Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Unmuddling the Debate on Human Diversity

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Unmuddling the Debate on Human Diversity

Article excerpt

Unmuddling the Debate on Human Diversity

Race (The Reality of Human Differences)

Vincent Sarich and Frank Miete

Westview Press, Boulder (Co) 2004

A Silly Debate

The thesis of this book is simple enough: Differences between human races are real; they are of substantial magnitude; and they are, sometimes at least, important. The naïve observer will object that there is little originality in this thesis. After all, every hairdresser knows that there are important race differences. At least, every hairdresser in the Caribbean knows it.

The ostensible reason for this book's existence is that some intellectuals don't seem to know it. During the past half-century, articles claiming that race differences are minimal, unimportant, or non-existent have proliferated both in the popular press and in academic journals-including even The Mankind Quarterly (Biondi and Rickards, 2002). Sarich's and Miele's logic is not too different from the hairdresser's, although their book is written for intellectuals rather than hairdressers.

The authors are well placed to write about this subject. Vincent Sarich has been one of the leading figures in population genetics for the past 30 years, and his work on the molecular clock arid its application to human evolution has been a major contribution to our current understanding of modern human origins. Frank Miele is editor of Skeptic magazine, where the debunking of pseudoscience and popular superstition is part of his job description.

The academic debate about the non-existence of race is a rhetorical controversy rather than a substantive one, revolving around the definition of the term "race". The impetus behind the claim that race does not exist is not scientific but normative, modeled on the "newspeak" in Orwell's 1984: the belief that people's thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language. If we remove the term race from our vocabulary, racism will end because people can no longer think about race differences and their implications. Never mind that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism has not fared too well in the scientific arena (Pinker, 1994).

This fruitless academic debate with its surrealistic touch and Orwellian undertones is unsuitable for any book aimed at a wider audience. But fortunately, Sarich and Miele are not interested in rhetoric but in the "real thing": not what is in our heads, but what is in the world.

The authors start by showing that the reality of race differences is sell-evident to the layman and is taken for granted by the legal system. Common people can tell a Japanese from a Kenyan on first sight. Only some intellectuals can't. But molecular biologists can. True, the majority of genetic diversity among humans is within rather than between races, but some genetic markers do vary substantially among races. Sarich describes how a person's race can be determined from his DNA. In the latest version of the DNAPrint method, used in forensics, information from 73 DNA polymorphisms is combined to determine not only a person's race, but even the degree of admixture with great accuracy. If you happen to be 85% African and 15% Native American, the DNA test will show it!

Nor is the awareness of race differences limited to modern societies. Miele shows that the early Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese and Arab civilizations all distinguished races not only by their physical appearance, but also attributed behavioral characteristics to them. Race prejudice is not a modern invention but can be traced through the ages!

The authors proceed by tracing the modern history of ideas about race differences, starting with the pre-Darwinian opposition between monogenists and polygenists: those who believed that people were created by God only once and developed into separate races only recently, and those who believed that the races were created separately. And on it goes through the post-Darwinian controversies that finally led to the widespread denial of race differences in the late 20lh century: between Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow, Franz Boas and Madison Grant, and between Carleton Coon and Ashley Montagu. …

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