Making Racism Uncomfortable

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In his book, “The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioural Science,”* Philosopher Abraham Kaplan wrote “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” There are other versions of this hammer-nail link. In the normal course of things, the human mind is prepared to hammer new information into ready made spaces, an efficient but not always accurate way to think. That the brain works this way was not lost on the 19th and early 20th century philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce saw the human mind as an ever developing collection of “habits” formed of new experiences. A novel experience, usually involving some sort of linguistic or symbolic interaction, is associated with an emotional state that could not be confused with comfort (any other emotional state might due) until that kind of experience stopped being that way, and became habit-formed. Because of this individualized developmental process, individuals have ways of thinking that are normal, comfortable, generally unexamined, and the product of the culture in which we formed (and are still forming). Culturally embedded sexist and racist thinking are examples of this.

When new information comes along, the most comfortable thing to do is to place it into an existing framework. Over recent years, we seem to have gotten good at doing this using only headlines flashed across social media. So, if a headline has the words “gene” and “intelligence,” we conclude that more evidence for a genetic basic of intelligence, probably organized in categories of race, has been found. It does not matter that the article may have shown contrary evidence for a gene-intelligence link, and it seems to never matter that most modern research about genes and abilities do not make any reference to human divisibility into genetically discrete groups that could be called “races.” In our minds we have spaces for races and a need for genes, and a hammer at hand to put things in their place. The article headlines reinforce our pre-existing racist beliefs.

When a liberal-minded anti-racist thinker encounters evidence of race-based biology in humans, excuses are made. People of African descent can be celebrated for their amazing prowess in sports, and Jews (as good a “race” as any) have evolved and passed on among themselves measurably high levels of intelligence. And so on. Liberal guilt is assuaged when we hand out a few well placed goodies. This passive, seemingly (but not really) harmless version of race based thinking probably keeps a certain amount of racism alive in places where it should have withered in antiquity.

This is part of Adam Rutherford’s message in his new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.”*

This book does not really tell us how to argue with a racist. Well, it covers Part I of doing so. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t bring half baked notions and shoddy data to a debate with a white supremacist who is up on his Stormfront reading. Rutherford’s book can prepare you with key data, clear concepts, and a rich reference to the relevant literature. You’ll need to find the techniques of argument elsewhere.

Rutherford trashes the commonly held framework for race, genetics and DNA. The concept of race itself, that humans can be divided into a number of categories (“White,” “Black,” “Whatever”) does not come close to reflecting the underlying genetic and historical reality of our species. I’ve made this argument countless times, and I’ve read most of the other stabs at it as well, and Rutherford’s version is the best, and most up to date. Beyond this, Rutherford takes to task, with engagingly presented detail and impeccable logic, some of the key myths about race, such as the aforementioned kudos to African-heritage athletes, and more generally, the racialization of sports.

Consider runners. Rutherford documents the fact that there has not been a record-fast white person in the Olympics since the entirely non-white American running team boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and that was a fluke year. For endurance running, in subsequent years, it has been mainly Kenyans and Ethiopians who have won the vast majority of high stakes marathons. If you start with the assumption that there is a gene for “fast” or a gene for “endurance,” you’ll quickly find one for each of these traits, and the innate causality argument presents itself. But if you broaden the argument to full interrogation of the human species, to use the genetic model to explain fastness or endurance across the wide world of sports, the argument quickly dissipates. If certain genes lent great fast, or long distance, running prowess to dozens of specific populations around the world, why do only two such populations produce these runners?

This is how scientists are supposed to operate. We observe variation in something, then try to understand the variation. When an explanation explains only a tiny amount of the overall variation, it probably fails. A genetic argument for rapid or powerful muscles predicts that several different populations should dominate in certain sports, not just one or two out of hundreds. A parallel genetic argument regarding lung capacity, or adapting to living at high altitude, predicts that several different populations should dominate the marathon. But they don’t. Rutherford does what scientists do, and observes another possible source of variation that could explain why Kenyans and Ethiopians seem to always win marathons. Turns out, it is cultural. (You’ll find details in the book.)

How to Argue With a Racist provides a good summary of the history of “race science,” a term Rutherford asks us to stop using (there are no races, and this isn’t science). The author explores arguments about physicality, sexuality, morality, athleticism, and intelligence. I would like to have seen the section on IQ expanded, since it is important for documenting how nefarious race science has been especially in apartheid era South Africa. Here is where our role as variation explainers is possibly clearest. The full range of modern IQ values for any large American population is of the same magnitude of the range of historical IQ means over time, with the earliest values being low and modern values being high. (The “Flynn Effect.”) The same is true with human stature, by the way. Populations of US immigrants, as well as several European nations, gained considerable height and IQ points over nearly a century of time. Yet, the cemetaries are not full of non-reproducing short dim people. We did not genetically evolve tall stature and IQ’s of 100 on average. Genetics does not explain variation in IQ (or stature) over time, so we might wonder how well genetics explains either of these traits across space synchronously.

Also not mentioned by Rutherford is the racist physical anthropology of J. Philippe Rushton, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps Rutherford is not as comfortable with bones as he is with genes (human biology is subdivided into these areas). The short version of that story is that Rushton was in a long line of physical anthropologists who got very good at massaging brain size estimates so that they would correlate with largely useless statistics about intelligence, morality, and sexuality, across the three main “races” of White, Black and Asian. In this case, though, the variation in brain size isn’t simply explained better by a non race based explanation. The variation is made up, introduced by “adjusting” the already iffy data.

Another concept not covered by Rutherford is the role of culture and childhood. Interestingly, Rutherford does mention Henry Harpending, who was a member of the famous Kalahari Project led by Irven Devore (my PhD advisor) and Richard Lee, to study the ways of the Ju’/hoansi bushmen of Namibia and Botswana. Harpending was the geneticist on that project. Later in his career, he wrote a paper and a book dismantled by Rutherford on the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people. He was also known for making rather startling statements about race (I will not repeat here my conversations with him, but I can verify Rutherford’s impression of Harpending’s running commentary.) Another person on that same research project was Mel Konner, husband of Marjorie Shostak (author of Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman).* I believe it was Konner who first fully articulated the role of childhood in making a little human into a big one. (See his book The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind*)

Childhood is a special derived feature of humans. It is deadly, costly, and often annoying. Clearly, such a trait must be maintained by strong selection. The things that make our fully formed brains so impressive, such as the use of language, human style “theory of mind,” and so on, arise in a typical individual during this period of slowed down maturation. We humans reach maturity years later than we should (compared to other apes) because of this costly childhood phase. We are who we are as individuals because of our culture, and childhood is the delivery mechanism for culture. If we want to explain variation across individuals or across geography in human behavior, look to culture and its development first, and if there is much left unexplained, consider genes. This is, by the way, how we can make two seemingly contradictory statements unironically: There is no such thing as race; yet race is an important human concept. Genetically, no races. Culturally, race is a possibility (but not a necessity).

Slavery of Africans did not breed better athletes, repression and widespread murder of Ashkenazim did not breed professors and Fed chairs, the genetic variation we see in humans is best explained by distance across geographic space and not by bounded internally consistent races, and there are very few cases of variable human traits that map neatly onto underlying simple variation in genes.

Rutherford’s book also addresses genealogy, both the kind you get when you do documentary research into your family tree, and the kind you get when you spit in a tube and send it to a commercial DNA analysis place. In some ways, that might be the most important part of the book, because of the extreme popularity of this exercise, and its link in some quarters to white supremacy. You will be amused, shocked, and amazed by this discussion, and you won’t believe some of it even though it is really true. Rutherford is a geneticist, and he understands and does a great job explaining the concept of genetic isopoint. An example: All living Europeans (as a quasi racial group that includes, for example, Albanians, Brits, Poles, and Ukrainians, etc.) have as ancestors every person who lived in Europe at the time of William the Conqueror.

The global isopoint is much more recent than people think, being only a few thousand years in the past, and post dating the earliest, and even some of the latest, regional origins of agriculture. Everyone alive at that time was either the ancestor of everyone alive today or the ancestor of no one alive today. So, the idea that an African foraging population split off into different regions, some of which developed agriculture or this or that civilizations, others remaining as foragers, etc. is simply not an accurate way to describe genetic history. Stephen Miller in the White House and a Maasai Woman in a traditional village in Tanzania share a set of isopointal ancestors about 3-5 thousand years ago, like it or not. And I’m sure she does not. I know you don’t believe this, but just read the book and come back and complain if you like. As the descendant of royalty, I don’t care.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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3 thoughts on “Making Racism Uncomfortable

  1. Childhood is a special derived feature of humans. It is deadly, costly, and often annoying.

    Why deadly? Because it keeps the young unprepared to deal with potential predators for far longer than in other species?

  2. “All living Europeans (as a quasi racial group that includes, for example, Albanians, Brits, Poles, and Ukrainians, etc.) have as ancestors every person who lived in Europe at the time of William the Conqueror” cannot be literally true. Some of William the Conqueror’s contemporaries must have died without having children. I’m sure some statement very close to this is literally true, but I’m not sure how to frame it.

  3. I read a fair number of books and articles but often forget or lose the author’s name or other reference information. I remember reading some years back an article dealing with questions such as, for example:

    Why are black athletes well represented in some sports but not others?
    How and why can this change over time?
    Why, in fields in which they are abundant, are they more often prominent in some specialties or positions than others?

    The main thrust of the article was to emphasize the role of the culture or community in which the athletes are embedded. Depending on this, participation and success in some sports and in some positions is more valued, honored, or rewarded than it is in others.

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