Tattersall, Ian, and Rob DeSalle. Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth

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Tattersall, Ian, and Rob DeSalle. Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2011. xv + 226 pages. Cloth, $35.00.

Race, without question, is one of the most, if not the most, emotionally charged concepts in language vocabularies. It conjures up images of cultural and genetic difference, subjugation, exclusion, and persecution. Race has long been used to rationalize and justify the most egregious atrocities. But is "race" an idea whose time has passed? According to Ian Tattersall, a physical anthropologist, and Rob DeSalle, an evolutionary geneticist, the answer is yes. In their book, Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth, they dismantle the biological notion of race. They contend that the phenotypic differences that people perceive as "racial" are superficial, and of recent origin. In concurrence with the growing body of research in the field of physical anthropology, genetics, and genomics, the authors argue that a valid justification for the concept of race does not exist. Though they concede that some physical markers for the variations that underlie perceptions of race do exist, they maintain that clear boundaries, from a biological standpoint, remain elusive. Today, many sociologists, and even the U.S. Census Bureau, agree that race is a social "construct," but anthropologists and biologists are far from such consensus, countering that if there is no biological basis for race, then how is it that a person of European ancestry is easily distinguished from a person of African or Asian ancestry?

This is a question that Tattersall and DeSalle address in detail. They begin by arguing that Homo sapiens (modern humans) is "one single species: one large interbreeding unit, freely exchanging our genes with each other and with nothing else on the planet" (p. xii). Two large-scale genetic processes are possible within any species: first, divergence, whereby local populations, through isolation and environmental conditioning, accumulate genotypic and phenotypic traits that distinguish them from their neighbors. Here, the authors quote the French intellectual, Comte de Buffon, who explains that, "Mankind is not composed of species essentially different from each other. ... On the contrary, there was originally one species which, after multiplying and spreading over the whole surface of the Earth, has undergone various changes due to the influence of climate, food, mode of living, epidemic diseases, and the mixture of dissimilar individuals" (p. 13). The second process is reintegration, which occurs when differentiated populations come back into contact and interbreed. As it happens, the boundaries between differentiated local populations begin to blur, and might even disappear over time. Broadly, the authors argue that all the variations we characterize as "racial" accumulated over a relatively short time span. Molecular and fossil evidence suggest that the variety we see outside of Africa seems to have both accumulated and started reintegrating within only the last 50,000 to 60,000 years--almost a blink of an eye from the standpoint of evolution. The message to glean from the variations we see within human populations is that they are the result of evolutionary processes.

Scientists have long explored these processes. Several researchers, including Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German physician, who have avidly studied human skulls from around the globe, "share Buffon's view that the human species was truly unitary, while also agreeing with him that species could change internally" (p. …