Race and Humanity

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Media Archive on 2012-01-28 05:09Z by Steven

Race and Humanity

Volume 113, Number 2932 (1951-03-09)
pages 264-266
DOI: 10.1126/science.113.2932.264

Th. Dobzhansky (1900-1975)

Probably no other scientific concept  has been so notorious for vagueness and ambiguity as that of race. Certainly none has been more unceremoniously exploited as a cloak for prejudice and malevolence. And this despite the fact that anthropologists and biologists have studied races in man and in other organisms for more than a century and a half. A very heartening break in this situation has, however, become apparent within the past decade or two. The rapid advances in population genetics have shed new light on race as a biological phenomenon and as a stage of the evolutionary development of sexually reproducing species. It was, then, only a question of time when the study of races of man would be revised and revived under the impact of modern population genetics. This reformation of the raciological thinking in anthropology is now at hand. The first and the second of the three books under review are the harbingers of a new era. The third is a useful anthology of raciological writings covering the late eighteenth century up to the modem era.

Professor Count’s anthology provides a historical perspective and a contrasting background against which the modern reform will stand out in bold relief. From its very inception, the race concept has suffered from an inner contradiction (not to speak of its perennial misuse for political propaganda purposes). Race has been a practical and convenient category of classification, with the aid of which the diversity of human types could be efficiently described and neatly pigeonholed. For this purpose it is useful to set up so-called racial “types.” The types are arrived at by estimation, or by calculation, of averages of various traits observed in the samples of individuals examined. No objection could be raised against this procedure if it were used solely as a technique of cataloguing. But a type once created has an insidious way of dominating its maker. It becomes “the race” a sort of noumenon of which the existing individuals are only imperfect representatives. Needless to say, such a race concept is basically antievolutionist, as well as incompatible with Mendelian genetics. And yet the idea of change and development has been a part of anthropological thinking since the times of Buffon, Kant, and Blumenbach. Darwin entitled his great work The Origin of Species; origin of races would have been no striking novelty either to anthropologists or to biologists.

An uneasy compromise was arranged between the contradictory concepts of race as an abstract but stable type and race the ineluctably changing biological reality. This compromise involved the assumption that there existed at some obscure time in the past so-called primary races, which were supposedly “pure” and conformed to their ideal types. The primary races engaged, however, in long-continued miscegenation; the miscegenation has not only resulted in numerous “mixed” or “secondary” races, but also engulfed and largely obliterated the pure primary ones. The latter can be discerned at present, in the words of an outstanding living anthropologist (Howells), only “by a process of personal estimation which is reminiscent of divination.” Another trouble with the pure primary races is that a pure race makes no sense at all from the standpoint of genetics, except in asexually reproducing organisms. In sexual and cross-fertilizing species such as man, no two individuals are likely to have the same genotype; parents and offspring, as well as brothers and sisters, are genetically different Nevertheless, the compromise has continued down to our day, long after it has lost every semblance of justification. Professor Count might have saved a not-inconsiderable number of pages of his anthology by deletion of some of the more recent lucubrations concerning this topic.

Professor Boyd’s book contains a detailed, in places caustic, and altogether devastating critique of the abuses of old-fashioned raciology. But Boyd in certainly not one of those who need to conceal their intellectual sterility by being severely critical of the work of others. His book is primarily constructive. The central idea is that every human being is a member of a biological community within which marriages are concluded. Such a community, termed Mendelian population or isolate, possesses a gene pool, from which the genes of the individuals are drawn, and to which some of them are returned unless the individual dies childless. Mankind, the human species, is the most inclusive Mendelian population. It is, however, a very complex system of isolates, kept apart by geography or by social forces. It happens that these subordinate populations often differ in relative frequencies of genes for various traits in their gene pools. Such different populations are races. Boyd defines (p. 207) “a human race as a population which differs significant…

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Race-mixing and science in the United States

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Media Archive, United States on 2010-10-25 17:44Z by Steven

Race-mixing and science in the United States

Volume 27, Number 4 (December 2003)
pages 166-170
DOI: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2003.08.007

Paul Farber, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
Oregon State University

Scientific racism was widely used as a justification to oppose race-mixing in the United States. Historians have justly criticized this abuse of science, but have overlooked some of the important ways in which science was used in the 1930s and 1940s to overturn scientific racism and opposition to race-mixing. Of particular importance was the cultural anthropology of Franz Boas and the evolutionary biology of Theodosius Dobzhansky, which supplied arguments against racism and fundamentally altered the scientific understanding of race.

The history of scientific racism provides a cautionary tale about the abuse of science by scientists and policy makers, and the ease with which cultural assumptions penetrate our picture of nature. It, therefore, serves as a paradigm case of the relationship of scientific ideas to their social context. Historians have generally castigated the scientists who used and abused their science to justify racist social policy. It would be a mistake, however, if in the discussion of scientific racism we lost sight of the role that science itself played in transforming modern notions of race and in combating racism. Although scholars have generated a vast and complex historical literature on racism and the use of science to legitimate it, they have not paid as much attention to the positive role science played. The history of ideas on race-mixing in the US provides a convenient lens through which to focus on some of the central ideas concerning race and racism, and it is a story that can help make clearer the role science had in influencing the discussion.

A young couple in the 1960s most likely would not have consulted a biology book to help decide if their different racial backgrounds posed an obstacle to getting married and raising a mixed-race family. But, this is not to say that what went for scientific opinion would have been irrelevant to their decision. In many subtle, and some not-so subtle, ways, scientific judgements influence individual choice, social acceptance and legal constraints. Before 1967, 17 states had anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited marriages involving individuals of certain different races, and an extensive body of literature justified those laws by reference to science. In the three decades before the 1967 US Supreme Court ruled in Loving versus Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional, a shift in thinking occurred in the US concerning inter-racial marriage. In part, that shift reflected a new social landscape altered by World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and the 1960s cultural upheaval. But science also played an important, if generally unrecognized, role in that transformation. In particular the work done in anthropology by Franz Boas and his students, and by Theodosius Dobzhansky and others in formulating the modern theory of evolution were central to the contributions made by scientists to the understanding of race and race-mixing…

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