of literature when I profer it. However, it matches my understanding of the word, and I believe it is a scientifically useful means of categorization.

While "race" does have several different definitions, in common usage it is used to denote primarily color-based groups: black, white, asian, hispanic, etc....No one needs to create a strawman of the usage of the term because that is how it is commonly used.

You're right, that's how it is commonly used. However, it is not how it is always used, and not the best use of the word. I don't think the way laymen and government forms use terminology is always the best basis for a discussion. What people are actually concerned about here is whether or not certain inbred populations differ in terms of mental capacity or behavioral tendencies. Using the layman's definition of race makes it a little easier to disappear this question.

This is not to say that I don't think the layman's use of the word "race" corresponds to anything useful. Obviously it's not so good when you blur the lines between the vast genetic diversity in various African populations. Most American blacks are from West African ancestry, who seem different from East African (although they are both Bantu), not to mention Pygmies and Khoisan. And you can't lump all Asians together, since there are highly significantly separate sub-groupings.

Even if one glosses your use of "races" to mean populations or ethnicities, the onus is still on you to demonstrate genetic bases for those intellectual and behavioral differences.

This demonstrates a little of the hysteria I was talking about. There is no onus on me to do anything, because I never made any such claim. I am merely saying that it seems POSSIBLE. And how could anyone deny this? Clearly, there are differences in appearance between races that are genetically coded. Is it impossible for there to be mental differences as well? Actually, the onus is on you to show that, if you're trying to disprove my actual point.

complete consensus in the scientific community is that there is no genetic basis of race as the term is commonly understood

Complete consensus? Amazing, I'd love some links that demonstrate this utter complete consensus. And as for how a term is commonly understood, who cares? What everyone really cares about is actually whether or not black people have a genetic tendency to be less intelligent than white people. Right? That's the painful question that nobody wants to think about (myself included, to be honest). Neither of us can prove whether or not this is the case, which is what my point really is.

there is no consensus of what intelligence is, how intelligence is formed, or how to even measure intelligence or intelligences

Like I said, there is some truth to all of these arguments. But do any of us really doubt that some people are genetically endowed with more powerful minds? For a second, let's not talk about what we can absolutely prove or disprove, but appeal to common sense.

But genetic non-distinction (this is not the same thing as equivalence) is certainly a powerful way to state that races as have been commonly understood, especially by racists, are based on factors distinct from the underlying biology of humans.

Sure, but it's not true. Leaving aside questions of intelligence and behavior, we already know that there are host of physical differences between races that go deeper than the skin. West African's have a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers. Skeletal structure differs from race to race. It would be nice and cute if we could somehow prove that races only differ in non-functional ways, but since all traits are coded by genes, that requires some provin.
posted by Edgewise at 12:31 PM on January 24, 2008


I think quercus does a better job than I of explaining the validity of the concept of "race".
posted by Edgewise at 12:36 PM on January 24, 2008


Edgewise, I agree with you, but there's always a place to draw the line and we're far from clear where that would be. So saying "West African's have a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers" is too broad. A randomly selected West African may have more such fibers than a randomly selected non-West African, but there's no reason to believe THIS randomly selected West African can beat THAT randomly selected non-West African in a foot-race.

Nor do I see, even in theory, how we will ever achieve that sort of predictive power at an individual level. Even the human with the highest number of fast twitch fibers on the planet could lose a leg to diabetes and then all his genetics are for naught.
posted by quercus at 12:45 PM on January 24, 2008


I agree with you as well, quercus. I may be overstating my case in reaction to what I see as excessively PC thought displayed here. I never meant to imply that race was a strong determinant of such things. I'm only talking about averages and tendencies.

The funny thing about the whole question about differences between races is that by the time we are technologically capable of answering it, we will also be capable of changing the answer. Racism will be so passe, and discrimination will occur on much more 'well-founded' lines (think Gattaca or Brave New World). We may look back on these days with a kind of fond nostalgia
posted by Edgewise at 1:19 PM on January 24, 2008


You're right, that's how ['race'] is commonly used. However, it is not how it is always used, and not the best use of the word. I don't think the way laymen and government forms use terminology is always the best basis for a discussion. What people are actually concerned about here is whether or not certain inbred populations differ in terms of mental capacity or behavioral tendencies. Using the layman's definition of race makes it a little easier to disappear this question.

Ironic that you use 'population' here, because that is indeed the correct term used in human demographic genetics. Yet you insist on using the superfluous term 'race.' And using 'population,' as would be correct, disappears nothing, because it is a unit that can be compared to similar units.

This is not to say that I don't think the layman's use of the word "race" corresponds to anything useful. Obviously it's not so good when you blur the lines between the vast genetic diversity in various African populations. Most American blacks are from West African ancestry, who seem different from East African (although they are both Bantu), not to mention Pygmies and Khoisan. And you can't lump all Asians together, since there are highly significantly separate sub-groupings.

You're only hurting your case here.

This demonstrates a little of the hysteria I was talking about. There is no onus on me to do anything, because I never made any such claim. I am merely saying that it seems POSSIBLE. And how could anyone deny this? Clearly, there are differences in appearance between races that are genetically coded. Is it impossible for there to be mental differences as well? Actually, the onus is on you to show that, if you're trying to disprove my actual point.

Oh, there's no hysteria here at all; purely a logical-statistical observation. Allow me to rephrase: the onus is on the person attempting to demonstrate those differences, not you specifically. Statistically (and we are working statistically when dealing with such between-population differences), the null hypothesis here should hold that the two samples are drawn from the same population and that null hypothesis must be disproven. So the onus is on the person trying to prove that the two samples, be they 'blacks' and 'whites' or 'Irishmen' and 'Englishmen' or what have you, are separate populations.

As an aside, the English used to consider the Irish a separate race. Not so much anymore. Yet you maintain that 'race' isn't a social classification?

Like I said, there is some truth to all of these arguments. But do any of us really doubt that some people are genetically endowed with more powerful minds? For a second, let's not talk about what we can absolutely prove or disprove, but appeal to common sense.

Common sense has nothing to do with what's correct or incorrect. As I stated above, there is of course a genetic basis to intelligence. But it's impossible to tease apart that basis from how it is influenced (and how test-taking abilities are influenced) by cultural and environmental factors. If a child is raised in a culture that values learning by parents that nurture his interests and curiosities, that child will in all likelihood be 'smarter' by conventional measures than if he had been raised in a culture that does not value learning by parents that stifled interests and curiosities. If a child is raised in America and is acculturated to the test taking systems here, then he'll do far better on an IQ test than if he were raised as a San pastoralist and handed the same exam. On the other hand, the San version would have different specific knowledge that the American version would, and the San would probably consider the American version a comparative dunce.

Moreover, it is does not follow from "some people are more genetically predisposed to be intelligent than other people" (an assertion with which I agree) that "people of X population are more genetically predisposed to be intelligent than people of Y population."

Complete consensus? Amazing, I'd love some links that demonstrate this utter complete consensus. And as for how a term is commonly understood, who cares? What everyone really cares about is actually whether or not black people have a genetic tendency to be less intelligent than white people. Right? That's the painful question that nobody wants to think about (myself included, to be honest). Neither of us can prove whether or not this is the case, which is what my point really is.

Okay, if you insist on being pedantic, then I retract "complete." In any case, the question of whether or not black people and white people have a genetic tendency to be more or less intelligent than each other is unanswerable because there is no such thing as black or white people! You yourself said that not all Africans are part of the same lineage, nor are all African-Americans from a common lineage. Nor are all Euro-Americans from the same lineage. They are not discrete groups.

Moreover, you just undid your own argument: for all your kvetching above about how you want us to use some other definition of race, not the commonly held one, now you come back and want us to use the commonly held one. Make up your mind.

Sure, but it's not true. Leaving aside questions of intelligence and behavior, we already know that there are host of physical differences between races that go deeper than the skin. West African's have a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers. Skeletal structure differs from race to race. It would be nice and cute if we could somehow prove that races only differ in non-functional ways, but since all traits are coded by genes, that requires some provin.

But it is true, despite your protestations otherwise. It is incorrect to state that "West Africans have a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers." Rather, it is correct to state that "West African populations have a greater proportion of the genes that code for more fast twitch muscle fibers." Moreover, the genes that code for more fast twitch muscle fibers are not isolated to West African populations; rather they are distributed in varying percentages among all populations. More often than not, they're distributed along a cline. Y chromosomal variation across Europe, for example, is such that a certain variant is near-fixed in NW Europe and another is near-fixed in SE Europe, and there is a really smooth gradient between the two. It's not that the Irish and the Turks are different races, it's that each group exhibits different proportions of genes that are shared between the two.

These Y chromosome data are often interpreted as the movement of Near Eastern agriculturalists into Europe sometime in the past 10k years, after the initial development of agriculture in the Near East, which is a beautiful and elegant example of the abundance of population movement that's taken place on a macroscopic level over the past 225k years since the appearance of the first anatomically modern humans, which is not even to mention the microscopic level of migration. This partly undermines quercus' definition of race.

Well say by about 25,000 B.C. the human family had spread over the globe and had several large clusters. We can trace the genetic history of any present day individual to various branches of the family. Thus "race" exists-not so much for a person-but his or her genes. And our present vocabulary is far too limited. There are more "races" in Africa than anywhere else because people have lived there the longest.

Humans had spread over Africa by somewhere around 80 kya (thousand years ago), Asia and Australia by 50-60 kya, Europe by 30 kya, and the New World by 15 kya. But they didn't just get where they were going and stop. There have been massive amounts of migration and population movement, accompanied by all the mating you can handle. For example, it's not the case that the modern population of Japan have been there since people came to Asia. Rather, the modern Japanese population is a genetic mixture of the Yayoi who arrived on the islands about 2000 years ago, the earlier Jomon inhabitants who had been there for many thousands of years prior, and smatterings of recent and not so recent other Asian and Pacific migrants. Similarly, saying that there are more races in Africa than anywhere else is misleading because those groups that you identify are not genetically distinct. Looking solely at the mtDNA, there are several very deep lineages in Africa (see Cann et al 1987 and following), but taking the entire nuclear genome into account destroys these tidy little groups. The Bantu expansion alone reshuffled much of the population of the continent.

If you want to go beyond 25,000 B.C. to a time when all people are one, that's fine. You can trace genetic history back to before mammals evolve and argue that "species" is a social construct as well. But you'll still be able to diferentiate a whale from a fish with a little genetic analysis, and with that same genetic analysis we're starting to get a handle of where a person's genetic ancestors were living 25,000 years ago.

We have no idea where someone's genetic ancestors were living 25,000 or even 250 years ago. We can say that the allele of a certain gene that someone carries is more or less likely to come from a certain region based on that allele's frequency in that region, but that's about it.

As an aside, the idea of species as applied to extinct populations is indeed a social construct (see Holliday 2003 for a review). Living animals? No problem. We've got the biological species concept, which holds that two individuals that can mate and have viable offspring are members of the same species. Two skeletons? You can't get them to mate no matter how hard you try, so you have to delineate them based on morphological differences, and one can only infer how much those morphological differences mattered to mating.
posted by The Michael The at 3:32 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's a good, loose, definition of race: a population, usually associated with an ancestral geographical locale, that currently or recently restricted most of its mating to members of that population.

By that definition, you can say that the Ashkenazim are a race. Or a whatever. I don't really care what term you use.


Well, the term we're talking about here is "race".

The word means something, and its meaning is constructed by the society in which it is used.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:37 PM on January 24, 2008


We can say that the allele of a certain gene that someone carries is more or less likely to come from a certain region based on that allele's frequency in that region, but that's about it.

I accept your clarification. But I think you're "that's about it" is a little too dismissive. It's more like "...and that's a hell of lot of valuable and fascinating information!"
posted by quercus at 3:46 PM on January 24, 2008


I didn't mean to sound dismissive. I meant that "We can say that the allele of a certain gene that someone carries is more or less likely to come from a certain region based on that allele's frequency in that region" is the only thing we can state with certainty. Interpreting those data is certainly a valuable and fascinating exercise, but it can't be overstated that it's an interpretation of the story of one's ancestry rather than a precise positioning of that ancestry.
posted by The Michael The at 3:52 PM on January 24, 2008


The idea that because people cluster by vectors of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or any vector of genetic variants means you have found "races" (as mentioned above, a social construct) is naive thinking indeed. In fact, one can have significant genetic variation without any phenotypic variation. SNPs can be synonymous and so code for identical proteins. Nonsynonymous SNPs can have equal function. And even SNPs with differential function may not change the phenotype. Simply demonstrating clustering only demonstrates reproductive isolation, not phenotypic distinction. One has to look at phenotype directly, or limit oneself to phenotypically distinct genotypes.

That is all.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:09 PM on January 24, 2008


Here's a good, loose, definition of race: a population, usually associated with an ancestral geographical locale, that currently or recently restricted most of its mating to members of that population.

It's also worth noting that this definition is so loose as to be absolutely useless (Are Australians a race? How about speakers of Brazilian Portuguese? Muslims, or Mormons? WASPs? An argument could be made for any of these.) and therefore not very good.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:16 PM on January 24, 2008


mr_roboto,

The word means something, and its meaning is constructed by the society in which it is used.

and

It's also worth noting that this definition is so loose as to be absolutely useless (Are Australians a race? How about speakers of Brazilian Portuguese? Muslims, or Mormons? WASPs? An argument could be made for any of these.) and therefore not very good.

You're technically correct on both points, but I don't believe that alters my argument one jot. By the first point, then every word has a socially constructed meaning, so it's kind of a useless point. The question is whether the word corresponds to an objective phenomenon.

As for the second point, you could say exactly that. The term is as useful when applied to a group as that group is inclined to inbreeding over an extended period. Thus, it's not particularly useful when speaking about Brazilian Portuguese, but maybe more meaningful in the case of Mormons. Yes, I know that's stretching the commonly used definition, but my goal here is to define the term in a way that is useful and descriptive while corresponding to our sense of it.

And using 'population,' as would be correct, disappears nothing, because it is a unit that can be compared to similar units.

If it makes you happy, we can talk about white and black populations, etc. This would bring things back into sharp focus, and wouldn't really change any of the crucial questions or points.

You're only hurting your case here.

I can't see how this hurts my case, but it could hurt the case that you think I'm making. For instance...

Allow me to rephrase: the onus is on the person attempting to demonstrate those differences, not you specifically.

Since I'm NOT trying to demonstrate any differences, or suggesting that any exist, then this does not apply to me. I'm merely saying it is possible that they exist. I'm reacting to the knee-jerk PC anti-racism that many have demonstrated in this discussion.

Let me restate my case very simply. We know that intelligence and behavior are at least partly genetically heritable. We know that genetic traits tend to cluster in certain populations. For example, caucasian people have traits for light skin. My assertion is that it's POSSIBLE that mental traits exhibit the same kind of clustering as physical ones. As I said, if you don't think it's possible, then the onus is on YOU to demonstrate why mental traits could not cluster in the same kinds of patterns.

But it's impossible to tease apart that basis from how it is influenced (and how test-taking abilities are influenced) by cultural and environmental factors.

I'm not talking about what we can determine, but what may or may not actually be the case. IQ is a very coarse measurement of intelligence, but it tells us something more than just how well a person does at standardized testing as applied by the white heterosexual patriarchy. And that's just for-example. To me this seems like something of a smoke screen, to say that "we don't know" doesn't mean we can assume that all populations are equally endowed.

for all your kvetching above about how you want us to use some other definition of race, not the commonly held one, now you come back and want us to use the commonly held one. Make up your mind.

Absolutely untrue. Look at my definition again and ask yourself what part of it I just violated. My definition of race, as I gave here, encompasses the layman's definition and a lot more. According to this definition, one race can be a subset of another.

And it's not exactly "some other" definition of race, either. The word has been used in this way before (such as the previous reference to the "Irish race"), and it corresponds with a certain understanding of the word that I think is more valuable than the very simplistic one you here nowadays. The problem is that the word "race" has, in recent times, come to refer to specific social issues, especially in the United States. Conversation about race has become so limited that so has our vocabulary.

It is incorrect to state that "West Africans have a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers." Rather, it is correct to state that "West African populations have a greater proportion of the genes that code for more fast twitch muscle fibers."

First of all, I don't see how that first statement is incorrect. On the average, West Africans do have a higher percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers in their bodies. Second of all, using your own phrasing, I don't see how that changes anything. What does it matter if we're talking about the prevalence of a gene in a population, and smooth graduation? Let's get back to your original statement:

But genetic non-distinction (this is not the same thing as equivalence) is certainly a powerful way to state that races as have been commonly understood, especially by racists, are based on factors distinct from the underlying biology of humans.

I wouldn't call this "genetic non-distinction", or agree that anything you've mentioned discounts such factors. If anyone is hurting his own argument, it's you with statements like this:

Moreover, the genes that code for more fast twitch muscle fibers are not isolated to West African populations; rather they are distributed in varying percentages among all populations.

Is that genetic non-distinction between races?

Like I said, the truly contentious issue here is the question of whites and blacks, and intellectual capacity (and to a certain degree, tendencies towards anti-social behavior). This is at the center of almost all discussions about race and genetics in this day and age, the big-ass landmine that everyone steps away from. I guess if we define these terms out of existence, it makes the conversation easier. We can think "the terms are so vague that it must all be a wash". But that's not true. Even with the coarse notion of race as white/black/asian, you can't dismiss the idea that there could be genetic differences between these populations that phenotypically manifest as differences in mental functionality. And that's pretty much all I'm saying. If you disagree with this, I'd like to know in what way.
posted by Edgewise at 5:33 PM on January 24, 2008


yeah, just like cats & dogs, maybe instead of race we could talk about breeds and certain breeds also tend to have behavioural traits (e.g. border collies and poodles _tend_ to be 'smarter' than german shepherds and golden retrievers -- but all just as lovable!)

so imagine a world, glimmering on the horizon, where natural selection is 'short-circuited' and we're not procreating necessarily or even primarily on the basis of survival or fitness, but say on intentional aesthetics, basically treating ourselves like dogs :P

arguably, humanity has been in such a post-evolutionary stage already for awhile now* so except for a planet of the apes/secret of NIMH-cum-pinky and the brain SNAFU and sorting out the junk, if even a fraction of the potential that gene therapy, stem cells, cloning and the like promise is lived up to, then (like with nuclear weapons, space travel, the pill, wireless internets, the microwave oven, pollution and a host of other conveniences that we can sorta afford) life as we know it, as it's socially constructed, will have to be reconceptualised... or not :P in the end, we could just say we did it for the lulz!

---
* witness accelerated lamarckian cultural evolution (don't say meme) invoking teilhardian teleological singularities (the wet dream of the nerd ;) where woody allen is held up as an ideal -- the new man... j/k! more (semi-)seriously, if technologically feasible, what's to keep (the ousters née) humanity from splintering into subspecies that victorians could only (dimly) wish for?
posted by kliuless at 5:42 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


You're technically correct on both points, but I don't believe that alters my argument one jot. By the first point, then every word has a socially constructed meaning, so it's kind of a useless point.

Well, some words (like kilojoule, allele, pyruvate, eigenvector, and dendrimer) have precise scientific meanings. 'Race' does not.

The question is whether the word corresponds to an objective phenomenon.

And the answer is no. Not as it is used by anyone in the real world. You might have a private meaning for the word, but as Mr. Wittgenstein pointed out, private meanings are problematic.

Yes, I know that's stretching the commonly used definition, but my goal here is to define the term in a way that is useful and descriptive while corresponding to our sense of it.

Why bother using such a common, loaded, and historically important term if you're just going to arbitrarily redefine it?
posted by mr_roboto at 5:44 PM on January 24, 2008


Edgewise: to get you up to speed on human variation and population genetics, first read this, then read this, and then come back to this discussion.
posted by The Michael The at 6:52 PM on January 24, 2008


so imagine a world, glimmering on the horizon, where natural selection is 'short-circuited' and we're not procreating necessarily or even primarily on the basis of survival or fitness, but say on intentional aesthetics, basically treating ourselves like dogs :P

I'm pretty confident we're on our way to that. You could call it breeding, or unnatural selection, or maybe just natural selection...by other means.

Well, some words (like kilojoule, allele, pyruvate, eigenvector, and dendrimer) have precise scientific meanings. 'Race' does not.

Yes, and some words have vague, imprecise, shifting and contextual meanings. This doesn't mean that they describe things that don't exist. Even the layman's definition of race describes something that has an obvious biological reality (use your eyes!), but I'm trying to use one of the more valuable definitions (which, as I said, encompasses the more typical usage).

Why bother using such a common, loaded, and historically important term if you're just going to arbitrarily redefine it?

I did not arbitrarily redefine it. The word is used in the way I am using it. Like many words, it is used in different ways in different contexts. That doesn't make it useless. And why am I using it? Because I was responding to this thread, where a number of people are saying that race doesn't exist except in our minds.

Edgewise: to get you up to speed on human variation and population genetics, first read this, then read this, and then come back to this discussion

If you aren't in the mood to rebut me, you can say so and I won't take it as surrendering the point. But if you're forced to resort to condescension, I gather you don't have much to say. I don't even know what sort of gross misapprehension on my part that this "advice" is supposed to remedy.
posted by Edgewise at 7:46 PM on January 24, 2008



Yes, and some words have vague, imprecise, shifting and contextual meanings. This doesn't mean that they describe things that don't exist.


No one in their right mind would ever claim that race doesn't exist.

It is, however, a social construct. I think you're beginning to understand the meaning of the term "social construct" now, where before you were just being belligerent about it.

I did not arbitrarily redefine it. The word is used in the way I am using it.

`When _I_ use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

Because I was responding to this thread, where a number of people are saying that race doesn't exist except in our minds.

Did anyone say that? I just saw them claiming that race is a social construct.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:22 PM on January 24, 2008


The funny thing is, I had this exact same argument on Metafilter like 4 years ago, but I was on Edgeway's side....
posted by mr_roboto at 9:28 PM on January 24, 2008


Edgewise. Sorry.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:28 PM on January 24, 2008


No one in their right mind would ever claim that race doesn't exist.

Well, not every comment I've made is a response to you personally. However, I would also take exception with those who believe that race is solely a social construct i.e. only exists as a figment of our cultural imagination.

where before you were just being belligerent about it.
...
When _I_ use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

Who's being belligerent now? You know, I hate to be the guy who cracks open the dictionary, but....here you go.

Scroll down to the second definition...here is the relevant part:
race
–noun
1. a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.
2. a population so related.
3. Anthropology.
a. any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics: no longer in technical use.
b. an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, esp. formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
c. a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.
4. a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock: the Slavic race.
5. any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.: the Dutch race.
OK, so maybe my definition is not so wacky and arbitrary as you would like to portray it. What do you think? I would say 3c is very similar to what I gave. At least I defined what I was talking about. You say race is a social construct... well which definition? All of them? 3c seems pretty precise and formal to me.

Honestly, I think it's a little silly to argue about these words. The precise word doesn't matter, and distracts from underlying concerns. You know what I mean, and you're not really addressing the point. The point is that people don't feel comfortable with these issues (understandably), so some react by muddying the waters. If anything, you're proving my point. We're getting caught up in the precise word usage when everyone knows exactly what I'm talking about. If my meaning was unclear, it would be understandable, but that's not the case.

And the real issue is that some people don't even want to admit the possibility that different races could have genetic differences that manifest in functional mental differences. I personally wish this was not the case, but there's nothing to convince me that such a radical claim could be true.

I think you're beginning to understand the meaning of the term "social construct" now...

...and going back to a question you (rhetorically) asked some ways back...

What will we use in making constructing this framework?

How about something that corresponds to a general understanding of the word AND corresponds to an objectively demonstrable phenomenon? Such as, the clustering of certain physical traits observable among those with a common geographical ancestry. If you want to call this a social construct, then I don't really care, as long as it refers to something real that's worth talking about for more than historical purposes.

The word "family" has a similar nebulousness, and has meant different things at different times to different people. But it still has meaning that goes beyond pure social convention. It's scientifically useful, for example, for geneticists to compare genes between family members. In fact, this is a very apt comparison, because the words "family" and "race" have a lot of overlapping meaning; both refer to matters of blood relation, and differ mostly in terms of scale.

Edgewise. Sorry.

Gee, I'd rather you get my name wrong than take a derisive tone with me, but apology accepted.
posted by Edgewise at 11:01 PM on January 24, 2008


From the Lewis and Clark journals: “[S]ome of the party [with him] told the Indians that we had a man with us who was black [York] and had short curling hair, this had excited their curiossity very much, and they seemed quite as anxious to see this monster as they were the merchandize which we had to barter for their horses.”

Of course we now know this is completely false. Race being a completely arbitrary social construct, it was actually quite common for native Americans to have black babies prior to 1619.
posted by quercus at 7:04 AM on January 25, 2008


Are you just being silly?. No-one says people who haven't seen other people of different skin colour might not find it curious, frightening, delightful or whatever. Seems you still don't understand what a social construct is. Look it up. you might find it enlightening. No-one asserts this must be arbitrary or unrelated to certain objective phenomena.
And then look at the example you give. You present the response of one group (some American Indians) meeting a black man as mediated through the account of some people of a third ethnicity, whites. The latter are offering another human being (the black man) as a slave or chattel to be traded. Nothing steering future conceptions of who's who there then. Jaysus.
posted by Abiezer at 7:37 AM on January 25, 2008


Dude it's history. I had nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, can you tell me how "ethnicity" as you just used the term differs from "race"?
posted by quercus at 7:51 AM on January 25, 2008


Meanwhile, the fact that York was a slave is 100% social construction. The fact that at that time and place York was the only guy within a 1000 miles radius with an allele set correlating with people from West Africa is just an objective fact.
posted by quercus at 8:07 AM on January 25, 2008


Precisely, it's history, the meaning of which you don't seem to grasp or wish to ignore as it pertains to the social construction of race. Ethnicity differs from the latter in that it has been constructed in a somewhat different way. :D
I can't see where you're going here. You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that people are denying race exists, rather than pointing out it is a social construction. You seem to be arguing against something no-one is saying if you think that a surprised reaction to find people can be a very different colour to any you have previously met proves anything of relevance to the question at hand.
posted by Abiezer at 8:11 AM on January 25, 2008


I'm not really sure what the question at hand is. If your point is that ethnicity qua ethnicity is just as much a social construction as slavery, I admit I'm mystified.
posted by quercus at 8:19 AM on January 25, 2008


Are you saying that social constructions have an objective reality outside their particular society? That's not how I understand the term.
posted by quercus at 8:23 AM on January 25, 2008


My problem is that you appear to be saying the curiosity of some people who aren't black when meeting someone who is proves some objective existence of the social construct "race." I don't see how it does. Some things you might say it shows are that people are likely to be surprised at something new and unknown; it shows that people can spot marked differences when they're looking at them, and so on. You can't say that at this first meeting this group of American Indians saw blackness as a racial category for humans broadly similar to one of the several concepts of "race" now current. I'd be surprised if they did.
I'm also not saying they didn't see a difference, but exactly what they made of it, we aren't told here. I'm sure as time went by they constructed their view in a way that differed as significantly as their experience, culture history and the rest had from the other actors in the anecdote. The being black and not being black were there; choosing to define that as "race" is something you are doing, as no doubt was the man who wrote the diary. That doesn't magically make it concrete.
I bet this will make no sense to you either.
posted by Abiezer at 8:53 AM on January 25, 2008


More to the point, I think quercus is positing that the immediate identification of York's "differentness" is evidence that race is a universally recognized trait, not a social construct. Of course, the natives would have equally taken notice of a two-headed child, or a Down syndrome woman, but I don't think he'd argue that was a "race". So, no points for this argument.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:19 AM on January 25, 2008


Mental wimp, is Downs syndrome a social construction? Why or why not?
posted by quercus at 11:50 AM on January 25, 2008


We know that ... that genetic traits tend to cluster in certain populations. For example, caucasian people have traits for light skin.


Skin colour is a simple function of melanin concentration, which is polygenic and tracks mean annual solar radiation. Absent vitamin administration, too little sun and too much melanin and your children's bones are weak, or malformed and their fitness is reduced relative to lighter-skinned variants. Similarly, lighter-skinned females in high solar radiation environments will tend to develop clusters of potentially fatal skin diseases and other problems that will reduce their reproductive fitness as a population versus darker-skinned variants.

If I take a large (or small!) population of light-skinned "caucasians" and drop them into an environment of high solar radiation, I can guarantee you that (absent medical intervention) within a few dozen generations the "average" skin colour of that population will be significantly darker than the founder population. Give it around a thousand years (only 50 generations) and their average skin colour will be maximally dark. This is without any external genetic input, ie, completely endogamous in-group mating. A similar effect will happen if I take an aboriginal Equatorial population and drop them in, say, Sweden, except that in this case their average skin colour will become maximally pale.

Has their race changed?
posted by meehawl at 12:31 PM on January 25, 2008


Has their race changed?

In a 1,000 years, no. In 30,000 years - definitely yes, esp. if you confine them to a relatively isolated mating population. Because-once you isolate a population, ALL of that particular population's genome is going to undergo selective pressure, not just those for skin color. This is, after all, exactly how we ended up with the awesome diversity of so many ethnicities in the the great human race.
posted by quercus at 3:10 PM on January 25, 2008


In 30,000 years - definitely yes

What human populations have been isolated for 30K years?
posted by meehawl at 3:19 PM on January 25, 2008


Australian aborigines for one. They got to Australia roughly 40,000 B.C. and nobody else showed up until 1788.

Now that's an extreme case. Other boundaries were more fuzzy. But the interaction was only on the very fringe of the mating populations. How do you actually think human diversity arose?

Take the ancient Europeans living in Europe in 25,000 B.C. It wasn't very often one of them married a girl living in what's now called Thailand, and vice versa. Hence, human diversity.
posted by quercus at 3:35 PM on January 25, 2008


Seriously. This process is going on as we speak. This is science today. Here's a paper by Chinese scholars published two days ago which finds: "a significant uninterrupted genetic boundary extending approximately along the Huai River and Qin Mountains north to Yangtze River."
posted by quercus at 3:48 PM on January 25, 2008


Australian aborigines for one. They got to Australia roughly 40,000 B.C. and nobody else showed up until 1788.

"Nobody else" who was white, I think you mean. It's a common misconception that somehow the Pacific and Austronesian peoples, who had managed to disperse themselves across the greatest territorial extent of any human migration, somehow struck Australia off their itinerary permanently and absolutely. The Torres Islands appear to have been a host for several extremely long-lived agricultural and sea-faring cultures that served as biocultural bridges between Papua and the Australian continent. People could basically *walk* between Papua and Australia until 8KYA. Settlement of "Remote Oceania" began 3,000 KYA, by sea.

More recently, considerable evidence exists that many northern and western aboriginal Australian populations experienced sustained, continued interaction with explorers and traders. I doubt none of these encounters concluded without some trading of sex and women. WikiP is a good jumping off point for more of this sort of stuff.
posted by meehawl at 4:31 PM on January 25, 2008


Take the ancient Europeans living in Europe in 25,000 B.C. It wasn't very often one of them married a girl living in what's now called Thailand, and vice versa.

One way of thinking about this is in terms of humans as bundles of gene being distributed by stochastic processes. While it's highly improbable that an entire bundle of genes from Europe could have ended up in Thailand within the lifespan of that bundle, given its low rate of diffusion and of relatively slow transport in that era, it would a surprisingly small number of inter-generational hops for sub-sets of that bundle of genes to distribute across the entire Asia-Europe landmass.

That's how we end up with concepts like last "most recent common ancestor" and "identical ancestors". The identical ancestor point is a lot earlier than you think. The Chinese "boundary" you refer to is in fact a porous line of differentiation in recent lineage created by cultural marriage praactices, probably prioritising the exchange of women over men for inter-tribe economic exchanges. Women tend to get "traded" further than men in routine exchanges.
posted by meehawl at 4:44 PM on January 25, 2008


fascinating paper on ancestors-but remember that ancestral and genetic inheritance are not the same thing. See Rohde on pg. 27. But thx for the links. I think this thread is dead though. See ya.
posted by quercus at 6:29 PM on January 25, 2008


wait, there's more :Pcheers!
posted by kliuless at 6:05 PM on January 27, 2008


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