Form and Race: Terminological Concepts for the Study of Human Variation

Article excerpt

The author notes the debate amongst Western anthropologists concerning the various ways in which term 'race' can be used in scientific writing, and refers to animal taxonomy in an attempt to determine principles on which universal paradigmatic principles governing scholarly usage of the term might be based. As amongst anthropologists, animal taxonomists used the term 'race' in two different ways, sometimes as equivalent to 'subspecies' and sometimes as synonymous with 'breeding population.' However, some taxonomists use the term 'form' when referring to identifiable and distinctive populations linked to other populations by genetic clines, and it is suggested that much confusion might be avoided if anthropologists applied the term 'race' only to genetically discrete and clearly distinctive 'breeding populations,' using the broader term 'form' when seeking to classify humankind at large on the basis of such identifiable phenotypical characteristics as may best serve their specific research goals.

Key Words: Race, form, sub-species, animal taxonomy, breeding populations.

The study of human biological variation has had a long and controversial history. After lengthy study, numerous misunderstandings of a scientific and extra-scientific nature still surround this field of research. It has been argued several times in the past (J. S. Huxley and Haddon, 1937; Montagu, 1951, 1965x, 1972; Garn and Coon, 1955) that some of these might be resolved by introducing terminological changes. Using this strategy, it will be proposed in this paper that, in line with the practices of animal taxonomy, the neutral term 'form' should be introduced into the study of human variation. The term 'race,' which has hitherto been used in a somewhat wide range of senses, might still be utilized in scientific terminology when applied to distinct 'breeding populations'. In order to justify this suggestion, a brief review of the recent history and the present state of research on human variation is in order.

The debate over the concept of race reached its peak in the early 1960s. New approaches to the study of human variation arose and were discussed as substitutes for the racial typology which was burdened with scientific anomalies and, not uncommonly, negative political and social implications. In somewhat simplified terms, it may be said that scientists were divided into two opposing camps. On the one side were those who argued for the demise of the very concept of race (see, above all, Livingstone, 1962; Brace 1964; Montagu,1965) while on the other were those who thought that the concept of race should not be abandoned but redefined in terms of population genetics (see, especially, Garn, 1961; Dobzhansky, 1962; Newman, 1963). A lengthy and intense polemic between representatives of the two approaches produced no agreement on the matter.

In the USA a team of scientists from Central Michigan University has assessed the prevailing attitudes of anthropologists to the concept of race since the 1960s (see Lieberman and Reynolds, 1996, for a resume). Their results indicated a significant shift toward abandonment of the term in scientific discourse, although by the late 1980s American biological anthropologists supporting the scientific validity of the term and its continued use were still marginally a majority (Lieberman et al., 1989). There is no doubt that due to other internal and external reasons, such as the broadening of interest within the field of biological anthropology and a social atmosphere that seemed to favor interest in human universals rather than differences, the utilization of the race concept was becoming less common in anthropological literature from the early seventies onwards (Lieberman and Reynolds,1996; Cartmill, 1998). Interest in the conceptual analysis of 'race,' which was common during the debate of the early sixties and earlier, also seems to have declined among anthropologists.

However, it would appear that the has nineties witnessed a revival of the concept of race, not only in biological anthropology but in other scientific disciplines (Shipman, 1994; Goodman and Armelagos, 1996; Lieberman and Reynolds, 1996). …