Monday, February 27, 2012

Race Finished

    Monday, February 27, 2012   1 comment

Book Reviews

by Jan Sapp
RACE?: Debunking a Scientific Myth. Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle. xviii + 226 pp. Texas A&M University Press, 2011. $35.
RACE AND THE GENETIC REVOLUTION: Science, Myth, and Culture. Edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. xiv + 296 pp. Columbia University Press, 2011. $105 cloth, $35 paper.

Few concepts are as emotionally charged as that of race. The word conjures up a mixture of associations—culture, ethnicity, genetics, subjugation, exclusion and persecution. But is the tragic history of efforts to define groups of people by race really a matter of the misuse of science, the abuse of a valid biological concept? Is race nevertheless a fundamental reality of human nature? Or is the notion of human “races” in fact a folkloric myth? Although biologists and cultural anthropologists long supposed that human races—genetically distinct populations within the same species—have a true existence in nature, many social scientists and geneticists maintain today that there simply is no valid biological basis for the concept.

The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs. Still, the concept of human race as an objective biological reality persists in science and in society. It is high time that policy makers, educators and those in the medical-industrial complex rid themselves of the misconception of race as type or as genetic population. This is the message of two recent books: Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth, by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, and Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. Both volumes are important and timely. Both put race in the context of the history of science and society, relating how the ill-defined word has been given different meanings by different people to refer to groups they deem to be inferior or superior in some way.

Before we turn to the books themselves, a little background is necessary. A turning point in debates on race was marked in 1972 when, in a paper titled “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that human populations, then held to be races, were far more genetically diverse than anyone had imagined. Lewontin’s study was based on molecular-genetic techniques and provided statistical analysis of 17 polymorphic sites, including the major blood groups in the races as they were conventionally defined: Caucasian, African, Mongoloid, South Asian Aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians and Australian Aborigines. What he found was unambiguous—and the inverse of what one would expect if such races had any biological reality: The great majority of genetic variation (85.4 percent) was within so-called races, not between them. Differences between local populations accounted for 8.5 percent of total variation; differences between regions accounted for 6.3 percent. The genetic divergence between geographical populations in the course of human evolution does not compare to the variation among individuals. “Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance,” Lewontin concluded.


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  1. I'm surprised this review was published, the author appears not to have read anything on the subject by AWF Edwards on the Lewontin Fallacy, 2004 Curt Stern award winner Neil Risch on the points about the relevance of race to medicine, or Witherspoon's 2007 paper showing that if you look at enough loci, two individuals from the same race are always genetically closer than two from different races.

    Also, the blink of an eye comment is reminiscent of Stephen Jay Gould. I'm not sure if the author is familiar with the book "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution". This discusses recent genomic studies showing recent regional genetic changes in response to environmental changes, such as agriculture, social structure and population expansion.

    There is also the interesting issue of introgression from archaic populations such as neanderthals and denisovans which is now being explored.


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