Colour Shift: An Ever-Controversial Topic Is Back on the Scientific Agenda, Finds Marek Kohn
Kohn, Marek, New Statesman (1996)
Facing objections to his straight-armed salutes last December, the Italian footballer Paolo di Canio declared that he was a fascist but not a racist--a case of political correctness gone mad if ever there was one. What is behind the label of racism, that even a fascist nowadays feels the need to disavow? According to the OED, racism is "the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race". For this to be a scientific theory, race would have to be accepted as a scientifically meaningful concept; but for decades scientists dismantled it and denied they had any use for it. They passed it over to the administrators and the social scientists, in whose hands it thrived. Now race is back on the scientific agenda.
The transfer of responsibility for race was part of the postwar settlement. Many scientists already doubted that racial schemes were much use to their work. In the light of how the Nazis applied racial science, the idea looked worse than useless. Over the years, arguments from genetics prised the idea of race ever further away from its fastenings in science. In 1972, the geneticist Richard Lewontin published the argument that because 85 per cent of genetic variation can be found within a single population, the use of racial classification in biology could not be justified.
The idea readily found new justification, however, in identity politics and social administration. Concerns over the equitable treatment of ethnic groups gave race--socially defined--a presence in medicine. Certain drugs have been claimed, controversially, to have different effects on different groups. …