THE PERCEPTION OF HUMAN
DIFFERENCES IN THE PAST
At one of the sessions in a scientific meeting some years ago, I listened to a series of reports by geneticists discussing the differences between human populations in the configuration and base-pair sequence of mitochondrial DNA. They casually referred to the populations with which they were dealing as "Australoid," "Caucasoid," "Mongoloid," and so forth. At the end of each paper, there is routinely a short period for discussion, where questions and comments from the audience are in order.
After several such papers had been given, I rose to make the point that it would be preferable to use a geographical rather than a "racial" designation in describing human groups. The point is that the use of a "racial" designation runs the risk of perpetuating the hint of derogatory stereotypes that were classically part of the baggage of "racial" terminology. Names of the traditional sort assume some kind of implied descriptive aspect. Geographic terms, in contrast, tend to carry less of that implication and are just as useful in referring to human populations. In fact, they are even more useful because they can be expanded or contracted and specified with greater precision. This is one of the points that I hope this book will illustrate in convincing fashion.
Traditions die hard however, and I was immediately opposed by a one-time protégé, who addressed the session as follows: "I apologize for my colleague Dr. Brace. It's all right to use the word 'Mongoloid.'… if the term has meaning, and it seems to … we should go on using the word 'Mongoloid.' If it's a fish, let's call it a fish." I repeat these words here because they serve as a poignant illustration of the dangers that inhere in the use of racial designations. In one utterance, the people of Asia were referred to in terms still used to characterize a kind of mental deficiency—"Mongolian" or "Mongoloid idiocy," more appropriately called Down syndrome (Nadel and Rosenthal 1991). As one of the audience remarked to me privately somewhat later, "Comments like that could set anthropology back fifty years."
As can be seen in Figure 1–7, the clusters bear a superficial resemblance at first glance to the "races" in a traditional classification. That is because I chose groups that came from the cores of the areas used to create the traditional taxonomy. If I had chosen to add groups from between these core areas, it would have produced a pattern showing how each area grades without break into the area adjacent to it. Even in Figure 1–7 itself, one can see that the Somali/Nubia sample of northeast Africa is actually closer to the South Asian sample than it is to the samples used for the Africa twig. If I were to put in our Egyptian sample, it would be even more remote from the twig labeled "Africa."