To study humankind, AAA responds

By Razib Khan | December 13, 2010 1:48 pm

This morning I received an email from the communication director of the American Anthropology Association. The contents are on the web:

AAA Responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology

Some recent media coverage, including an article in the New York Times, has portrayed anthropology as divided between those who practice it as a science and those who do not, and has given the mistaken impression that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Executive Board believes that science no longer has a place in anthropology. On the contrary, the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research. To clarify its position the Executive Board is publicly releasing the document “What Is Anthropology?” that was, together with the new Long-Range Plan, approved at the AAA’s annual meeting last month.

The “What Is Anthropology?” statement says, “to understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.” Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture. As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences. The AAA sees this pluralism as one of anthropology’s great strengths.

Changes to the AAA’s Long Range Plan have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion in recent media coverage. In approving the changes, it was never the Board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology – as the “What is Anthropology?” document approved at the same meeting demonstrates. Further, the long range plan constitutes a planning document which is pending comments from the AAA membership before it is finalized.

Anthropologists have made some of their most powerful contributions to the public understanding of humankind when scientific and humanistic perspectives are fused. A case in point in the AAA’s $4.5 million exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?” The exhibit, and its associated website at www.understandingRACE.org, was developed by a team of anthropologists drawing on knowledge from the social and biological sciences and humanities. Science lays bare popular myths that races are distinct biological entities and that sickle cell, for example, is an African-American disease. Knowledge derived from the humanities helps to explain why “race” became such a powerful social concept despite its lack of scientific grounding. The widely acclaimed exhibit “shows the critical power of anthropology when its diverse traditions of knowledge are harnessed together,” said Leith Mullings, AAA’s President-Elect and the Chair of the newly constituted Long-Range Planning Committee.


Up until the last paragraph this is an anodyne statement. Who could disagree with: “Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture. As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences. The AAA sees this pluralism as one of anthropology’s great strengths.” But the explosion of anger from biologically and scientifically oriented anthropologists on the web is drawn from a deeper layer of lived experience. On a raw level many of them feel that some factions in cultural anthropology are obscurantists who are fluent in rhetoric which they utilize in power-plays and politics. There are anthropologists who do deny the deep insights of the scientific method in illuminating reality. In fact, they reject the naive realism at the heart of science as it is practiced. For them science is a swear-word, and connotes an affinity with oppression and all the negative abstractions in fashion at a given time (e.g., patriarchy, heternormativity, capitalism, Eurocentrism, etc.). Of course as I note above scientific anthropologists are not given to tolerating the verbal circumlocutions and incantations of their non-scientific colleagues with much grace themselves. There is a deep cultural chasm, and these sorts of arguments over words in obscure institutional documents are only triggers for a persistent roiling debate.

As for the last paragraph, it illustrates the selectivity of a discipline which attempts to contextualize, and often has a skeptical relationship toward a positive framework. I believe that race is a social construct. The Hispanic identity, which consists of people of indigenous Amerindian, European, and African ancestry, and all their combinations, has been racialized. The Islamic identity has also been racialized. Benjamin Franklin stupidly contended that only the English and Saxons were true whites, with all other Europeans, including Nordics, being swarthy.

But just because a construct has a social element does not mean it has only a social construct. Because of the Left-liberal anti-racist egalitarian bias of anthropology, the academy in general, and the dominant narrative of Western society as a whole, there is a strong tendency to assert flatly that “race does not exist” as a biological concept. There is no interrogation of the concept of race except to refute its utility. This is not a case of agnostic skepticism washing away illusions, but a case of skepticism applied in a fashion to obtain a clear and distinct objective result which corresponds to reality. When it comes to race many become naive realists who accept that biological concepts can be falsified or verified in a simple and straightforward fashion. There is all of a sudden one Way of Knowing which presents us with indubitable truths.

Here is L. L. Cavalli-Sforza (my question in italics):

7) Question #3 hinted at the powerful social impact your work has had in reshaping how we view the natural history of our species. One of the most contentious issues of the 20th, and no doubt of the unfolding 21st century, is that of race. In 1972 Richard Lewontin offered his famous observation that 85% of the variation across human populations was within populations and 15% was between them. Regardless of whether this level of substructure is of note of not, your own work on migrations, admixtures and waves of advance depicts patterns of demographic and genetic interconnectedness, and so refutes typological conceptions of race. Nevertheless, recently A.W.F. Edwards, a fellow student of R.A. Fisher, has argued that Richard Lewontin’s argument neglects the importance of differences of correlation structure across the genome between populations and focuses on variance only across a single locus. Edwards’ argument about the informativeness of correlation structure, and therefore the statistical salience of between-population differences, was echoed by Richard Dawkins in his most recent book. Considering the social import of the question of interpopulational differences as well as the esoteric nature of the mathematical arguments, what do you believe the “take home” message of this should be for the general public?

Edwards and Lewontin are both right. Lewontin said that the between populations fraction of variance is very small in humans, and this is true, as it should be on the basis of present knowledge from archeology and genetics alike, that the human species is very young. It has in fact been shown later that it is one of the smallest among mammals. Lewontin probably hoped, for political reasons, that it is TRIVIALLY small, and he has never shown to my knowledge any interest for evolutionary trees, at least of humans, so he did not care about their reconstruction. In essence, Edwards has objected that it is NOT trivially small, because it is enough for reconstructing the tree of human evolution, as we did, and he is obviously right.

L. L. Cavalli-Sforza contends that between population genetic variation is not trivially small. This is clear from the fact that one can discern village-to-village genetic distinctions in Europe. Human variation exists, and it is not trivial. It is useful for phylogenetics, significantly impacts salient phenotypes, and, risks for particular diseases. The social construction of race has real biological raw materials. At one end, the transformation of white European converts to Islam through changes in personal appearance into de facto “People of Color” are matters of social construction in totality. In contrast, the blackness of a Dinka from Sudan is a matter of biological categorization. The categorization of Egyptian Arabs with obvious African admixture as “white” in the US Census is a matter of social construction due to bureaucratic contingency, and illustrates the intersection of biological reality and social fluidity. It is well known that when foreign Arabs with obvious black admixture visited the American South there was often a debate as to whether they were subject to segregation, illustrating the tensions between social norms (which would have coded them as black), bureaucratic function (which coded them as non-black usually), and biological reality (where they were an amalgam of a minor black African component with a dominant white Arab component).

Of course it is true that on any given trait variation can span populations. But even in the case given above, of sickle cell, the correlations with ancestry and population are striking. A lower boundary value is that 75% of sickle cell suffers are of mostly African ancestry, despite only 15% of the world’s population being of mostly African ancestry. These statistics refute a platonic model of race, but they do not refute the population-thinking which is at the heart of much of modern biology, pure and applied.

All that said, the word “race” is fraught with a lot of historical baggage. Therefore to study population wide variation you need to focus on “fine-scale population structure” and what not. This trend would be something of interest for cultural anthropologists of science to study. Race is just a word. Even a term as widely accept as species exhibits a fair amount of flexibility on the margins. But the underlying biological patterns, and the instrumental utility of those patterns, can not be denied.

Addendum: I often use “human” or “humankind” where earlier norms would be to use “man” or “mankind.” My main rationale is I don’t want annoying comments objecting to the term. The concept which I’m pointing to is the same no matter the pointer, and so I don’t mind changing it to facilitate my intent to communicate clearly and without undue extraneous baggage.

  • http://mengbomin.wordpress.com/ Meng Bomin

    Hmm…I think that my college paid for transportation and admission of students (on a volundary basis) to the RACE exhibit at the beginning of this semester. On another note related to my college, I saw that the American Studies bulletin board had a flyer with the following four blurbs regarding the definition of race:

    RACE BY FINGERPRINTS
    Probably the most trivial division of humans we could manage would be based on fingerprint patterns. As it turns out, the prevalence of certain basic features varies predictably among peoples: in the “Loops” race we could group together most Europeans, black Africans, and east Asians. Among the “Whorls” we could place Mongolians and Australian aborigines. Finally, in an “Arches” race, we could group Khoisans and some central Europeans.

    RACE BY RESISTANCE
    Traditionally we divide ourselves into races by the twin criteria of geographic location and visible physical characteristics. But we could make an equally reasonable and arbitrary division by the presence or absence of a gene, such as the sickle-cell gene, that confers resistance to malaria. By this reckoning, we’d place Yemenites, Greeks, New Guineans, Thai, and Dinkas in one “race,” Norwegians and several black Africans peoples in another.

    RACE BY DIGESTION
    We could define a race by any geographically variable trait—for example, the retention in adulthood of the enzyme, lactase, which allows us to digest milk. Using this as our divisive criterion, we can place northern and central Europeans with Arabians and such West African peoples as the Fulani; in a “lactase-negative race,” we can group most other African blacks with east Asians, American Indians, southern Europeans, and Australian aborigines.

    RACE BY GENES
    One method that seems to offer a way out of arbitrariness is to classify peoples by degree of genetic distinctness. By this standard the Khoisans of southern Africa would be in a race by themselves. African blacks would form several other distinct races. All the rest of the world’s peoples—Norwegians, Navajo, Greeks, Japanese, Australian aborigines, and so on—would, despite their greatly differing external appearance, belong to a single race

    All in all, I didn’t see it as a very earnest attempt to grapple with the issues but rather an attempt to use the issues to claim that they couldn’t properly be grappled with.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    just a minor note: the modern received wisdom on race is very close to scientism. that is, the rejection of the concrete reality of race is used as a plank in rejecting racism. one can see scientism in both anti & pro egalitarians when it comes to economics. some argue that humans are hierarchical, while others point to our egalitarian ethos in the EEA and biophysical stress response to inequality. as it is, i don’t object to scientism per se, but the explicit denial of scientism combined with its implicit acceptability so long as it buttresses pre-existent norms means that ideologues use science as an unsubtle cudgel.

  • MK

    ***“RACE: Are We So Different?” The exhibit, and its associated website at http://www.understandingRACE.org, was developed by a team of anthropologists drawing on knowledge from the social and biological sciences and humanities. Science lays bare popular myths that races are distinct biological entities and that sickle cell, for example, is an African-American disease. Knowledge derived from the humanities helps to explain why “race” became such a powerful social concept despite its lack of scientific grounding.***

    This sounds like something Jonathan Marks might have written.

    http://onestdv.blogspot.com/2009/11/professor-jonathan-marks-responds.html

    Nevan Sesardic has quite an interesting paper that explores some of the strawman type arguments similar to that from the AAA.

    Race: A Social Destruction of a Biological Concept, Biology and Philosophy 25 (2010), 143-162.

    http://www.ln.edu.hk/philoso/staff/sesardic/getfile.php?file=Race.pdf

  • Jason Malloy

    In approving the changes, it was never the Board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology … Anthropologists have made some of their most powerful contributions to the public understanding of humankind when scientific and humanistic perspectives are fused. A case in point in the AAA’s $4.5 million exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?”

    Ahh, thank you for that important clarification. Anthropology isn’t a non-science, it is a pseudo-science. Of course it doesn’t wish to drop it’s pretense at science; that would be much too honest, and much less useful in manipulating people. Activism is much more effective when it can be done under the prestigious mantle of science.

    Unfortunately the scientific discipline of Hawks, Harpending, and Chagnon has to share its name with this group of charlatans and saboteurs. The idea that they would really further defect off into their own little irrelevant masturbatory post-modernist academic ghetto had to be too good to be true.

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  • deadpost

    “The Islamic identity has also been racialized.”

    Are you referring to the concept that someone born to a Muslim is automatically one, so like Judaism and Hinduism, there is a metaphorical “blood tie” component to it?

    Or that Islam has been associated in the public image with the Arab race, or at least people of the Mid-east (furthered by the global trend you often mention that Asian and African Muslims are adopting their customs more and becoming “Arabized”)?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    no. to become muslim is to lose whiteness. to have a ‘muslim name’ is to lose whiteness. i’ve talked about this at length before. it works like having a hispanic name in the USA. no matter how white you look, people will code you as non-white. with muslims it is a stronger trend now because of geopolitics, and also the fact that many white muslim converts dress differently than the mainstream in western nations.

    you can google around to muslim converts’ websites who are white, and they discuss this issue at length.

    i remember mentioning offhand to a friend that someone i knew had converted to islam. when i stated the person’s name, my friend exclaimed “wait, the guy’s white?” in total shock. obviously white people do become muslim, but generally it is tacitly assumed to be part of a process of being alienated from whiteness. in some ways i think non-white muslims are less threatening to many westerners, because all the identity variates align ‘properly.’

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    also, many muslims who are anti-western align with this tendency. but they play a double game often, as white muslims (arabs, turks, iranians) are often rather racist as non-white muslims. compare how south asians are treated in the UK to the persian gulf.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    btw, some of this might be a particular oppositional aspect of islamic culture and religion in relation to non-muslims. as i have observed before, chinese who convert to islam become hui in china, and are no longer han. in contrast, chinese who adhere to other world religions remain han. in southeast asia chinese muslims who are from non-hui backgrounds retain some separate identity, but quickly in ensuing generations assimilate to a native identity (e.g., many malays have chinese ancestry). though in thailand the same happens when chinese intermarry with thais and become theravada buddhist…but my impression is that the boundaries and categories are more fluid and less crisp.

  • deadpost

    “also, many muslims who are anti-western align with this tendency. but they play a double game often, as white muslims (arabs, turks, iranians) are often rather racist as non-white muslims. compare how south asians are treated in the UK to the persian gulf.”

    It does seem, at least to my perception, in the US/Canada at least, the idea of Muslims as non-whites is an identity given to them by the public and not self-imposed (ie. black, S.Asian or S.European Muslims see themselves as the same religion but would probably not identify think of themselves as the same race, other than they’re seen as non-white), rather than Hispanic, which is more self-identified.

    I wonder how much of seeing all Muslims as non-white by default (even including white converts) first emerged? Did it happen as soon as Muslims starting having a presence in the West, or was it partly triggered (or at least influenced) after 9-11 when the opposition of the “Muslim world” to the “Western” became more salient?

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  • Andrew Lancaster

    The word “race” quite obviously does not mean just any type inter-breeding sub-population. Of course there are species whose sub-populations break up into neat races or sub-species, but I do not see anything in human genetics tellings us humanity is one of them. Over on the Dienekes blog I’ve remarked a few times, in response to Dienekes’ desire to resuscitate the word race, that his self-proclaimed favorite example of how science proves that races are real was actually a study of populations WITHIN Reykyavik. But surely no English speaker has ever used the word “race” in a way which is even consistent with referring to such small populations. To re-define this word like this seems a useless exercise with no scientific motive.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    The word “race” quite obviously does not mean just any type inter-breeding sub-population.

    interesting, god has come to define and tell us everything. he goes by the name andrew lancaster, and his opinion is the writ itself!

  • Antonio

    Just a minor point: “Benjamin Franklin stupidly contended that only the English and Saxons were true whites, with all other Europeans, including Nordics, being swarthy.” Obviously this is ignorance, no question. Yet, it seems to me at the time Nordics we still a kind of second class Europeans (most maps from that time describe them as nordic tribes). But what about the French and Italians, especially the latter? To me understanding, Italy and its Rinascimento, were pivotal in the development of the Modern European identity while Germanic and English people were very behind in the process.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    english and saxons. everyone else a wog. you read me right. it was stupid. and franklin was a brilliant man. though i don’t know his personal correspondence to know how seriously he took this dumb idea.

  • http://www.kevembuangga.com/blog/ Kevembuangga

    In fact, they reject the naive realism at the heart of science as it is practiced.

    I am not sure that science can be defined by adherence to naive realism, it is more the realm of physicalism and it usually stems from “physics envy”.
    More than only one epistemological posture can be deemed scientific and they surely need more than 1 or 2 dimensions to be described.
    My point is that objects and concepts are mental constructions (not necessarily social) and are only maps and models of reality.
    The fact that physical models are pretty stable and persistent does not mean that they are the only valid tools to grasp reality (re another comment of mine about latent variables), consistency and predictability about yet unrealized experiments are better criteria for the scientific method, the only parts which need to be “physical” are the data collection procedures.

    As for the politically driven rejection of naive realism it could be called an instance of “naive emotionalism”, LOL…

  • Andrew Lancaster

    “interesting, god has come to define and tell us everything. he goes by the name andrew lancaster, and his opinion is the writ itself!”

    Hmm. I did not just proclaim an opinion but also explained why. Have you ever anyone use the word “race” in a way which would fit sub-populations of Reykyavik?

  • dearieme

    Why don’t we just say “breeds”, as in Kipling’s “lesser breeds without the law”? People say that he was alluding to Germans, a thought that can cheer us all up.

  • vineviz

    As far as I can see, there is no real coherent argument that “race” as a biological constuct actually exists or – indeed – even makes any sense. At least as it relates to humans.

    Razib’s final concession (that genetic variation exists) is revealing because I think that’s as far as the argument can really be taken. It’s a bit of a strawman, in that people who argue that race is entirely a social construct don’t actually deny that human genetic variation exists. What they deny is that there are non-arbitrary and mutually exclusive categories into which humans can be resolved. This is, I think, the point being made by the “Race by Fingerprints” etc. rhetorical device cited earlier.

    In other words, it may be possible for any particular phenotypic trait or genetic locus to be resolved into a strictly cladistic system but humans, being an amalgam of such traits and locii, defy such resoution. So while the study of human genetic variation does, indeed, have “instrumental utility” the concept of biological races is, itself, an arcahic relic.

  • http://johnhawks.net/weblog John Hawks

    Isn’t it ironic that the humanists now argue that we should read the statement completely uncritically? I mean, ignore the selective deletion of several instances of the word “science” — that is completely uninformative about the power relations in the association!

    Pay no attention to the cdesign proponentists!

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “It’s a bit of a strawman, in that people who argue that race is entirely a social construct don’t actually deny that human genetic variation exists. What they deny is that there are non-arbitrary and mutually exclusive categories into which humans can be resolved…So while the study of human genetic variation does, indeed, have “instrumental utility” the concept of biological races is, itself, an archaic relic.”

    Yes and no. I doubt that “strawmen” of any nature exist. Cultural anthropologists not only deny that there are non-arbitrary exclusive biological categories into which humans can be sorted, they also deny (or refuse to explore) that long-term cultural practices such as “polygyny” or “monogamy” went into the evolution of some human racial characteristics such as skin color (the darkest in polygyny-rich agricultural Africa, lightest in highly monogamous northern Europe). If some fraction of human skin color variation is attributable to social (and sexual) selection (in addition to nutrition and environment), then whatever “races” are out there cannot be deemed as simple icing on an essentially uniform human cake. They become somewhat non-arbitrary (because stemming from a long history of purposeful maintenance of a concrete cultural practice) and rather mutually exclusive, albeit not immutable and cultural in origin.

    I guess you could tell the story in this way: Neutral population-genetic reality of human intergroup differences was first clouded by popular Western ignorance thereof and now revealed and accepted by cultural and biological anthropologists alike. But what’s interesting is that we continue to observe transcultural/transracial behaviors across both academic and popular circles. Razib referred to Islamic converts. I studied Europeans imitating American Indians (and African Maasai and Australian aborigines, to a lesser degree). Turnbull went native among the Pygmies. Reichel Dolmatoff did the same thing in South America. Boas was caught imitating Kwakiutl dancers. The list of examples is endless. People constantly adopt other people’s “nature” into some kind of new cultural package that is historically durable and has modified biological consequences (as in the case of offspring of German-Amerindian unions originally driven by the passion of one parent for the culture/race of the other or, again, extremes of skin color). I think modern discussions of “race” on both biological and cultural sides have unique behavioral correlates: they are like litmus test for some deeply-seated cultural practices. They are not just rational conversations determining whether “race” is real or not.

  • miko

    1. Anthropologists: Why does anyone care about the power politics within the AAA (including members of the AAA)? Perhaps a certain type of cultural anthropology is tacitly favored, so what? Scientific anthropology is better funded, more high profile, and certainly has more political and popular cache outside the academy than humanistic navel gazing, which as we know induces nothing but incomprehension and/or eye-rolling outside its natural habitat. When was the last time you were flipping through channels and saw a kickass documentary about Derrida instead of about Lucy or Neandertals or human genetics? Are any biological anthropologists having trouble getting work published because you are realist empiricists? Ever gotten a grant proposal returned because you failed to consider the implications of Foucault on your method for extracting DNA from bones? What a bunch of babies. Get to work! Or, if you really like dithering about who likes who’s seminar, start your own professional society that fails to sufficiently stroke non-scientific approaches to the social sciences in its mission statement.

    2. Race: Obviously people can be sorted into groups based on any set of criteria one chooses, whether “socially constructed” or based in biological traits. Which are “real” depends on what you’re talking about. Clearly, skin color is a “real” operational category in many societies, and whether or not it correlates with “real” genetic relationships is irrelevant. The problem arises because the term “race” is used fuzzily and to refer to different things, or worse to imply equivalence between different types of categories. We don’t have another word handy to refer to biological “race”, but we should realize when we use that word a lot of people will misunderstand us, willfully or not.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “Scientific anthropology is better funded, more high profile, and certainly has more political and popular cache outside the academy than humanistic navel gazing, which as we know induces nothing but incomprehension and/or eye-rolling outside its natural habitat.”

    I agree with your general point. But at Stanford, when I was there, the situation was quite the opposite from the one you describe. Cultural anthropologists/post-processual archaeologists were stars in their fields – vocal, prolific and controversial -, while anthroscientists were survivals from the 1970s-1980s trying to sell primitive trees, graphs, charts and site plans to funding agencies and complaining about “intellectual honesty.” HumBio and genetics folks were a bit more sophisticated and glamorous, but scientific anthropologists were often dowdy. At the end of the day, Joanna Mountain, who I liked, worked with and learned from, didn’t get tenure, while Akhil Gupta, who wasn’t even an anthropologist but a politically active engineer earlier did. If cultural anthropologists are engaged in power politics, as you claim, then they will find ways to put out “Derrida”, instead of “Lucy”, on prime time. If we still have Lucy there, then it’s likely that cultural anthropologists are not as good at politics as they are painted. So, the picture is, as always, messy and complicated. It needs an ethnography.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    In other words, it may be possible for any particular phenotypic trait or genetic locus to be resolved into a strictly cladistic system but humans, being an amalgam of such traits and locii, defy such resoution.

    you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    re: miko #1, because it is more than about bio anthropology for me. the study of human cultural variation is important.

    We don’t have another word handy to refer to biological “race”, but we should realize when we use that word a lot of people will misunderstand us, willfully or not.

    people may need to come up with a word. people willfully have a dumb platonic model in mind, but most people also still don’t understand the concept that acceleration due to gravity is constant for two objects of different mass when take away fraction. but race-is-a-myth proponents always promote confusion and obscurantism at the reality that there are non-trivial elements of variation. so, in the sickle cell example above they refute the platonic idea, but do not replace with an explicit probabilistic framework. that’s the problem.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “When was the last time you were flipping through channels and saw a kickass documentary about Derrida instead of about Lucy or Neandertals or human genetics?… Get to work! ”

    One more thought. There’s a growing bunch of anthropologists, of cultural, not scientific extraction, who work in the government or the industry and are salient in the media, without using Lucy, Neanderthals, Bushmen or chimps as proxies. These are applied anthropologists such as Genevieve Bell, head of user experience at Intel, Montgomery MacFate, head of the Human Terrain program in U.S. Army, Gillian Tett, assistant editor of the Financial Times and others. These scholars/practitioners (especially MacFate) are controversial with the AAA because they violate another taboo, namely on “selling” humanistic knowledge, not the taboo on doing science, which they don’t, but they also defy the tendency to treat anthropologists as only useful for society as advocates for and students of human evolution.

  • Andrew Lancaster

    “people may need to come up with a word.”

    Why not use the normal words of non-human biology like population?

    Race has a clear meaning in English which goes beyond population specifically because it can not easily be recovered without keeping something of the Platonistic “luggage” you refer to.

    To strain and try to translate from normal English into biologically meaningful terms, “race” is a word which implies the existence of an inherently special level of sub-speciation that is more distinct and meaningful than all other levels. Post Darwin however, biology does not assume anything about how many levels of valid categorization of populations can and should be made: parts of Reykyavik are just as valid “populations” (if the DNA or other evidence says so) as “Alpine” and “Mediterranean”.

    I think you also mentioned that there is a parallel problem even with the word species. In real biology the word can be fuzzy because we know since Darwin that what the word refers to really is a “fuzzy” category. But the old idea that a species is something fixed in nature is hard to let go of. A lot of energy gets wasted on arguments about what the real and proper definition should be when in fact it hardly matters any more.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Race has a clear meaning in English which goes beyond population specifically because it can not easily be recovered without keeping something of the Platonistic “luggage” you refer to.

    i don’t usually use the word for that reason. but the way that the anthropologists refute “race,” they basically refute population too.

    i’m not respond to most of your arguments because you make a lot of assertions in each comment which i disagree with, fwiw. i don’t react well to ex cathedra argumentation styles from readers.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    vineviz, i just looked you up. you have to know your comment doesn’t make sense, you’re into genetic genealogy (and you should know PCA too)….

  • vineviz

    @Razib you don’t know what you’re talking about.
    I think you probably just didn’t understand what I wrote.

    Which is fine: not everyone can understand everything. Or maybe I wasn’t clear (though others seemed to catch my meaning just fine).

    But, please: why bother to reply to my comment at all if you are not even going to address it? A disturbingly high proportion of your comments are ad hominem attacks. I’m embarrased for you. If you can’t think of anything to say, then just don’t say anything.

  • french reader

    mmm, i’m not a scientist but my father is jewish from algeria and my mom is from the east of france, i have indeed inherited my dad’s middle eastern last name and when meeting people i have to deal with surprise and disbelief, noone french or arab considers me anything other than white, same for my sister; my brother has less to explain but perharps it’s because he has curly black hair (from my dad) and high cheekbones (from my mom), so maybe he looks more exotic.

    ex:
    * at a job interview being asked if i changed my last name because i converted to islam.

    everytime i meet people i always have the same conversation where people ask more or less tactfully what my origins are, and yeah even after learning my name people still consider me a white person, in fact it’s happened to me several times that arabs thought i was making fun of them… -_-

    sorry if i made any mistakes, english is not my first language.

  • Daniel Murphy

    The statement lauds a fusion of “humanistic and scientific perspectives.” But is the line dividing “scientific” and “humanistic” perspectives the same line dividing the social, biological and physical sciences from the humanities? What would an example be of a “humanistic perspective” not informed by social science? And where it says “the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research,” that seems to imply that there are some areas of anthropological research where “the” scientific method is not crucial. What would they be?

  • Pingback: To classify humanity is not that hard | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine

  • Andrew Lancaster

    “i don’t usually use the word for that reason. but the way that the anthropologists refute “race,” they basically refute population too.”

    Understood. Some of them talk this way and they are wrong, (or right for the wrong reason), and I think I agree with you on that. I think in some ways vineviz and I are more interested in the details of this than the original subject matter of the article, (those anti-scientific anthropologists) concerning which I think we both agree with you. I’d point to this paragraph in your blog as the point I was interested to talk more about:-

    “All that said, the word “race” is fraught with a lot of historical baggage. Therefore to study population wide variation you need to focus on “fine-scale population structure” and what not. This trend would be something of interest for cultural anthropologists of science to study. Race is just a word. Even a term as widely accept as species exhibits a fair amount of flexibility on the margins. But the underlying biological patterns, and the instrumental utility of those patterns, can not be denied.”

    I guess my point is yes, race is just a word, but like you say it is a word with baggage. You clearly see the point: Words, though just words, can have heavy baggage and we can not just tell the world to use them a new way. I do not see an enormous gap between my “ex cathedra” statements and yours.

    Re. “i don’t react well to ex cathedra argumentation styles from readers.”

    No problem. Who does? But anyway, stating some apparent facts is a quick way to write on the internet. Sorry if it grated, but I don’t think you’d like me to write through a whole chain of reasoning which contained lots of over-obvious stuff either? Maybe I’ve mis-estimated what you meant though, because my main assertions apparently agree with what is already between the lines of your paragraph I quote above?

    Cheers

  • Matt B.

    When they say anthropology is holistic, are they saying they reject reductionism, or do they just mean they look at the big picture?

    @ french reader, you’re doing a hell of a lot better at English than a lot of the people here for whom it is their first language. Thanks.

  • DK

    there is no real coherent argument that “race” as a biological constuct actually exists or – indeed – even makes any sense. At least as it relates to humans.

    Biologically, there is nothing particularly special or even unique to H.sapiens in comparison to other species.

  • Ben

    ‘I often use “human” or “humankind” where earlier norms would be to use “man” or “mankind.” My main rationale is I don’t want annoying comments objecting to the term. The concept which I’m pointing to is the same no matter the pointer, and so I don’t mind changing it to facilitate my intent to communicate clearly and without undue extraneous baggage.’

    I can’t believe that you have *caved* to the forces of *leftist political correctness* by using this so-called “inclusive language”!

  • Sidwell

    It is well known that when foreign Arabs with obvious black admixture visited the American South there was often a debate as to whether they were subject to segregation, illustrating the tensions between social norms (which would have coded them as black), bureaucratic function (which coded them as non-black usually), and biological reality (where they were an amalgam of a minor black African component with a dominant white Arab component).

    Do you have any citations for this?

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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